Everyone knows about the big ticket highlights of Egypt. The treasures of Tutankhamun, the pyramids, the Valley of the Kings and Abu Simbel all jump out of the tourist brochures. But, you could easily take an unbelievable trip to Egypt without even setting sight on any of those highlights....though make sure you do at some stage. So, what's in store if you seek out the next tier of Egyptian experiences?
Just a 'short' 8 hour bus ride from Alexandria, Siwa sits on the border with Libya and on the edge of the great Sahara Desert. Famed since ancient times as the home of the Oracle of Amun (who was visited there by Alexander the Great for advice), today Siwa is a wonderfully sleepy and relaxing oasis town well equipped for tourists. Set around the ruins of the 13th century Shali Fortress that dominates the town, it's a great jumping off point for a few days of adventures in and around the town. With stunning oasis scenery, desert hiking escapes and striking lake-desert sunsets, Siwa is well worth the detour, and mix in a visit to the WWI battlefield of El Alamein on the way home. It's possible to do independently, but if you'd like to take in a tour, try this out.
And, if you're looking for somewhere to stay, the pool here is a fantastic place to cool down after a day of desert adventures
St Catherine's Monastery & Mt Sinai
Accessed most easily from Sharm el-Sheikh or Dahab in the Sinai (though there are also overnight trips from Cairo), the trip to the monastery here and up Mt Sinai is spectacular.
Most trips put Mt Sinai first on the itinerary, with a very early morning (pre-sunrise) climb for the views and incredible desert sunrise colours. If you're lucky, the very quaint chapel at the top will be open, though you won't get to see any burning bushes....Moses' famed bush is actually back down in the monastery! The climb up here isn't too tough via the goat track route, but if you have to go up the steps it's a lot more taxing.
The beautiful St Catherine's, built in the middle of the 6th century, is one of the oldest continually operating monasteries in the world, and has remained intact due to the incredible fortifications and a favourable climate. And, it's a great and calming place to explore (and rest your weary calves) after descending the 1,000 steps from Mt Sinai. A whole village is contained within the massive walled compound, and seeing such a sight seemingly dropped into the desert is breathtaking when you see it from a bit further down the valley.
It's nothing like the rest of Egypt, which is part of its charm, but it's actually the blend of Mediterranean climate, Roman ruins, Greek influences all within a pretty liberated Egyptian context that gives 'Alex' its incredible charm. And, while its attractions are many (Pompey's Pillar, Roman catacombs and Montazah Palace among others), it's more just walking the streets and soaking up the sights and smells that is the main feature of Alex. The harbour corniche is a gathering point for the whole city, and where Alex comes alive each evening, and it's all around here that you'll find all varieties of eateries and bars to sample the finest the city has to offer.
The best way to take in all the attractions Alex has on offer is with this tour, which packages all the highlights into one day
Alex has a great range of accommodation from good value budget lodgings right up to the finest in luxury. Take your pick from this list for some of the best on offer, all found along the waterfront, and close to the action
The Western Oases
Arcing out in a crescent from the western outskirts of Cairo, the oases towns of the western desert are an awesome way to see the best desert scenery on offer in Egypt, but also to see the relaxed pace of rural life so typical of the country. Bahariya Oasis is closest to Cairo, and a great jumping off point for the spectacular, fairyland-like landscapes of White Desert, but it's Dakhla and Al-Kharga that steal the show with their fortresses dating back to Roman times. A 2-3 day tour through the region provides an amazing insight into this incredibly unique region.