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30 January 2023

The land of mystery and wonder

Nestled in the heart of North Africa, Egypt is one of the largest countries in the region, covering an area of about 1,010,000km². It’s no wonder, then, that - with a population of over 100 million - Egypt is the most populous country in the Arab world and the third-most populous in Africa. Home to a rich tapestry of landscapes, history, and culture, Egypt is a destination that offers a diverse and well-rounded experience. Whether you're a history buff; looking for a warm-weather beach holiday, or wanting to explore a relaxed culture that is worlds away from the stresses of everyday life, this is a country that never fails to amaze. Experience the warmth and sun that Egypt is famous for, as you stand in awe at the Great Pyramid of Giza; wander through the Valley of the Kings, home to the tombs of some of Egypt's most powerful pharaohs, or take a felucca along the River Nile: the lifeblood of Ancient Egypt and still a major source of beauty and culture today. From the ancient pyramids and hieroglyphics to the bustling streets of Cairo, this is a destination that offers something for everyone. But what really sets Egypt apart is the way it surprises and captivates visitors. This is a country whose wonder can’t simply be explained by its abundant historical wonders. Egypt is home to a vibrant culture, delicious food, and warm hospitality. Take a stroll through the colourful markets of Cairo, where you’ll find everything from spices and textiles to traditional souvenirs. Enjoy a traditional meal of koshari or falafel and wash it down with a cup of sweet mint tea. Let the friendly locals show you the best of their country, from the best places to shop to the best places to relax. This is a place where the ancient and modern coexist, where the hustle and bustle of the city streets contrasts with the serenity of the desert dunes, and where you’ll find yourself awestruck over and over again.

What makes Egypt, Egypt?

1. It's a whole new world

When it comes to culture, Egypt is a world apart from what we know in the West. It’s a true feast for the senses. The markets of Cairo offer a vibrant and colorful shopping experience that immerses visitors in the local culture. Head to the famous Khan el-Khalili bazaar, where you’ll find everything from spices and textiles to traditional souvenirs and handcrafted goods. Get swept up in the hustle and bustle of the market as you take in the scent of spices and incense that fill the air, and hear the sounds of vendors shouting their wares and haggling with customers. It's an experience not to be missed for anyone interested in discovering the local culture.

But the culture of Egypt is not just limited to the markets. Street food is a delicious way to experience the culture, with traditional meals such as koshari and falafel being a must-try. These dishes are a staple of Egyptian cuisine and offer a taste of the country's rich history and diverse culinary influences. And if you can catch a traditional Egyptian show while you eat - even better! From the mesmerising belly dance to the lively rhythms of the Tabla and Darbuka, the traditional music and dance of Egypt is a reflection of the country's vibrant culture and history.

Perhaps one of the most striking aspects of Egyptian culture is the warmth and friendliness of its people. When I arrived in Sharm El Sheikh, I was pretty disorganised: I brought my blocked debit card with me and NO cash, so when I got to the airport and found I couldn’t pay for my Visa on arrival, I was stuck for what to do. I met an extremely friendly local in the airport, and she not only helped me to pay for my Visa, she also helped me to buy an Egyptian SIM card, escorted me to my hotel & gave me a bunch of tips to stay safe. I thought that would be the end of her kindness, but I was wrong. She then gave me her number and texted me an itinerary of things I should do while in Egypt, and was on hand whenever I needed her during my time there, giving me advice on everything from fair taxi rates to the best restaurants in the area. I thought maybe she was just unusually friendly, but I was wrong. When I arrived in Cairo, I got lost. To make matters worse, I was terrified of crossing the extremely hectic roads. When I asked a local for directions to my hostel, rather than just pointing me in the general direction, she - along with her grandad - personally escorted me there. Egyptians are known for their hospitality and my time there showed that their reputation is well-earned. The number of friendly Egyptians I met, who recognised that I was alone in a foreign country and went out of their way to make sure that I was safe - translating for me, showing me what to do or where to go when I looked confused, and teaching me about their culture - was heartwarming. This is a place where the locals are genuinely interested in making sure that visitors have a great experience and enjoy their time in Egypt.

Is it any surprise that they take such pride in their country, when Egypt is such a beautiful place? The nation’s culture is a vibrant and colourful tapestry, woven from ancient history, diverse influences and warm-hearted people. From the markets to the street food; from the traditional music to dance, it's a destination that truly does have something for everyone.

The vibrant el-Khalili Bazaar

Fun fact: When you’re in Egypt, make sure to always step over the threshold of a new place with your right foot. It is believed that this will bless the place, bringing forward happiness and prosperity!

2. Its got deserts for days

Egypt is home to some of the most breathtaking deserts in the world. From the vast expanse of the Western Desert to the rugged beauty of Mount Sinai, if there’s one way to experience the raw power and majesty of nature - it’s in Egypt. The Western Desert, also known as the Great Sand Sea, is one of the largest sand deserts in the world. Covering an area of over 600,000 square kilometers, it is home to some of the most spectacular dunes in the world, rising up to 150 meters high.  The best way to explore the Western Desert is by taking a 4x4 safari, where you can drive through the dunes, camp under the stars, and watch a stunning sunset and sunrise.

Known for its rugged mountains, colorful canyons, and ancient monasteries, the Sinai Desert is another must-see in Egypt. This vast, rugged expanse of sand dunes, rocky mountains, and ancient ruins is a land of stark contrasts. It’s a place where the scorching sun beats down on a seemingly endless sea of sand during the day, and where the nights are still in the most serene way. I took a quad biking tour through the Sinai Desert - an experience that was as exhilarating as it was beautiful. Racing across the desert’s rugged terrain as the sun set over the nearby mountains is an image I’ll never forget. The wind whipping through my hair as the sun cast its golden glow over the sand dunes was - for a thrill-seeker like me - the most freeing experience. I loved seeing the seemingly endless desert laid out before me, with towering dunes, rocky outcroppings, and stunning vistas at every turn. Our guide pointed out the local wildlife - from desert foxes to hyenas, and when we stopped at an ancient Bedouin settlement, we even got to ride a camel. It was an incredibly unique experience, and as I stood atop the tallest dune we could find, I looked out over the sands and realised why Egypt’s deserts are considered one of the most beautiful and captivating landscapes on earth.

Mountainous dunes layered over each other on the desert horizon

If you get the chance to, camping in the White Desert of Egypt is a one-of-a-kind experience that will take your breath away. Imagine waking up to the sight of towering white chalk formations that look like sculptures carved by nature. As you explore the desert, you'll discover hidden caves, natural arches, and even hot springs in the middle of endless sands. The unique and otherworldly landscape of the White Desert is an incredible sight to see. 

When the sun begins to set, watch as the colors of the desert change, the white dunes turn golden, and the white rocks take on a deep orange hue. At night, you'll sit around the campfire listening to stories from your guide about the desert's history and culture as you enjoy a traditional Bedouin dinner. And when it’s time for bed, you’ll camp under the starry sky, enveloped in the quiet serenity of the desert. I’m from London, so I’m always amazed by starry night skies, but this is one place where the night sky really is unlike anything you’ve ever seen before. The Milky Way is clear enough it almost feels like you could reach out and touch it if you wanted to. This is an opportunity to experience the desert in a truly authentic way and disconnect from the hustle and bustle of the city. The desert's natural beauty, serenity, and proximity to nature will make it a trip you will never forget.

Towering chalk formations in the White Desert

Good to know: Over 90% of Egypt’s landscape is desert, and without the River Nile, the country would be entirely desert. Only about an inch (2.5 centimeters) of rain falls throughout Egypt each year. But each summer, the river rises because of rains at its source far to the south in Ethiopia. Floods cover the river's valleys, leaving sediments needed for trees, plants, and crops to grow.

3. The most incredible mountains

Egypt is a land of contrasts, and its mountains are no exception. From the rugged peaks of the Sinai to the majestic summits of the Eastern Desert, these mountains offer visitors a chance to experience some of the most breathtaking landscapes in the world. One of the country’s most iconic mountains in Egypt is Mount Sinai - where it is believed by Christians, Jews and Muslims that Moses received the Ten Commandments from God. Despite being extremely unfit, I love a challenge: I decided that the best way to discover Mount Sinai would be to follow in the footsteps of Moses and take a night-time hike up this steep incline, arriving at the summit in time for an incredible sunrise. The hike was probably the most intense thing I’ve ever done - it was dark, the pathway was steep and narrow, and it was extremely cold. I did have the option to pay for a camel ride up to the top, but I was determined to see this hike through to the end, so I stuck close to our mountain guide and powered through - and wow, it was worth it. Watching layers and layers of mountains appear on the horizon as the sky got brighter and brighter was beautiful. Panoramic views of the mountains and desert beyond were only made more breathtaking as the sun peeked over the mountain tops, casting an orange hue over everything in sight. I almost forgot how tired, cold and achey I was as I took in the incredible view. 

If you have time, be sure to explore Egypt’s other incredible mountains. Another must-see is Jabal Toubkal, located in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco. At 4,167 meters, it is the highest peak in North Africa. The mountain is a popular destination for hikers and climbers, and it offers spectacular views of the surrounding landscape. The hike to the summit can be challenging, but the views from the top make it well worth the effort. Alternatively, the Red Sea Mountains offer the chance to explore a rugged and remote landscape, with towering peaks, deep canyons, and hidden oases. You can explore the mountains on foot, by jeep, or by camel, and you can even go rock climbing, mountaineering, and desert camping.

The breathtaking sunrise you’re rewarded with after an intense hike up Mount Sinai

Good to know: Mount Sinai is a place of incredible religious and historical significance. It is believed by Muslims, Christians and Jewish people to be the place where God appeared to Moses and gave him the Ten Commandments.

4. Its vast history

The Pyramids: The Pyramids of Giza are one of the most iconic and awe-inspiring sights in the world. These ancient structures, built over 4,500 years ago, continue to fascinate visitors from all over the globe with their size, precision and age. The Great Pyramid, also known as the Pyramid of Khufu, is the largest and most impressive of the three pyramids on the Giza plateau. Standing at 147 meters (481 feet) tall, it is the only remaining of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. I’ve seen pictures of the pyramids before, but nothing could prepare me for just HOW big they really are. A single limestone block was taller than me! The pyramid is made of around 2.3 million limestone blocks, each weighing an average of 2.5 tons, and the precision and accuracy of the pyramid's construction is truly astounding. It was hard not to feel completely awestruck by the sheer scale of the pyramid as I stood before it.

You can tour the interior of The Great Pyramid, including the burial chamber of the pharoah and the narrow passageways leading to it. It’s pretty claustrophobic in there, so I wouldn’t recommend it if you’re not a fan of tight spaces. But, the experience of being inside the pyramid, for me, was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that I had to take. Don’t worry about going inside all of the pyramids - to be honest, if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all. The interiors really aren’t that different from one another. 

The pyramids close at 4, but if you can, go on an evening tour to watch the sunset over them - it’s a truly magical experience. As the sun sets and the sky turns orange, the pyramids take on a warm golden hue and it's hard not to be struck by the beauty and majesty of these ancient structures.

The Sphynx: Standing guard at the entrance to the Giza Plateau, this ancient monument towers over visitors, its massive limestone body carved into the likeness of a lion with the head of a human. As you approach the Sphinx, you can't help but feel a sense of wonder at the skill and artistry of the ancient Egyptians who built it. The Sphinx has stood for thousands of years, bearing witness to the rise and fall of empires and civilizations. Walking around the Sphinx, you can almost feel the weight of history pressing down on you, and you can't help but be humbled by the enduring legacy of this ancient wonder. 

Don’t forget to kiss the Sphynx on your trip!

The Valley of the Kings: Take a journey through time as you enter The Valley of the Kings. Surrounded by towering cliffs and barren desert landscape, it’s easy to imagine the ancient Egyptians who built these grand tombs for their pharaohs. The valley is home to over 60 tombs, each one adorned with intricate hieroglyphs and colorful paintings that tell stories of the pharaohs buried there. Walking through the dark, narrow corridors of these tombs, you can't help but feel a sense of awe at the grandeur and mystery of these ancient structures. Each tomb holds its own unique treasures and secrets, waiting to be discovered by visitors. The Valley of the Kings is not only a stunning historical site but also a unique window into the ancient Egyptian culture and beliefs. It's an experience that will stay with you long after you leave, giving you a glimpse of the grandeur of the past.

Abu Simbel Temples: These massive temples, built during the reign of Pharaoh Ramses II, have stood for thousands of years, towering over the desert landscape and serving as a testament to the ancient Egyptians' architectural and engineering prowess. Relocated in the 1960s to avoid their flooding during the construction of Aswan High Dam, the temples are remarkable feat of engineering and preservation. 

As you approach the temples, you can't help but notice their sheer size and grandeur. The facade of the Great Temple is adorned with four 20-meter-tall statues of Ramses II, each one carved from a single block of stone. Inside, the temples are filled with intricate carvings and hieroglyphs that tell the story of the pharaoh and the gods he worshiped.

The best way to explore the Pyramids and surrounding deserts is on the back of a camel

Fun fact: Of the original Seven Wonders of the World, only one—the Great Pyramids of Giza— has stood the test of time. The others have all faded to dust, existing only in our memories today.

5. Paradise beneath the waves

Egypt is home to some of the most incredible coral reefs in the world. These underwater gardens are teeming with life, from vibrant tropical fish and sea turtles to colorful coral and other marine life. The crystal clear waters of the Red Sea offer the perfect conditions for coral reefs to thrive, and they are a must-see for anyone visiting Egypt.

One of the most famous coral reef sites in Egypt is the Ras Mohammed National Park, located in the southernmost tip of the Sinai Peninsula. This protected area is home to some of the most diverse and vibrant coral reefs in the world, with over 1000 different species of fish and more than 200 species of coral. The park is also home to many shipwrecks, which have become artificial reefs, providing a home for a wide variety of marine life. Before going to Egypt, I had never tried scuba diving before - I’m a budget traveller, so I’ve always thought “What’s the point? I can snorkel and see everything for way cheaper!” But this time, the coral reefs were so beautiful that I decided to eat the cost and try diving for the first time… What a great decision. It was an incredible experience, swimming under coral reefs to discover entire shoals of fish that I’d never seen before; exploring underwater caves and canyons, and getting up close and personal with an underwater world that I’d only ever seen from a distance.

Incredible underwater colours

Another must-see coral reef destination in Egypt is the Brothers Islands. These two uninhabited islands are located in the northern Red Sea and are known for their incredible diving opportunities. The waters around the Brothers Islands are teeming with marine life, including schools of colorful tropical fish, sea turtles, and even hammerhead sharks. The coral reefs around these islands are also home to a wide variety of colorful soft and hard coral, making it a photographers paradise.

For those who want to explore Egypt's coral reefs without getting in the water, the Hurghada Marine Museum and Aquarium is the perfect destination. This interactive museum offers visitors the chance to see the vibrant marine life of the Red Sea up close, including a wide variety of coral and fish species, as well as sea turtles and even a shark tunnel.

A vibrant underwater world like you've never seen before

Fun fact: The Red Sea is home to coral reefs that are over 7,000 years old in some part, as well as more than 1,200 species of fish, including 44 species of sharks. Nearly 20% of these are found only in the Red Sea.

Good to know

  • Most visitors to Egypt will need a Visa. If you’re from the UK, you can get one on arrival at the airport. It costs $25, but make sure to bring either cash or a debit card in the same name as the one on your passport. I didn’t have either with me and the officer wouldn’t allow me to pay for my Visa - I had to ask someone in the airport to do it for me! If you want to use your phone while in Egpyt, you’ll also need to buy a SIM card at the airport, so make sure your phone is unlocked before your trip.

  • Do not drink the tap water, brush your teeth with the tap water, or eat uncooked foods that may have been washed with tap water (such as lettuce, uncooked fruits & vegetables, etc.). I used bottled water for drinking and to brush my teeth.

  • Make sure to bring: 

    • Toilet paper - the bathrooms at tourist sites are not typically stocked with toilet paper, so it is a very good idea to bring some with you.

    • A cross-body bag - pickpockets operate in Egypt and theft is often opportunistic. Make yourself a difficult target by keeping your things close to you!

    • Your student ID, if you’re a student. Many places will offer student discounts; at the pyramids, students pay half price!

  • Be prepared to tip everywhere you go. If someone offers to take a photo of you, they will usually ask for a tip in return; if you take a photo of someone’s camel, they may ask you for a tip; if you take a camel ride, felucca ride etc., you may be asked for a tip on top of the cost of the service. Tipping is optional, but there is generally an expectation for it. For things like photos, 5-10EGP is fine, while for meals and services such as camel rides, a 5-10% tip on top of what you paid is customary.

  • Unfortunately, Egypt isn’t the most LGBT-friendly destination, so we’d discourage outward displays of affection if you’re travelling there as an LGBT couple.

  • Dress modestly. Egypt is a majority-Muslim country, so the locals’ dress-sense is a lot more conservative than what you’d see in Western countries. There are many places that you won’t be allowed to enter if you aren’t covered up sufficiently, and you’ll often get stares from locals. I packed a lot of maxi skirts, t-shirts, long flowy pants, and a headscarf in my bag!

  • If you’re travelling on a budget, companies like Go Bus, Swvl and Blue Bus are your friends. You can get overnight buses for under £10 to anywhere in Egypt - and even over to Jordan if you fancy a further excursion.

  • I travelled as a solo woman, and while I had an amazing time in Egypt, there were definitely a few creeps along the way! To avoid unwanted attention, I wore a fake wedding ring, never walked around at night, stuck with tour groups where possible, and got very comfortable with saying “La, shukran.” or “No thank you.” Of course, these things shouldn’t be necessary for women to do when travelling, but having travelled solo in a number of destinations now, some places just haven’t caught up with the times… Don’t let it spoil the chance to explore a really awesome new country - just keep your wits about you and stay safe! 

  • Expect a lot of security checks - whether you’re exploring a historical site or checking into your hotel, you’ll usually need to put your bags through an x-ray machine and walk through a metal detector much like at the airport. I took a bus from Sharm El Sheikh to Cairo during my time in Egypt, and at the halfway point we had to get out to have the bus and our bags searched. Don’t be alarmed - this is completely normal in Egypt.

  • Uber is available in Cairo. It’s safe and extremely cheap!

An ancient gem

Egypt is a country that will leave you speechless with its beauty and history. From the ancient pyramids and temples to the stunning desert landscapes, this is probably my favourite destination in recent years. The opportunity to immerse myself in a completely new culture, stand before the last remaining Wonder of the World, and take in incredible underwater sights made me reluctant to go home at the end of my trip. Despite the uncomfortable situations I had with some men, Egypt will always have a special place in my memories and heart, so it’s hard not to recommend it to anyone who’ll listen. 

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