As the plane flies across the blue Nile, it hits you, 'Yes I'm actually flying over Egypt'. The land of pharaohs, pyramids and papyrus; Egypt beckons to all. I've always been fascinated by anything Egyptian. So when the chance to visit one of my dream countries fell onto my lap, could I even think of turning down the opportunity? Of course not! Backpack packed, visa secured, I got onto the plane and not even the long journey could dampen my spirit. Every hour got me closer to Egypt.
Egypt is a study in contrast. The golden sand of the Western and Eastern deserts, the deep Nile entices you as the marvel of human mathematics and precise constructions from eons ago leaves you spellbound.
So how to decide on the things to do in Egypt? Honestly, the list is endless but if you have time constraints, here is list of the best things to do in Egypt.
Here's my guide to the 23 must do things in Egypt:
Visit one of the seven ancient wonders - the pyramids
A perfect view of the pyramids in Giza. Credit: Sharmistha Chaudhuri
Say hello to the Sphinx. Credit: Sharmistha Chaudhuri
The pyramids are synonymous with Egypt. How can you not visit one of the seven ancient wonders when in Egypt, right? Located in Giza, Cairo's neighbouring city, they are simply majestic. You don't realise how big the structures are until you're near it. There are three of them and the most impressive is the pyramid of Khufu aka the Great Pyramid which can be seen from miles around. The granite blocks would be transported via the Nile from the quarries and then stacked to create the structure. In the ancient days, the stones would apparently shine because of a limestone covering. Today, only parts remain. Also, don't miss out on the Sphinx in the complex. The half man and half lion limestone carving is located in the front of the second pyramid. This is one of the best things to do in Egypt.
Don't miss the light and sound show at Giza
Understanding Egypt's history, watching the Light and Sound show. Credit: Sharmistha Chaudhuri
For all history lovers, don't miss out on the fabulous light and sound show that happens in the evening at the Pyramid complex. Each pyramid lights up along with other subsidiary tombs and the Sphinx tells you the story of the famous pharaohs and how the structures were built right down to the time when Napoleon attacked Egypt. It's a beautiful narrative as you realise how ancient the complex is. Sip on hot coffee which is available and be mesmerised by the unfolding of the drama.
Go inside a deep dark tunnel to visit a burial chamber
Despite show of greatness outside, the burial chambers deep inside the pyramids of the earlier pharaohs were devoid of any pomp and ceremony. Absolutely plain walls surround the burial chambers at the three pyramids. There is a reason because later rulers had a lot of show in their burial chambers to go to the afterlife. Khufu, Khafre and Menkaure believed they were gods so to go into the afterlife was a matter of fact. The later pharaohs thought themselves to be demigods and believed would need some sort of passage to enter the afterlife. The tunnel is long and narrow in places. It's not pitch dark now but just imagine how the archeologists would have felt who went down the tunnel for the first time! The chamber is big and a guard sits there, telling you photography is prohibited. So, take a mental picture.
Let ancient Egyptian treasures bedazzle you at the museum
The Cairo Museum is absolutely brimming with treasures. From artefacts found in the pyramids to ancient papyrus scrolls, the beautifully designed sarcophaguses to canopic jars, the jewels of the rulers to their well preserved mummified bodies, it's Christmas come early so history lovers. Don't miss out on the mummy room where Ramses II's body is kept along with many others under temperature control. Also a must-visit is the room which holds King Tutankhamen's famous gold mask. This should definitely be on your things to do in Egypt list.
Don't forget to stop by Egypt's most famous square
Tahrir Square is one of Cairo's biggest and busiest squares. In 2011, that's where it all began when protestors gathered by hundreds of thousands demanding President Hosni Mubarak end his 30-year autocratic rule. Since then, Tahir square has become a symbol. It's large enough to accommodate crowds and very centrally located - next to the museum, government buildings and television offices. In fact, the torched NDP party building is still there. Be careful because security is tight and they ask you not to photograph them.
Buying spices in a local bazaar. Credit: Sharmistha Chaudhuri
Who doesn't like to shop on a holiday right? Khan Al Khalili is one of Cairo's busiest bazaars. It is a major tourist attraction and one can get lost in its small by lanes, hunting for authentic Egyptian souvenirs. Right from touristy bric a brac like magnets to papyrus scrolls, the bazaar has numerous things. As shopkeepers call out to you, let yourself explore the numerous shops that sell spices, lamps, antiques and jewellery. Once you've window-shopped or actually bought gifts, take a seat in the various cafes that dot the market for a nice cup of slow roast coffee. Experiencing local bazaars is one of the best things to do in Egypt.
Visit a local perfume store
Egypt has a long continuing history with fragrances. Once the world leader in creating bottles of beautiful perfumes, Egyptian history is filled with recipes to prepare various kinds of fragrances. In the ancient days, they even worshiped Nefertum the god of perfume! Head to a local perfume store and spend sometime sniffing the various scents. They come in small beautifully packaged bottles and are mostly oil-based so the fragrance lasts longer. Why not pick up a Chanel No 5 at one-third the price, right?
Enjoy the cool breeze of the Mediterranean Sea at Alexandria
View of the Citadel at Qaitbay. Credit: Sharmistha Chaudhuri
When making your things to do in Egypt list, take a day trip to the second-largest city of the country. Alexandria's is so rich in history that to start construction on a new project, one needs endless permissions from the government. Founded by Alexander the great, it was the second-most important city after Rome in the ancient world. The city even had two of the Ancient Wonders of the world - the Lighthouse of Alexandria and the Great Library. While there is a new library built today in the shape of an eye looking out at the sea, the Citadel of Qaitbay stands exactly where the lighthouse used to be. Apart from that, a visit to the catacombs and Pompey's Pillar is a must.
Overload on authentic Egyptian food and coffee
Enjoying local food in Cairo. Credit: Sharmistha Chaudhuri
Egyptian coffee in Cairo. Credit: Sharmistha Chaudhuri
Egyptians indulge in a lot of bread, legumes, fish and meat in the form of kebabs or stews. The cuisine is much influenced by its neighbouring states. Every meal starts with hummus, falafel and pita laid out on the table. Try grilled fish in Alexandria or rice and meat wrapped in vines in Cairo. Don't forget to indulge in the various kebabs on offer and try fava beans for breakfast. Don't forget to taste Hamam Mahshy (pigeon roast, a specialty). Then, have the slow roasted coffee where coffee grounds, cold water and sugar are boiled several times. If you get the opportunity, try the Jabana coffee which is made with spices and is so good, one cup isn't enough! Local food is so good that you must add as many local restaurants you can on your best things to do in Egypt list.
About 4600 years ago, the first pyramid was built for Djoser in Saqqara. Unlike its later counterparts, Djoser's pyramid was unique - it had six steps. Conceptualised by Imoteph, the step pyramid seems like six mastabas in decreasing size, stacked one on top of each. When it was built, it was the dominant structure at Saqqara. Today, it draws tourists just as its counterparts in Giza does.
A local making fresh Jabana coffee at a Nubian Village. Credit: Sharmistha Chaudhuri
Nubia was a region along the Nile in Upper Egypt, bordering Sudan. Nubians have lived for thousands of years along the Nile. It was only during construction of dams and reservoirs in recent times that the Egyptian government relocated the Nubian population in desert settlements or small islands in Aswan. Head to one of the small islands in Aswan which has a Nubian population and experience their lifestyle. Visit their houses and experience the amazing hospitality. Drink Jabana coffee made over a small fire as you swap stories.
Drive down 300km in the middle of the night to visit Abu Simbel
The Temples at Abu Simbel. Credit: Sharmistha Chaudhuri
Going to Abu Simbel from Aswan is an experience. One is escorted by a military convoy as you drive down in the middle of the night through the desert to see the sunrise at Abu Simbel, located on the banks of Lake Nasser. Abu Simbel has two massive rock temples built by Ramses II, dedicated to the Sun god. The front facade of the main temple has figures of Ramses II seated. The inside has three halls and on two days a year, the morning rays penetrate the temple and light up the inner sanctuary. When the Aswan Dam was constructed, the temples were saved from the water shifted to higher ground block by block. Visiting the stunning temples must be high on your best things to do in Egypt list.
Enjoying the view of Lake Nasser. Credit: Sharmistha Chaudhuri
Lake Nasser was created in the 1970s when the Nile was dammed. The large reservoir is located in Upper Egypt and Sudan. The lake places a major role in Egypt's fishing industry. The blue waters can be seen for miles around and the area is very peaceful and quiet. Also see the famous Aswan Dam which is right there and take a picture in front of the Friendship Lotus Flower monument.
Gaze down at the massive unfinished Obelisk. Credit: Sharmistha Chaudhuri
Located in a stone quarry at Aswan, the Obelisk was commissioned by Hatshepsut. However, it could never be finished because massive cracks appeared when it was being carved out of the bedrock. Had it been finished, it was stand tall at 42m. One can trek up to a certain point and gaze down at the Obelisk and feel like an ant in comparison!
Take a cruise down the Nile
Cruising down the Nile. Credit: Sharmistha Chaudhuri
The Nile is Egypt's lifeline and what better way to experience the country than to cruise down the river and stop at important ports along the way. Start the cruise from Aswan and go up to Luxor. It's about a 3 day cruise (there are longer ones) and perfectly fits into a tight itinerary. The feeling on actually travelling down the makes you go back in history as you imagine how in the ancient times, stones from the quarries were transported along the same route to build the pyramids. Relax, read a book, drink, pamper yourself, sunbathe, sleep and eat to your heart's content on the cruise ship! It is one of the best things to do in Egypt.
The double temple at Kom Ombo. Credit: Sharmistha Chaudhuri
The temple at Kom Ombo is unique. Unlike others, it's dedicated to two gods - Horus and Seth. The temple has a double of everything - halls, entrances and sanctuaries - and is perfectly symmetrical along the axis. At night, the double temple is beautifully lit and looks magnificent from the Nile. Learn of the unusual history behind the temple and also Egyptian myths from a tour guide. Don't forget to take pictures of the ceilings and beautifully decorated columns. Do not miss this on your things to do in Egypt itinerary.
Entering the temple at Luxor. Credit: Sharmistha Chaudhuri
The temple at Luxor was started by Amenhotep III and later pharaohs made additions, including Ramses II. Over the years, the temple was buried under the streets of Luxor and in fact, the mosque of Sufi Shaykh Yusuf Abu al-Hajjaj was built over it. During excavations the mosque was carefully preserved and today forms an integral part of the temple complex. See the beautiful Obelisk that stands outside, it's twin now in Paris. Outside, the avenue of Sphinxes once linked the temples of Luxor and Karnak. To visit it at night and see the temple complex lit is one of the best things to do in Egypt.
Enjoy a hot air balloon ride over the West Bank. Credit: Sharmistha Chaudhuri
On an Egyptian holiday, don't miss a hot air balloon ride simply because of the gorgeous aerial view it offers. Get inside one in the morning and on a clear day, the views of the West Bank and River Nile as astounding. Fly over the ancient temple complexes for the best view in the house. That's when you realise how massive the structures are. If you're not afraid of heights, it's definitely one of the things to do in Egypt.
The sacred lake at Karnak. Credit: Sharmistha Chaudhuri
The excavation of the Karnak complex is still unfinished. Yet whatever one can see, one is spell bound. There are three main sacred areas dedicated to Montu, Amun and Mut. It took over 2000 years for the entire construction to be completed with many rulers adding structures. It's probably the largest religious complex covering an area of 200 hectares. Apart from the main sanctuary, the complex has various halls, columns, smaller temples, a sacred lake, living quarters and an obelisk. Wonder how ancient Egyptians must have been mesmerised 2000 years ago. It's so stunning that Karnak should be on your things to do in Egypt list.
Entering the Valley of the Kings. Credit: Sharmistha Chaudhuri
To save pyramids from being plundered, later pharaohs were buried in underground tombs built in a valley whose shape resembled that of a pyramid. Most of the famous rulers like Tutankhamun, Seti I and Ramses II were buried here. The tombs were elaborate and dedicated to the journey to the afterlife. The entrances were well hidden and till date only 63 tombs have been discovered. But with excavations continuously on, who knows, maybe a 64th chamber will be discovered! Photography inside the tombs is prohibited so take mental images. You won't regret putting this on your best things to do in Egypt list.
Pay homage to Egypt's most successful female ruler Hatshepsut
Hatshepsut's temple. Credit: Sharmistha Chaudhuri
Hatshepsut was the fifth pharaoh in the 18th dynasty. Her reign lasted for 22 years and was one of the most successful. She established trade routes and commissioned foreign expeditions. She successfully constructed many projects, right from temples to obelisks. Her masterpiece was the mortuary temple at Deir el-Bahri. It's dedicated to the sun god and had three levels. Located behind the Valley of the Kings, its situated next to the mortuary temple of Mentuhotep II.
Learn the process of making papyrus
Learn the process of making Papyrus. Credit: Sharmistha Chaudhuri
Ancient Egyptians used papyrus scrolls. Texts could be written on papyrus in hieroglyphs, hieratic script or demotic script. Made from a plant by the same name, it's a lengthy process. It was also used in everyday items like baskets and ropes. Learning the history behind this should be on your things to do in Egypt list. Head to one of the many shops that make Papyrus just like the ancients used to, learn the process and in the end, buy a small scroll for keepsake.
Sharm El Sheikh is a popular resort town situated on the southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula. It's location near the Red Sea make it very popular for water sports like snorkeling, diving, boating and para sailing. Become an expert scuba diver and take in the underwater scenery of marine life and coral gardens.