Haven't you trampled down the Champs Elysees enough? Dined on enough Spanish tapas till you puke tuna? Want something exotic? How about Egypt? Not exactly the camel riding type? Perhaps you yawn at ruins? Never fear. Here are some fun places to check out to make this the most memorable trip in decades. Here is a quick list of off-the-trail places to go while in Cairo and Alexandria.
Alexandria is a Middle East hot spot for many Europeans and Middle Easterners. If it isn't on your bucket list, then put it right to the top. It has beaches, wonderful nightlife, cabarets, and historic places. It is the go-to place for many and one won’t feel the price tag that comes from going to the Emirates or Qatar. Things to also remember about old civilizations — while you may see a fairly modern building, there is more to meet the eye. Many structures in the Middle East are built on ruins or foundations that go back centuries. It is a mix of time periods and puts new meaning to the words “recycle”.
Citadel of Qaitbay
The Citadel or Fort of Qaitbay is a 15th-century defensive fortress located on the Mediterranean seacoast. Established in 1477 AD (882 AH) by Sultan Al-Ashraf Sayf al-Din Qa’it Bay, it was considered one of the most important defensive strongholds along the Mediterranean Sea coast. The Citadel is situated on the eastern side of the northern tip of Pharos Island at the mouth of the Eastern Harbor. It was erected on the ruins of the famous Lighthouse of Alexandria, which was once considered one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. The lighthouse was in use and continued to function until the time of the Arab conquest. Several disasters later; the shape of the lighthouse changed, but continued to function. You know it’s old when the “Restoration” was about 880 AD. During the 11th century, an earthquake occurred and caused damage to much of the Lighthouse. The base survived but could only serve as a watchtower. A small mosque was built on the top. In the 14th century, a destructive earthquake destroyed what was left.
When Mohammed Ali became the ruler of Egypt in 1805, he renovated the old Citadel, restoring and repairing its outer ramparts. He rebuilt it once again into an important stronghold with the most modern weapons of the period, particularly the cannons. The time of Mohamed Ali is considered the golden era for the Citadel. The Citadel retained the interest and importance of Mohammed Ali’s successors until the year 1882 when Orabi Revolt took place. The British fleet bombarded Alexandria. Much of the city and the area surrounding the Citadel were damaged. This attack cracked the fortress. The north and western facades were severely damaged with the western facade being destroyed.
The Citadel remained neglected until 1904 when the Ministry of Defense restored the Upper floors. King Farouk wanted to turn the Citadel into a royal house so he ordered a rapid renovation on it. After the revolution of 1952, the Egyptian Naval troops turned the building into a Maritime Museum. The most recent restoration work dates back to 1984 when the Egyptian Antiquities Organization made an ambitious plan to restore the fort. This place will rock your socks off. It is history, an architectural wonder, and amazing views all rolled into one. It is very easy to spend a day and absorb what is probably one of the best places for newcomers to Alexandria.
The Salamlek and Al Haramlik Palaces, Montaza Palace and Grounds
The Montaza Palace Grounds are worth a trip to Alexandria by themself. They are located in the Montaza district of Alexandria. Located there is the Salamlek Palace. The Salamlek was a palace built for men and built in 1892 by Khedive Abbas II, the last Muhammad Ali Dynasty ruler to hold title over the Khedivate of Egypt and Sudan. This was a hunting lodge and residence for his male companions. The larger and adjoining Al-Haramlik Palace (built for female companions) and royal gardens were added to the Montaza Palace grounds and were built by King Ahmed Foaud in 1925. The palace has long open arcades facing the sea along each floor. The views are breathtaking. The Al-Haramlik Palace has a distinctive design blend that combines different types of styles with the Byzantine styles with Gothic, Classic, and strange Islamic styles of architecture. The word Haramlek is a Turkish architectural term that is used to describe the place where women stay. It was forbidden for anyone other than women to enter this special ladies' area. The palace is richly furnished with a mix of French antiques and decorated in Baroque and Rococo styles.
The three-floored Palace consists of a huge open hall with all the rooms and suites surrounding it. The first floor consists of many rooms and halls and the most important among them is the office of the king, the billiards hall, and the dining lounge. The second floor used to host the chaperones and servants of the kings and queens. The third and last floor hosted the suites of the king and the queen with a huge balcony in between. This floor also has the baby prince’s suite. It was designed out of cork to prevent the sleeping baby from being disturbed because of the sound of footsteps. Another one of King Farouk’s restoration projects, the palace was renewed and restored. King Farouk wanted to dig a crypt that goes from the palace directly to the sea in for order for him to use it in case of any attacks taking place. However, he was not able to complete it because of the Egyptian revolution in 1952.
President Anwar El-Sadat renovated the original Salamlek Palace and used it as an official presidential residence. It has most recently been used by the former president of Egypt, Hosni Mubarak. It was built on a low plateau east of central Alexandria overlooking a beach on the Mediterranean Sea. Nature lovers will love this place. The Montaza — the expansive 150 acres of royal gardens are open to the public as a landscape park and forest reserve. It contains a huge selection of trees and plants with some quite rare species. For the horticulturalists, some of the tropical plants at the place date back 75 years and include many exotics like Catania, Zamia, Carlota, and special types of palms. There are huge specimens of Anthurium, Hokiry, Araliaceae, and Victoria. The Montaza Palace itself is now a public museum dedicated to the Muhammad Ali Dynasty family history and objects of art. The Salamlek Palace is now a hotel and a lovely place to stay while on your travels to Alexandria. It is also a wonderful place to have a destination wedding should you be looking for a spot with a lot of natural beauty.
A Middle East Version of New York... but much BIGGER
Cairo is like the Middle East’s version of New York City. It is a city that truly is 24 hours. Most of the life occurs late and the city picks up steam after midnight. One can get anything they desire. Delivery is never a problem. Like a genie in a lamp, you can get anything you need (pizza, matches, or dry cleaning) delivered 24 hours a day. All one has to do is ask. The pyramids themselves are out of the central downtown and take about 30 minutes to travel to.
Manial Palace and Museum
The Manial Palace and Museum is a former Ottoman/Egyptian dynasty era palace and grounds. They are located on Rhoda Island in the center of the Nile. This is in an area called El-Manial and is slightly south of downtown. The palace and gardens have been preserved and reflect the settings and lifestyle of the late 19th- and early 20th-century Egyptian royalty. The residence compound is composed of five separate and distinctively styled buildings. They are surrounded by Persian gardens within a lovely English landscape garden park that runs along a small branch of the Nile. It is a quiet and tranquil sanctuary in the middle of a very bustling metropolis.
The Manial Palace was built by Prince Mohammed Ali Tewfik. He lived from 1875 to 1955 and was the uncle of King Farouk who was previously mentioned. Ali Tewfik had the palace designed in a style integrating European Art Nouveau and Rococo with many traditional Islamic architecture styles including Ottoman, Moorish and Persian. The palace is a mishmash of influences of the day and is very unique. It houses an extensive art collection with furniture, clothing, silver, objets d’art along with fantastic medieval manuscripts dating back to the Middle Ages. The beautiful ceramic tile in entry way and mosque were created by the Armenian artist, David Ohannessian. Don't miss the sterling silver bed. It is over a ton of silver and made for the Prince's mother. The palace had been closed for renovation for most of 2014 and was reopened at a cost of over $60 million. Planning a destination wedding, book it now. The museum is one of the top 5 places in Cairo to be married.
Thinking about Shopping?
Khan el-Khalili is a major souk in the Islamic district of Cairo. What is a “souk”? It is an open air market and this is one of Cairo’s main attractions for tourists and Egyptians alike. It is fabulous. It puts most farmer’s markets to shame. You will want to plan on spending quite a bit of time here as it is not small and there is plenty to see.
This history of the Khan el-Khalili is very interesting and goes back centuries. The site of Khan el-Khalili was originally the site of an early mausoleum. It was the burial site of the Fatimids — a group that took control of Egypt in about 900 AD. The mausoleum was originally built by Gawhar al-Siqilli, the general who conquered Egypt for the Fatimid dynasty and founded Cairo in the late 970s AD. By the late 14th century, Egypt had devastated by the Black Death but continued to be the center of great economic activity. The Fatimid cemetery was destroyed to erect a large building that could house merchants and their goods at the heart of the city. The Khan was located at the middle of Cairo’s most important zone of economic activity and later sultans built commercial establishments close by. By the late 15th century, the district around Khan el-Khalili had also become the major center of foreign trade.
Sultan al-Ghuri, Egypt’s last important Mamluk sultan (1501-1516), modified the layout of the district through a major campaign of demolition and new construction. Along with his religious and funerary complex and a large wikala that still exist today, he demolished the original Khan built by al-Khalili. It was rebuilt as a commercial complex with monumental gates and perpendicular streets. Among al-Ghuri’s constructions was the Wikala al-Qutn. Parts of this are still visible today, including an ornate gate and upper stories whose external facade is lined with iron-grilled windows where merchants’ rooms were located. The district became synonymous with Turkish merchants and the Turkish community of Cairo. Today, the Khan el-Khalili is occupied by Egyptian merchants and shop holders. It is significantly geared towards tourists. Shops sell souvenirs, antiques, and jewelry. Many traditional workshops continue to operate in the surrounding area including hookah makers and one can see how traditional hookahs are made and take one home. There are many goldsmiths in the area and one can get some significant deals if you veer off and look.
In addition to shops, there are several restaurants, street cafes and coffeehouses distributed throughout the market. The coffee shops are generally small and quite traditional, serving Arabic coffee and shisha. One of the oldest and most famous coffeehouses is Fishawi’s and is over 250 years old. This place is gorgeous at night and perfectly safe to walk through. Make a point of going. This place comes alive after 8:00 pm. It is perfectly safe to walk. Watch it come alive and feel the magic.
A walking trip through Downtown Cairo
The Qasr al-Nil Bridge spans the Nile River in central Cairo, Egypt. It connects downtown Cairo to the Gezira Island and the Zamalek district. At the bridge’s east and west approaches, two large stone lions flank the entrance. They are the work of 19th-century French sculptor Henri Alfred Jacquemart. Qasr el-Nil Street crosses over the Nile on the bridge, from the east bank area Tahrir Square (Liberation Square in downtown Cairo). This is a pleasant walk and goes past the huge Mogamma government building, the Headquarters of the Arab League, then onto the Qasr al-Nil Bridge over the river to Gezira Island. Your walk will continue past Opera Square and the Cairo Opera House which is a wonderful complex with an art museum. Evening concerts are not expensive. From here, one can walk north to the Cairo Tower and the Zamalek district which is wonderful at night. Should you cross the Al-Tahrir Bridge by the Opera house and go west, you arrive in the west bank’s Agouza district of downtown.
The Qasr al-Nil Bridge is popular for romantic strolling in the evenings. The bridge offers fabulous views of the river, landmark buildings, swanky hotels, and other structures on the island and along the west bank. The bridge is a popular date spot so expect to see lots of couples and is very romantic at sunset. The bridge is very beautiful and it carries a lot of history. It was symbolic at the site of the 2011 Egyptian revolution, along with the nearby 6th October Bridge. You will get a sense of the contemporary history of Egypt walking through the areas and not just think of Egypt as camels and pyramids.