Winter has arrived and even if the weather invites you to stay at home and huddle around a fireplace, it is actually a great time of year to visit different parts of Egypt. From the Sinai Peninsula to the ancient treasures of Luxor and everything in between, for a weekend or a week, here is a roundup of the best places to visit this season.
For those that are planning to travel around Christmas, most big hotels all over Egypt will celebrate the holiday, usually with sumptuous dinners and live entertainment. Be sure to pack your party frocks but be warned, many resorts make the dinner compulsory for their guests and prices can be steep.
Winter is often considered the tourism high season in Egypt. And while many tourists flock to the beach, there is nothing wrong with staying in the city itself to experience a breezy Cairo. Unlike the summer, where many Cairenes will leave for cooler weather and the city is overrun with tourists, the winter guarantees you seeing Cairo the way it usually is, with most of the services and events geared towards the locals, in full swing.
Since Egyptians do not celebrate western Christmas, you will be hard pressed to find specifically Christmas related activities, however if this is what you want, you will want to go where other expatriates are. Look out for hotels and accompanying bars or clubs. The O bar at the Nile City Fairmont will be hosting a Christmas party, as will be Tamarai and Cavallini.
You will occasionally come across private parties with Christmas themes if you have local friends, courtesy of Egyptians wanting an excuse to party even in celebration of something most of Egyptians do not fully understand.
The best hotels in Cairo will typically be the ones on the Nile, as they afford you proximity to all other areas of Cairo and give you a great view. Their location in the central area of Cairo means that they are also used by the locals and their clubs and restaurants will most likely be famous, independent of the hotel itself. The most luxurious of these include the Four Seasons in Garden City, the Fairmont, the Grand Hyatt, the Marriott, Sofitel El Gezirah and the Kempinski.
Favourite restaurants include the Turkish restaurant at the Kempinski, the famous Sofitel Kababgy, the Japanese at the Hyatt and the Four Seasons Italian. If these options seem a little pricey, try Cairo’s popular food neighbourhoods, Zamalek and Maadi, for an extensive but more affordable offering of restaurants and cafes.
Of course, some of the more traditional things to do in the city are still at your disposal; Tahrir Square and the Egyptian museum, the nearby pyramids in Giza, Old Cairo which includes Coptic, Islamic and Jewish settlements, and of course the Nile. The Nile is one of the few things that benefits immensely from the winter. Instead of the dusty suffocating air, you get a fresh Nile breeze, making it the perfect weather for a felucca ride to see the sunset over Cairo’s skyline.
The Cairo Tower in Zamalek is open throughout the day and in this weather, the views are definitely worth the detour. We recommend going at sunset to get a chance to see Cairo at night, when it really comes alive (but take a sweater, it can get chilly.)
Take advantage of Khan El Khalili and its iconic location if you want to do some shopping and buy souvenirs but be aware that it can be a tourist trap and use your common sense. For everything else, nothing can beat Heliopolis’ City Stars shopping mall.
Be sure to check out the arts and culture scene of the city; remember, this is when all the Cairenes are actually in Cairo, so something is always happening somewhere around the city, just keep your eyes and ears open.
Luxor and Aswan
As temperatures plummet and heaters warm houses in Cairo as well as Europe, the warm weather in Luxor and Aswan lures visitors to the sites of ancient Egypt. While the heat can reach uncomfortable heights here in the summer, the winter months are the perfect time to explore the wonderful temples along the Nile in southern Egypt.
Luxor is best known as home of the Karnak and Luxor temples on the east bank of the Nile with the Valley of the Kings and the Valley of the Queens on the west bank. Hotels across all price ranges, with the luxurious Winter Palace as the crown jewel, offer guests all amenities after a day of exploring the ruins of the ancient Egyptian civilisation.
You can easily spend a day or two exploring the temples on the east side of the Nile and the Luxor museum is well worth a visit. The tombs on the west bank in the stark valleys of the desert are the ancient burial sites of the pharaohs of Egypt, and several are open to the public at any time.
Aswan, further south down the Nile in the heart of Nubia, is a wonderful location to relax in beautiful surroundings. Hotels offer everything a traveller could wish for while the town boasts of several museums and ancient Egyptian sites. The Nile is the heart of the town, and during the day you can watch the large sails of the feluccas and small boats of the fishermen go about their business in a way that seems not to have changed since the time of the ancients.
From Aswan it is 230 km to the renowned temple of Abu Simbel. When the high dam was built, the temple complex, which is carved out of the mountains, was under threat of being flooded by the formation of Lake Nasser and in an unprecedented operation, the complete temple was moved to higher ground.
One of the best ways to explore the many temples along the river is a Nile cruise. Many floating five star hotel boats sail from Luxor to Aswan, or vice versa, and as you cruise down the Nile you have the opportunity to visit all the major archeological sites along the river. Smaller boats offer the same service, from yachts to simple feluccas, and recently an exclusive and luxurious boat started a cruise from Cairo all the way to Abu Simbel.
Luxor, Aswan or a combination of both on a cruise are the perfect locations to get away from winter gloom, relish in the warm temperatures and Egypt’s winter sun and explore the remnants of the ancient civilisation that attracts visitors from all over the world.
Domestic flights from Cairo and international charters make both Luxor and Aswan easily accessible. There are also buses and trains connecting to other parts of the country for those who are looking for some winter sun and culture that includes some time on the Red Sea and Cairo.
Another great option to get some much needed winter sun is a visit to one of the towns along the coastline of the Red Sea. From Ein Sohkna down to Marsa Alam in the south of the country, for a weekend or a week, from serene solitude to the hustle and bustle of modern beach side resorts, Egypt’s Red Sea has it all.
Ein Sokhna is a mere hour and a half drive from Cairo and is located just south of Suez where the mountains of the Eastern Desert meet the clear blue waters of the Red Sea. Over the years Ein Sokhna has grown into a long strip of endless resorts, stretching all the way to Za’afrana.
Most resorts are made up of compounds of privately owned villas and apartments that are owned by Cairenes who drive down on Thursday nights to get away from their hectic city lives for a weekend, but several hotels are open for to the casual visitor. From the Stella Di Mare to the Movenpick and Porto Sokhna, five star pampering awaits you.
Hurghada is another favourite destination for a winter getaway. A five hour drive, or one hour flight from Cairo, Hurghada is a bustling town that changed from a sleepy fishermen’s village into one of Egypt’s favourite tourism centres for foreign visitors. If you are looking for some sun during the days but want to dance the nights away, Hurghada has it all. Hotels in all price ranges stand side by side along the coast and the town centre is crammed with souvenir shops and restaurants. In its recently built marina, upscale restaurants serve a variety of food and live music and clubs offer entertainment until the wee hours of the night.
El Gouna, half an hour north of Hurghada is a more upscale resort town that offers a golf course, hotels, restaurants and an active nightlife. For those that are looking for a quieter, more luxurious environment, El Gouna is the perfect destination.
Further south Marsa Alam has slowly transformed from a sleepy village into a premiere tourist destination. International charter flights bring visitors from Europe and beyond to the hotels that offer access to some of the best diving sites in the Red Sea. The hotels offer all amenities you can expect from holiday resorts while the town itself still holds the charm of the village it once was.
All the destinations offer guests a myriad of options to explore the wonderful reefs of the Red Sea. Diving centres organise daily boat trips for divers and snorkellers and the seawater stays warm throughout most of the winter months. A wetsuit is usually all you need to stay comfortable as you enjoy beautiful reefs teaming with colourful fish.
While wreck diving is a favourite in the El Gouna and Hurghada area, the diving and snorkeling around Marsa Alam is unsurpassed. Properly certified and equipped dive centres offer trips to all the major sites in the area.
Kitesurfing stations are scattered all along the Red Sea coast, and during the winter months the wind is a near constant companion. The kite stations have wetsuits to compensate for the cooler water temperatures and rental equipment available for those on a short trip.
The winter sun is a bit brighter and temperatures are a little higher in Sinai, making it a perfect place to get some sun and surf. The peninsula is so different from the rest of Egypt in terms of nature and flora and fauna that it should be the one area you should visit after the Nile valley. The huge peninsula is filled with resort towns on the beautiful Red Sea.
The first and biggest city is Sharm El-Sheikh, made famous as the site of international meetings and as a favourite of former President Mubarak. The city has become considerably more crowded over the past decade and has expanded beyond the compulsory Ne’ma bay where all of the original hotels, clubs, restaurants and casinos can be found.
Hotels and private compounds are being built and are rapidly expanding the limits of the city. Sharm El-Sheikh is where you can find most of the amenities and services you need and is where all the major five-star hotels are situated. The city has many of the country’s best clubs where some of the most famous DJs perform.
Taba and Dahab are both smaller towns in different parts of Sinai; Taba at the border crossing between Egypt and Israel and Dahab in the south-eastern coast of Sinai, across from Saudi Arabia.
Both towns are great for diving and snorkelling and Dahab especially has renowned diving spots. Dahab is accessible from the Sharm International airport and is the bigger of the two towns, with a wide range of hotels, bars and restaurants all out on the sea, which usually offers cushions as the preferred seating of choice.
Dahab is famous for windsurfing and the chilled out vibe has long attracted visitors looking for a relaxing retreat.
Taba has a small international airport that receives charter flights from Europe and is ideal for its proximity to Israel and Jordan, which means a trip to Tel Aviv or the Petra is a real possibility. South of Taba is a protected area where you can spend some time away from the town and explore the beauty of Sinai at your own leisure.
Just south of Taba the resort town of Taba Heights offers luxurious hotels and an 18-hole golf course. Clean, quiet and filled with five star hotels, Taba Heights is the perfect place for a pampered break.
Sea activities and trips to the desert are available for all of the above locations and are great if you are in Sinai. Other things to do in Sinai are visits to the coloured canyon, rock climbing, sand surfing and St. Catherine’s monastery, a UNESCO world heritage site.
Taking a different path
If even these Sinai cities are too mainstream for you, you can always take the road less (or never) travelled and go hipster by visiting some of the more hidden gems in Egypt. The oases scattered around the Egyptian desert are some of the most beautiful but underrated places you can visit in the winter, as the sun is too harsh in the summer.
Siwa is undoubtedly at the top of the list, where you can go sandsurfing and bathe in natural hot and cold springs for some therapeutic time away from the city. Not only does the town have exquisite ancient houses built into the mountain hundreds of years ago, but there is the famous Cleopatra bath and pharaonic ruins close by.
Siwa’s great sea of sand can be used for sand boarding and contains such as the mountain of the dead. The temple of Amun-Ra in the Dakrur mountain is also worth a visit. The island of Fatnas is famous for relaxing and enjoying the outdoors and the sunsets and sunrises are said to be some of the best in the world.
The Bahariya oasis is another great place to visit, with a direct road from Cairo. Though the town in the Bahariya oasis is not nearly as scenic as Siwa’s, the desert is just as beautiful and the white and black deserts, earning their nicknamed from the colours of the sand, offer a striking visual contrast.
Other things to do include the Bahariya museum, the English mountain, the Crystal mountain and the Black mountain. The mountains are famous for their unusual rock formations.
Finally, there is Ras Shitan in Sinai. Known simply as “Ras” for the Cairenes that frequent it, the place is filled with camps that vary in services and amenities but that all offer unrestricted access to the sea and an interesting mix of the urban elite and hippie tourists.
Filled with a diverse mix of people including rich Cairene twenty-somethings, tree-huggers, the Bedouins who run everything and lots of Israeli and European tourists, Ras Shitan is eclectic to say the least.
The places to stay in will vary from communal-style camps with outdoor bathrooms and Bedouin cooked lamb for dinner, to more modern places to stay. Camps being the operative word here and remember that none of the places to stay in will rival Sharm El-Sheikh or even Dahab for comfort.
In any case, these places should only be visited either through a reputable travel agency or with some local friends who have been there. The roads are lonely and it is best to travel them by day, but the surrounding beauty of the stark desert mountains of the make the trip a unique part of the experience.
Wherever you may choose to go this winter, we recommend that you take the time to explore one or more of the best things that Egypt has to offer. The more moderate climate makes sight-seeing pleasant, the sun is still warm enough to spend some time on a beach and the liveliness of the city is exciting. With the drop in general tourism in the past years good deals can be found and the local population will be glad of your business.