Certain parts of Egypt are complete tourist traps but this is a vast country and there’s plenty to discover elsewhere if you’re looking for a more authentic Egyptian cultural experience. Here are some of our top tips.
Isolated desert border points, tedious customs, and regional tensions mean your best bet really is flying in to Egypt. All major European countries run cheap flights to Sharm el-Sheikh, the country’s glittering coastal tourist resort. EasyJet runs flights from London, Geneva, Manchester and Milan for £50-100, saving £250 on a flight to Cairo. As soon as you set down, high-tail it out of Sharm. If you are set on the beach life, Dahab is more backpacker-friendly although no more Egyptian and Nuweiba is the spot for beach-hut seclusion. However, Egyptians don’t go to these resorts and you will hear more Russian spoken than Arabic. In Egypt all roads lead to El-Qahira, Cairo.
In Cairo, the transport system seems impenetrable. 20 million people swarm around almost as many identical white microbuses, that speedily criss-cross the city, spilling people as they go. Many bus drivers take off their doors so they can cram more people in, hanging over the road on the flyovers. The experience cannot be missed. The adrenaline and the terror is part of daily life. Thankfully, Cairo also has a fantastic metro system, the lines are incredibly easy to navigate and each journey costs just 1EGP. Just don’t get into the wrong carriage, it is segregated between women and men.
Between cities there are plenty of air-conditioned buses that are a blessing – Superjet is the best company. Bus journeys are in fact usually far faster than the antiquated train system, a relic of the British occupation. Shared taxis are also a very viable way to travel between towns but always remember to haggle.
Street food in Egypt is incredibly cheap. Falafal wraps (‘tamiya’) are great value at about 1EGP while chicken or meat ‘shawarma’ is almost a full meal at 5EGP. The best deal is Cairene favourite ‘koshari’ – this spicy mix of rice, lentils, garlic, tomato, chickpeas and macaroni, topped with crispy onions starts at about 3EGP.
Be sure to try breakfast classics such as pitta bread with ‘foul’ (beanpaste) or fresh hummus.
Escape The Tourists
Although there are several big sights that it would be a travesty to miss – The Pyramids, Abu Simbel, Luxor, Aswan – the charge that Egypt has become just a package holiday destination is completely unfounded. As soon as you get off the main tourist route, which runs Sharm-Cairo-Luxor-Aswan, you can experience the real Egypt. Here are a few recommendations:
1) The Western Desert Oases
Four isolated oases mark the route of a prehistoric branch of the Nile through the Western Desert. El-Bahariya, Farafra, Dakhla and Kharga all have their distinct atmospheres but they share the same desert wilderness. Opulent date-palm plantations jostle with crumbling medieval fortresses, sand-swept ancient temples and Bedouin camps.
Cairo’s second city has a Mediterranean feel. French colonial architecture towers over cafes and book-markets on the way to the vast bay. The new Library of Alexandria is a fitting monument to the ancient wonder that fell in to the ocean. Divers can explore the ruins of Cleopatra’s Palace offshore. Siwa Oasis, where another language is spoken, is not far from here.
This city will lead you well off the tourist trail. In Mubarak’s time Middle Egypt was out of bounds but now there is now nothing to stop you. Assyut is the industrial heart of modern Egypt and is interesting not for its architecture but for its culture. This is real, day-to-day Egyptian life and its markets are every bit as exciting as those in Islamic Cairo. Plenty of ancient temples and early Christian fortresses are in the local area as well.