Egypt, locally known as Misr (मिस्र) is world-famous for its pyramids and ancient polytheist temples. I made a trip to Egypt in Nov 2020, during the COVID-19 era. Given the general lack of tourism, it was a great time to travel since I didn’t face any queues and in many temples, I was the sole visitor.
Very few people outside of the tourism industry understand English, so, it is good to make yourself aware of a few basic phrases. The equivalent of “hello” is “As-salamu alaykum”. To ask for a price, say “bekam da“. And of course learn the common numbers like five (hamza), three (thlath), ten (ashri), and twenty (ashrin) since these are what you will encounter on the street. And “I don’t understand Arabic” is “Ana mish fahem al Arabee”.
As a vegetarian, I did not face any problems finding food since Falafel and Ful sandwiches are aplenty and available for cheap (1-5 EGP per sandwich). The national dish Koshari is neither delicious nor nutritious. The Egyptian Pizza, Feteer, however, is darn delicious.
Day 1 – Cairo (Giza)
Cairo, locally known as Kahira (काहीरा), is the capital and home to the world-famous pyramid of Giza. The city has a pretty evolved metro system and you can count on it to go anywhere. I always found someone who speaks English at the ticketing windows.
Start your day with Giza Necropolis, locally known as al-haram. You can easily go there via Metro or Uber. There are no water fountains inside, so, do carry sufficient water with you. The area is vast. I bought all three tickets – one for the area(200 EGP), one for the Great Pyramid (200 EGP), and one for the small pyramid, King Khafre, (100 EGP). If you are tight on budget, skip the 400 EGP ticket to the large pyramid. Both the pyramids look similar and unassuming from the inside. The same goes for the Sphinx which is relatively small in size.
In case you are wondering who disfigured the nose, it was an act of iconoclasm in 1378 AD by Muhammad Sa’im al-Dahr as he was outraged by the act of idol worship. I also came across the Tomb of Emory that as per the guard was the engineer of the Great Pyramid. The tomb is on the north side with his statue facing the Pyramid.
Do spend some time checking out the other structures in the area, nothing as majestic as the Pyramids though.
In the afternoon, take a walking tour of Coptic Cairo. It is excellent if you have an interest in the religious history of Egypt. Among various structures is a church built on the location where the holy family (Jesus and his parents) stayed. And a hanging church built by Christians in an Arabic style before the advent of Islam in Egypt. It is called a hanging church as it was built on top of a Roman palace.
Later, I went to The cave church which is located in the garbage city of Cairo. I wouldn’t recommend it.
At night, I booked a train from Cairo to Aswan. I was able to purchase a ticket at the station for 295 EGP in AC-1. As same-day tickets were sold out, I purchased a ticket for the next day. There are quite a few reports that foreigners are not allowed to purchase the tickets except for a more expensive night train with security guards in it. I wasn’t stopped and I met a few other travelers later who had taken the same train.
One restaurant chain, I would highly recommend eating in is GAD restaurants. They have an English menu. And they charge the same (local) prices to everyone.
Another place I would highly recommend trying for juices is Cairo is Sindabad restaurant. They also have an English menu and sell 1L juice for only 20-40 EGP depending on the fruit. Some fruits like Dom (Doum Palm) are native to Africa. Be prepared for limited food choices as you go upstream (south) towards Aswan.
Day 2 – Cairo (Saqqara)
(Note: I actually did this on the last day but I would recommend doing this on the second day)
Now go to the second set of Pyramids, the Pyramids of Djoser in Saqqara. These are some of the oldest Pyramids. Getting there is a bit involved and unless you are on a guided tour, I would recommend taking a Metro to El Monib station and then take an Uber from there. It is both faster and cheaper than taking an Uber from inside Cairo. This area is huge and again you will have to decide which tickets you want to buy. For me, the base ticket sufficed since that gave me entry inside one of the Pyramids as well. The highlight of this area is the step Pyramid of Djoser built in ~2700 BC. It is the oldest standing Pyramid in the world. Pyramid of Unas does not require an extra ticket either but it seems to close at noon.
For the return journey, take a Tuk-tuk. For 5 EGP it dropped me to a microbus, a 12-person van, that took another 5 EGP for a 16 KM ride and dropped me to another microbus that charged 3 EGP for the final 6 KM to the Metro. It was 7 EGP back to Cairo. So, all in all, you can get to the site for 20 EGP.
The rest of my night was the 12-hour train journey to Aswan. The trains have reclining seats, no WiFi, and a few seats have charging points to charge your phone. The train started ~ 30 minutes late and reached about one hour late. So, be flexible. Aswan is the southernmost major Egyptian site on the Nile river, so, going there and then returning northwards is better.
Day 3 – Aswan
At the station, I found a nice guide who offered great prices and I ended up booking multiple excursions through him including a tour of Abu Simbel, a tour of Philae, a private cab to Luxor, and a 6-hour guided tour in Luxor. After reading the rest of the trip, if you like, contact me in case you want his details.
In the evening, I did a Felucca Boat ride for 80 EGP. We stopped at The tomb of the Nobles, another interesting archeological site. The entry fee is 60 EGP. Unlike Cairo, Aswan isn’t very touristy. In fact, there are only a few restaurants with English menus. Thankfully, you can go to most restaurants and ask for a Falafel sandwich.
Day 4 – Abu Simbel
We left early morning at 6 AM on a 400 EGP (for transport) + 25 EGP (for guide) guided tour to Abu Simbel. The temple, originally built in ~1200 BC, relocated in 1968, after the Aswan dam is built, is majestic.
Inside the inner sanctum of the first temple, the temple of Ramses II, the solar illumination glows the face of Ramses II, Ra (the sun god), and Amun god, twice a year for about 20 minutes. The statue of Ptah, the creator-god is left in shadow. This happens first on Feb 22, his coronation day. And second on his birthday, Oct 22.
Overall, we spent about 2 hours at the site and 6 hours driving to the site and back to Cairo but the temple is majestic and worth visiting.
In the evening, I did a self-guided tour of Obelisk (80 EGP entry fee). If you are short on time, you can skip it.
Later, I checked out the Nubian village in the evening. There is a 5 EGP blue color public ferry that runs from 6 AM to midnight to cross the river to Elephantine island.
Day 5 – Aswan, Kom Umbu, Edfu, and Luxor
I started the day with the Philae Temple, devoted to the goddess Isis.
The temple is gorgeous and definitely worth visiting. The ticket price is 180 EGP along with 175 EGP for the boat ride that I was able to share with two other passengers. The temple is in the middle of the lake, so, you will have to negotiate boat price as well.
Then took a private taxi (900 EGP) to Luxor since that’s the only way I could have stopped at the temple of Kom Umbu and the temple of Edfu (180 EGP). The temple of Kom Ombo (140 EGP) is basic but the crocodile museum which part of the same temple complex is worth a visit.
Day 6 – Luxor
On the first day, as a part of a guided tour, we did the temple of Karnak (Entry fee 200 EGP) and the temple of Luxor (Entry fee 160 EGP). The temple of Karnak is the most grandiose structure. And in fact, it indeed is the second largest site after the Vishnu temple of Angkor Wat. The tallest obelisk here is 29.5 meters tall. Just like Hindus in India and Mayans in Peru; ancient Egyptians cut the granite by making small holes in it and then pouring water our the wood inserted in those holes. When the water expands at night, it cracks granite. You will notice Lotus alongside Papyrus in many places. Lotus symbolizes north Egypt and Papyrus, south Egypt.
Body of a lion combined with a head of a Ram is local god of Luxor, Amon. It merged with Ra, the sun god, to form Amon-Ra, a pan-Egyptian God.
There isn’t much to do in Luxor for rest of the day. Our tour was split over two days but in case you are in hurry, you can actually do Valley of the Kings on the same day.
Day 7 – Luxor
I started the day with an early morning Hot Air Balloon Ride over Valley of the Kings for 700 EGP. It is a fabulous ride and I highly recommend it.
I was back by 7:30 AM to start the second day of the tour that covered Valley of the Kings (tombs, the temple of Queen Hatshepsut, and the temple of Medinet Habu). The ticket for Tutankhamun’s tomb is extra and our guide recommended that it is not worth it. On the standard ticket of 240 EGP, you are allowed to visit any three tombs. I wouldn’t recommend going here without a guide. There is little to see unless you are on a guided tour or at least carrying a book that explains the tombs and the history. As per the guide, in per COVID times, about 10, 000 tourists use to visit every year.
From here we visited the Hatshepsut Temple. The entry fee here is 140 EGP. Hatshepsut is one of the two female pharaohs in Egyptian history. There is an obelisk marking here in the Karnak temple as well. This temple is heavily restored. Both the first and third floors have been rebuilt.
Then we stopped at Colossi of Memnon which consists of two 14th century BC statues of Amenhotep III.
From here, depending on how much time and energy you have left, either you can go to Hurghada via a 4-hour 115 EGP bus journey, spend a day or two there, and take a 6-hour 210 EGP bus journey to Cairo or you can directly go to Aswan via a train ride.
Day 8 – Cairo
I did the Cairo Museum on the second day of my trip but I would recommend keeping it for the last. Once you have seen all the temples, it makes much more sense to visit the museum. It is more like a storehouse than a museum. The best parts of the museum are on the second floor right side where you can see some really well-preserved mummies of Tuyo and Suyo.
- In case you need a COVID-19 negative report to fly back then you can get tested at Central Public Laboratories for 480 EGP. The labs are not well marked and Google search won’t work either. Best to find some travelers in your departure city since you would need recent tests anyway.
- In smaller cities, it is best to show up and book than to book via say booking.com. You will get a 25-50% discount.
- I paid about 2825 EGP (~180$) in entry fees. Given that lodging and food are relatively cheap, the tickets are going to be a big component of anyone’s expenses. Students with student ID and under the age of 30 pay 50% for tickets everywhere.