From Pyramids to Pharaohs: A First-Timer’s Guide to Egypt

Cairo and Giza pyramids, Egypt – beautiful cities in Africa

Visiting Egypt takes you on an imaginative journey through an ancient time machine back to when the great pharaohs ruled the lands.

If you are planning your first trip to Egypt, then this guide is for you. Tens of Millions of international tourists visit Pharaoh Land each year, to get a glimpse of its globally fabled past, through its landmarks, which have remarkably stood the test of time to tell the tales of yesteryear.

As a first-time visitor, you will need to know what to expect in a country, which is renowned for its cultural traditions, chaos, and craziness. The safety tips will ensure you stay safe as you navigate the Nile, and visit some of the most famous sites.

The best places to visit in Egypt are also mentioned for you to consider while planning your travel itinerary.

Egypt and its Ancient History

Ancient civilizations in Egypt date back to 3150BC, when both Upper and Lower Egypt were unified under ‘Narmer’, the king of the ‘First Dynasty’.

The story of Narmer’s victory and successful unification is carved into the ‘Narmer Palette’, a famous silestone that is housed in the Egyptian Museum of Antiquities in Cairo, alongside another 120,000 artifacts!

Following on from Narmer’s reign, there were a further 30 Dynasties across the Old, Middle, and New Kingdoms. Each pharaoh left some unique history, which can be uncovered through the clues left at the various temples, tombs, and other ancient relics across Egypt.

The famous landmarks throughout the country are covered in original hieroglyphics, colorful tombs, and 3000-year-old juicy mummies, all of which tourists can visit, as you try and piece together Egypt’s vast history.

In the southern city of Aswan, you can enjoy the Nubian charm!

The local Nubian people in Aswan are some of the last remaining from one of the oldest civilizations in Africa. They still maintain many of the ancient traditions that have been the bedrock of their communities for thousands of years. This makes for a great change of vibe compared to the Northern cities.

Best time to visit Egypt

When booking your Egypt trip, you need to consider the climate, as it can be unfriendly to Western tourists in certain months. In summer months, Egypt can reach highs of 40 degrees Celsius, which can be dangerous for tourists spending prolonged periods walking around the open-air landmarks. Although the summer months bring cheaper accommodation and fewer crowds, the famous spots won’t be enjoyable.

The best months to explore Egypt are either the spring months of March – May, or the autumn months of September/October. You will find more pleasant temperatures, making the pyramids, temples, and tombs manageable. Be warned if you are heading south to Luxor and Aswan, the temperature very rarely drops to Westerners’ idea of ‘pleasant’.

Places of Interest in Egypt

Egypt is a treasure trove of the nation’s rich history, which dates back thousands of years, through many civilizations. You are spoiled for choice with famous landmarks, historic mysteries, and unbelievable inventions from yesteryear, which take you on a visionary journey into a pharaoh’s world.

The popular cities that run down alongside the Nile are home to the best tourist attractions, so let’s take a look at the different options.

Cairo

There is no better place to start on your Egypt trip than the chaotic capital city. Cairo offers a unique blend of modernity and desert traditions, which presents a sensory overload throughout the city.

The noise of the city is exacerbated through the enclosed mazy souks, which are a cultural melting pot, and date back six centuries. The oldest, and most famous bazaar in Cairo is Khan El-Khalili, and it can be enjoyed by all types of travelers, day and night! An evening trip to the market is the best experience, but you may get more than you bargained for!

Religion has been a significant aspect of Cairo dating back to ancient times. Although Egypt is predominantly Muslim, there is a Christian minority throughout the country. Coptic Cairo is an area of the city where you will find the historical religious buildings. The enclosed quarter is home to famous buildings such as ‘St George’s Church’, ‘Hanging Church’, and ‘Ben Ezra Synagogue’. This area of Cairo has been inhabited by Christians since the 4th Century AD, so offers a different setting from the Islamic areas of the city.

Pyramids of Giza

Visiting the Pyramids of Giza will be on your bucket list, so now it’s time to go and enjoy the last remaining ancient wonder of the world.

A morning visit to the Giza plateau is recommended to avoid the midday heat, and tour bus crowds. It is much more enjoyable walking around the pyramids when it is quiet, and not having to queue to enter inside the pyramids is a bonus.

Two or three hours is enough time to enjoy the full experience at Giza, including riding a camel, sitting on the Great Pyramid, and entering inside the pyramids. You should be prepared for hassle from the locals, as the area is notorious for scam artists. Sticking to a group, or just ignoring any approaches is the best way to avoid any potential trouble.

On your way out of the Giza Plateau, you will have the opportunity to visit the ‘Great Sphinx’. The iconic statue is awesome to wander around and admire, and of course, you want to grab the famous selfie of you kissing the ancient masterpiece!

Saqqara

Saqqara Necropolis is home to the oldest pyramid in the world, which is called the ‘Step Pyramid of Djoser’. At over 4500 years old, the iconic step structure is a history lesson as to the way pyramids were designed in their early years of being part of ancient Egyptian culture. 

You can also visit some tombs on site, or just enjoy the vast desert landscape which surrounds the archaeological site. It is around a 45-minute drive from Cairo, so a good addition to your day trip to the Pyramids of Giza.

Luxor

Luxor is known as the world’s largest open-air museum, as it is famously built upon where the ancient city of Thebes once stood. Thebes, which was the ancient former capital of Upper Egypt is said to have been built on top of some treasure, however, this has never been proven, and the treasure remains unfound.

The city is home to some of the best temples in Egypt, with the iconic Karnak Temple taking the main spotlight on the East Bank side of the city. The complex went through over one thousand years of development, with various pharaonic influences, before being deemed finished. In today’s world, international tourists marvel at the design of the grand temple. The Great Hypostyle Hall is home to the globally recognizable columns, which stand tall at 69 feet, and still clearly display the original carvings from ancient civilizations.

If you head to the ‘Avenue of Sphinx’ on site, you will uncover the remnants of a once grand walkway, which connected both Karnak and Temple in ancient times. Although it is no longer the sight to behold that it once was, it is still home to some of the original sphinx statues that flanked the whole 2.7km walkway. The information boards tell a more detailed story of the famed path, so don’t skip this part of the temple.

On the banks of the river Nile, and much closer to the heartbeat of the city, lies Luxor Temple, another great piece of local history.  

West Bank

The West Bank presents a different facet of ancient Egypt, through its iconic tombs. Being the quieter side of the city makes the setting ideal for the eternal resting places of hundreds of pharaohs, Queens, and princes.

Spread across the ‘Valley of the Kings’, and ‘Valley of the Queens’ necropolises, the original tombs of many of the famous people from the past lie in their original conditions – minus the treasure, which looters have stolen over the centuries.

You can visit some of the famous tombs at both sites, however, there are additional charges if you want to tick off the most impressive ones.

The West Bank is also home to some notable temples, including the ‘Mortuary Temple of Hatshepsut’, and ‘Medinet Habu’, both of which are impressive structures, which still display relics from the past. The Temple of Hatshepsut is built into the cliffs of ‘Deir el-Bahri’, giving the three-story temple complex a unique setting.

A full-day tour of the West Bank will include a mixture of temples and tombs. If you want to feel the full magic of Luxor, then a sunrise hot air balloon ride over the treasures of the city is a highlight for most visitors.

Aswan

The southern city of Aswan offers a different vibe to Luxor and Cairo, as it is less chaotic, so basing yourself on one of the islands will bring a tranquil feeling to your Egypt trip. Elephantine Island is home to many Nubian Guest Houses, so a great spot to live like a local for a few days.

Although it is a quieter city, Aswan is just as rich in history, so your itinerary will be packed full of interesting things to do. You can start by learning about the local traditions and vast history of the locals in the Nubian Museum. Then a trip to the island Temple of Philae is a must, as its picture-perfect setting is one of the best views in Egypt. It is hard to believe that this temple has been subject to turbulent history in recent decades.

The highlight of Aswan is visiting the Nubian Villages!

The Gharb Seheyl Village is the most famous village, due to its abundance of colors, graffiti murals, and smiling locals. A trip to the village will allow you to enter a Nubian home, interact with the locals, and you might just see a crocodile!

It is only a short boat ride to Gharb Seheyl, and an evening visit is the best time to enjoy the atmosphere of the bazaars, and local homes.

Cultural aspects of Egypt

Stepping into Egypt as a first-time visitor can be a real shock to the system, as the cultural norms differ so much from the Western world. It can be intimidating if you are not prepared, so here are some things to consider in advance.

Haggling

A big part of the local culture is the art of haggling, which can be fun in the right settings, however, it can also get tiring, and cost you a small fortune if not prepared.

There is not a fixed cost for most things in Egypt, so make sure you decide what is a respectable price for you to pay and stick to your guns. Booking official tours, and using Uber are two ways of saving money, and time!

Islam

Egypt is predominantly Islam, so certain social norms are based on this. You will hear the ‘call to prayer’ ringing around the cities throughout your days, and when visiting religious sites you should respect the traditions and cover your shoulders and knees.

Personal space invasion

Egyptians tend to have a closer personal space than in Western cultures and don’t have a filter. Unfortunately, many tourists complain about heckling, shouting, and just plain rudeness in the tourist areas.

Camels

Camels have lived by the side of humans for centuries, and they play a big role in daily life. Be careful when walking near the creatures, as they can cause harm, either accidentally, or on purpose if aggravated. If you plan on riding a camel, it is important to be aware of the conditions in which it is living, and how it is being treated. An ethical stance should be taken if you witness any bad behavior from the locals.

An ancient activity to enjoy on your Egypt trip

Egypt is home to the longest river in the world. At over 4000 miles long, the River Nile flows south through the country and has been the life source of ancient civilizations. In today’s world, the river is still essential for life in Egypt, with 95% of the population living within a few km of the Nile.

Riding a traditional felucca boat on the Nile makes for a great activity, and one which dates back to antiquity, when the vessels were used to navigate the waters.

The opportunity to ride a felucca will be offered to you throughout your itinerary, however, if you want a picture-perfect setting to experience the ancient traditions, then Aswan is a great spot. The nearby islands of Aswan offer picturesque views as you sail down the famous river, and if you plan a sunset ride, you will be rewarded with spectacular views.

Safety tips for Egypt

No trip to Egypt goes completely without a hitch, however, here is a list of things that should make your visit more enjoyable, and safer!

Hire a guide

Using a guide at the ancient landmarks in Egypt can help you to avoid some of the common pitfalls that tourists fall for. They will ensure that the logistics of your day are planned, along with keeping the local hasslers off your back.

Agree on a fixed price before entering taxis

You should agree to a fixed rate with the drivers before commencing on any journeys. Egyptians are notorious for changing the ‘price’ at the end of the journey. Using Uber in Cairo is the best option to avoid this.

Avoid tap water & ice

Food poisoning is common for visitors to Egypt, so avoiding tap water, ice, and freshly cleaned salad can help to reduce the risk. Bottled water is available to purchase in most places.

Ignore hasslers

Locals will approach you throughout Egypt to try and sell you things or scam you. The best way to avoid getting into an unwanted situation is to completely ignore them.

Learn basic Arabic phrases

If you can learn to say no thank you and goodbye in Arabic, it will prevent some interactions from escalating.

 

As the sun sets on your Egyptian adventure, you’ll leave with more than just souvenirs: you’ll carry a trove of memories, stories of ancient marvels, and a new understanding of a culture steeped in history.

Egypt’s timeless allure, from the enigmatic Sphinx to the mighty Nile, invites you to come as a traveler but leave as a storyteller, forever part of its enduring narrative. Until the land of pharaohs calls you back again, let the echoes of its ancient wonders resonate within you.