Alexandria is one of Egypt’s greatest hidden treasures, a cosmopolitan city with a Mediterranean ambiance and a legendary history largely forgotten, Alexandria is just waiting for travellers to rediscover it’s faded charm, and here are the top 10 reasons why you should add it to your Egypt itinerary.
As Egypt’s second largest city, one of its primary trading ports and as a city that as one of the most influential in classical history boasts as much historical and cultural significance as Cairo, Alexandria is famously known as the city with so much historical significance but the least to show for it.
I love Alexandria, I first visited way back in 2008 and have been here multiple times since then, every time I have visited Egypt in fact. It is absolutely one of my favourite places in a country that I love, and it always shocks me that it has very little tourism in general, but almost non existent visitors from the West. In a way that is a good thing because it hasn’t been overrun or spoiled by rampant tourism, so without wanting to spoil that too much, here is exactly why you should add Alexandria to your itinerary when visiting Egypt.
Alexandria is easy to get to.
Alexandria is only a few hours out from Cairo on the Northern Mediterranean coast of Egypt, and despite the fact many taxi drivers will try and get you to hire them for the day or take a car out here, and many tour operators will try and push a day tour, it is extremely easy to get to by yourself independently by bus, train or even plane. Flying isn’t really necessary, and although relatively cheap isn’t worth the hassle when the bus and train options are so good.
There are plenty of bus companies you can choose from, all take around 3 – 4 hours dependent on traffic and how much the driver wants to put his foot down, have decent sized luxury seats with a lot of leg room (so that the recliners don’t even bother me which says a lot), and some have AC and even small TVs in too, although what is on them is often hit and miss.
The best option though is the train, especially the luxury first class AC train which at just 70 EGP (about £3 GBP) is the cheapest, most convenient, quickest and most comfortable way to get there.
You can read all about how to travel to and from Alexandria and the experience of getting the train from Cairo to Alexandria here.
Alexandria is a stunning coastal city!
Alexandria is situated on Egypt’s Northern coast, on the Mediterranean coastline in fact, and the city is built around the long, curved Corniche. After the hot desert regions of Upper Egypt and the lush, fertile plains of the Nile Delta in Lower Egypt, being beside the sea and breathing in that fresh, salty air is heaven, and is an entirely different side to Egypt most tourists won’t get to feel.
Apart from spending a few idle hours watching the fishermen ply their trade or the larger boats leave the dock in the distance from the Corniche wall, Alexandria also has a tiny beach. It isn’t much of course, most of the corniche is made up of a large retaining wall and huge stone blocks, but it isn’t bad to spend an hour or two on reading a book and taking in the seaside vibes.
Everyone needs a day at the beach, and Alexandria won’t disappoint you! There are a few public beaches along the Corniche that you can simply wander on and enjoy, and there are some private beaches owned by hotels too. The best beaches however are just outside of the main city and well worth a day trip or two if you are spending a fair bit of time in Alexandria like I did.
Alexandria feels more Mediterranean than it does Egyptian.
Egypt is a land that has it’s own unique, magical feel, but heading to Alexandria feels like you are walking into a different world. Based on the Mediterranean coastline, and facing Cyprus, Turkey and Greece as you stare out to sea, you can feel the pull and the influence of these lands far more than you can from Egypt behind you.
This feeling of course comes from Alexandria’s history as the center of the Hellenistic and Ptolemaic eras, with influences from ancient Greece and the Roman Empire stronger than any influence of ancient Egypt.
It really is hard to believe that this city is only a few hours away from Cairo and can feel so fundamentally different.
The relaxed atmosphere.
Perhaps because Alexandrians don’t see as many mass tourists as they do in Cairo or other parts of Egypt it feels infinitely calmer here. There is no real hassle from touts and you really just feel like you can lose yourself in the crowd an enjoy local life as it passes you by.
I did get a few people staring at me, and a few people coming up and asking for a photo or wanting to say hi, but that was it, just friendly conversation, and not to an extent where it became a pain!
Alexandria was an infinitely more relaxed, friendly and laid back experience than most of Egypt and is the perfect place to lose yourself for a few days.
Anyone who knows me knows that I am a huge history geek, which is one of the reasons I love Egypt so much! But Alexandria is a city steeped in history and legend, and although most visitors don’t know it, can easily hold its own against Cairo or anywhere else.
Conquered and founded by the Macedonian Alexander the Great to be the link between Greece and the great Nile Valley, Alexandria was the center of Hellenistic civilisation in the classical world and was the capital of Ptolemaic, Roman and Byzantine Egypt, with obvious influences from ancient Greece and the Roman Empire, and it shows!
The museums, ruins and sites in Alexandria give a glimpse into the end of the Pharaonic Egypt most people are familiar with and showcase the Roman, Greek and Ptolemaic era Egypt much more heavily, and gives you a tiny glimpse into a part of Egypt’s history that is often overlooked by many casual tourists.
The second ancient wonder of the world!
Of all the ancient wonders of the world, only one – the great pyramids at Giza – is still standing, but in Alexandria you can at least see the ruins of another one, the Pharos of Alexandria!
Destroyed by a series of earthquakes in 1323, the ruins were finally flattened and the site re used for the medieval fort of Qaitbay in 1480, but the platform it was once built on is still there and much of the stone that was used in the lighthouse
The Pharos may not be standing anymore, but its spirit still lingers on that site and for a history geek like myself there is nothing in the world more awe inspiring than knowing that you have stood on the site of not one ancient wonder, but two in the same trip!
The Citadel of Qaitbay.
The fort may not hold the same mystique as the ancient wonder it sits on top of, but it is still a pretty cool place to explore for an afternoon.
This 15th Century Medieval fort was built on Pharos island to defend against the Ottoman Empire and dominates the skyline of the corniche. It is a bit of a shell inside but the warren of rooms and corridors are interesting to explore and you get some great views of the bay from the ramparts. Have a look around and try and find the stones on the outer walls and in the lower levels that have a slightly more reddish hue than the light cream stone that make up most of the Citadel. The difference is subtle but it is there. These are the stones that once used to belong to the Lighthouse of Alexandria!
The great Library of Alexandria!
The great library of Alexandria was once one of the largest and most significant centers of learning in the ancient world, and as if having one of the ancient wonders of the world wasn’t enough for the city, Alexandria was a mecca for academics, scholars and artists from every part of numerous empires, and that legacy is still felt today with multiple sites where you can walk in their footsteps.
Much like a modern day university, the Library had numerous repositories and lecture halls spread out throughout the city and was dedicated to the Muses, the minor Goddesses of the arts in the Greek Pantheon.
Just like the Pharos, the library doesn’t have to have a physical presence to make itself felt.
The library itself was unfortunately destroyed, probably around 275 ACE, no one really knows for sure, and so much ancient knowledge was lost as a result, but the legacy of this once noble institution is something that is hard not to be inspired by still. Some of the greatest scholars of ancient Greece and Rome travelled here just to learn, to study, and the modern library built on top of the ancient ruins carries that tradition on.
Visiting the modern Bibliotecha Alexandrina.
As much as being in the vicinity of what was once the greatest repository of learning in classical history mad me feel as if I was somewhere special, visiting the new Library of Alexandria, the Bibliotecha Alexandrina, consolidated that feeling and made me feel as if I was back in my first days of University, vastly impressed by the sheer amount of knowledge on display and eager to soak it all in.
This very modern building is almost a work of art in and of itself, with perhaps a nod to its Grecian heritage, the entire building is a huge discus angled as if the Colossus of Rhodes himself had hurled it across the ocean, and emblazoned with script and heiroglyphics from over 120 languages.
Built on what is thought to be one of the major sites of the old Library, does an exemplary job of both honouring the legacy of the ancient center of learning, whilst functioning as a modern academic library and place of research, used by students from Alexandria University.
I loved the fact that I could go in and spend the day just reading a book in the library which apart from just being a pleasant experience on its own merits, was made truly special because of the history of the place. There are very few experiences that are so special and I genuinely feel privileged to have been able to do it.
The modern library also has a number of lecture halls and a few small but impressive museums dedicated primarily to the archaeology of that specific site, but also temporary exhibitions and there is even a Planetarium on site. This is truly a center of learning worthy of the ancient Library’s legacy and no visit to Alexandria is complete without coming here.
Visiting the ruins of the past.
Alexandria has a lot of history that spans the classical world, from the Hellenistic civilisation and influences from the Greek and Roman empires, to Ptolemaic and Byzantine Egypt, and there are enough ruins and sites that you can easily fill a week visiting them all properly.
I honestly don’t know how those day tours manage to see anything at all by squeezing just a glimpse of each site in.
Kom El Dikka is a perfect glimpse into the Graeco Roman era Alexandria, an archaeological open museum of what once a middle class residential area, complete with baths and a small but almost perfectly preserved ampitheatre that showcased the laid back lifestyles in pursuit of academia and pleasure.
It doesn’t sound like a bad life at all!
Pompey’s famous Pillar and the Temple of the Serepeum alone – once another repository for the famous Library – can easily take up the better part of a day exploring, if you can put up with the tour groups that are bussed in, rushed round and then rushed back onto the coach.
And of course not content with just one mere wonder of the ancient world, Alexandria also has a wonder of the medieval world too in the Catacombs of Kom Ash Shuqqafa! The largest known Roman Era burial site in Egypt and one of the last monuments to honour the religion of ancient Egypt alongside that of the Roman Empire with a fusion of the styles that Alexandria is famous for. You could say it was the last hurrah for ancient Egypt as we know it.
As with most things, you get so much more out of the experience if you do a little reading up on the history of each place before you actually go. Wandering around and snapping a few selfies is fine for the annoying package tour groups that swarm in and spend 5 minutes at each site, but understanding what these impressive structures used to be makes a huge difference.
Alexandria’s Faded charm.
On first glance Alexandria seems to be extremely run down and neglected, and to an extent it it is, poor governmental policies mean rents are artificially low and landlords do not maintain buildings because of this, the internal lobbies of many buildings are nothing but cracked and dirty concrete until you get to the homes or businesses on each floor and there is a general feeling that everything is being left to rot.
With most of the ancient city itself lost under the ocean, torched in war or buried under the more ‘modern’ buildings, it is easy to dismiss Alexandria as a little ugly on first glance. But that would be a mistake.
Alexandria is full of Greco Roman architecture, open gardens and old world cafe’s. Wonder into the lobbies of some of the larger hotels and be transported back to an era that an Agatha Christie novel would be set in, with birdcage elevators and teak writing desks. Even the Corniche itself has hints of a more distinguished past in amongst the huge slabs of construction concrete.
If you take the time to look, Alexandria has a unique charm, a faded and slightly dilapidated old world grandeur that has soaked through every single pore of every building, and there are still hints of grand colonial architecture that transport you back to a very different time and place, if you make the effort to look for it through the modern concrete.
Lazy Alexandrian evenings on the Corniche.
The Corniche in Alexandria is the ten mile long waterfront promenade that dominates the city and overlooks Abu Qir Bay and further out, the Mediterranean. It can justifiably be called an attraction in an of itself as it defines the cityscape of Alexandria, starting at the Citadel of Qaitbay and ending after a good walk at the Bibliotecha Alexandrina, although the main road does continue along the coastline to the Monteza palace.
But it isn’t just the aesthetics that make the Corniche special, when the sun starts to set vendors start setting up along the road, turn up the music and it seems like everyone in Alexandria comes out in force to sit down on the wall, dance over the large stone retaining blocks, throw a fishing line or two out for their supper or just laze on the beaches with a picnic.
It really is a genuinely special experience, there is nothing forced or mandatory about it, everyone just comes out for a pleasant evening, and it is a really nice way to sit, relax and people watch.
Cafe culture at its most elegant.
There are countless cafe’s and small eateries in Alexandria, but many of them offer something special beyond the cracked and run down facade with many trendy cafes and bakeries, but the really special ones offer a lazy dining experience that wouldn’t look out of place in a 1920s art deco museum. It is better to head up to the rooftop bars and cafes if you can though as very few of them ban smoking inside.
Alexandria – perhaps unsurprisingly given it’s coastal location – is famous for its seafood and the restaurants really don’t disappoint! Many of the restaurants with a view of the ocean are on the pricey side, but there are some decent mid range options too.
I love sea food, but rarely eat it unless I am on an island or in a coastal location like this, I think I subconsciously save it for a treat, and I take full advantage when I am here! There are some amazing street food stalls and sometimes I wish I could just eat it all, but if I had a choice of where to eat in Alexandria it is any one of the seafood restaurants along the Corniche.
An Alexandrian institution is the Fish Market, not a very original name, and not actually a market, but this amazing restaurant is packed with locals every night and gives you the option of choosing your fish fresh from the ocean, and then your bread, vegetables and rice in a kind of al a carte buffet menu. It is a little confusing at first but it is worth it!
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