Travel Destinations / Egypt
Although famed as the cradle of civilisation, Egypt is also one of the world's oldest vacation spots. For 3,000 years people have flocked here to enjoy the year-round sunshine, warm hospitality, incredible value for money and convenient proximity to Europe.
The country's biggest attractions are the astounding temples and relics of Egyptian antiquity. The pyramids of Giza are still magnificent thousands of years on from construction, and even though its nose is out of joint, the inscrutable Sphinx retains its beguiling quality. Although looted by grave robbers and over-zealous archaeologists over the centuries, the wealth of treasures rescued from the pyramids and exhibited in Cairo's spectacular Museum of Antiquities is one of the most important collections of ancient artefacts on earth.
Egyptian life has always centred on the Nile, the source of life and irrigation for the vast majority of the population. Today feluccas (traditional dhows) offer short pleasure trips from Cairo while cruise ships travelling between Luxor and Aswan allow visitors to imagine the peaceful rhythms of traditional Egyptian life.
Away from the Nile, in the naturally irrigated oases of the Western Sahara, visitors can gain further insight into Egyptian life away from the influences of tourism. Egyptian people are renowned for their hospitality and irrepressible friendliness.
Cairo is one of the world's great capital cities with 18 million inhabitants bringing together centuries old culture and ultra-modernism. Second-city Alexandria is less frenetic and more European in outlook but still offers plenty of Middle Eastern charm.
Further afield, Red Sea diving is a rapidly growing boom industry with low rates for learning divers and good quality visibility for exploring the richly coloured coral. Dahab and Sharm El Sheikh are ideal places to begin your diving holiday. Meanwhile the intrepid traveller can take a desert safari into the Western Desert and discover the sublime desolation of the Empty Quarter. And of course, growing numbers of tourists are foregoing pleasures both ancient and active, and instead indulging themselves on Egypt's dazzling Mediterranean or Red Sea beaches.
Quite simply Egypt is a spellbinding destination offering visitors a spectacular portfolio of sights and sounds ranging from the ancient splendour of the temples to the contemporary pleasures of diving and cruising.
Egyptian culture to a large extent is a mixture of influences from Asia, Africa and Europe. Cities such as Alexandria are cosmopolitan settlements and all along the Mediterranean coast the visitor will see similarities with the European Mediterranean countries of Spain, France, Italy and Greece.
Further inland in Cairo and other inner settlements the flavour is more African with the souks and bazaars being the centre of lively and colourful debate. The desert people meanwhile, although they number just 1% of the population, are among the most interesting of the country's inhabitants - enigmatic and aloof from the rest of the nation.
Uniformly Egyptians are excitable and garrulous. Language barriers are often ignored and you'll find yourself faced with a torrent of Arabic whether you speak the language or not. Predominantly Muslim the country exhibits pride in hospitality and visitors are often invited to take coffee. Everywhere you go you'll find noise, meal times in particular demonstrate this with conversation and society as important, if not more so, than what or where you're eating. The desert tribes are more taciturn but share their countrymen's pride in hospitality.
It's fair to say that the Egyptians themselves are less concerned with the relics of their ancestors than are the tourists that flock here. The majority of Egyptians are in fact very forward thinking with technology and modern pursuits such as sport and politics coming before the history of the pyramids in most people's order of importance. However, there is still a great respect for the Arts in all their forms. Traditional music and customs are kept alive and are not just for the tourists.
At Cairo's Khan el-Khalili and souks throughout Egypt, the majority of souvenirs consist of tacky plaster pyramids, carved camels or pictures on papyrus, but shop around and there are some great buys.
Whenever you shop in a souk always bargain hard and always be prepared to walk away. No matter how many days the storekeeper says his children will go hungry for this sale, he will have made money off you - otherwise he most certainly wouldn't sell. As a rule of thumb, pay no more than a third of a shopkeeper's first demand.
Wraps and scarves in camel and sheep wool make lovely gifts and are extremely warm. They are large and come in various bold colours with Islamic patterns embroidered in gold. Egyptian cotton is always a good buy, and if you have the time, get a suit made at one of the numerous tailors around. If you don't fancy this kind of outlay cotton scarves are found on every market stall. Having shoes made is also a good idea, with high levels of workmanship and excellent quality of leather, they will last years.
Hot spots around the country to look for shopping opportunities include Siwa Oasis. Here can be found some of the most beautiful artefacts, including material, jewellery and rugs, in Egypt. Siwa merchandise can be bought elsewhere if you can't get to the oasis itself.
Currency: Egyptian Pound, EGP. EGP1=100 piastres
Notes: EGP1, 5, 10, 20, 50, 100 and 25, 50 piastres
Coins: Coins are no longer in common use in Egypt
Credit cards: All major credit cards are widely accepted, particularly in Cairo and Alexandria. In non-urban areas you shouldn't rely on your cards and always carry sufficient cash for your immediate needs.
Most trains run up and down the Nile (Alexandria, Cairo, Luxor, and Aswan with stations in-between) and are comfortable and air conditioned in 1st and 2nd Class at least. Meals are often forced on you with the price of the ticket and videos play throughout most journeys. Bring a sweater (even in summer as air conditioning is set to Arctic), food and water, earplugs, and eye patches.
Egypt's buses and national coaches are often the only way to travel and the service is generally excellent. Most vehicles are modern and air-conditioned and run to a relatively extensive schedule. Breakdowns are not uncommon, but it remains a good way to travel. Tickets can only be bought one-way. The return ticket must be purchased from the destination.
Cairo International Airport has two terminals, the newer, second terminal takes all international flights except Egypt Air and some Eastern European carriers.
Travellers require yellow fever and cholera vaccinations if they are residents in or have travelled in affected areas within the previous week. Vaccination against typhoid, paratyphoid and (for those travelling into Upper Egypt) hepatitis B, is advisable before arrival.
There is a localised high Malaria risk in the El Faiyum area during the summer months from June to October, and it's essential that you are protected if visiting the area during this time. Elsewhere in the country risk is minimal.
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Egypt has hot summers (June - October), mild winters, and negligible rainfall, with the most extreme temperatures experienced in the desert regions, where boiling temperatures during the day contrast with freezing temperatures at night.
Earthquakes, flash floods through mountainous regions, and sandstorms are common. The annual khamseen starts around April and is traditionally a period of sandstorms lasting 50 days.