Travel Tips for Egypt

First of all, go!

Egypt is a place I have wanted to visit since I was a little kid. I used to be obsessed with the papyrus plants and how paper can be made from them super naturally. With that came the fascination with hieroglyphics on this very paper and then obviously the whole ancient civilization once I started learning more about it in school. It is a trip you would think I’d taken forever ago but at the same time I think now was the perfect time to go. For one reason or another so many other places over the years have won over a visit to Egypt. Even for my first trip to Africa I chose a safari with zebras and elephants over Egyptian Pharaohs ha. Egypt has always been ever present in my mind as an option. I kept it there on the back burner for years maybe because it is too touristy or because there was a bit of fear (nothing from instability though). I finally pulled the trigger and went at the end of 2022.

For many years I was a bit cautious of going due to the stories I’d heard from female friends who had visited and warned of how they had been treated. As I boarded the plane I was nervous even after having read more on ´what to expect as a solo female traveler in Egypt´. Yes, even the well traveled whereintheworldistag, was nervous. Once on the ground in Cairo, the nerves remained and actually took several days to subside before finally allowing me to feel myself while traveling there. Those first few days I was very reserved about where I would go or how I would dress to a point of being awkward. I also considered cutting the trip short and going elsewhere due to the feeling I had before and initially on ground. In the end there was no need to worry, I knew very well what I was doing, ha even though I had nothing planned, I still knew what to do. My travel sense kicked in and confidence flared up ready to tackle this massive and incredible country called Egypt and it did not disappoint one bit!

This is what I learned and believe will be helpful to any traveler headed to Egypt for the first time:

Know that you can fly easily and at low cost within Egypt to see the sights. Think $40 flights and yes things are far away!

If you take the train from Cairo to Aswan, take the sleeper train, it is at least 14 hours. Reserve sleeper in advance!

Use to use a bus to connect to most of the main cities. In Cairo the station is in Tahrir Square…

Uber works fine in the Cairo area. Switch the payment to cash and be sure to pick a well known destination, there are many hotels with the same name so double check address (or map location) before confirming the destination! I didn´t and ended up a few times in the wrong location or sitting in traffic headed the wrong direction because I didn´t check….live and learn…just double check!!! Also note that license plates use Arabic numbers which Uber won´t give you so have a photo of the translated numbers handy! By the way the Cairo metro I found quite confusing to use.

Outside of Cairo you should walk, take a minibus or taxi. Another option available in some cities is the InDrive(r) App, where you can negotiate the cost of a ride somewhere. It may take several tries as many drivers speak only Arabic and can be picky if they call and realize you don´t. Taxis in Sharm el Shiek were the most expensive, share a ride, negotiate hard here or just give up…all work ha.

As a woman traveling solo, it is not as bad as they say. I was oddly really worried about going solo in Egypt and it actually took me a few days to feel confident there but in reality it was perfectly fine. It is true though that everyone gets hassled a lot in Egypt and it is really annoying and bothersome but I felt very safe and no one tried to touch me or anything of the sort that you may have heard from others. Egyptians are really respectful people but they may not leave you alone for attention, ignore all talking to you on the street trying for your attention (keep walking) unless you want it. They will, eventually, leave you alone (well and if they do not, fake making a phone call or something and keep walking). If you still feel worried to travel, read this, it helped me. If you are traveling with a man, expect them to be the ones approached the most while you get ignored…it is mainly a man´s world there…

Yes, you should be respectful and dress modestly. Covering shoulders and knees as a minimum (avoiding tight clothes is better). Know that inside the touristy sights you can pretty much wear whatever as well as in the main Red Sea destinations but again deciding to show some respect is on you in these locations. If you go outside the tourist areas or cities though be more respectful and cover up. This means men and women! Traveling solo as a female I opted for covering up since I would draw less attention my way and avoid extra stares. A scarf I felt often came in handy too. I did go in winter so temperatures were manageable but know the further South you go the hotter it is!

Buy a local sim card at the airport before exiting baggage claim or in the city buy directly from the provider stores (Vodafone, Orange, WE). You obviously can use your international plan too but you probably won´t get many calls back. Read more.

Cairo is not just the Egyptian Museum, ha, which I thought was all I wanted to see in the city. There is so much more to visit, such as markets, Old Cairo with the Islamic quarter, the Coptic area and the Citadel plus there is tons more to find, stumble upon and get to know. Also so you know the Egyptian Museum (with King Tut) will be moving to Giza in 2023 and become the largest museum in the world. The museum is full of Egyptian artifacts and is an excellent way to nerd out on history, hieroglyphics, sarcophagi, mummies, statues and sooo much more! I sure nerded out on hieroglyphics for a few hours when I was there (only to continue to do so again at the actual sights). Since I did an awful job of seeing Cairo check this blog for more information as I will use it on my second trip (one day). Cairo to do.

Know that you will see the Pyramids and that they are the least impressive site in all of Egypt but they are the last of the original World Wonders and also must be seen. You will find people from every continent visiting them and many times tourists visit only the pyramids. 14 million people visit the Pyramids every year…many locals also do so on school trips and such making for a crowded visit. The most impressive Egyptian sites to see are actually in Luxor and farther South. Since the Pyramids are the most visited sight expect to be hassled a lot here to the extent of frustration. Camels cost money even for a photo (should you try to pose on one be aware that you will soon be taking a ride) and anyone who isn´t a tourist that takes your photo or allows you into an off limit area will expect a tip. Avoid the hassle, heat, air pollution, madness and annoyance by doing it last; repeat, do the Pyramids last! Consider a visit to Saqqara and do go inside this one (the Great Pyramids also have that option but this one is way better from what I hear…again I missed Saqqara on this trip). I did go into the middle pyramid, Khafre, and it was just ok, nothing to see except for me a group meditating in the tomb room and now I can say I went inside…additional cost to enter inside and for me was not a top experience. Top tips for visiting Pyramids besides doing them last on your trip are:

  1. Do not go on a Friday, even though this is the holy day of prayer in Islam, the whole city will be empty but in Giza it will be full! 
  2. Once you are there, get to the Sphinx first then head to the middle pyramid on the back side to avoid crowds and walk over through the sand to the lookout point to again avoid crowds and hassles. Do the big pyramid last.
  3. My favorite view points were from the helicopter pad (behind the middle pyramid) and from the far away desert which they try to sell you on a camel or horse ride in order to do but you can walk (they will tell you that you cannot)…Easiest but longest route may be from the viewpoint on over to the next hill with fewer tourists.
  4. Avoid summer months, it is hot and there is no cover at the Pyramids…reminder, you are in the desert.

If you go to Sinai Peninsula by bus take the minibus option. There are many control points in Egypt along the roads and to cross the Suez Canal (done via a tunnel) it will take more time to pass. Other options to arrive are by air to Sharm el Shiekh a luxury resort town on the Red Sea. I did this, stayed a night then bused over. Many do take taxis once they land. Download Swivel App and use it with an Egyptian Phone number as an one of the options to get shared minivans. Favorites for Sinai:

  • Mt. Sinai was worth it. I did a tour which was decided out of convenience rather than desire. Leaving at 1 or 2 am from Dahab and walking ever slowly up the mountain was unnecessary but I understand they do it to avoid crowding which is nice but know with more days you can do it on your own from the St. Catherine town as hiring a guide in town is easy and then you can wake up at a smart hour like 4 am…just saying. FYI Mt. Catherine is actually the highest peak in Egypt, not Mt. Sinai…and the Monastery at St. Catherine has some religious history for example the Burning Bush of Moses and the Greek Church there had some fine details but otherwise unless you are Greek, religious or with an exceptional guide, it might be a dull visit to the monastery.
  • In Dahab, rent a bike and discover town with it or just walk. There are no minibuses here, taxis do exist and biking is all the vibe here. You don´t have to be like me and bike out to the Blue Hole to snorkel but at least over to the local beach, Laguna Beach since it is a surprising gem.
  • Definitely snorkel or scuba over here. I went to the Blue Hole in Dahab and it was awesome! I know by Sharm there is Ras Muhammad National Park and they say it is amazing too!

The Red Sea is well worth a visit. Many Europeans will go on package deals to Hurghada, El Gouna or Sharm el Shiekh. In Sharm el Shiekh expect to feel the least like you are in Egypt, everything is pretty much an all inclusive resort, built up, private and with no one originally from the city. There is the old town area and a strip of cafe´s and restaurants in Naama Bay that feel somewhat local but also ultra touristy. El Gouna is maybe the most luxurious of all of them. Beautifully laid out, yet as if in another world entirely; think private gated community. Hurghada is also a common package deal destination but it actually feels like Egypt. Beaches are private here too but for a few 100 Egyptian Pounds you can bathe and lay at them all day and this is what most people do. In Hurghada things are going on outside your hotel and that is an amazing thing to be a part of, plus locals do exist. Finally there is Dahab which I think is the best option unless you want all inclusive or luxury. Dahab is laidback, hassle free and stunning. A haven for snorkeling, scuba, freediving and wind surfing. All the above mentioned ones also have snorkeling and scuba but I thought the reefs and corals were fantastic here. Although, if you really want better corals head further South in Egypt to Marsa Alam, basically the end of the road! Do snorkel in the Red Sea, it has quite cool fishies.

Don´t do Luxor sights in one day!!! There is just way too much to see here and no tours will give you enough time to fully grasp all the absurd detail in front of you. Luxor temple is open until 8 pm and right in the city center. Do it on your own! You might also visit Karnak on your own, it is huge and in the city as well (either a long walk or short taxi or minibus ride away). My favorite sites of Luxor were:

  • Deir el Bahari which is the temple built by the only female Pharaoh in Egypt, Hatshepsut. I liked it because the design is unique and also quite empowering to learn about her reign. Read more about her.
  • Medinet Habu which is the mortuary temple of Ramesses III. This gem blew me away! The detail on this temple is jaw dropping. Unfortunately I did a tour instead of renting a bike and they only game us 15 minutes to take in all of the details….so of course I was late back to the bus!
  • Obviously visit Valley of the Kings and go inside some tombs.
  • Top tips: Be very selective about details of tour before you pick one here because all sites are absurd and those cheaper tours won´t give you nearly enough time to take in the details, just enough to get a feel for it….also they likely won´t explain much. There is no public transit to most sights across the river and all are worth a visit! If you have time rent a bike, they are cheap and accessible (you even see people walking to sites) and take your sweet time or even hire a private driver! Forget I mentioned ¨if you have enough time¨ and simply plan a few extra days in Luxor, there is way too much to see here, period! At Valley of the Kings, if you have gone to other sites before visiting this one try using other site´s entry tickets as potential entry into more tombs. Tickets are in English, they don´t check often and hardly use a scanner.

Aswan feels like the real Nile river. Ride a felucca (sailboat) here at sunset! Take a dip in the cleaner, clearer Nile here. I basically only visited a few sites here, because Luxor left me Templed Out, aka saw too many there now I was over seeing temples for a bit! 

  • I visited the island Temple of Philae. It is a cool temple as the art and hieroglyphics here are in bas-relief, aka carved outwards instead of inwards (two dimensional), and there are very clear signs of Coptic destruction of this temple (erasure of gods, crosses engraved, prayers written, etc)…also the fact that the temple is on an island..take note that this whole temple was dismantled and moved from it´s original island because it got flooded when a dam was built. Aswan area has two damns (Upper and Lower) to help stop flooding from destroying development along the Nile River.
  • I visited the rock quarry because Aswan is where the rocks for temples were extracted and came from. It was a simple sight but impressive to see an obelisk cut from the earth…even if they left it there because it broke.
  • Chill out on Elephantine Island and watch the water activity or roam the Nubian village a bit.
  • Lastly, I visited the cemetery because it looked interesting. Most visitors probably visit the Nubian Museum but the Muslim cemetery across the street felt more intriguing…it had Nubian structures with graves. Be respectful, quiet, wear clothes that cover skin, do not take photos of people and avoid visiting on a Friday as again this is their holy day.
  • If you have time I really wanted to visit the Temple of Edfu and Dendera to North of Aswan.

If you plan to take a Nile cruise, know it takes 3 days or more and it is best to share a room and split the cost. Leaving from Aswan will be the cheaper option. You might also look for deals on….which works well at certain times of the year.

Abu Simbel may be worth going if you do it first on your trip, you fly in or do it on your way to Sudan. Most tourists do the tour which is a 3 hour drive leaving at 4:30 am or 5 am to visit for 1.5 hours a massive sight at the same time all other tourists will be there and then drive 3 hours back to Aswan! Truthfully I skipped it because I will go to Sudan one day and do it on that trip and 6 hours in a car seemed a bit much after having visited a ton of other Egyptian ruins. It is still an impressive site, mostly for the fact that it is huge and was moved down river to save it from being ruined by floods…that feat alone amazes me! FYI, after speaking with those who went first to Abu Simbel before other temples, they said they were very impressed while those who did it last seemed to generally not see the journey as being as worthy.

Alexandria is a nice day trip out of Cairo full of Greek/Roman ruins with a citadel on the Mediterranean. I skipped it this trip as it felt too romantic to do alone plus I preferred to focus on hieroglyphics and Egyptian temples instead.

Crossing the street is a fun Tetris game in Egypt. First step off the curb, then watch for slower cars in the near distance and a bit of space, walk quickly past those cars, if clear proceed, if not stop and wait for next slight gap, repeat until fully on the other side. You may need to move up or down the street to proceed before the next cars. There are no real crosswalks and stop lights are either not always working or not obeyed. You just have to go without running and be present and strategic in finding a spot to pass. Watch the locals for a moment or simply join them. Cars do slow down generally when people are crossing but often only when they really need to and a group does make it easier to cross.

Food was not my favorite in Egypt buuuttt there are plenty of options. Expect a lot of meat plates, french fries, pita, falafel, eggplant dishes, tahini and beans.  There are other options too like the national dish, Kushari, worth trying which is basically a mix of pastas, rice, lentils, chickpeas (garbanzo) with a red sauce, lemon juice and if you wish some spicy sauce too. It is very filling and quite good, not to mention it costs $1 USD. To get the best food it is smart to ask a local, they will always point you to the best falafel or meat joint. My favorite was a green soup called Besarah.

Don´t drink tap water. You can boil water and drink it or buy big bottles of water. A few exceptions….In Cairo it is purified although highly chlorinated…you technically can drink it but think pool water. On the Sinai peninsula, often you could get well water which was nice. Caution: Many local restaurants will serve a pitcher of water to your table with one glass. It is common to share the cup with those at the table but be aware that this water is likely not filtered.

You can drink alcohol in Egypt. There is a local beer called Stella, not to be confused with Stella Artois! I literally declined it the first night because I wanted a local beer only to find out it was…ha ha…some menu´s label it Stella Local to help us foreigners. There are several others as well which have like 10% alcohol but likely won´t be your favorite…stick with Stella. There is also wine in Egypt. I tried some pretty good white wine but I think it is hit or miss. Alcohol shops are where you can buy what you need. Bars are hidden everywhere and quite a few Egyptians drink as well but from what felt like dive bars or hidden retreats. It is common to have the drinking area separate at a restaurant and blocked from view to the other non alcoholic part…you may need to move tables to accommodate this if alcohol is desired.

Majority of Egyptians are Muslim with a few Christian´s and only like 5 Jews are left. The Synagogues in Cairo still exist and appeared nice except for the high security outside them.

If looking to run in Egypt know you can. Running in Cairo can be a challenge, go early for better air quality (seemed to be better after Friday until Tuesday). Best to run on the island in the Nile, Gezira Island (join an am run with Zamalek Runners). Where to run In other touristy cities along the Red Sea or the Nile there were paved walkways available to run which were inviting for runs. Again being an Islamic nation, I would cover shoulders and knees at least (especially as a female). Race at the Great Pyramids (December – Pyramids Half Marathon – register).

For some reason I had no clue hostels in Egypt were so popular! I stayed mostly in hotels on this trip but toward the end stayed in a few hostels to get the social element (turns out I was missing that). You can get some really great hostels actually and they were $10-20 a night (yes, generally dorm rooms). Hotels are between $20-40, the lower end being ok while the higher is perfect for anyone. You can reserve online and stay a night then walk around and pick another hotel that you might prefer or offers a better deal. I stayed in a nice hotel in Hurghada but only for a night then walked around and ended up in a cheaper, better option with its own beach (La Casa Beach -01033642871). It is very easy to switch, don´t be intimidated if you are staying multiple days in a spot to change it up a bit. If booking online, be sure to read the reviews, especially for hostels. In Sharm I did an all inclusive for $40 (Solymar Naama Bay Hotel) and it was outstanding so don´t think you need to spend $100s on a hotel, unless you really want to, of course. In Cairo I stayed a night in Heritage Hostel and it was very nice, quite small but well located and in Aswan I did Go Inn Backpackers which was out of town a way and super simplistic but also my favorite hostel based on vibe.

Once I was past my first few days and adjusted to the hassle I loved most of Egypt. I actually didn´t mind the huge metropolis of Cairo, in fact I wanted to explore it more. I do enjoy cities that have some organized chaos so Cairo fits well. I enjoyed trying all forms of transport and minibuses were a delight once you figured out their routes (tried these only outside of Cairo) since ya know Arabic words are slim in my vocab. I had only a few things on the list to do on my trip: Egyptian Museum, Great Pyramids, Luxor, Red Sea and Sinai. All were accomplished and I am very happy I made it through my whole month without peace-ing out to another country and succumbing to the odd feeling I had initially. Yes, I missed a ton of stuff but I do intend to return…quite the change of thought huh…and why tourists think they need to pack it all confuses me anyway (a new street is tourism for me). In fact, I spent 4 days in Hurghada once I left the Cairo area, which is rare for me but I really needed a break somewhere chill by the beach, to cut my hair, paint my nails, go to the dentist (yes, I pretty much do this abroad now…Egypt has been the cheapest place…$16 for a teeth cleaning!), swim, run, adjust to Egypt, plan a bit, relax and just be. I also returned to the Red Sea beaches again probably because I felt more break was indeed needed.

By the end it all felt very natural there and in fact I was so happy I went, not just to see and learn more about history there but turns out I really felt I was in the right place. The people I met in Egypt were travelers similar to me. Finally, I found more travelers around my age, backpackers who were not too extreme always and many had traveled to so many countries like me. It made me wish I had visited Egypt earlier and found these people before as I feel I have not run into them so much in the past. Overall it was refreshing to know others like me existed…well at least on the travel front…and not social media focused travelers! Egypt was also testing ground to see if I could handle more strict Islamic nations so you might see me soon exploring deeper into this world.

Lastly, Egypt on the historical front was completely mind blowing. It makes you question so much and wonder how they learned to create what they did on this scale. How did this civilization get to be so advanced? Everywhere I went was incredible and a delight and while I wandered sites as well as when I exited each sight I was left in disbelief at the massive columns they built, the words they wrote unendingly on everything, the colors they used, the details, etc and then also wondering who labored to do all of this and how long did it take them. What you see in Egypt is colossal…simply worth multiple visits. If you can get past issues with religion, society, current affairs or other things and go I can assure you wont regret the visit.

Pyramid new discovery was happening while I was there.

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