Wouldn’t travel be fun if money was no object? This is the ultimate guide to living luxuriously in Egypt, with budget alternatives if you’re not loaded... yet. By Anna Sarjeant
Why lug your weary old bones to see the Pyramids of Giza when you can ogle them from the swimming pool? Or the comfort of your hotel bed? Marriott Mena House Cairo is so close to Egypt’s famed pyramids, the great behemoths may cast shade over your balcony. We exaggerate, but only just. Roughly 500m away, avoid the city scramble in hot cars and battered taxis by walking over, or ask the concierge for a leisurely horse or camel ride to and from the sacred site. For an additional cost, pay to go inside the Great Pyramid’s burial chamber. You’ll need the nerve for a tight squeeze - at certain points, the height drops to 1.2 metres.
There are only two restaurants you can dine at inside the Giza Pyramid Complex. The first is Nine Pyramids Lounge. Book in for breakfast and tuck into mezze or mixed grill with the full nine pyramids of Giza as your companion. The outdoor majlis are inspiring for their Middle Eastern furnishings in a desert landscape, and of course, the best-looking backdrop in the world. The second restaurant is Khufu’s, an upscale dining establishment showcasing anything from quail and rabbit to stuffed king pigeon.
For authentic Egyptian cuisine that also gets the local seal of approval, head to Andrea El Mariouteya. Set atop a hill near the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, this family-run establishment opened in 1958 and is as homely as it is enduring. Grilled chicken is the specialty alongside traditional Egyptian mezze. Albeit uncomplicated, you won’t sniff at such simplistic fare when tucking into a large skewer of freshly charred chicken breast, crispy skin and juice.
Finally, there’s Pier 88 (and older brethren to Khufu’s), notable for its location on a docked boat straddling The Nile. The Italian menu is laced with truffle butter tagliatelle and prime beef fillet.
Not to be mistaken for the original Egyptian Museum in Tahrir Square which remains open (and regales with several royal mummies of the Pharaohs), the all-new Grand Egyptian Museum is set to open late this year or early 2024. Two decades in the making, the impressive complex will house the world’s largest archaeological museum dedicated to a single civilisation, including the full kit and caboodle when it comes to Tutankhamun.
What’s a dalliance in Egypt without a trip up the Nile? Jump aboard the thoroughly Poirot-pleasing Sanctuary Zein Nile Chateau, which is a misleading name for a six-suite dahabiya boat. Available solely for private charter, round up 11 of your friends (try not to murder any of them) and enjoy a weeklong adventure peppered with remnants of an ancient world well beyond Luxor.
The beauty of the vessel’s small size is its ability to reach less-accessible landmarks such as the Temple of Horemheb and its tombs cut into the rockface. With an onboard swimming pool, library and Arabian-style sky lounge, expect high-end luxury mixed with old-world glamour. Nowhere says this more than the boat’s retro cigar lounge. Welcome back to the 19th century. For a tailor-made package where you pick the destinations and someone else organises the fiddly bits, book with the Ultimate Travel Company.
No one has ever regretted a hot air balloon ride over Luxor, or even the 4am wake-up call to make it happen. How could you when the route glides over the world’s most fascinating open-air museum? As the sun slowly rises, drink up a bird’s eye view of the Nile River, ancient Egyptian temples and tombs, as well as mountains, farmland and desert. Highlights include the enormous Colossi of Memnon statues rising almost mythically out of the ground, and the Valley of the Queens emerging in the distance. Luxor is the world’s third-largest city operator of hot air balloons and most baskets accommodate 28 passengers divided into compartments of 3-4 people. That said, smaller, pricier operators specialise in more intimate experiences with as little as two guests and flights that last 1.5 hours.
Why stop at Egypt? Cairo is just the beginning on a 10-week self-driving tour from Egypt to South Africa with Africa Expeditions. The perfect balance of independent travel and guided expertise, you’ll benefit from an experienced expedition crew including a mechanic, tour leader and cook. Travelling in a Land Rover Defender with a maximum of two passengers per vehicle, you’ll pass through nine countries and various national parks, experiencing everything from Victoria Falls to the impossibly white beaches of Zanzibar. Prices start from $17,760 plus a land payment of $4900.
Let’s replicate the high life with a few more wallet-friendly alternatives...
There are cheaper guest houses in Cairo with the pyramids in eyeshot but for $118pn, the Giza Pyramids View Inn sits 50m away from the Sphinx and pyramid entrance, a mere three minutes if you walk it. For that price, you’ll get a Double Room with pyramid views as well as a daily Egyptian breakfast with plenty of local goodies like pita bread, fava beans and falafel. There’s also free Wi-Fi and airport pick-up if you stay for more than two nights. We can’t throw in a swimming pool, but you can bathe in pyramid views for days.
It would be remiss, nay, borderline foolish to visit Egypt and not try the national staple: koshary. A popular option for both breakfast and lunch, it’s a hearty mix of rice, lentils and chickpeas, with lashings of piquant tomato juice flavoured with lemon, vinegar and chilli. One of the cheapest and most popular foods in the country, there’s no better place to try it than Abou Tarek, a mainstay koshary institution since 1935. What started as a street stall is now a multi-storey koshari powerhouse where prices have been kept minimal. A small tub costs a little more than $1.
In a similar vein, street food vendors come thick and fast in the capital. A 1976 street cart selling simple liver sandwiches now has outposts peppering the city. Look out for branches of Ezz el Menoufy while you’re out and about and head in for a sausage sandwich; the menu isn’t revolutionary but it is tasty. The price? Approximately 55 cents. Of course, if it’s an offal kind of day, you can chow down on the original liver variant, too.
Egypt is a country made for frugal sightseers, especially if you like going for wanders filled with wonders. Top attractions that won’t cost you a dollar include El Moez Street in Islamic Cairo. Littered with mosques such as El Hakim and a huge collection of medieval architecture, simply walking here is magic for visitors.
A 10-minute jaunt across the city from El Moez will land you in Khan el-Khalili bazaar. Located in Cairo’s historic centre, the market is pure mayhem, throbbing with vendors and workshops that have been jostling this way for centuries. Get involved and partake in a workshop such as leather-bounding notepads or simply haggle to your heart’s content. From trinkets to textiles and bags of vibrant spices, the free option is to load your Instagram page with amazing pictures, but you’re at the mercy of street peddlers here so we can’t promise you won’t spend a fortune.
A full seven-night river cruise on the Nile will eat a good chunk of cash out of your kitty but shop around and you’ll find various four-day packages between Luxor and Aswan for as little as $580 per person. The adage is true: you get what you pay for, so add another hundred (or two) or reduce your sailing to three days for swankier boats, better tours and if you’re extra savvy, an onboard swimming pool.
It also pays to fork out upfront but spend less overall. A Wonder of Egypt and The Nile guided tour with G Adventures is roughly $3000 but you’ll get to see the very best of the country over 12 activity-packed days. Explore the catacombs in Alexandria, mosey through Aswan’s markets and lunch with a local Luxor family before gracing the river Nile on a luxury overnight cruise.
Hot air balloons in Luxor don’t all come with a millionaire’s price tag. In fact, a 45-minute flight starts from $90pp. But for the sake of optimum safety, do your research and aim to spend between $130-$150. Gratuities are additional and generally, the tip jar is passed around toward the end of the journey, so pop a few notes in your pocket beforehand.
Felucca sailboats are synonymous with Egypt and date back to Pharoah times. It is a romanticised Egyptian must-do for good reason: guests typically lounge on deck, draped across several cushions and pillows, protected from the sun by the traditional large sails. Feluccas are usually open-air and manned by local sailors, allowing for a slow meander downriver to discover rich history and landmarks that are glorified the world over. Week-long itineraries do exist but a feasible option for penny pinchers is a two-hour cruise out of Cairo, with prices sitting around the $30pp benchmark. Expect to pay extra if you want niceties such as nibbles and refreshments. Otherwise, you know the drill, thriftster - go large at the free hotel buffet beforehand.
For more to see and do in Egypt, whatever your budget, visit experienceegypt.eg