The largest archaeological museum in the world, the Grand Egyptian Museum (GEM), is due to open later this year (or early in 2023) outside Cairo. This dazzling showplace near the pyramids of Giza cost more than a billion dollars to build. It will hold a large chunk of Egypt’s ancient artifacts, including the treasures of King Tutankhamun’s tomb.
The museum isn’t the only attraction drawing tourists back to the North African country. New openings include the Mummies Hall in the National Museum of Egyptian Civilization in Cairo, and two tombs in nearby Saqqara, including the newly restored Tomb of Djoser, with its labyrinth of hieroglyphic-covered corridors. The promise of fresh discovery means trip bookings for Egypt are up more than 100 percent from some countries.
“So many sites are getting revamped, conserved, and preserved,” says Egyptologist and National Geographic Explorer Nora Shawki. “Even going to the pyramids is smoother, with electric busses getting you there and more dining and services.”
Though it suffered during the COVID-19 pandemic, Egypt has a robust tourism infrastructure, making trips here easier than you might expect. Here’s what to know before you go.
Is Egypt safe?
The biggest danger in Egypt may be getting hassled for business, from the ad hoc tour guides just outside temples and tombs to hawkers offering “free” souvenirs and camel rides beside the pyramids at Giza. Otherwise, street crime is almost unheard of. “The riskiest thing you’ll do in Egypt is crossing our busy streets,” says Shawki.
While terrorist activities in the Sinai Peninsula and Western Desert mean the U.S. Department of State currently classifies Egypt under a Level 3, or “reconsider travel” advisory these areas aren’t close to typical tourist attractions including in Cairo, Alexandria, Luxor, and Aswan.
How can I see the top sights?
Egypt is large—about twice the size of France—and you’ll need a combination of air, river, or overland travel to see Cairo, Luxor, and the Nile River-side temples.
You can rent a car, but it’s not recommended. Although millions of dollars have been invested in road improvements, signage is inconsistent and road congestion common. Some areas, like the Nile Valley, require security convoys, and military checkpoints are the norm. Guided tours and taxis are the best ways to get around; Uber also operates in Cairo and Alexandria.
A 10-day trip focused on the highlights of ancient Egypt could include time in Cairo (the pyramids, museums), Luxor (Valley of the Kings, Temple of Karnak), and a cruise along the Nile.
Additional spots worth adding to your itinerary include resort areas like Sharm El-Sheik on the Red Sea for diving and snorkeling or oasis towns such as artsy, archaeology-rich Tunis Village (about two hours by car from Cairo).
What can I see in Cairo besides pyramids?
Most travelers start in Cairo, where a clutch of museums gives a crash course in Egyptian history. In a sprawling contemporary building designed to resemble an ancient sailing ship, the Grand Egyptian Museum took 20 years and more than a billion dollars to construct. Within its 870,000 square feet are more than 100,000 artifacts including 5,000 objects from the tomb of “boy king” Tutankhamun.
Open since 1902, the Egyptian Museum has 100 galleries and more than 170,000 artifacts, including animal figurines, funerary papyri, and stele decked in colorful hieroglyphs. The National Museum of Egyptian Civilization, which debuted in 2017, covers the entire history of Egypt from pre-historic times until today. It’s the new resting place of the ancient Egyptian royal mummies, relocated with great pomp, last year.
“The Ministry of Antiquities and Tourism has made a phenomenal effort to open new archaeological sites and make older places accessible, such as the Serapeum at Saqqara, and the underground galleries beneath the Step Pyramid of Djoser,” says Colleen Darnell, an American Egyptologist and coauthor of the upcoming Egypt’s Golden Couple: When Akhenaten and Nefertiti Were Gods on Earth.
Just outside of Cairo, Saqqara is the country’s largest archaeological site and home of its oldest pyramid. It also offers new discoveries, including 59 sealed sarcophagi and the ornate tomb of Wahtye, a high priest who died in the 5th century B.C.
Luxor, a 90 minute direct flight from Cairo, holds the grand Temples of Karnak and Luxor as well as the tomb-filled Valley of the Queens and Valley of the Kings, including the dazzling burial space of King Tut.
Luxor’s 1.7-mile, statue-decorated Avenue of the Sphinxes recently reopened, showing off decades of excavations and renovations. You’ll need a day or two to explore it all. Luxor is also the launch point for cruises on the Nile.
It’s worth the quick flight or three-hour drive from Aswan (the terminus of most Nile cruises) to see the 13th-century B.C. rock-cut temple at Abu Simbel on Lake Nasser. Because the temple looks particularly dazzling during the evening light and sound show, Kerry Ann Derwin, a Middle East travel specialist with Audley Travel, often books her clients into a local guesthouse such as the Eskelah Nubian Ecolodge.“It gives a more intimate look at the temple,” she says.
Should I take a Nile cruise?
Boats have cruised along the Nile River since pharaonic times, and a two- to five-day cruise takes in ancient ruins and modern village life. You can book trips on river barges, steamboats, private yachts, or dahabiyas, elegant two-masted sailing ships with four to 10 cabins each. Generally boats travel between Luxor and Aswan.
“Going down the Nile gives you a glimpse into the past, and it’s also a quick way to see many of the riverside temples,” says Shawki. You’ll glide past farms where workers still plow fields with oxen and spot birds like cranes and egrets.
When should I go?
Most of Egypt has a desert climate, meaning hot days and cooler nights. The most comfortable times to visit are between March and June or in early fall (late September through early October). “But if you want the sites to yourself, July and August are great,” says Jasmine Padda, an Egyptian specialist with Kensington Tours.
What should I wear?
In Egyptian cities, you’ll see women dressed in everything from burqas to jeans and tank tops. Tourists can get away with modest casual clothing in most places, but both men and women must cover their knees, shoulders, and chests while visiting mosques or other religious sites. It’s a good idea to bring a lightweight scarf.
It’s also nearly always sunny and often hot, so pack a hat and high-SPF sunblock.
Where can I stay?
In Cairo, there are a range of four- and five-star hotels catering to international visitors with well-oiled security teams and concierges who can offer advice and book tours. Properties (many from chains such as Hilton and St. Regis) in the Zamalek and Garden City neighborhoods are well-located for both sightseeing and safety. For pyramid views and nostalgia, the Mena House has been open since the 19th century; it’s now renovated and expanded.
Two luxe historic properties also lure travelers in Luxor and Aswan: the circa-1905 Winter Palace Luxor and the circa-1899 Old Cataract Aswan. Both offer Egyptian-style decor and atmosphere as well as modern comforts. Smaller guesthouses are also an option in these smaller cities, particularly in the Nubian villages around Aswan.