Cairo & Environs -- The capital of Egypt is a massive, densely populated city of around 13 million people. Crammed with historic mosques, great museums, and must-see sights, Cairo is, by the same token, probably not a place that you want to spend more than a few days. The air is polluted, the infrastructure on the point of collapse, and the roads edge closer to gridlock with every week.
The pyramids of the Giza Plateau, maybe the most famous works of public architecture on Earth and the only one of the original Seven Wonders of the World still extant, lie on the western outskirts of the city. A short drive into the countryside to the south lie the necropolis of Saqqara and the remnants of the ancient capital of Memphis, as well as the sites of Dashur and Abu Sir.
Beyond Giza and Saqqara, but still an easy day trip from the city, the oasis of Fayum offers a unique cultural and shopping experience.
Trains run north and south from Cairo, and it is the hub for both air and bus transport all over Egypt. Almost all travel agents have offices here, and the head offices of all the airlines that service Egypt are here as well.
North Coast -- Egypt's Mediterranean coast has long been a world apart from the interior of Egypt, and did not become important until it was invaded by Alexander the Great (for whom Alexandria is named) in 331 B.C. Until the exodus that followed the army's takeover of the government in the 1950s, Alexandria was the center of a thriving and cosmopolitan Mediterranean society. Evidence of this past can still be seen in the stunning Roman mosaics that have been unearthed near the train station, the densely interwoven cosmogony of the Kom al Shuqafa catacombs, and even the gleaming wood and brass of the old coffee shops around Midan Saad Zahgloul.
Recently the coast to the east and west of Alex, as the city is affectionately known, has experienced something of a resurgence as a summer getaway for upper-class Cairenes escaping the muggy July and August heat of the capital. Holiday villas now blight miles of once-pristine white beach, and you have to go a long way these days to find an open spot of sand. Most foreigners, however, visit the north coast for the diving. From World War II submarines and planes to the ruins of what just might be Cleopatra's Palace, there is a world of underwater treasures to be explored.
Upper Egypt -- From the Valley of the Kings and Tutankhamun tomb to Karnak Temple, Abu Simbel, and the Colossus of Memnon, Upper Egypt has become synonymous with ancient Egyptian treasures. Luxor, close to the ancient capital of Thebes, and Aswan are the two cities of Upper Egypt that serve the tourists who flock here in the hundreds of thousands to tour the Pharaonic monuments around these otherwise unremarkable little cities.
Upper Egypt is also home to Nubia, which has a culture, history, and way of life all its own. Coming from Cairo to Aswan, you will immediately notice the change in atmosphere. Gone is the hustle and bustle of the big city, replaced by a laid-back attitude that takes the days as they come and seems to match the monuments themselves for timeless tranquility. With fewer must-see sights, Aswan is the place to unwind -- go for a sunset sail on the Nile and wander the souk in search of local handicrafts.
Sinai Peninsula -- Fought over in the 1960s and 1970s, Sinai did not come into its own as a tourist destination until the 1980s. The first to note its potential were the occupying Israeli forces, but after their withdrawal in 1982, Egyptians and foreigners began to flock to the deserted, palm-lined beaches and miles of pristine coral on the Sinai's eastern coast. Twenty-five years later, the main center of Sharm el Sheikh is a thriving, and still growing, city, and the coast is lined with literally hundreds of resorts. According to government statistics, 80% of all housing in Sharm is in the form of hotels, and only 3% is used by the original local population.
All this development has come at an environmental cost -- tables and chairs have supplanted palm trees as the dominant beach fauna, and in many places the coral has been severely damaged. Substantial efforts are now being made by both international donors and local nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to preserve what's left.
With all the hotels and the saturation level of advertising showing beaches and coral, it's easy to forget that the Sinai Peninsula has some of the most stunning desert scenery you can imagine, a must-see 6th-century monastery, and a spectacularly remote Pharaonic site.
Red Sea Coast -- The stretch of coastline from Marsa Allam up to Gouna is the new boomtown of Egyptian tourism, a spectacular desert coastline now being developed with a series of plush (and some not-so-plush) resorts. Long the preserve of divers intrepid enough to brave a 12- to 18-hour bus ride to camp on a beach, the wrecks and marine life are now accessible to those of us whose ideas of hardship are having to wave down a waiter or carry our own towels.
Around Hurghada, where much of the development first started, many of the resorts are all-inclusive and have slid down-market. In recent years, the town has been held up by development experts and businessmen as an example of how not to do it in the future. Lax planning and cut-throat pricing have resulted in a frankly ugly, disorganized mess of a town, at once overbuilt and half-finished.
Less frequently cited, however, are the positive examples on either side of Hurghada -- Soma Bay, Gouna, and Sahl Hashish all combine first-class resorts with stunning beaches and great diving.
Western Desert & the Oases of the New Valley -- The vast stretch of desert to the west of Cairo, Luxor, and Aswan is a rough oblong bordered by Libya to the west and the Nile Valley to the east, with the top and bottom defined by the Mediterranean and Sudan, respectively. In prehistoric times, this desert was alternately savanna and submerged by water, and the fossilized traces of both aquatic and land-based life lay scattered about underfoot almost everywhere you look. At the same time, rock paintings showing life of early man abound in certain areas, with some of the richest finds in this regard in the deep south around the Gilf Kebir (made famous by the 1996 movie The English Patient).
There are five main oases in the desert -- Siwa in the north and, heading south, Bahareya, Farafra, Dakhla, and Kharga. Each of these communities -- which were isolated from the outside world until the 1970s, when the first asphalt roads connected them with the Nile Valley -- has its own character and is the stepping-off point for expeditions into the surrounding desert. Spend a night in the White Desert amongst the outlandish white outcroppings, explore the ancient mud-brick town of Qasr, or search out the names of the first European explorers carved on the side of a Roman temple on the edge of the Great Sand Sea.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.