Consider these 10 practical tips before embarking on your Egypt vacation.
I fell in love with the Middle East during my first visit in 2010. Since then, I’ve returned to the region to explore more countries, making for a grand total of five visits to this ancient region of the world. I’ve shopped in the souks, explored ancient temples, and enjoyed the hospitality of the locals and friends I’ve made during my travels.
Over the course of these five visits, I’ve learned a thing or two about how to best approach a trip to Egypt. These lessons are hard-won by time and experience. To save you time, I’ve put together the following tips for getting the most out of your Egypt vacation. By considering these recommendations, you’ll make sure your trip to Egypt lives up to the hype.
Yes, capitalized, because I cannot stress this enough: unless you majored in ancient history, you might not be equipped to understand all the temples and ancient sites you visit. You need to have an understanding of the Egyptian gods and ancient pharaohs to get the most out of your visit. The government-accredited guides are fantastic at telling the tales at each site, but you should have a good knowledge of the Egyptian deities and pharaohs before you go. It’ll really enhance your visit.
2. Don’t panic.
This is not a reference to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, but a guide to entering the pyramids. On my previous visit to Egypt, I didn’t get to go inside the pyramids, so I was a little anxious about the confined space and lack of air when I did visit them this most recent time. You enter the pyramid and then walk up a wooden ramp (bent over as there isn’t much height to the passage). You can easily see the top of the ramp, which is about half the journey, and the hardest part of the walk! It’s during this part that you should take your time and not rush, as there is very little air to catch your breath, so staying calm and walking slowly is essential. Once you reach the halfway landing, you can rest if you like before climbing the last set of stairs. It’s important to note that once you’ve reached the landing, you’re done with the hardest part of the climb. Even going back down is easy!
3. Don’t just take pictures of the pyramids and sphinx.
Take an extra 30 minutes to visit Khufu’s ship in the small Khufu Boat Museum near the Great Pyramid of Giza (an additional entrance fee is required). The ship was rediscovered in 1954 and has been on display since the early 1980s. It’s a full-size vessel that was protected from the wear and tear of time by being buried within the bedrock near the pyramid around 2500BC!
4. Avoiding the crowds often means braving the sun.
If you’re a person who doesn’t enjoy the crowds, you might be tempted to visit landmarks like the pyramids later in the day when there aren’t many tours visiting. While most tours visit the pyramids first and then go to the Egyptian Museum and Khan el-Khalili, you can easily switch around the order and head to the pyramids after 11am, when most of the big tour buses have gone. However, avoiding the crowd means you’ll have to deal with the heat of the midday sun. Around noon, there is very little shade from the sun and it can get really hot. And if you think you can escape inside the pyramids during this time of day, realize that the temperature rises inside the pyramids too. Sometimes, the crowd knows best.
5. Visit a restaurant with a local.
Having a number of friends in Cairo, I was lucky enough to experience the city like the locals do. On my most recent trip, I tried out El Prince in the heart of the Imbaba neighbourhood. This hectic restaurant opens at 4pm and continues to serve until around 4am, with tables spilling out of the restaurant onto the sidewalk and even onto the street! There’s no such thing as reservations here, so you wait your turn until you are called when your table is ready. The molokiyeh (a green leafy vegetable) has to be tried, and if you’re a meat eater, the restaurant is famous for its liver dish (and the fresh made pita bread is amazing). Be prepared for loud conversations, very quick service, and really cheap prices. If you don’t have a local to take you to the restaurant, you can make your own way for a true adventure, or ask your guide to arrange for someone to take you and explain the dishes. It’s quite possibly the best, and tastiest, food I had on my entire trip – and it’s far better than eating at international restaurants at the hotels.
6. Shop at Khan el-Khalili.
This may seem obvious, but after shopping all over Egypt, I still return to Khan el-Khalili to do my shopping for a number of reasons:
1. There are a great variety of quality items available at great prices.
2. It’s a more relaxing shopping experience, as the vendors are far less aggressive than at other sites.
3. I can leave my shopping until the end of the trip and then purchase a cheap suitcase at the market if I buy too much!
7. Be careful what you admire at tourist sites.
Due to the drop in international visitors, some vendors have become very aggressive to make a sale (understandably), especially outside of key tourist sites as you exit the area. If you’re not in the mood to shop, it’s best to just walk quickly and not engage the vendors. Once they have your attention, you’ll find it difficult to ignore them; I don sunglasses and headphones for a quick exit so that they don’t get my attention! The practice of peddling at sites such as the pyramids is so aggressive that they try to trick visitors into wearing a keffiyeh for a photo and then ask for an astronomical fee. They’ll then follow their mark all over the site until they are paid off. I’d always recommend a guide, and heed their advice and instructions for a hassle free visit.
8. Pay a little extra for certain experiences.
At Abu Simbel Airport, there is a shuttle that takes visitors directly to Abu Simbel, but it has to wait for luggage and passengers from the incoming flight. However, our operator in Egypt has a local representative and driver who meets you on arrival and whisks you straight to the site ahead of the crowds. (You can get there even quicker if you have only hand luggage, as I did). This gives you at least 10-15 minutes to discover the site without the masses and to get that incredible shot of the iconic carvings. Even better, if you have the time, is staying overnight so that you can enjoy the sound and light show at nightfall. There are a variety of accommodations and even a traditional Nubian building with a domed roof that you can stay in.
9. Understand that not all sound and light shows are created equal.
There are plenty of sound and light shows in Egypt at the main sights. Each is very different and offers a different story. Rather than spend the evening in the hotel or at a Nile boat restaurant, add in one or all of these sound and light shows instead. You won’t be disappointed on your Egypt vacation.
At the Pyramids – The pyramids and sphinx are lit up in different colours as a narrator takes on the role of the sphinx and tells the story of the pyramids and Ancient Egypt.
At Abu Simbel – Here, you’ll witness the most incredible laser show telling the story of Ramses II and his wife, Nefertari.
At Aswan (Philae Temple) – This is my favourite of all of the shows and my choice for the best sound and light show in all of Egypt. You transfer by speedboat to the temple. Rather than simply sit and listen to the tales of Isis and Osiris, you move through the temple complex as you hear the stories, so the one-hour show moves quickly. You’ll also hear mention of the relocation of the temple in advance of the Aswan Dam Project.
At Luxor (Karnak Temple) – This show highlights the history of Thebes and tells stories of the great pharaohs.
At Edfu – Here you’ll learn about the legend of Horus and his mother Isis and their struggle against evil.
10. Always carry tissues and toilet paper.
If you’ve never been to the Middle East before, it won’t be too long before you realize why you need to have tissue and toilet paper on you at all times. When you’re visiting ancient sites and temples, you can’t expect the washrooms to be fully equipped like they are in Europe and North America. Packing some tissues and toilet paper means you’ll never be stuck in a bind no matter where you are in the country.
Egypt is an incredible country, but it can overwhelm first-time visitors. However, if you follow these 10 tips for getting the most out of your Egypt vacation, you’ll be fully equipped to handle the cultural differences and experience the most of this ancient nation.