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Things to Do in Egypt

An ancient land of towering pyramids and endless stretches of desert, Egypt is often referred to as the cradle of civilization. On the lush banks of the Nile River, papyrus reeds sway alongside pharaonic temples, and sandblasted tombs reside beneath the mysterious gaze of the Sphinx. With so much to see, a popular way to explore the Gift of the Nile is by cruise ship, with options ranging from week-long luxury jaunts to shorter, budget-friendly trips. Popular stopovers include Aswan, home to the Aswan High Dam and Philae Temple; Luxor, where temple complexes in the Valley of the Kings pay testament to pharaohs including King Tutankhamun; and, of course, Cairo, capital city and gateway to the Great Pyramid of Giza, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World (and a perfect opportunity for a desert camel ride). Alternatively, make Cairo your base, exploring the enormous Egyptian Museum and doing some shopping in the vast Khan el Khalili Bazaar. From the city, you can take day trips to many of the essential sites, including the ancient capital of Memphis—home to Egypt’s oldest pyramid. Following a healthy dose of history, head to the Red Sea coast to relax on the golden sands of Hurghada and experience the country’s best scuba diving in Marsa Alam, where unspoiled coral reefs teem with marine life.
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Giza Pyramids
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The sole survivor of the Seven Wonders of the World, the Pyramids of Giza still live up to more than 4,000 years of hype. Their extraordinary shape, geometry and age render them somehow alien constructions; they seem to rise out of the desert and pose the ever-fascinating question, 'How were we built, and why?' The oldest and biggest pyramid is that of Cheops, and you can go inside this one if you don't suffer from claustrophobia. Once they were covered in smooth white marble but that was taken for temples over the centuries, but you can imagine how even more impressive they would have been then. Climbing on the pyramids is strictly banned.The sole survivor of the Seven Wonders of the World, the Pyramids of Giza still live up to more than 4,000 years of hype. Their extraordinary shape, geometry and age render them somehow alien constructions; they seem to rise out of the desert and pose the ever-fascinating question, 'How were we built, and why?'

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Valley of the Kings
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The harsh, lunar landscape of the Valley of the Kings is the resting place of numerous New Kingdom pharaohs, whose remains were interred in tombs burrowed into rock. The 60-odd tombs which have been discovered (which may represent only half of the total tombs in the area) are identified by number rather than the name of their original inhabitant, and a handful of tombs are closed at any one time for restoration. Nonetheless there is more than enough to see, and it is better to pick out a representative sample rather than try to see every tomb.

Grave-robbers and museums have nabbed the items which were supposed to accompany rulers into the afterlife, but you can still see the work of some of the finest artisans of the ancient world, who glorified pharaohs in frescoes and wall reliefs. Graffiti shows that this extraordinary ensemble of antiquities was already a tourist attraction for the ancient Greeks and Romans.

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Egyptian Museum (Museum of Egyptian Antiquities)
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Without doubt, the exhibit that outshines everything else is the treasure of the young New Kingdom Pharaoh Tutankhamun - don't miss the astonishing solid-gold death mask. Other highlights include the Royal Mummy Room; the Amarna Room, devoted to Akhenaten, the Greco-Roman Mummies; the glittering galleries that display an astounding array of finery extracted from New Kingdom tomb; and the larger-than-life-size statue of Khafre (Chephren)
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Philae Temple (Temple of Isis)
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Philae was a holy island in the Nile River where the ancient Egyptians built a temple to the goddess Isis. With the projects to dam the Nile - first with the Aswan Dam, then later in the 1960s with the High Aswan Dam - the island became increasingly submerged and the temple threatened. As part of UNESCO's project to rescue the ancient monuments threatened by the river damming, the island was itself dammed, surrounded by a high wall, until all the water was gone and the building could be cut into sections and moved. The project took 10 years.

Now the temple is on the higher, nearby Agilka Island and worthy of a visit. Isis was a very important goddess in ancient times. She was known as the Mother of God, giver of life, protector and healer of kings and her temple was once the site of many pilgrimages.

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Blue Hole
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One of the world’s most famous snorkeling and diving spots, the evocatively named Blue Hole is renowned for its unique geological formation – a 426-foot- (130-meter-) deep sinkhole in the Red Sea, fringed with colorful coral reef and filled with startling blue waters. The Blue Hole has long been a magnet for adventurous scuba divers hoping to get a glimpse of the colorful underwater world, with the main attraction being an 85-foot (26-meter) underwater reef tunnel, located at about 183 feet (56 meters) deep, that leads out into the ocean. Due to its easy accessibility, Blue Hole is an especially popular spot to visit from Dahab or even Sharm El-Sheik, located about an hour and a half away.

With an experienced guide and the appropriate safety precautions, visitors can snorkel and swim within a kaleidoscope of marine life, where it is possible to spot triggerfish, unicorn fish, parrotfish, angelfish and surgeonfish, among others.

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Citadel of Qaitbay (Fort Qaitbey)
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Famously one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, the Lighthouse of Alexandria was the world’s first ever lighthouse, constructed in the 3rd century BC by Ptolemy I. An incredible architectural achievement of its time, the lighthouse took over two decades to complete and, at 450 feet (137 meters) tall, ranked among the world’s tallest structures for centuries after. It stood as a commanding force in Alexandria’s harbor for hundreds of years before being destroyed by a series of earthquakes that sent huge stones into the bay.

Today, almost nothing remains of the former world wonder, although the seaside Citadel of Qaitbay was built in its place using lighthouse ruins in 1480. The well-preserved medieval fortress offers visitors great views of Alexandria’s skyline and out to sea, plus the knowledge of its location’s historical significance.

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Hurghada Marina
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A forest of white masts poke up from the aquamarine waters along the redeveloped waterfront in Hurghada. While Hurghada has always been a bustling marine port, it wasn’t until 2008 that the city redesigned the Hurghada Marina as a place for locals and visitors to stroll in the sun, get some fresh air or grab a bite to eat with views of the sea.

The marina itself has 200 berths for sail boats and mega yachts, while the waterfront Hurghada Marine Boulevard is home to cafes, restaurants, shop and stylish bars, many hosting live music most nights of the week. Visitors can shop in a recreated Souk, dance the night away at a beach bar or board a glass-bottom boat to explore the colorful corals just offshore. Insider’s Tip: The Hurghada Marina hosts special events and festivals throughout the year. Check their Facebook page for the latest.

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Ras Mohammed National Park
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World-famous coral reefs, wreck diving, fantastic snorkeling and a rich array of marine life are protected by Egypt's Ras Mohammed Marine National Park, attracting avid scuba divers from around the planet.

Plunge into the park's waters and you have the chance to spot more than 220 species of coral, over 1,000 species of fish, dozens of varieties of star fish and sea urchins, and several kinds of sea turtles. Popular diving sites include Sha'ab Mahmoud, Beacon Rock, Jackfish Alley, Yolanda Reef, Old Quay and the wreck of the SS Thistlegorm.

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Aswan High Dam
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Built in the 1960s, the Aswan High Dam was an engineering marvel at the time and changed the face of Egypt. It increased the cultivable land by 30% and doubled Egypt's available electricity supply. It also created Lake Nasser, at the time the world's largest artificial lake, which would have covered the important Abu Simbel Temple monuments if not for the support of UNESCO and a worldwide appeal for funds to move them to higher ground, a massive feat which was successfully achieved.

The dam itself is massive, containing 18 times the material used to build the famous Pyramid of Cheops at Giza. It is 11,811 feet (3,600 meters) long, 3,215 ft (980 m) thick at the base, and 364 ft (111 m) tall. Today, it provides visitors with wonderful views up and down the Nile River.

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More Things to Do in Egypt

Temple of Hatshepsut (at Deir el-Bahari)

Temple of Hatshepsut (at Deir el-Bahari)

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The vast Temple of Hatshepsut in Deir el-Bahari rivals the Pyramids as one of the great funerary monuments of the ancient world. Built into the towering cliff face which shelter the Valley of the Kings on the other side, it rises on three enormous terraces connected by ramps, each level marked with a colonnade of stark, largely unadorned square pillars.

Its namesake was one of the few female pharaohs of ancient Egypt, who not unfairly called her monument “Splendor of Splendors”. However, much of the construction dated from earlier rulers, starting with Mentuhotep II in 2050 BC. Numerous sphinxes and other statues have since disappeared, making the whole structure appear even more monolithic.

The cool stone interior provides welcome relief from the pitiless heat of this region, and features well-preserved wall reliefs and hieroglyphics, some in brilliant colors.

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Karnak Temple

Karnak Temple

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The largest of Luxor’s temples, Karnak was one of the most sacred sites in ancient Egypt. Constructed in the 16th Dynasty, it marked the ascendancy of Thebes as the capital of the New Kingdom. The major site here is the Temple of Amon, the largest place of worship ever constructed. There the Great Hypostyle Hall, dwarfs visitors with its dozens of colossal columns reaching 25 yards (23 meters) into the sky.
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Saqqara (Sakkara)

Saqqara (Sakkara)

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Saqqara (or Sakkara) lies about 18 miles (30 km) south of Cairo and was the burial site for the ancient Egyptian capital Memphis, now in ruins. In the site of 4.4 by 0.9 miles (7 by 1.5 km) there is a sphinx, smaller than that at Giza at only 26ft by 13ft (8m by 4m), and several pyramids, the most famous of which is the stepped pyramid of Djoser dating from around 2,650 BC. This pyramid represented a major advance in building techniques being the first complete stone-hewn building in history. Previous to this, mudbrick and wood were used for tombs.

Another 16 Kings also built their tombs at Saqqara and the area was used as a burial site until well into Roman times. In 1979, UNESCO named the area as a World Heritage Site.

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Safaga Cruise Port

Safaga Cruise Port

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Located on Egypt’s Red Sea coast, the port of Safaga has a small but lively tourism industry, primarily centered on scuba diving and surfing. For most cruise passengers, the port will serve as an entry way to visit Luxor several hours away. It is also a port for ferries to and from Saudi Arabia, just across the Red Sea.

Luxor is about a three and a half hour drive from Safaga, so you will likely visit as part of an organized shore excursion, often one that includes an overnight stay in Luxor. If you prefer to go independently, a taxi may run as much as $100 each way and must be arranged in advance. Either way, you will travel as part of a police-escorted convoy through the desert to Luxor.

Most shore excursions will include Luxor’s three must-see sights: Luxor Temple, Karnak and the Valley of the Kings. Visiting all three will easily fill up your entire day.

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Luxor Temple

Luxor Temple

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The enormous Luxor Temple was one of the great constructions of the New Kingdom (dating from the 14th century BC) dedicated to the god Amun. It was known as the “Southern Sanctuary” and was the site of ceremonies aimed at encouraging the life-giving Nile floods.

Once through the processional Avenue of Sphinxes you come to the First Pylon, which announces the phenomenal scale of the stonework here: statues, columns and obelisks all compete with each other in a race to the sky.

Ensuing civilizations have also left their marks: there’s a shrine erected by Alexander the Great, Roman wall frescoes as well as a 14th century AD mosque, ensuring this remains a place of worship in the present day.

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Mt. Sinai

Mt. Sinai

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For many visitors to St. Catherine’s Monastery at the foot of Mount Sinai, the trek to the mountain's 2,285 meter (7,495 foot) summit is a highlight of their visit.

There is a chapel at the top, reached by either following the camel trail or climbing the 3,750 Steps of Repentance. Whichever way you visit, the final stretch is a grueling 750 rocky steps to the top, where you’ll be rewarded by spectacular views, plus the knowledge that you are standing on the spot where Moses received the Ten Commandments.

Most visitors climb the mountain before dawn, arriving in time to catch the sight of the sun rising over the desert and surrounding peaks. To make things easier on your thigh and calf muscles, take the path on the way up, and the steps on the way down.

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Hurghada Grand Aquarium

Hurghada Grand Aquarium

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Hurghada’s Marine Biology Museum reveals insights into the aquatic wonderland lying offshore. Whether you’re a keen snorkeler or want to learn more about the world’s rare coral reefs, the museum provides all the answers, focusing on the Red Sea’s ecological environment. You’ll also find out about the critters that live in the Red Sea, including sharks and turtles.
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Memphis

Memphis

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The city of Memphis was the capital of ancient Egypt. It was the King's residence and the political and administrative centre until around 2,200 BC. It had impressive fortifications and temples, largely to Ptah, the god of creation and artworks. Estimates of population vary from 6,000 to 30,000 but either way, it was one of the larger, if not the largest, cities of its era.

Archaeological digging in the area has uncovered a Temple of Ptah and sculptures, including a sphinx (smaller than the one at Giza but still impressive), and the Colossus of Ramses II. These are now housed in the outdoor Memphis Museum in Mit Rihina, the modern town in this area. In 1979, UNESCO designated the area a World Heritage Site.

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Khan Al-Khalili

Khan Al-Khalili

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Jaundiced travelers often dismiss the Khan al-Khalili as a tourist trap; there's no ignoring the fact that it's a favored stop of tour buses and has all the associated annoyances (touts and tat) that come with them. But it's worth remembering that Cairenes have plied their trades here since the founding of the Khan in the 14th century - the buying and selling didn't begin with the arrival of the first tour group.

Today the market still plays an important role in the day-to-day commercial life of thousands of locals. In its narrow streets you can buy anything from shoes to souvenirs to clothes, chess sets, cushions, ceramics, brass, gold, silver, rugs, fabrics and on it goes.

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Mahmya Island

Mahmya Island

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This small island off the coast of Hurghada offers access to some of the clearest, bluest waters of the Red Sea away from the busy nearby shores. Accessed by boat, the island has food and lounge facilities and places to get snorkel gear. Snorkeling in this area is a must, as the underwater life is bright, colorful and active and it is less crowded than in other snorkel spots.

An abundance of marine life awaits in the many reefs just below the water’s surface. Dozens of tropical fish and a variety of coral types can be seen just off the island’s beach. Dolphins are a frequent sighting and a highlight for many visitors to this area. Soak in the Egyptian sun on a white-sand beach and cool off with a dip in the calm, turquoise waters.

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Abu Simbel Temples

Abu Simbel Temples

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Built by Ramesse II in 13th BC, the two temples at Abu Simbel are perhaps the best known and most visited ancient sites in Egypt after the Pyramids of Giza. In the 1960s, they were moved to higher ground after the flood caused by the construction of the Aswan High Dam and Lake Nasser. There is a daily light and sound show at the temple which is impressive if a little high-tech and non-ancient.
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St. Catherine's Monastery

St. Catherine's Monastery

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This legendary Greek Orthodox St. Catherine Monastery is one of the oldest places of worship in the world. Founded in the 4th century, the monastery stands on the site where Moses saw the burning bush. When you visit, it’s possible to see a living descendant of that very bush.

The walled monastery complex includes a fortress, chapel, the 6th century Church of the Transfiguration and monastic buildings. The monastery was never attacked, so its famous library of rare manuscripts, priceless icons, reliquaries and artworks is complete.

Towering 2,285 meters (7,495 feet) above the monastery is Mount Sinai. For many, the trek to the summit is a highlight of a visit to the monastery, either by following the camel trail or climbing the Steps of Repentance. At the top you’ll be rewarded by spectacular views, plus the knowledge that you are standing on the spot where Moses received the Ten Commandments.

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Colossi of Memnon

Colossi of Memnon

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Little remains of the once impressive Amenhotep’s memorial temple. But the two imposing statues of Pharaoh Amenhotep III, erected to guard the ancient entrance, still stand watch some 3,400 years later. Today, travelers can venture to the shores of the Nile, just across from the city of Luxor, and revel at the giant manmade sculptures.

In addition to these impressive twin statues, travelers can check out two smaller figures of the Pharaoh’s wife, Tiy, and mother, Mutemwia. Visitors can also get an up close look at the sandstone panel carvings that showcase images of the Nile god Hapy. Even if most of the Colossi has been lost to weather an the ages, travelers can still get a sense of the wonder this site once held.

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Old Cairo (Misr Al-Qadima)

Old Cairo (Misr Al-Qadima)

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Old Cairo is a relatively small area but it is rich with history. Also known as Coptic Cairo, Fustat (in reference to the first Muslim city established there), and Masr al-Qadima to the locals, it has been inhabited since the 6th century BC. It has been a Roman fort protecting trade routes, a Christian city from around the 5th century AD, a Muslim army camp from 641 AD, then Egypt's capital city until yet another conquest in the 10th century.

The main interest these days is in its role as Coptic Cairo. The narrow cobbled streets contain the Religious Compound, full of churches including the Hanging Church (dedicated to the Virgin Mary and still in use), the oldest synagogue in Egypt, the remains of the Roman fortress, and the Coptic Museum. Just northeast is the site of ancient Fustat which contains the oldest mosque, Amr Ibn al-Aas.

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