The insider advice on this page is from Wendy’s Trusted Travel Expert for Egypt: Jim Berkeley, president of Destinations & Adventures International.
Jim Berkeley, who lived in Cairo for five years while heading up Abercrombie & Kent’s regional office, jokes that he’s a frustrated Indiana Jones, which is why he’s spent much of his career scrambling around the ancient temples and pyramids of Egypt. In 1995, Jim founded Destinations & Adventures International (DAI), which plans trips worldwide, but Jim’s specialty is still his beloved Egypt. His customized itineraries combine luxury and adventure—he’ll have you sailing down the Nile one day and lounging by the pool at the Old Cataract Hotel the next. One of his favorite spots is in the remote Siwa Oasis, where the mud-brick rooms are lit by oil lamps and the nightly feasts would please Cleopatra herself. Most important, Jim and his team are meticulous about keeping their clients away from crowds (not to mention out of harm’s way). DAI’s excellent, all-knowing guides and drivers are all armed with smartphones and keep one another constantly informed about any protests so they can reroute as necessary. If you’re planning on pairing your time in Egypt with a trip to Jordan, Oman, Israel, or other spots in the Middle East, Jim and his colleagues at DAI can help with those arrangements too. Jim was included in Perrin’s People, Wendy’s award-winning list of top travel specialists, which was published annually in Condé Nast Traveler magazine from 2000 to 2013.
Where to Stay and Eat
Best bang-for-your-buck hotels
In the city: In Aswan, you should not miss staying at the Sofitel Legend Old Cataract hotel. Originally built by the British in the early 1900s when they were constructing the Old Aswan Dam, the Old Cataract Hotel has been an Egyptian icon for more than a century, refreshed by a total renovation in 2008. There’s now a world-class spa, a luxurious pool, and superb restaurants. It’s located at the site of Aswan’s First Cataract, where the views of the Nile and the languid feluccas sailing to and fro are stunning. Our clients get special rates (with the fourth night free in summer), plus room upgrades and early check-in/late checkout when available.
In the countryside: Adrere Amellal Eco-Lodge in Siwa Oasis is a total sybaritic pleasure, and also a fascinating porthole into the nomadic desert life. Siwa Oasis is an eight-hour drive from Cairo, but we send an Egyptologist along with our clients to make the journey part of the experience. The setting, under Adrere Amellal (the White Mountain) on the banks of a saline lake, is divine. The resort is built from local materials—mud bricks, thatch, palm branches, and the like. There is no electricity. The organic garden provides the basis for incredible cuisine, and the desert excursions into the Great Sand Sea are awesome. Destinations & Adventures clients get guaranteed upgrades.
Restaurant the locals love
Felfela, in downtown Cairo, is often dismissed as a tourist haunt, but all you have to do is look around to see locals occupying most of the tables. The ambience is serene, the service efficient, and the food excellent. Order any combination of oriental salads, the baba ghanoug and tehina dishes, chicken schwerma, kofta, and the soft baladi (local) bread.
Om Ali, a delicious dessert. There are several legends about the origin of the dessert, the most popular being that Om Ali, the first wife of the sultan Ezz El Din Aybek, made the confection to celebrate the death of the sultan’s second wife (which Om Ali may have had something do with). The story aside, it’s a divine treat. Made from puff pastry, milk, sugar, raisins, flaked coconut, pistachios, cinnamon, and whipping cream, how could it be anything but fabulous? Try it at the Carousel bakery or the El Malky dessert shop in Cairo.
Kofta, a combination of ground beef, ground lamb, and spices formed into a sausage-shaped patty, then grilled over sizzling charcoal. It’s served with the typical Egyptian mezes of hummus, tahine, baladi bread, and tabouleh; in Cairo, El Dahan, Abou Shakra, and Zein el Abdin Abu Ramy (opposite the Children’s Cancer Center) all make particularly good versions.
Meal worth the splurge
The 1902 Restaurant at the Old Cataract Hotel in Aswan. This incredible room, with its Moorish decor and 125-foot Arabian dome, was featured as the Grand Ballroom in the movie version of Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile. Dress for the occasion, and treat yourself to one spectacular evening of French cuisine and unforgettable ambiance.
In Cairo: Get up early and head to the Sphinx as soon as the Giza Pyramids open at 8 a.m. Make a beeline through the Valley Temple and up the ramp before anyone else is there. With the sun rising in the east and creating a warm, luminescent glow on the face of the Sphinx, get ready to take the best possible photo of this iconic creature—with the Pyramids in the background to boot!
What to See and Do
The Oases of the Western Desert. This underdeveloped and under-visited part of Egypt is waiting to be discovered. From the Valley of the Golden Mummies and the hidden tombs in Bahariya, to the amazing White Desert near Farafra, to Alexander’s Temple and giant dunes of the Great Sand Sea near Siwa Oasis, there are spectacular things to see and do here. Further south, near Abu Mingur and Dakhla, are Roman-era ruins and the Ptolemaic Temple of Hibis at Kharga.
In Cairo: Located in the Khan el Khalili Bazaar, El-Moaz Street is one of the best medieval architectural treasures in the Islamic world. Dating back to the Fatimid era (tenth century B.C.), it features myriad types of Islamic architecture decorated with beautiful Arabic calligraphy. A stroll along this street, coupled with coffee or tea at nearby El-Fishawy, makes for the perfect day.
In Luxor: The Open-Air Museum at Karnak. Adjacent to magnificent Karnak Temple sits this hidden treasure. The Karnak Temple was built over a period of perhaps 1,000 years, spanning the reigns of many pharaohs—many of whom tore down the work of their predecessor and used the materials for their own designs. In the ongoing archaeological projects at Karnak, these hidden treasures have been painstakingly reassembled, including the Red Chapel of Queen Hatchepsut, the White Temple of Senusret I, and the calcite shrine of Amenhotep II. Almost everyone who visits Karnak just walks right by the Open-Air Museum, so you will have the site to yourselves.
In Cairo, the Pharaonic Village is a tacky representation of ancient Egypt, replete with bored actors, fake costumes, and inaccuracies.
In Luxor, the bogus Mummification Museum is not a museum at all but a commercial enterprise. For the real deal, go to the Royal Mummies Room in Cairo’s Egyptian Museum of Antiquities. It’s an extra charge, but you’ll get to see the amazingly well-preserved mummy of Pharaoh Ramses II, or Ramses the Great, builder of Abu Simbel, the Ramasseum, and many of Egypt’s iconic temples. Ramses’ slightly reddish hair is still intact, his patrician hooked nose is still imposing, and his fingers and toenails surprisingly well groomed. The mummy of Taa II, also on display, clearly shows that he died in battle, given the massive gash in his skull (probably from a war ax).
In Cairo: The Mohamed Mahmoud Khalil Museum. This Egyptian statesman, cabinet minister, and speaker of the Senate also happened to be a lover of fine art (along with his French wife). His collection is now on display inside his personal palace, built in the early twentieth century. There are stellar Impressionist works by Gauguin, Monet, Renoir, Rodin, and van Gogh, easily rivaling the offerings of many European museums.
In Aswan: Take a camel excursion to deserted St. Simeon’s Monastery (or you can hike 30 minutes in the desert if you prefer!). This fortress-like seventh-century monastery was first rebuilt in the tenth century and then destroyed by Salah el-Din in 1173. Surrounded by ten-meter walls, the basilica has traces of beautiful frescoes, as well as the chamber where Saint Simeon prayed—with his beard tied to the ceiling in case he fell asleep!
Luxor Temple at sunset. For the mere cost of an entrance ticket (less than $7 per person), go to the magnificent Luxor Temple just before sundown and first watch the site bask in the last rays as the sun sets over the Nile. (You won’t be alone, but it’s a big place, so it rarely feels crowded—and the Egyptologist we can hire to accompany you can show you some interesting surprises off in the corners.) After dark, the temple is lit in various hues, from red to orange to white, illuminating the statuary and giant columns in a panoply of colors.
Anyone in Cairo will tell you that Abou Tarek restaurant serves the best khoshary at the best price (less than $5). Since 1950, Abou Tarek has been serving this traditional hearty dish of rice, macaroni, and chickpeas doused in a delicious tomato sauce and garlic juice.
Pay a private visit to Queen Nefertari’s Tomb in the Valley of the Queens accompanied by an Egyptologist. After a long and painstaking renovation by the Getty Museum in the early 1990s, Queen Nefertari’s Tomb was opened to the public for a few years and then closed again for preservation, accessible only with special permission. Because of my relationship with the Supreme Council of Antiquities, I am able to secure visits for my clients. During your ten minutes of private time in the most beautiful of all Egyptian tombs, you will be able to savor the vibrant colors of the fabulous artwork done by Egyptian artisans more than 3,000 years ago. No other tomb even comes close to this one’s beauty.
Gain special access to the Sphinx Paws in Giza with an Egyptologist. The Sphinx is one of the world’s most recognizable icons, and most people see it from above by walking around the edge of the old quarry in which it sits (and where the ancient Egyptians cut much of the stone used in the Pyramids). But to see the Sphinx from ground level inside the quarry, to walk between its giant paws, you need special access—which Destinations & Adventures can procure. From this vantage point, you can easily see that the Sphinx was not assembled piece by piece, but was carved from a single mass of limestone exposed when workers dug this horseshoe-shaped quarry in the Giza Plateau. You can also walk right up to the Dream Stele of Pharaoh Thutmose IV, right between the paws. Photography of the Sphinx is best in the early morning, so that’s when we’ll arrange your visit.
October and November. Temperatures are moderate around Cairo—typically in the 80s—and the heat is tolerable in Upper Egypt (an ancient term for the area around the Nile in the middle of the country; it is upriver from Cairo, since the river flows north). Rain is not a factor and the air is clear, making it the perfect month for photography, especially in the early morning when the sun’s rising rays highlight the rich hues of the temples and monuments, and at sunset, when the fading light always gives a lovely red glow to images.
May and June. Yes, it does start to get hotter during these months (around 90 in Cairo), but rates are at their lowest, so if you can handle the heat the cost savings is significant.
July through September is the hottest time of year, with temperatures reaching triple digits. You’ll find cold desert nights in December and January, plus crowds and high prices during Christmas and New Year’s. Avoid traveling during Ramadan (its dates vary, as it follows the lunar calendar), as everything closes early so that Muslims can get home to break their daily fast.
Thinking you can take a felucca on the Nile from Aswan to Luxor (or vice versa). A felucca is a traditional small wooden sailing boat with one lateen sail—very basic, no bathroom or sleeping quarters. You might in fact be able to find a felucca that will take you from Aswan to Luxor, but you certainly wouldn’t find it a comfortable trip! It’s all very easy to get caught up in the romance of Agatha Christie staying at the Old Winter Palace Hotel in Luxor while writing her famous novel Death on the Nile, and then sailing off into the sunset on the Nile for Aswan. Who wouldn’t want to do that? Well, you can do this, but only on a dahabeyah and NOT a felucca. A dahabeyah is a shallow-bottomed bargelike boat with two sails, sleeping quarters, and private facilities. If you want to take in the romance of a Nile cruise, then arrange to do that on a proper dahabeyah.
At the Giza Pyramids: The scam goes like this: “Camel ride, camel ride? No! Camel photo, camel photo? No! Just one picture with my camel for free? No! You want to get up on my camel for free?” Finally you relent, because really you do want to get up on the camel’s back. For goodness’ sake, everyone wants to have a picture of him- or herself seated on a camel with the Pyramids in the background. So up you go, and you are happy for the moment. Then the camel driver says, “Twenty dollars to get down from the camel!”
My sincere recommendation to all travelers to Egypt is to not be penny wise and pound foolish—spend the $25 per person and get a private transfer to Cairo International Airport (you can do so through your hotel’s concierge). These wonderful young gentlemen will deliver you to the check-in desk in an unruffled fashion, expedite your luggage check, fill out any customs and immigration forms required, and have you on your way in short order. Few foreigners are prepared to manage the controlled chaos that is Cairo’s airport on their own.
Here, the term is baksheesh, literally meaning a small sum of money given as alms, a tip, or a bribe—though “bribe” is much too strong in my book. It really doesn’t matter whether you give one dollar or one Egyptian pound (15 cents); the courteous thing is to extend a thought of kindness to whomever is providing you with a service. Get some local currency in small bills, and just dole them out as required. At the end of the day, you will have given away little money but earned much good will.
A bright, sturdy, small flashlight for illuminating the dark corners of the spectacular tombs you will be visiting.