Unmissable Attractions in Egypt

<a href="https://pixabay.com/en/egypt-middle-eastern-pyramids-2033559/">Egypt | © _cbudd/Pixabay</a>
<a href="https://pixabay.com/en/egypt-middle-eastern-pyramids-2033559/">Egypt | © _cbudd/Pixabay</a>
Photo of Alex Allen
1 April 2021

Egypt is home to some of the world’s greatest ancient wonders, and beyond the big-ticket items such as the pyramids, there’s a plethora of unmissable attractions to see, from ancient Luxor to the modern Grand Aquarium.

The Sphinx, the River Nile, the Pyramids of Giza. You don’t need to have been to Egypt to be aware of its pulling power. They’re sensational sights of course – but they’re just three of the many the country has to share, from remote desert monasteries to romance-inducing coastal resorts, once-drowned ancient temples to millennial masterpieces of modern-minimalist civic architecture. With more than 7,000 years of history, heritage and culture to explore, there are countless attractions to keep you in Egypt for weeks.

Luxor Temple

Museum, Architectural Landmark, Historical Landmark
Map View
Luxor Temple, Luxor, Egypt
M190AD Luxor Temple, Luxor, Egypt | © Arthur Greenberg / Alamy Stock Photo

This huge temple complex differs from most archeological relics in Luxor in that it wasn’t dedicated to a single pharaoh or god – it was built as a ceremonial temple for the crowning of Egypt’s rulers. It’s a showstopper, with an avenue of human-headed sphinxes leading up to the entrance where two broad sandstone towers, decorated with carved hieroglyphs and battle scenes, usher you in. Inside, you’ll find towering statues of gods, endless columns and colonnades as well as the intriguing remnants of internal structures such as chapels.

Karnak Temple

Museum, Architectural Landmark, Historical Landmark
Map View
Temple of Amon-Ra,El Karnak,Egypt
BNG4ED Temple of Amon-Ra,El Karnak,Egypt | © MARKA / Alamy Stock Photo

Karnak is the second-most-visited site in Egypt, after the Pyramids at Giza. And it’s not hard to see why – it’s absolutely epic, covering an area the size of a village. In fact even the name, Karnak, is derived from the Arabic ‘khurnak’, meaning ‘fortified village’. At one stage it was connected to the Temple of Luxor by a 2.5km (1.5mi) avenue of sphinx statues, some of which are still intact. It’s also unique in having been constructed over such a long period of time – almost two millennia – that some of the gods represented in the later sections wouldn’t have been recognised by those who built the earlier parts.

Valley of the Kings

Museum, Architectural Landmark, Historical Landmark
Map View

It’s arguably the most evocative ancient Egyptian site, source of all the lore of undiscovered tombs piled with riches, mummies’ curses and tomb raiders. Here is the tomb of Tutankhamun, discovered in the 1920s and still a site of excavation, exploration and conservation for archeologists today. Reached from Luxor by boat and then by vehicle, it is a place of scorched desert hills, and you’ll feel millennia swallow you whole as you descend into the cool, immaculately preserved tombs, their decorative reliefs looking almost as bright as the time they were carved and painted.

St Catherine’s Monastery

Museum, Architectural Landmark, Historical Landmark
Map View
St. Catherine's Monastery, South Sinai Peninsula, Egypt
C48DEG St. Catherine's Monastery, South Sinai Peninsula, Egypt | © Paul Brown / Alamy Stock Photo

It stands at the base of three hulking mountains on the Sinai Peninsula, one them – Jabal Musa – known also as Mount Sinai, the mountain upon which God gave Moses the Ten Commandments. The monastery feels like a portal to another world. And in a way, it is, containing irreplaceable artworks and objects, from mosaics to chalices, manuscripts to icons, which are some of the oldest surviving Christian images anywhere in the world. Its library, in operation since the 6th Century AD, is the oldest in continuous operation in the world, its collection of ancient texts rivalled only by the Vatican.

Egyptian Museum

Museum
Map View
Built at the turn of the 20th century, this vast museum in the centre of Cairo houses around 120,000 artefacts – the largest collection of pharaonic antiquities anywhere in the world. On the ground floor is where you’ll find the largest objects – towering statues, entire sections of stone reliefs and other architectural objects. Smaller objects include grimacing mummies, coins and treasures from the tombs of the pharaohs, including the solid-gold death mask of Tutankhamen. There’s also a great gift shop, so you can stock up on souvenirs.

River Nile

Natural Feature
Map View
Sailboat on the Nile river at sunset, rock with ancient carvings in the front, Egypt
2E63BW2 Sailboat on the Nile river at sunset, rock with ancient carvings in the front, Egypt | © caesar58 / Alamy Stock Photo

Running through 11 African countries, from Tanzania to Egypt, this seemingly endless river was instrumental in the formation of ancient Egyptian civilisation. The layers of silt carried downstream and deposited along its banks make the desert bloom. Ancient Egyptians could cultivate and trade crops such as wheat – a valuable export that helped the country become rich. It was spiritually significant, too. Ancient Egyptians believed the east represented birth, while the west, where the sun set, represented death and the afterlife, which is why all tombs were located west of the Nile. Whether you take a morning boat trip to one of its temples, or a leisurely few days’ voyage between Luxor and Aswan, a cruise on the Nile is one of life’s great bucket-list tick-offs.

Naama Bay

Natural Feature
Map View

Fringing this sweeping bay in the Red Sea resort of Sharm El-Sheikh is one of Egypt’s best beaches, 1.5km (1mi) of gold-dust sand, Bombay Sapphire waters and breeze-ruffled palm trees. Encircled by snazzy resorts, it’s one of the most illustrious places to stay on the Red Sea and a perfect base for boat trips out to the coral reefs. If you don’t want to splash out on day-trip packages, wade into the shallows with your own snorkel and flippers. You’ll find the sea teeming with marine life, and among the more extraordinary species are clownfish, spotted stingrays and Arabian boxfish.

Atmosphere:

Family Friendly, Kid Friendly, Dog Friendly

Temple of Philae

Museum, Architectural Landmark, Historical Landmark
Map View
Egypt, Upper Egypt, Nile valley, Aswan, Agilkia island, the Philae temple listed as World Heritage by UNESCO, the Isis temple
2BKR4X4 Egypt, Upper Egypt, Nile valley, Aswan, Agilkia island, the Philae temple listed as World Heritage by UNESCO, the Isis temple | © Hemis / Alamy Stock Photo

It seems unthinkable now that we could be so reckless as to knowingly flood ancient Egyptian and Roman buildings, especially those still resplendent with precariously delicate artwork. But that’s exactly what happened when, at the end of the 19th century, the Aswan Low Dam was built, raising the water level of Lake Nasser while submerging the island of Philae and its ancient temple complex. In the 1960s, after more than half a century of water damage, it was decided to locate the entire temple complex, brick by brick, to the nearby higher island of Agilkia, where it safely stands today. It’s still an extraordinary place to visit, despite the years spent inundated.

Bibliotheca Alexandrina

Library
Map View
With enough shelf space for eight million books, it’s fair to say that this library is serious about the power of the written word. But you needn’t be looking for new reading material to appreciate it, because it’s also an architectural masterpiece. It was built in 2002, in Alexandria, on the shores of the Mediterranean, the competition to design it having been won by a Norwegian firm. Inside the curved stone and glass structure, multiple mezzanine-like floors are flooded with daylight. Beyond the books, there are four museums, a huge 180-degree panoramic interactive computer screen and six specialised internal libraries, including one each for children and the visually impaired.

Hurghada Grand Aquarium

Aquarium
Map View
What you might expect from an aquarium: lots of water, filled with a multitude of aquatic species. What you might not expect: a rainforest, a fossil exhibit, and a mini zoo with live animals. But that’s the Hurghada Grand Aquarium, Africa’s largest, where expectations are invariably trumped. The most impressive feature, however, is 100 percent water-based. The shark tunnel is a pedestrian glass walkway through the middle of the aquarium, where you can watch these monsters of the deep gliding gracefully above and either side of you.

Elephantine Island

Natural Feature
Map View
View of The River Nile and Nubian village on Elephantine Island, Aswan, Upper Egypt, Egypt, North Africa, Africa
KTXB5F View of The River Nile and Nubian village on Elephantine Island, Aswan, Upper Egypt, Egypt, North Africa, Africa | © Robert Harding / Alamy Stock Photo

Curving to a point like an elephant’s tusk is this Nile island, one of the larger ones on the Aswan stretch. According to the ancient Egyptians, it was home to the ram-headed god Khnum, who guarded the stretch of the river from subterranean caves. You can explore the ruins of his temple at the southern end, and meet him in the island’s Aswan Museum, in the form of a mummified ram, among other archaeological finds. Want more time to explore? Check into the five-star Mövenpick Aswan resort, a sprawling luxury pile in the island’s north.

Giza Pyramids

Architectural Landmark, Historical Landmark, Museum
Map View
Giza Pyramids in Cairo, Egypt
D3CYXB Giza Pyramids in Cairo, Egypt | © Mario Moreno / Alamy Stock Photo

Their scale is dwarfing. At 137m (450ft), the largest – the Pyramid of Cheops – is 41m (135ft) taller than Big Ben. Seen up close, the magnitude and mass of these miraculous structures is jaw-dropping. It is thought that they took more than 20 years, and more than 4,000 labourers, to construct. The cost of building Cheops’ pyramid alone today would easily cost five billion dollars, and debate continues over the most economical technique to use (which the ancient Egyptians would have mastered). Entering inside is an eerily transporting experience and not for the claustrophobic.

Aswan High Dam

Architectural Landmark
Map View

At 111m (364ft) tall and 4,000m (13,123ft) wide, it is the largest embankment dam in the world – unsurprising when you realise it’s holding back waters from the longest river in the world. It was constructed between 1960 and 1970 to help control annual flooding further down the Nile, allowing for more regulated irrigation – previously, drought and the over-flooding that destroyed crops were just facts of life here. The dam changed everything, allowing for more consistency and efficiency.

Cairo Opera House

Museum, Opera House
Map View
Cairo Opera House in the evening - Egypt
© Leonid Andronov / Alamy Stock Photo
Built to replace the 1870 Khedivial Opera House, which was destroyed in a fire in the 1970s, the Cairo Opera House (unveiled in 1988) is the hub for the performing arts. Considerably larger than its predecessor, it houses seven theatres, a music library, art gallery and a museum. The calendar for performances, from films screenings and poetry readings to live instrumentals and operas, is chock-a-block, so you’ll be able to take your pick when you visit.

Mortuary Temple of Hatshepsut

Ruins, Museum, Architectural Landmark, Historical Landmark
Map View
Aerial view of the Temple of Queen Hatshepsut in Deir el-Bahari on the West Bank of the Nile at sunrise.
EG185X Aerial view of the Temple of Queen Hatshepsut in Deir el-Bahari on the West Bank of the Nile at sunrise. | © Anna Stowe Travel / Alamy Stock Photo

Emerging from the towering, jagged cliffs at Deir el-Bahari, this temple has a crispness and symmetry that belies its antiquity, being built more than 3,000 years ago. In the intervening period, the temple was mostly reduced to rubble by weather, earthquakes and deliberate destruction. But it has been brought back to life by a Polish-Egyptian team of archeologists and conservationists. Work is ongoing, but you’re now able to visit parts of the temple that would have been out of bounds before, to get an idea of its mind-blowing architecture and scale.

Eastern Desert

Natural Feature
Map View

This scorching expanse, sandwiched between the Nile to the west and the Red Sea Mountains to the east, is both a massive outdoor playground and open-air museum of archaeological sites. If you want to explore it, which you should, you’ll need to book onto an official tour with a licensed operator, as there are no roads accessible to tourists. You’ll get to visit important historical sites such as the Monastery of St Paul the Anchorite and Wadi Hammamat, an ancient mining and trading route, littered with ancient rock carvings and graffiti. In between you can get your adrenaline kick on a quad-bike safari.

Colossi of Memnon

Museum, Architectural Landmark, Historical Landmark
Map View
Colossi of Memnon, massive stone statues of the Pharaoh Amenhotep III in the Valley of Kings, Luxor, Egypt.. Image shot 2019. Exact date unknown.
2BJAD01 Colossi of Memnon, massive stone statues of the Pharaoh Amenhotep III in the Valley of Kings, Luxor, Egypt.. Image shot 2019. Exact date unknown. | © Mirko Kuzmanovic / Alamy Stock Photo
These two gigantic statues of the pharaoh Amenhotep III are all that remain of a huge temple mortuary complex that rivalling anything else in Egypt at the time. It was created by Amenhotep so that he could be worshipped as a deity while alive. It was short-lived. Two earthquakes in close succession, and Nile flooding, demolished the temple. The statues were reconstructed by the Romans, who discovered that one of them made a mysterious sound, like the plucking of a lyre string, at sunrise. They became major attractions as a result, and still are today.

Temple of Kom Ombo

Museum, Architectural Landmark, Historical Landmark
Map View

Egypt isn’t short of ancient temples, but how many have offered up 300 mummified crocodiles in the course of archaeological work? This is an unusual and lovely temple, right beside the Nile, built in dedication to both the crocodile god Sobek (hence the reptilian finds) and the falcon god Horus (or Haroeris). Despite withstanding seasonal flooding over millennia – and lacking a roof – Kom Ombo retains a number of beautifully preserved friezes, reliefs and carvings. You’ll also find a shadoof (an ancient well) and statues, some only recently discovered.

The Grand Egyptian Museum

Museum
Map View

Set to open in 2021, this will be the largest archaeological museum in the world, home to the complete Tutankhamen collection, many elements of which will be on show here for the first time. True to the spirit of Egyptian engineering, complicated mathematics went into form and positioning. For starters, it’s triangular, reflecting the nearby Giza pyramids. In fact, the north and south walls line up directly with the two smaller Giza pyramids of Khufu and Menkaure. It’ll feature a translucent wall of alabaster, one of Egypt’s key building materials and historic exports, and contain a training centre and workshops, in keeping with pharaonic tradition.

Al-Azhar Mosque

Building, Mosque, University
Map View
The Mamluk era double-finial minaret of Qansah al-Ghuri and minarets of Qaytbay and Aqbaghawiyya of Al-Azhar mosque in old  Islamic Cairo Egypt
B5PX4A The Mamluk era double-finial minaret of Qansah al-Ghuri and minarets of Qaytbay and Aqbaghawiyya of Al-Azhar mosque in old Islamic Cairo Egypt | © travelpixs / Alamy Stock Photo
In Cairo, the ‘City of a Thousand Minarets’, the first to rise up into the sky belonged here, part of Al-Azhar Mosque: the city’s oldest. It is also the second-oldest continuously run university in the world, specialising in the study of Sunni theology and Sharia law. An architectural marvel, resplendent with intricately decorated domes and courtyards, you’ll find that a guided tour is the best way to get to grips with its history, ensuring you don’t miss any of the extraordinary architectural details.
These recommendations were updated on April 1, 2021 to keep your travel plans fresh.

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