Home of one of the oldest and most influential civilizations on the planet, Egypt is a treasure trove of history and culture. From Cairo to the Nile Delta, the country boasts a wealth of iconic ancient sights including the Pyramids of Giza and the temples of Abu Simbel. Additionally, Egypt's Red Sea coast offers ample opportunities for relaxing, swimming, and scuba diving on pristine coral reefs. Wherever your Egyptian adventures take you, get the most out of your trip with the essential information covered in this guide, including when to travel, where to stay, and what to look out for to ensure you stay safe.
Planning Your Trip
- Best Time to Visit: Weather-wise, it’s best to avoid the high temperatures of peak Egyptian summer by traveling from October to April. Expect increased crowds and higher prices for tours and accommodation during the December to January peak season.
- Language: Modern Standard Arabic is the official language of Egypt, although Egyptian Arabic is the lingua franca. Many people also speak English or French in urban areas.
- Currency: The Egyptian pound (EGP).
- Getting Around: In major cities like Cairo and Alexandria, Uber is the easiest and safest way to get around. Taxis, microbuses, and regular buses ply short and long-distance routes elsewhere in the country, while EgyptAir is the main provider for domestic flights.
- Travel Tip: Before booking your trip to Egypt, be sure to check the latest government travel warnings. Currently the U.S. Department of State warns against travel to the Sinai Peninsula (except Sharm El-Sheikh) and the Western Desert due to terrorism.
Things to Do
For many people, Egypt’s main draw is its ancient sights, including the pyramids of Giza and Saqqara, and the magnificent temples that can be found all along the banks of the River Nile. There is more to the country than its incredible past, however. Cairo is home to first-class restaurants and contemporary cultural venues, while the villages and farmland of the Nile Delta provide an authentic insight into the life of modern-day Egyptians. On the Red Sea coast, sun-drenched beaches give way to some of the world’s best dive sites.
- Cruise the River Nile. Cruise itineraries to suit every taste and budget travel the ancient waters between Luxor and Aswan on the River Nile. This is one of the best ways to see iconic landmarks including the Valley of the Kings and the temples of Luxor, Karnak, Edfu, Philae, and Kom Ombo.
- Discover old and new in Cairo. In the capital, you can explore medieval churches and mosques, or take a day trip out to the 4,500-year-old Pyramids of Giza. You can also shop for the latest fashions and dine at 5-star hotel restaurants representing global cuisines from all over the world.
- Go scuba diving in the Red Sea. Red Sea resort towns like Sharm El-Sheikh, Hurghada, and Marsa Alam are famous around the world for their exceptional scuba diving. Affordable certification courses, warm water, and excellent visibility make this the perfect place to learn to dive.
What to Eat and Drink
Egyptian cuisine focuses on the vegetables, grains, and fruits grown in the arable farmland of the Nile Delta. Many dishes are traditionally vegetarian due to the expense of raising livestock in a country where water is a precious resource, though beef and lamb are now relatively common. Pork is considered unclean in Islamic culture and does not appear in traditional recipes. Iconic Egyptian dishes include koshary (a blend of rice, spaghetti, chickpeas, and lentils, topped with tomato salsa and fried onions), ful medames (stewed fava beans), and hawawshi (ground beef or lamb cooked inside a pocket of aish baladi bread—another Egyptian staple). If you plan on spending time in Cairo, there are a host of other cuisines on offer as well, ranging from Indian and Italian to Lebanese and Chinese.
Although 5-star hotels and Western-style bars and restaurants in Egypt’s bigger cities sell alcohol, traditional Egyptian restaurants do not in accordance with Islamic doctrine. Fortunately, there are plenty of tasty alternatives to quench your thirst. Fruit juices range from popular flavors like mango and strawberry to more exotic specialties like sugarcane juice (asab) and tamarind juice (tamrhindi). Crimson-colored hibiscus tea (karkadai) is an Egyptian favorite that can be enjoyed hot or cold, while sahlab (a thick beverage made from crushed orchid tubers and garnished with nuts, cinnamon, and shredded coconut) is our top choice as a winter warmer. Stewed apricot juice (qamar al-din) and a coconut milkshake known as sobia are synonymous with Ramadan, while mint tea and Turkish-style coffee are ubiquitous at any time of the year.
Read our full-length article on the 10 best traditional dishes in Egypt for more information.
Where to Stay
If you don’t have time to see everything Egypt has to offer, choose your base according to the sights and activities that mean the most to you. Cairo offers the best of all worlds for those on a whistle-stop tour. You can experience Egypt’s contemporary culture while also visiting the ancient sites of Giza and Saqqara. If you want to see the rest of the country’s famous ruins and temples, one of the easiest ways to do so is to book a Nile cruise. Cruises typically travel between Luxor and Aswan; you can choose which way around you wish to travel. If Abu Simbel and the Aswan High Dam are high on your Egyptian bucket list, make your base in Aswan or book a Lake Nasser cruise. For a completely different perspective, head to the Red Sea coast instead. Popular resort towns include Sharm El-Sheikh (on the Sinai Peninsula), Hurghada, and Marsa Alam.
Cairo International Airport (CAI) is Egypt’s main port of entry for overseas visitors, and one of the busiest air travel hubs on the African continent. The country’s national carrier is EgyptAir, which offers a non-stop flight to Cairo from JFK in New York. Hundreds of other international airlines also fly to Cairo including British Airways, Emirates, Lufthansa, and Air France. EgyptAir offers domestic flights to major tourist destinations across Egypt, from Alexandria to Aswan. Most nationalities require a visa to enter Egypt, though travelers from first-world countries including the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and most of Europe are eligible for a visa on arrival.
Culture and Customs
The vast majority of Egyptians are Muslim, which means that visitors from non-Muslim parts of the world need to take extra care not to inadvertently cause offense. Unless you’re staying in a private beach resort, this means dressing modestly. This is a matter of respect for all travelers, but is especially important for women who wish to avoid attracting unwanted attention. If you plan on visiting a mosque or receive an invite to a private home, make sure to remove your shoes before entering. Similarly, public displays of affection are frowned upon in Egyptian culture. In particular, LGBT travelers should avoid being demonstrative in public since homosexuality, while not technically illegal, often carries the risk of “debauchery” charges.
Toilets in Egypt are traditionally of the squat variety. This means that instead of toilet paper, you use water and your left hand to clean yourself. As a result, your left hand is considered unclean and should never be used to shake hands or feed yourself. Haggling is expected in the country’s souks and bazaars, and the prices for taxis, street food, guides, and even local tours are usually negotiable. If you can’t agree on a price, the best course of action is to say no firmly and walk away. Tipping is customary in Egypt, for everything from serving your food to carrying your luggage or unlocking museum rooms or tombs.
In recent years Egypt has earned a poor reputation for safety due to political turmoil and increased terrorist activity. However, the government is now more stable and Operation Sinai (a military effort to reduce terrorism in the Sinai region) has been quite successful. Current travel warnings advise against traveling to the Western Desert or the Sinai Peninsula (with the exception of Sharm El-Sheikh). Key tourist sights along the River Nile and the rest of the Red Sea coast are considered safe, but travelers should remain vigilant against petty theft and scams. Carry money and valuables discreetly in a money belt, and avoid walking alone at night in urban areas.
Read our article on staying safe in Egypt for a full overview of safety advice for male and female visitors.
A favorable exchange rate means that visitors from countries with strong currencies (like the US dollar or the British pound) find the cost of living to be very affordable in Egypt. Even 5-star hotels and gourmet restaurants in Cairo charge a fraction of what you might expect to pay in New York or London. However, if you’re traveling on a shoestring, here are a few of the easiest ways to cut costs even further:
- Avoid peak season (December to January) when booking your trip since prices for accommodation and tours are inflated during this time. If you have a high tolerance for heat, summer is the cheapest time to travel to interior destinations.
- Don’t be afraid to haggle over prices for everything from taxi fares to souk souvenirs. A good way to start negotiations is to offer half of the initial asking price.
- Although Egypt’s ritzy restaurants are relatively affordable on a global scale, you can get delicious, authentic fare for a fraction of the price from local eateries and street-side stalls. The busier the stall is, the safer and tastier the food is likely to be.