Egypt is best visited in the fall (Sept-Nov) and spring (Feb-Apr). The weather is relatively chilly December through January, except in the south, where the winter is very pleasant. The summer is the only time to be avoided for climatic reasons. Cairo is hot, muggy, and filthy for most of June through August, and most residents take their vacations during this period, if possible. Upper Egypt and even the Red Sea coast can also be uncomfortably hot during the summer.
High and low seasons follow a combination of weather patterns and school holidays. Thus, summer in Upper Egypt is low season because of the heat (despite the summer holidays), and winter is high season, with the market peaking around Christmas, New Year's, and Easter. The same is true for Cairo and the Red Sea, though with less dramatic fluctuations. Winter is low season in Alexandria and along the north coast, but temperatures are relatively cool and the wind picks up. During the summer, with Egyptian schools on holiday and the unpleasant Cairo climate in stark contrast to the moderate warmth of the Mediterranean, the high season takes the north coast with a vengeance.
To avoid the crowds, go against the seasons, but be prepared for some serious heat if you're headed for Upper Egypt during the summer. Luxor in August is not for the faint of heart, and venturing out to the sights without a fairly serious sunblock, an extravagantly brimmed sun hat, and a couple of liters of water is simply unwise. Personally, I would try to stay at the margins of the high season and visit around the first 2 weeks of November or June. The same goes for Cairo, the Red Sea coast, and the Sinai.
The main thing to watch on the north coast is the Egyptian school schedules. Once the Egyptian schools and universities let out, cities and beaches on the Mediterranean become very noisy and crowded, and Western tourists, women in particular, will find themselves subject to substantial unwelcome attention. For this reason, I would advise visiting Alexandria in March and April or October and November.
Egypt is a country that takes a lot of holidays, both secular and religious. Public holidays in Egypt are a mix of secular celebrations of the achievements of the post-1952 state and religious holidays. Islamic religious holidays can be a little hard to pin down sometimes, because they occur according to a lunar calendar; by religious reckoning, they happen on the same day every year, but according to the modern Gregorian calendar, the dates move about 11 days earlier every year. Further complicating matters is that for the beginning of the key month of Ramadan to be officially declared, the new moon must be spotted.
Government offices (including visa extensions) and many public services (like banks) are closed for secular holidays such as July 26 or October 10. Most general services, including money-change offices and major tourist sights, operate as normal, however.
Religious holidays carry more social significance and provide you with fascinating opportunities as well as potentially insurmountable obstacles. Ramadan, the month of fasting that precedes Eid el Fitr, is a great example. On the one hand, it's a fascinating time to be in Egypt: the streets are decorated and, once the sun goes down, the streets of poorer neighborhoods are filled with parties and celebrations that go on most of the night. On the other hand, the already-brief Egyptian working day is substantially shortened during Ramadan, which means that getting the most minor arrangements made or changed can quickly become a frustrating and pointless exercise.
All the holidays listed wreak havoc on public services. Restaurants and tourist facilities largely remain open, but government offices close and many stores also close or open late. Here are the highpoints of the annual holiday schedule in Egypt:
- Coptic and Orthodox Christmas, January 7: Unlike Western Christians, the Eastern church celebrates the birth of Christ on January 7. This day has only recently been made a national holiday.
- Muharram, approximately January 10: This is the beginning of the Islamic year (the first month of which is named Muharram).
- Moulid El Nabi, approximately March 20: The birthday of the Prophet Mohamed is celebrated with special sweets such as the sesame-seed-based sensemeya.
- Sham El Nessim/Easter, April 9: This celebration of spring cuts across social and religious lines in Egypt, and on this day everybody who can collect a meal in a basket and get out of the house goes for a picnic. The name of the holiday simply means "smell the breeze" in Arabic.
- Sinai Liberation Day, April 25: This commemorates the day that the Sinai Peninsula was returned to Egypt by the Israelis under the terms of the American-brokered Camp David Accords.
- Labor Day, May 1: Paying lip service to the socialist propaganda of yesteryear, the Egyptian government still celebrates May Day.
- National Day, July 23: This commemorates the occurrences of 1952 that brought Gamal Abdel Nasser and his group of Free Officers to power.
- Ramadan, approximately September 2 to October 2: A month in which Muslims all over the world are enjoined to abstain from food, drink, and sex between sunup and sundown. The major meal of the day becomes iftar (literally, breakfast), which is consumed with great enthusiasm the moment the sun goes down.
- Eid al Fitr, approximately October 2: Egyptians spend these 3 days celebrating the end of Ramadan with street celebrations and special sweets. "Al fitr" means breaking the fast. Eid is originally 1 day only (the day when fasting stops), but in Egypt it lasts for 3 days during which traditional Egyptian sweets such as kahk and ghouraiyyeba are baked.
- Armed Forces Day, October 6: This commemorates the crossing of the Suez Canal by Egyptian forces in 1973.
- Eid Al Adha, approximately December 8: Commemorating the completion of the Haj and the return of the pilgrims from Mecca as well as Ibrahim's willingness to sacrifice his only son, Eid al Adha celebrations may be a little too colorful for comfort. Most stores, most banks, and all public offices are closed for this holiday. Restaurants, however, remain open.
A Day to Stay Inside & Read
Eid al Adha, which follows the end of the annual pilgrimage to Mecca and commemorates Ibrahim's willingness to sacrifice his own son to God, is celebrated over 4 days during which everyone who can afford it slaughters sheep, goats, and cows. A third of the meat is distributed to the poor and a third to family and friends, with the remaining third going to those who paid for the animals. In the days leading up to the feast, the roads into major cities are jammed with trucks full of livestock.
The first day of Eid is marked by early morning prayers. When the men return from the mosque, the animals are killed in the street, in the stairwells of apartment complexes, and in parking lots. In accordance with Muslim tradition, the animals must bleed to death, and the mess, often not cleaned up for days, is extraordinary and can be overwhelming. There is generally no problem going out and participating in the celebrations if you feel like it -- participants, including children who dip hands and feet in the pools of blood, are usually very happy to pose for macabre pictures. However, the sight of animals dying slowly in often unsanitary conditions may be disturbing for many, and I would advise spending the day well away from it all. This would be a good day to visit the nearest major tourist site or stay in your hotel room with a good guidebook.
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.