9 days in Egypt

A humid October in Mumbai found me spontaneously agreeing to visit my best friend who was studying in Cairo at the time. A group of friends from Mumbai were on-board, and soon enough, I’d begun planning a 9 day vacation to Egypt for January 2017.

Why Egypt?
The Great Pyramid of Giza. The Nile. A chance to kiss the Sphinx. Bibliotheca Alexandrina. Desert lands opening up to the breathtakingly blue-green Red Sea. Some hilariously charming men. KING TUTAMKHAMUN’S MUMMY. Fateer. Koshary. Calories. Scuba diving. The Temple of Khnum. The Valley of the Kings and Queens. Should I go on…?
PS: Did I mention, a chance to climb INSIDE the Great Pyramid??

Planning / research stage
Egypt has a ton of historical sites and I left out some major attractions (like Aswan and Abu Simbel), and some that caught my fancy along the way (like Wadi El-Rayan, Faiyum Oasis and Marsa Matruh) due to time and cost constraints. Aswan and Abu Simbel are further south on the Nile and would require an additional 2-2.5 days from an itinerary – so that’s been bookmarked for my next trip to the Land of the Pharaohs!
The Mediterranean Sea lies to the north while the Red Sea is on the east coast. I was very keen to dip my toes in both (such a long bucket list, so little time!), and so the final itinerary read Cairo – Alexandria – Luxor – Hurghada.
Budget: The trip cost just over INR 70,000 per person (USD 1,000) for 9 days, including airfare (INR 29,000), internal flights (INR 8,000) and visa fees (INR 2,900).
Currency: Egypt devalued its pound by 48% in November 2016, making our holiday extremely cost effective. The good news (for us) – the EGP hasn’t picked up, with the current exchange rate at around INR 3.91 to EGP 1. Converting USD/Euros at Cairo Airport or in the city is the most convenient option – the exchange rate offered for EGP in India was definitely a rip-off.
Economies of scale and demographics
4 of us travelled from Mumbai to meet our friend studying in Cairo. Sightseeing in Cairo majorly involved the 5 of us, making Uber economical. Some of her friends joined us along the way, making us a jolly gang of 10 in Luxor and Hurghada. The weaker sex outnumbered the strapping men, but at no point during the trip did we feel unsafe in Egypt!
All of us were under 30 and RELATIVELY fit (read: BEFORE numerous fateers and shish taouks). We had several early mornings (tours or flights) and that caught up with us eventually – we had to cancel the hot air balloon ride over Luxor on Day 6! Space out the travel and activities a bit more if you’re travelling with families / kids / grumpy risers…aka meeee!

Day 1: Getting to Cairo
People watching, free Wi-Fi and our first beef burgers of the trip (DQ Grill & Chill) got us through our stopover at Muscat Airport, and we were greeted by Serqet, the Goddess of Protection, when we landed at Cairo International Airport.
A moment later however, we were surrounded by “enthusiastic” representatives of various taxi companies. Get an estimate of the cost to your accommodation if possible, and HAGGLE! We managed to get a taxi for EGP 120, instead of the EGP 220 quoted at the start.
After relaxing at the hotel for a bit, we headed over to Zamalek – a quiet neighbourhood on Gezira Island. Dinner at Taboula, a cosy Lebanese restaurant was followed by a stroll around Zamalek where we caught our first glimpse of the Nile by night.
Nile by night in Cairo, Egypt
Cairo by the Nile
Day 2: Alexandria
Took a train (1st Class both ways – EGP 140) to Alexandria at 9 am the next day. The journey took around 2.5 hours, and the train was very clean and comfortable. Most taxis outside the station at Alexandria are not metered, so you may have to haggle some more.
Irrespective of whether you love the smell of a new book or prefer nights with your Kindle or enjoy quality time with your bae Netflix, your jaw will drop when you walk into the Library of Alexandria. I’d have loved nothing more than to read an entire book sitting there. But alas, I’d seriously underestimated the lure of the place and its museums, and had too much planned for our daytrip.
Walk along the waterfront or corniche for a while and marvel at the elderly men fishing just a few feet away from bustling traffic, on your way to the Citadel of Qaitbay. We walked for a bit, stopped for lunch (which delayed us a fair bit) and caught a bus the rest of the way. Unfortunately, we got to the Citadel at closing time and were unable to explore the fort.
Just so you know: Trains between the two cities run almost hourly, so you can head out of Cairo earlier (5-6 am) and return later (8-9 pm). Alternatively, you can drive to Alexandria if you have the time.
Other points of interest in Alexandria: The general Mediterranean vibe, Catacombs of Kom el Shoqafa and the Roman Amphitheatre, amongst others.
Alexandrina Library, Egypt
Books as far as the eye can see
Day 3: Giza
Giza is about a 30 minute drive from downtown Cairo. Most of us have an image of the pyramids – from either movies or TV shows or books. Then you stand in front of it and you’re amazed. Then you climb inside the biggest one – Pyramid of Khufu – and you’re just astounded by sheer genius it took to build them. I found the descent tougher than climbing up, but I reckon if I could manage with a mild asthma condition, everyone should give it a shot!
The Sphinx was crowded by the time we got to it, but is definitely worth a look up close. Horse rides were available between the pyramids and the Sphinx but we personally found the animals treated very poorly.
The hawkers are slightly aggressive and VERY persistent, so either show disinterest from the beginning or may the force be with you.
Just so you know: You will come back with great memories and possibly an inflated ego – us Indians were referred to as various Bollywood actors (be still my beating heart) who’ve filmed at the pyramids, and if you’re fairer skinned, you may be the next Brendan Fraser.
Pyramid at Giza, Egypt
A wonder of the ancient world
Day 4: Luxor
The Egypt Air flight to Luxor was short and comfortable, getting us there by 8 am. We got an in-depth tour of Karnak Temple and Luxor Temple, as well as parts of the city, from our witty guide Khalid.
Khalid also helped us get cartouches made with our names inscribed in Egyptian hieroglyphs. A cartouche is an oval, with a line at the end, usually read vertically, and is considered to carry good luck. While a part of the group visited museums, I preferred a walk along the Nile watching cruise ships go by.
Just so you know: You could do a night tour of Karnak Temple, with a sound and lights show. Alternatively, the same is also available for Giza.
Luxor Temple, Egypt
Luxor temple
Cartouche
My name in a cartouche
Day 5: Luxor
For the history buffs amongst us, this was a perfect day – we got an early start on our tour of the Valley of the Kings, the Workers Village and Hatshepsut’s (a nice tongue twister) Temple. The Temple of Hatshepsut is dedicated to Queen Hatshepsut, and is magnificent to behold. Restoration work was ongoing when we visited.
The Valley of the Kings holds the tombs of pharaohs, cut into rock in the Theban Hills. The detailing of these tombs and the vivid colours in some were spectacular! I found King Tut’s mummy eerily fascinating and didn’t mind paying the additional entry fees.
We had a late lunch on a felucca (a boat traditionally used on the Nile) and visited Banana Island. While lunch on the Nile was relaxing and beautiful, Banana Island can be given a miss.
Valley of Kings, Luxor, Egypt
Our approach to the Valley of Kings
Day 6: Hurghada
Our hotel’s rooftop was accessible, and I managed to catch sight of hot air balloons flying over Luxor just after sunrise – an activity we’d had to cancel owing to our hectic schedule.
The drive to Hurghada took about 5 hours, and we left at around 8 am. Contrary to a lot of posts on TripAdvisor (which are slightly dated), the roads were in great shape, and the drive was very safe. Catching your first glimpse of palm trees and the coast after hours of driving through sand dunes cannot be aptly described.
We spent the day in and by the hotel’s private beach (COLD) and the pool (heated, thankfully!). Most hotels are located a short taxi drive away from the Hurghada Marina, which has a great vibe, offers a peaceful walk and amazing food. I tried camel meat for the first time!
Just so you know: Instead of lazing about by the pool all afternoon, you could get to the Marina and explore the sights and shops in the daylight.
Road to Hurghada
Driving to Hurghada
Day 7: Hurghada
Out of the hotel – 7:30 am, on a boat to the dive site with our wetsuits – 9 am, anchored in the middle of the sea – 10 am, prepping for our first dive after a quick lesson – 11 am, fear of being IN water evaporated – 12 pm.
After our first dive, we were given the option of a second dive, or snorkelling. I chose the latter since I’d never snorkelled before either. A scrumptious lunch was served on the boat (vegetarian and non-vegetarian options) and we lazed about on the boat for a while, admiring the many shades of blue surrounding us.
Back at the hotel, we relaxed by the bar and enjoyed a live performance by exotic dancers after an exhilarating day spent in close proximity to live fish!
Just so you know: We didn’t practice in shallower waters and received instructions on the boat before diving in, somewhere in the Red Sea. As beginners, it was either one or two of us, accompanied by an instructor. If you’re nervous, SPEAK UP and you’ll have your hand held throughout (like I did).
If the water is too choppy, opt for the second dive instead of snorkeling.
Red Sea, Hurghada
Dive right in
Day 8: Cairo
Wake up (super) early (again) and catch a sunrise at Hurghada! Mumbai is on the west coast, so witnessing a sunrise over the sea was absolutely mesmerising. A short flight later, we were back in Cairo.
We headed to the Egyptian Museum which was a stone’s throw from our hotel, around midday. The museum is fascinating albeit slightly (read: VERY) disorganised. We decided to wander around at our pace, without a guide, giving us time to enjoy the exhibits. After that was exploring Khan el-Khalili market for gifts and souvenirs for folks back home. We had our last candlelit sit-down dinner at Left Bank in Zamalek.
Just so you know: None of us are avid shoppers, so the activity didn’t feature much in the itinerary. Allocate more time to Khan el-Khalili and other shopping areas if need be.
Hanging lamps at Khan el-Khalili market
Take home a lamp from Khan el-Khalili
Day 9: Cairo (and leaving Cairo)
We began our last day with heavy hearts…and a heavy breakfast. After days of quick/simple/non-existent breakfasts, we feasted at a lavish spread of continental and Middle Eastern treats at our hotel – who needs a sophisticated palate when you can have hummus AND chocolate waffles for breakfast?
Visiting Coptic Cairo, situated in Old Cairo was an amazing way to end the holiday – to get away from the crowds and see yet another side of Egypt. The Copts residing in Egypt form the largest Christian community in North Africa. The Church of St. George (Greek Orthodox) was incredibly peaceful, while the Hanging Church – one of the oldest churches in Egypt – was my favourite, with beautiful architecture.
St George's Church, Coptic Cairo
St George’s Church, Coptic Cairo
Tips / Notes:
  1. We planned the trips outside Cairo to accommodate my friend’s class schedule
  2. You can pay for certain activities and hotels in USD/Euros etc., so you may not need to convert all your currency upon arrival
  3. Flights within the country were way cheaper with ‘Egypt’ as the location on Egypt Air’s website, and from posts on TripAdvsior and my personal experience, nobody checks the price vs your nationality
  4. While it’s just more sensible to dress modestly for places like Cairo and Luxor, feel free to bring your bikini game to Hurghada 😛
  5. Street food was simply delicious! My favourites were:
    Koshary rice + pasta + lentils + chickpeas + spicy tomato awesomesauce
    Fateer / Feteer  layered pastry which is served with either sweet or savoury fillings AKA EGYPTIAN PIZZA!
    Ful / Foule  cooked fava beans with herbs and spices, usually served with bread
  6. Scuba diving: I couldn’t recommend ScubaHurghada more! Very reasonable prices, very friendly and helpful instructors. Snorkelling cost 20 Euros per person, introductory diving (with no experience) was 45 Euros, which included 2 dives, and we were back by 4pm.
  7. Hot air balloon: We had to cancel this activity, but were quoted a very reasonable EGP 400 per person by Magic Horizon Balloons (they also offer private balloons/group offers). It requires an early start (5:30 am or thereabouts).

    Koshary in Luxor, Egypt
    BestKosharyEver!

Hotels

Pension Roma, Cairo – 3 nights [booked via email directly with the hotel]
This quaint hotel was tucked away in the bustle of Cairo, centrally located within a 2km radius of the Egyptian Museum, Khan el-Khalili market and Tahrir Square. They have one of those old, cage elevators, which provided for much hilarity, as we had to load our suitcases from one end and remove them from the other. Ezzat, our host and the one I’d been in touch with via email was charming and extremely helpful. Wi-Fi was free, the rooms and bathrooms were spacious, simple and clean. While breakfast was a little sparse – tea/coffee, bread and cheese spread, we weren’t complaining considering the location and price of our stay!
Cost: LE 320 (INR 1,165) per night for double occupancy (all taxes included)
http://www.pensionroma.com.eg/english/pensionroma.htm
Nefertiti Hotel, Luxor – 2 nights [booked via booking.com]
A gem in the middle of a market (one lane away from another gem – a liquor shop), right opposite Luxor Temple. The rooms are small, but neat and each one is uniquely decorated. The bathrooms are also tiny but quite manageable. While there is zero room view, the rooftop restaurant is the perfect place to relax, enjoy the sunset with some delicious fateer and Turkish coffee – it offers a sort of hostel vibe, with guests and outsiders mingling.
Cost: USD 30 (INR 2,044) per night for double occupancy | USD 40 (INR 2,725) per night for a family room (all taxes included)
http://www.nefertitihotel.com/
Nefertiti Hotel, Luxor, Egypt
Rooftop at Nefertiti Hotel
Marriot Red Sea, Hurghada – 2 nights [booked via the hotel’s website]
Fantastic views of the private beach and the Red sea from your room balcony, a great beach-side restaurant, rooms with bathtubs (to defrost luxuriously after freezing in January sea water!) and entertainment and activities organised for guests of all ages. Be sure to request for sea facing rooms, and don’t forget to inquire about their indoor activities…including happy hour.
Cost: USD 35 (INR 2,385) per night for double occupancy (all taxes included, with breakfast at an additional USD 9)
NOT to be confused with the Marriot Serviced Apartments at Hurghada!
Ramses Hilton, Cairo – 1 night [booked via the hotel’ website]
Some rooms give you a close-up Nile and a distant Giza view. The property is old and it shows in some of the rooms, but the location and facilities are hard to beat.
We got this stay via hotel points (thanks dad!) and paid for only taxes and breakfast. However, if you’ve got that little extra bit to spend, this is a great way to cap off your holiday!