Five Places to Escape the Crowd in Egypt

Africa

Temple of Philae along the Nile in Aswan, Egypt

Egypt is one of those destinations that captures our imaginations at an early age and doesn’t let go. From images of towering pyramids, to ancient temples on the banks of the Nile, animal-headed renderings of gods, and the mighty pharaohs who served them—or aspired to join them, few histories on earth are as vivid and evocative as Egypt’s.

That’s Egypt’s incredible allure, and the source of a growing threat, over-tourism.

It feels surreal to be thinking about over-tourism at a time when the world is at a travel stand-still. But in Egypt, when I visited early this year, right before the great freeze on travel, it was difficult to ignore. While it absolutely doesn’t diminish the majesty of wandering the Great Hypostyle Hall of Karnak, or staring up the immense renderings of Rameses the Great at Abu Simbel, moving through crowds of tour groups makes you wonder what future tourism in Egypt may look like, particularly with the added complication of Covid-19. After all, tourism, vital to the lives of so many Egyptians, cannot be suspended indefinitely.

It also feels a touch ironic to think about this while you’re effectively part of that gobsmacked crowd. When Egypt tourism returns to its typical volume, travel providers may have to rethink the traditional ‘classic Egypt’ tour, which is typically split between Cairo and a Nile cruise. It’s a bit difficult to imagine much variation when that itinerary covers most of what visitors come to see, including the most spectacular temples. But with so many treasures still being unearthed throughout the country, the country is encouraging visitors to see some of its lesser known highlights and spread the load.

While our trip was structured around a classic “Cairo and Nile” itinerary, here are some travel memories we made away from the crowds that I heartily recommend to any Egypt-bound traveller.

The ancient pyramids of Egypt – Saqqara and Dashur

Step Pyramid of Djoser in Saqqara, Egypt
Step Pyramid of Djoser in Saqqara

Located just south of crowded Giza, the much older Step Pyramid at Saqqara, and the Bent and Red pyramids of Dashur tell an essential part of Egypt’s story. This was an all-day trip, including what remains of the ancient capital, Memphis. Dashur in particular is an add-on many tourists don’t take, and it’s arguably the most enjoyable part of the day. While a long, slow descent to the base of the Bent Pyramid means this isn’t an experience for less physical or claustrophobic travellers, it was fascinating to step inside the oldest accessible attempt at such a structure, ordered by the pharaoh Sneferu in the 25th century BC. Sneferu would finally get his perfect pyramid shape with the neighbouring Red Pyramid. While we didn’t go inside, I’m told (after the fact… sigh) that it’s a little easier to access, and has a better-preserved burial chamber. Neither matches the majesty of Khufu’s Great Pyramid (absolutely worth the upgraded ticket if you can stand enclosed spaces), but they aren’t burdened by crowds either.

The tombs of Seti I and Nefertari

Hot air balloons over the Valley of The Kings, Egypt
Hot air balloons over the Valley of The Kings, Egypt

The Valleys of the Kings and Queens are essential Egypt stops. For us, this is where the true ‘wow factor’ of Egypt, and Luxor in particular, hit home, and a big part of this was in two particular tombs we chose to visit. Unless you’re visiting independently, your guide will probably have several of the best tombs in mind for you to explore already. As impressive as these will be, none of them compare to the tombs of Pharaoh Seti I, and the exquisitely preserved crowning jewel of Egypt’s tombs, that of Queen Nefertari. Access to these tombs comes at a hefty, but extremely worthwhile additional fee. Book ahead of time to ensure you’re not scrambling for enough cash on the day of your visit. You won’t have long in the tombs–access to Nefertari’s in particular is strictly timed. For us, this just rarefied the experience, bringing the other tombs to life in our imaginations as we pictured what they must have been like before being ravaged by time, and yes, over-tourism. Local authorities have grown so concerned over the impact of mass tourism on these fragile treasures that plans are on the table to produce replicas of all the tombs for the enjoyment of visitors, leaving the original sites in peace. While this may not sound as exciting as seeing the real thing, it was exciting to imagine what it would be like to explore renderings of all of the valley’s tombs in their original, full-colour glory.

Cruising the Nile

Oberoi Philae Nile River Cruise, Egypt
Nile River cruise aboard the Oberoi Philae, Egypt

I’m cheating a bit here, since a Nile Cruise is part of most every Egypt first-timer’s itinerary, and when your vessel moors at popular ports such as Edfu or Kom Ombo for your next temple exploration, you’re definitely reminded of this fact as boats line up four or five vessels deep. With that said, rarely did we see another passenger vessel during a four night cruise, and with large staterooms, a well appointed top deck, and a friendly, but never intrusive crew, it was easy to find our own space for a while… except for the overzealous merchants who attached their boat to ours in an effort to sell a few more souvenirs. Welcome to Egypt!

The City of Alexandria

The Corniche in Alexandria at night

Many visitors to Egypt skip Alexandria, dismissing the long drive from Cairo as too much effort, or promising themselves they’ll visit on a future return to Egypt that all too often doesn’t happen. Egypt’s second city is an essential piece of its historic puzzle, and a complete cultural turnaround from the rest of the country. It’s best to go with a private tour, which allows you to hop quickly and efficiently between the city’s many impressive sites, including its catacombs, the Roman Amphitheatre, the Citadel of Qaitbay, the state-of-the-art new Library of Alexandria, and more. This is essential on a day trip where time is limited, and it made for one of our favourite days in Egypt. The city has big plans for its future, with an underwater museum set to showcase the ruins of its fabled sunken city. While that opening may be some way off, a private tour of Alexandria offers a vital window into the ever-changing face of Mediterranean Egypt, and particularly the country’s history during Rome’s domination of the region.

The Historic Neighbourhoods of Cairo

Before you fly through Cairo as a gateway to Giza, remember that this ancient city has been the centre of Egyptian culture for thousands of years. There are things to see before you get out of town, and perhaps the most impressive is Kahert Elmouaz, the Medieval or Islamic quarter of the city. Dotted with historic mosques and the occasional bath, this atmospheric street runs close to the touristy Khan el-Khalili market (better for photos than souvenirs—trust your guide). You truly get a glimpse of Cairo’s past, and see the people of its present at play here. We even stumbled onto a film set during our private tour. The other historic neighbourhood worth visiting is Old Cairo, home to the city’s famous Coptic Churches, including St Sergius and St Bacchus Church, built on the spot where the Holy Family is said to have lived while hiding in Egypt. It’s just one of a number of impressive churches and Jewish temples here, including the Hanging Church, which will intrigue architecture buffs in particular.

Al-Azhar Mosque in Cairo, Egypt
Al-Azhar Mosque in Cairo