For a long time, I held off visiting Egypt. The stories the came out have never been flattering: civil unrests, terrorist attacks, the pollution, the sexual harassment… the list goes on. I have to admit that when I finally pulled the trigger, I had a low expectation.
It turned out that I really enjoyed my time in Egypt (I guess that’s the thing with low expectation?) There were of course some things that I didn’t particularly like (see “Lowlight” section), but the monuments were better in person, more than I could ever imagine. I felt the heavy weight of millenia-old civilization in Luxor, and was humbled. And the natural beauty of the Sahara desert (surprise, it’s not just sand) and the Red Sea was unexpectedly breathtaking.
The people touched my heart with their stories and kindness. All I had to do was look vaguely lost, and in a few seconds someone would come to offer their assistance.
Below is my itinerary, highlights, as well as some tips for visiting Egypt. Hope you’ll find them helpful. If you’re here and on the fence about visiting Egypt, I hope you won’t let the scary stories stop you. With proper street smarts and some research, there’s no reason not to visit Egypt. Tourism hasn’t recovered from Arab Spring 8 years ago, and they need visitors more than ever.
My 10 Day Egypt Itinerary:
Cairo, 1.5 day
I visited the Giza Pyramids and the National Museum (very cool). Between the heat, the traffic, the piles of trash, and the choking pollution I didn’t find Cairo and Giza to be particularly pleasant cities to wander on foot.
Luxor, 2 days
East Bank: Luxor Temple, Karnak Temple, Luxor Museum.
West Bank: Valley of the Kings, Medinat Habu (my favorite temple!), Ramesseum, Haptsehut Temple, Colossus.
I arrived in Luxor bright and early after taking the sleeper train from Cairo. I spent the first day exploring the sights on East Bank. A taxi driver I met gave me his number and I hired him to take me to the sights on West Bank the next day. 350 LE for half a day.
Aswan, 2 days
Abu Simbel (pretty amazing but crowded), Seheil Island, and Philae Temple (skippable)
Bahariya/White Desert, 2 days
If you have the time, I highly, highly recommend making a visit to the White Desert. The landscape is other-worldly. A standard trip includes an overnight stay in the desert with 4×4. I went with Desert Safari Home (150-180 euros/car depending on the number of people), a local Bedouin family who’s been running the trip for 40+ years. You can book the tour on Viator or contact them directly.
Dahab – 3 days
Super chill beach town by the Red Sea, backpackers friendly. A good place to end my Egypt adventure. Superb diving (I went with Poseidon Dive Center), and I even went rock climbing in the surrounding Sinai desert. I could’ve stayed longer.
Getting Around Egypt
I traveled through Egypt independently, taking trains Cairo – Luxor – Aswan. I took a night train from Cairo to Luxor, and again from Aswan to Cairo. The night trains were comfortable and clean, and I actually had some of the best sleep here.
I used Uber extensively in Cairo. It made visiting Cairo sights independently more than doable. Cairo roads can be chaotic especially around popular sights and train stations – Cairo train station is particularly INSANE. My tip: To make it easy for my Uber driver and me to find each other, I’d walk a couple of streets to a quieter corner preferably somewhere in front of a landmark (a bank, a restaurant, etc). Keep in mind that unlike in the US, these cars do not have any identifying Uber sticker and the license plate is in Arabic.
A note: other travelers have reported that their Uber driver, once they know where you are, would cancel last minute and approach you to offer their service as a private hire. It’s up to you to accept this of course. But I wouldn’t.
I booked a private guide to visit the pyramids . The guide was useful as camel tout deterrent, but he didn’t tell me anything I hadn’t known. Having a car though was priceless. I don’t think I’d enjoy walking around the complex in such heat and pollution.
I also arranged a private transport from Cairo to Bahariya where the white desert trip started. You can also take the bus. Your white desert tour operator could help you with the logistic.
Highlights and First Impressions
As a woman traveling Egypt, I found Egypt to be a lot less intimidating than I expected. From comments I read pre-trip I was half expecting to be groped and scammed (or both!) as soon I stepped out of my hostel, but it was far from the case.
Maybe I got a pass because I don’t look like a typical rich westerner. Maybe it’s because I visited popular sights super early in the morning before the worst of the touts arrive. Or maybe it’s because those who bother writing about Egypt on forums are those with negative experiences. Either way, despite the occasional “ni hao” and “china” which is always annoying, I had largely positive interactions with Egyptians who were eager to help and friendly. After a few days, I found that I could afford to let my guards down and started to enjoy Egypt fully.
Even as someone who’s not into temples and monuments, I found Luxor to be incredible. I got templed out after 2 days, but the ones I got to see were pretty epic. My favorite temple without a doubt is Medinat Habu in West Bank. My favorite tomb in Valley of the Kings is Ramses V & VI.
I wish I had visited Dendera Temple, those who’ve seen it seem to agree that Dendera is their favorite temple. It’s about 1 hour from Luxor and is not part of the usual circuit, so you need to arrange your own transport.
I enjoyed both the Egyptian Museum in Cairo and the Luxor Museum. Luxor Museum is beautifully and professionally curated. The Egyptian museum in Cairo, however, was more like a family member’s forgotten attic. Sarcophaguses and funerary items were all over the place, scantly labeled, many looked like they were placed where they were because the curators didn’t know what to do with them. It didn’t help that they were in the middle of moving to the new location near the pyramids. Some items were in crates or covered in plastic sheeting. There were tons and tons of stuff: big mummies, small mummies, old stuff, really old stuff. I LOVED it!
White Desert and Dahab offered a side of Egypt beyond temples and monuments. I really enjoyed my time in both and I can safely say that they’re my favorite part of the trip. The landscape in White Desert is incredible, nothing I’d ever seen before. Dahab is a great place to relax by the sea, eat great seafood, go diving (there are so many pristine dive sites around, including the famous Blue Hole), or go rock climbing in the surrounding desert.
Philae Temple, Aswan. The boat ride to the island where the temple is located is NOT included in the entry ticket. Unfortunately, by the time you get to the dock you’ll have already paid 140LE for non-refundable entry ticket so you have zero bargaining power with the boat mafia. They demanded $6 for a 10 min boat ride PER PERSON which is a racket, you guys. If you’ve been to Luxor, you can safely skip Philae (unless of course, you’re really into temples).
Abu Simbel is incredible, especially when one considers that the whole mountain has been completely relocated. There’s a daily convoy that leaves at 4am. If you go as part of a group trip you will inevitably be part of this convoy. For independent travelers, it’s the cheapest way to visit Abu Simbel. However, this means you’ll be arriving at the temple with pretty much everybody else and this takes a lot from the experience. If you have the budget and time, you could hire a private car from Aswan to leave later and even spend the night in Aswan.
Bargaining in Egypt is not for the faint of heart. The price anchoring can be a little crazy. I walked out of a papyrus museum after paying $20 for a painting listed for $150! Not particularly interested in buying (to be honest, I was just there for the AC), I thought I’d quote a price so low, they’d get offended and leave me alone. But yeah, that kind of backfired, lol.
The baksheesh culture is there and yes, it can be in your face and awkward. But it’s also not as prevalent as I was led to believe. Bathroom attendants and tomb guardians were the biggest offenders. I found it useful to keep small change (1 LE coins and 5 LE notes) in a separate pocket. Be polite and stand your ground if they demand more. Or ask for the money back and walk away.
Egypt has trash issues. It was heart breaking to see the piles of plastic trash bags on the streets. Even more so to see horses, dogs, cats, and camels eating out of of them. As a tourist, all I can do is try my best not to contribute. Saying no to plastic bags and straws, and packing out my trash (yes, I brought plastic wrappers, Indomie wrappers, used ticket stubs, etc back home) seems the least I can do. I also use this Sawyer personal water bottle. I’ve used it with tap water in Iran, Sudan, and Egypt and it has significantly reduced the number of plastic bottles I buy.
Tips for Traveling in Egypt
Having Internet plan in Egypt is essential. I use GoogleFi that works in over 170 countries for a flat rate. Such a huge game changer during my travels. HUGE. I instantly have Internet when I land in a new country. No more local SIM cards. GoogleFi used to be only available for Google phones, but now it works with most phones. Get Google Fi $20 credit (US residents only).
Get your SIM card at the airport The three major network providers are represented at the airport arrival hall. So it’s easy to get set up.
Get your visa online. Here. As an American, I could get visa-on-arrival, but I almost always prefer getting mine pre-departure. The cost is the same, so there’s really no reason not to. It cost $25 for single-entry visa ($60 for multi-entries).
How much do things cost in Egypt? Some local prices to know:
– 1.5L bottled water, 5LE
– Mini/micro bus, 2LE
– A small bowl of koshari, 10-15LE
– A cup of turkish coffee/espresso, 10LE maximum
– A pack of Indomie, 2LE
– A falafel sandwich, 5LE
– Taxi in Luxor, 20-50LE
- Seat61, on how to navigate the train system in Egypt.
- Watania Sleeping Train, the official site to buy sleeper train tickets. No need to print, just show the receipt on your phone. If you’re alone and book a double cabin, they’ll pair you with someone of the same gender.
- Website for local trains. For non-sleeper trains, you can buy your tickets online here. Necessary if you want to go Cairo – Luxor/Aswan on regular cabins with seats instead of beds. They won’t sell these to you in person at the train stations, but you can get them online.
- GoBus or BlueBus, for bus companies in Egypt.
There’s no need to book anything from your home country. Every place you stay will be able to hook you up with tours/activities. Anyone with a car will approach you on the street, give their numbers, and ask you to call them if you ever need a car. I came back from Egypt with WhatsApp full of random taxi drivers’ numbers. (Also why having a data plan in Egypt is essential).
Eat Egyptian food. I found that the food in Egypt is delicious but monotonous. Local breakfast places will have pre-cooked dishes and you simply point to what you want. Normal breakfast mezze would consist of a plate of falafels, a spread of white cheese, shakshuka (tomato + egg), ful (bean stew), and flat bread. Maybe some eggplant stir fry. Each plate costs around 10LE. It’s cheap and delicious. For lunch, a falafel sandwich (5LE) is sold from street stands and small restaurants (look for the deep fryer). Another common dish is koshari, a carb bomb of pasta, rice, lentil topped with garlicky tomato sauce and crisply fried onion.
Stay hydrated. It was late October, but man it was still hella hot. Because of the heat, I drank a lot. Thankfully there are a lot of fresh juice places all over the place. Mango seemed to be in season when I was there, so I drank a lot of mango juice. I made sure to ask for no sugar (it’s already sweet!) and no straw. I also use this opportunity to fill up my filter water bottle.
Photo permits Some sites charge extra for photography permits but I never bought them and nobody has ever checked. Maybe they’re only if you use a tripod?
What to wear in Egypt: In hot, dry climate such as Egypt, covering your skin under loose fabric actually feels cooler. I wore similar attire as I did in Iran: long sleeve, loose tunic, and my favorite pair of travel pants (Halle pants from Prana). No hair scarf needed (yay!) Dressing conservatively (that means covered shoulder, chest, and loose-fitting pants and tops) will be wise.
Accommodation and Tours
Places I stayed:
Luxor: New Everest Hostel ($10), 5 min walk from the train station and friendly, helpful owner. Basic but comfortable rooms.
Aswan: David Hostel ($7/night)
Bahariya (White Desert): Desert Safari Home offers accomodation as well as overnight trips to the White Desert. I highly recommend their operation.
Dahab: Golden Europe Hotel ($25/night). Centrally located, clean, comfortable beds with AC and delicious breakfast. Malek and his co-workers were friendly and professional. I highly recommend.
Sleeper train, $80
Taxi in Luxor for West Bank, 350LE ($20)
White Desert tour, 180 Euros/car (for 3 people)
Transport Cairo – Bahariya, 50 Euros/car
Sharm airport – Dahab, 500LE
Anything else you want to know, let me know in the comments below.