Famous for its ancient civilization, modern day Egypt is still very much engrained in the past. From the Pyramids of Giza, the Nile River, the Valley of the Kings, and stone carved hieroglyphs, tourists flock to the country to explore this nation’s treasures and antiquities.
But while Ancient Egypt evokes a curiosity in Egyptology, the country has excelled from the past and moved towards a modern-day future. Today, Egypt will welcome you with open arms to its modern cities, cool cafes, and resorts. Here, tourists can bounce between the past and present as they unlock the secrets of this beautiful country.
حَلَلْتَ أهلاً ووطِئتَ سَهْلاً – Welcome to Egypt
Cairo is the beating heart of Egypt and its capital city. It is also the Arab’s world largest city with a population of over 20 million people living within its metropolitan area. It is also a complex combination of the country’s ancient history and hope for the future. The famous Pyramids of Giza are a part of the skyline as the three iconic structures sit on the city’s edge, while the government rules the nation from an interior part of the city. Cairo is often described as chaotic, but spending a day exploring its streets often leaves visitors addicted to its lively energy.
Culture and Language
Without a doubt, Egyptian culture has remained dominant for thousands of years. With over 6,000 years of recorded history, Egypt is home to one of the world’s earliest civilizations that has gone on to influence the cultures of the Middle East, Africa, and Europe. When it comes to Ancient Egypt, most people think of powerful Pharaohs, ancient temples, storytelling hieroglyphs, art, mummies, and burial customs. But Ancient Egypt also helped advance agriculture as they successfully lived off of the Nile River and the rich soil.
But while Ancient Egypt had its own culture that continues to influence the country today, the Muslim religion also became culturally significant starting in 639 CE. With plenty of Arab immigrants, the Muslim culture has only solidified itself in Egyptian society. But Christianity is also practiced by the native people, which means that the country harmonizes between two religions. Today, mosques and minarets call for prayers, tourists are eager to witness the power of worship.
Egyptian culture is also exceptional with hospitality as the people are often described as friendly and helpful. But their generosity also means that they often refuse gifts or invitations, so you may have to repeat a genuine offer before it is accepted. If you are ever invited into a local’s home, it important that you show respect and make an appearance. If you pull a no show, it would be disrespectful and humiliating for the host family. With tolerance and acceptance, Egyptians show deep respect and expect to be given the same courtesy in return.
Standard Arabic is the official language of Egypt and it is used by the government or in literature and writings. However, it is not the most spoken language. Instead, Egyptian Arabic or Masri, is the most widely spoken language in the country. Egyptian Arabic originated around Cairo and was influenced by the Egyptian Coptic Language, which was an official language until the 19th century. Other forms of Arabic like Sa’idi and Sudanese are also spoken in Egypt, but as a minority language.
Egypt was once a British colony, which means that a good portion of the population has also been educated in English. In fact, in most tourist areas, English is widely spoken, and you will be able to navigate in your native tongue. But once you leave urban areas or tourist hotspots, Egyptian Arabic is the mostly likely language to be spoken.
For US citizens who are interested in visiting Egypt, you are required to have a tourist visa approved prior to your entry into the country. However, you have the option to pay for and obtain a tourist visa upon arrival or apply for an e-Visa before you travel to Egypt. You should also understand that even if you obtain a tourist visa prior to your arrival, you are not guaranteed entry into Egypt and Egyptian immigration officials have previously denied entry without explanation though it is not a common occurrence.
If you choose to pay for your visa upon arrival, you will be given a single entry 30-day visa. It costs $25 US dollars and it is preferred that you pay in cash. If you need a multiple entry visa, you can also apply for the visa upon arrival, but it will cost $60 US dollars. The e-Visa is available on the Government of Egypt’s website and has all the information, forms, and fees you’ll need to complete to be issued your visa.
The visa requirements do change if you are entering Egypt by land. From Israel, US citizens will need to obtain and be approved of a tourist visa prior to your arrival at the border. Travel to Egypt from Gaza may also not be accessible as the border is not always open and it is difficult to predict when it opens. The US Embassy does not assist in any way with entry to Gaza and avoids all travel to the area.
Other visa requirements include having a US passport that has six months validity. You will need at least one blank page but should have a couple blank pages to be on the safe side. There are no vaccination requirements for Egypt, but it recommended that you are up to date on all boosters. You may not enter the country with more than $10,000 US dollars on your person and may not leave with more than $10,000 US dollars in your possession.
The US government has also placed a Level 2 Travel Advisory on the country of Egypt due to terrorism. Terrorist groups may plot attacks with no warning and target public areas, including religious sites. For your safety, you should exercise increased caution as well as avoid large crowds and public demonstrations. The US Embassy’s Smart Traveler Enrollment Program is also a great resource to stay safe as it will give you current and up to date alerts from the US Embassy.
Travelers should also refrain from traveling to the Sinai Peninsula and Western Desert due to terrorism and prevalent danger. Most Egyptian border areas are also not accessible because they are active military zones. While the Sinai Peninsula is increasingly dangerous, the resort area of Sharm El-Sheikh is open to tourists and safe but is only accessible by air.
While you need a tourist visa for legal entry into Egypt, another important part of planning your vacation is determining your spending budget for the duration of your stay. Egypt is moderately expensive to visit, and this is in part due to the guided tours. Most people feel more comfortable traveling around Egypt with a local and licensed guide. It is also often recommended for your safety that you book guided tours instead of roaming around on your own, but that means you’ll need to incorporate this expense into your budget. Other important parts of your budget will include the airfare, accommodation, food, drink, and transportation.
Egypt is far from the United States and that only adds to the cost of an airline ticket. Most tickets will cost $1,400 US dollars if you are traveling from the East Coast. If you are traveling from other parts of the US, like the West Coast, you should expect the ticket price to increase. However, airlines may have special deals that lowers the price drastically. There are even rare deals that can lower the price of a ticket to below $1,000 US dollars. But the price can change due to when you travel, what type of ticket you book, and how far in advance you book your ticket.
The peak tourist season in Egypt runs from mid-October to May. This is springtime in Egypt, which means that you’ll avoid the high heat of summer. But if you travel during this time, you should expect tickets to be more expensive. The ticket price will also drastically increase from economy prices if you choose to book a business or first-class ticket. Finally, you should always try to book in advance of your departure date because waiting often means that you’ll have to pay more for a seat.
On the flip side of spending a lot on your airline ticket, accommodation is affordable in Egypt, if you choose to stay in hostels and are traveling on a backpacker’s budget. Most hostels will cost as little as $4 US dollars per night or as much as $10 US dollars per night. This price is usually for a bunk bed, but some places to have AC to make you more comfortable. A budget double room would cost about $14 US dollars per night and will usually include a fan.
If hostels are not your preference for accommodation, there are plenty of budget hotel options that cost about $15-$25 US dollars per night. However, some nicer hotels only cost a little more with prices starting at $30 US dollars per night. Luxury hotels are also an option, but they usually start at about $150 US dollars per night and increase in price. Resorts are also an option, which would often include a more complete package but usually cost $300 US dollars or more per night. But you shouldn’t feel that you have to spend what you can’t afford. There are plenty of nice budget hotels in Egypt that are safe and clean.
Once you have decided on where to stay, you will also need to stay energized. Food is important for all travelers, but it is also a way to connect and experience the local culture. Egyptian cuisine is known for using a lot of fruit and vegetables in its dishes with influences from other cultures along the Mediterranean too.
Kushari is a spaghetti and rice dish that is packed with onions, vermicelli, lentils, hummus, garlic, and is topped with a tomato sauce. Rozz Me’ammar is a baked rice dish that combines the simple grain with milk, butter, and cream for a rich meal. Mulukhiya is a popular dish throughout Egypt, but each area cooks it differently. In coastal areas, mulukhiya is served with fish but inland it may be served with rabbit or chicken. Egypt also has their own version of the falafel, which they call ta’meya. The falafel is often served with a salad and Egyptian bread. Finally, kebabs are also popular and are served with Egyptian bread, tahina, and a salad.
Many travelers are excited to taste Egyptian cuisine and the good news is that it is very affordable. Street food is the most affordable option and you can buy dishes like a falafel sandwich for less than $0.50 US cents. But even if you choose to eat out at a restaurant, local places will still be affordable, and a traveling couple can purchase a meal for about $8 US dollars. In nicer restaurants or touristy areas, you should expect to spend about $20 US dollars on a meal for two people.
Due to their religious beliefs, most Egyptian people refrain from drinking, but it is not a dry country. Tourists are allowed to drink and there are local or import alcoholic options. Drinking however, is affordable and many drinks can be purchased for less than $2 US dollars. However, in touristy hotels or areas, you should expect to pay up to $6 US dollars for a drink.
Another part of your budget will likely be spent on guided tours. Due to political instability in the country, it is safer for tourists to hire a local and licensed guide to take them around the city or out into the desert. There are a lot of different guided tour options, but most have packages that start at $80 US dollars. Other tours will be more expensive, depending on the experience offered. A guided tour of the Pyramids of Giza in Cairo will likely cost $80-$100 US dollars per person and will include a camel ride. However, a tour of the Nile River with an overnight stay costs about $175 US dollars per night. It will be up to you to decide what tours you wish to experience and how much you can afford.
Ultimately, Egypt can be traveled by any type of traveler. A backpacker should expect to spend about $40 US dollars per day, while a more moderate budget would be to spend about $120 US dollars per day. Luxury vacations will increase your daily budget more, as will the number of tours you book.
How to Get Around
While guided tours normally provide or include transportation, you may not always want to book a tour. The most popular options for traveling around Egypt are using the metro, taxi, bus, or trains.
In Cairo, the metro is an affordable way to move throughout the city and it costs about $0.25 US cents per ride. Taxis are also affordable, but only if you find the white colored taxis. These taxis start at $1 US dollar and increase their meters from there. Black colored taxis are known for being more expensive and often hassle riders for their fares. The bus in Cairo is another affordable option and cost the same price as the metro.
Outside of Cairo, the most used methods of transportation are buses and trains. Trains can be confusing to use, especially with buying a ticket, but it is doable. Most train tickets are the fastest way to get between cities and cost about $16 US dollars for a second-class ticket. If the train isn’t going to your desired destination, you can also look into taking a bus. Buses take longer but are extremely affordable and a ticket between cities often costs less than $10 US dollars.
Finally, walking is a great way to explore cities, but you should take caution to not walk alone and stay in touristy areas. You should also always be aware of your surroundings and keep your belongings close by.
Top Places to Visit: Cities
While Cairo is often the main attraction for tourists, there are plenty of other ancient cities to visit too. Here, we will give a brief overview of the top city destinations in Egypt.
Cairo is a city packed with action and at times it can be overwhelming. But those to brave these streets are rewarded with grandeur and charm. The stunning architecture hides ancient artifacts, while mosques provide the people with sacred places to worship. Modern day Egypt has also filled its skyline with towering skyscrapers and welcomed in cool cafes. Tahrir Square is one of the most famous spots in the city and a great place to spend the day. In Cairo, you can experience what it means to be Egyptian.
Luxor is unique because it was built on top of the ancient city of Thebes. Today, the modern city pays homage to its past by preserving ancient sites like the Luxor Temple, Karnak Temple, and holding the infamous Valley of the Kings. Tourists flock to Luxor to explore the ancient valley and view a glimpse of ancient Egyptian burial customs.
Named for Alexander the Great, Alexandria was once the center of cultural importance to the Roman Empire. The famous Library of Alexandria once stood here and today, the city still houses an amazing collection of books. But tourists will also enjoy the stunning beach views and portside activities. With a vibrant energy, Alexandria has become a major tourist hotspot.
Often called the “Jewel of the Red Sea”, Sharm El-Sheikh is a gorgeous beach resort. With a mountain backdrop and blue water oceanfront, the area is stunning. But unfortunately, due to political instability and its location within the Sinai Peninsula, it has become a ghost of its former self. Once bustling, the resort is now less crowded and hotel rooms can be easily booked. You should not that due to its location, you will only be able to reach the resort town by air.
Resting along the banks of the Nile River, Aswan was once an ancient military base. Now, people flock to the area to relax along the banks of the Nile or take a cruise. The lush green landscape is dotted with rocks and palm trees, which only add to the beauty.
With plenty of freshwater springs, the Siwa Oasis really is a breath of new life in the dry desert. Now, the area is lined with palm and olive trees, which shade the streets. While it is a remote location and difficult to reach, the oasis will be your reward, where you can relax in tranquility away from the normal hustle and bustle of the country.
Points of Interest
With plenty of ancient wonders within the historic cities, there are also various points of interest that have become popular amongst tourists. Here are the top tourist points of interest in Egypt.
Abu Simbel was the great temple of Ramses II, who had towering guards carved into the exterior. On the inside, there are ornate wall paintings. However, the temple sits in a new location after it was moved by UNESCO to preserve it from being destroyed by the creation of the Aswan dam. The temple was moved in 4 years to its now permanent location back in the 1960s.
For a change in scenery, you can explore this strange natural landscape for a fun time. The White Desert is filled with chalk mountains that look other worldly in their design. With boulders and pinnacles, you can explore this unique area and bask in the beauty of nature.
St. Catherine’s Monastery
St. Catherine’s Monastery sits at the base of Mount Sinai and close to the place where it is said that God gave Moses the Ten Commandments. For the religiously inclined, many flocks to the monastery to see the burning bush and other religious artefacts. But as one of the oldest monasteries in the world, it is also significant for our world heritage and worth a visit.
Constructed as a Temple of Osiris, this is a destination that receives significantly less visitors than the nearby Luxor. But for travelers who wish to see hieroglyphs up close and avoid the crowds, the Abydos Temple is the place to go.
The Nile River
While the Nile River runs through all of Egypt on a north/south line, it is famous for its river cruises. What was once the center of importance for Ancient Egypt has become a popular tourist destination as agriculture has changed throughout history. Instead of cultivating crops, the Nile River is home to ancient sites and relics, as well as beautiful scenery.
Grand Egyptian Museum
For those who are going to Egypt at the end of the current year, you will have the chance to visit the brand new Grand Egyptian Museum. There is much anticipation about this new installment in Cairo because it will hold the largest collection of Tutankhaman relics in the world. The museum is also expected to draw in over 5 million visitors per year and have multiple galleries. While not currently open, it is estimated that visitors will gain entry in the last quarter of 2020.
Get Out There and Go
With endless adventures, Egypt is the place to go for those who wish to explore an ancient civilization that has not been forgotten. But while Egypt has remained tied to their ancient culture, the country has also become a modern hotspot. With plenty of posh resorts and new construction, you can experience the ancient world in the comfort of modern-day amenities.