Reasons to include underrated Alexandria in your Egypt itinerary
Situated on Egypt’s northern Mediterranean coast and founded by Alexander the Great in 331 BC, Alexandria was once one of the greatest cities in the world.
For centuries not only was Alexandria one of the most strategic places in north Africa, it was also a great centre of learning; its library was considered to be the keeper of all the world’s knowledge, and its monumental lighthouse was subsequently named one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.
But the passage of time has not been kind to Alexandria and, over the centuries, foreign invasion, fire, earthquake and neglect have taken their toll and much of the city’s grandeur, including the great library and lighthouse, is lost.
The city underwent a revival in the late 19th century and early part of the 20th century when scribes and authors were once again drawn to Alexandria. In fact, the city was rather cosmopolitan with ex-pats and foreign visitors making up around twenty per cent of the population.
Modern-day Alexandria is a bustling port city with Greco-Roman landmarks, old-world cafes, and sandy beaches. Egypt’s second-largest city feels much less frenetic than Cairo, perhaps in part due to its waterfront location on the Mediterranean coast.
Is Alexandria worth visiting today?
Many travellers overlook Alexandria in favour of visiting Cairo and the sights along the River Nile, but Alexandria has lots to offer the interested visitor. At first glance, much of the greatness appears to be lost to time, but Alexandria is one of those cities that demands a deeper immersive experience than a day trip allows.
From Alexander the Great to the Ptolemaic dynasty; Byzantine rule and the Ottoman conquest; to 19th-century battles involving the French and the British, there is an astonishing amount of history attached to Alexandria. E.M. Forster wrote: “The ‘sights’ of Alexandria are not in themselves interesting, but they fascinate when we approach them through the past”. These words hold as true today as they did when his 1922 guide was published, and Alexandria is a destination that rewards visitors who spend time getting to know her.
Most tourists who visit Alexandria come and go as day-trippers managing little more than a glimpse of what this multi-faceted destination has to give. However, to reveal Alexandria’s true character we recommend a stay of three or even four nights. This will allow sufficient time to absorb the sights, sounds, history and character of the city, and enjoy the relaxed Mediterranean vibe.
Reasons to visit Alexandria
Find Alexandria’s Ancient Wonders of the World
The only one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World that is still standing is the Great Pyramid of Giza, near Cairo. However, although long lost, Alexandria was home to Egypt’s second ancient wonder. The Pharos of Alexandria, the most famous lighthouse in all antiquity, met a watery end when it was destroyed by an earthquake in the 1300s. Nothing remains of Alexandria Lighthouse, once one of the world’s tallest structures, which stood just off the coast from Qaitbey Citadel. The 15th-century fort marks a strategic stronghold on the north coast of Africa, and a visit is one of the highlights of Alexandria.
However, Alexandria has a second lesser-known ancient wonder. The Catacombs of Kom El Shoqafa are listed as one of the seven wonders of the medieval world. The labyrinth of underground chambers was used from the 2nd to the 4th centuries and house the rock-cut tombs of ancient Alexandrians and feature Roman, Egyptian and Greek influences.
Delve into the past at Alexandria’s archaeological sites
Alexandria’s rich history ensures there is a broad range of antiquities to explore and visiting them with a specialist guide brings Alexandria’s past to life.
Beyond the Catacombs of Kom El Shoqafa and Qaitbey fort, Alexandria’s Roman ruins include Kom el Dikka, a 4th-century amphitheatre that also held performances throughout the Byzantine and early Islamic eras. Nearby are the ruins of Roman baths, and the remarkable Roman Villa of the Birds, only discovered in 1998, where you can view detailed mosaics of birds found in North Africa.
Despite its name, Pompey’s Pillar wasn’t built for Pompey, but for the Roman emperor Diocletian, who ensured Alexandria’s population didn’t starve to death while under siege from rogue Emperor Aurelius Achilleus’s army. The archaeological site of Taposiris Magna lies a short distance from the city centre, significant in that some believe the Tomb of Cleopatra may lie within.
Equally elusive, unless you don a wetsuit, is the remains of Cleopatra’s palace. Now beneath the waves off the coast of Alexandria, it is one of the oldest historical underwater sites. The original palace was situated close to the Pharos and it was sunk by the same earthquake.
Another place that comes to life with the help of an expert guide is the Soma, believed by many to be the site of Alexander the Great’s tomb. The consensus is that his place of death was Babylon, but the question of where Alexander the Great was laid to rest is one that historians and archaeologists have been pondering for centuries, and the stories that surround it are intriguing.
Trace the legacy of Alexandria’s great library
Once one of the largest libraries and most significant centres of learning on earth, the rulers wanted the Great Library of Alexandria to hold all the world’s knowledge. Although many believe it was Julius Caesar’s Great Fire that destroyed the library, there were other factors that led to its eventual demise. Nothing remains of the great library, not even an artist’s impression of what the library looked like.
In 2002, the spirit of Alexandria’s historic library had a reawakening in the form of Bibliotheca Alexandrina, an ultra-modern architectural masterpiece. In honouring its legacy, the designers didn’t attempt to recreate the old. Instead, the new library stands as a stunning piece of modern architecture, against a backdrop of the Mediterranean Sea.
Explore Alexandria’s literary and cinematographic connections with historic hotels and iconic bars
Great scholars have always been associated with Alexandria, and in the 3rd century, Archimedes, Ptolemy and Euclid were among the mathematicians, astronomers and philosophers who studied within the great library.
But Alexandria’s literary pull long outlasted the loss of its library and in the early 20th century, Alexandria was buzzing with creativity as novelists, poets, and travel writers found their way to North Africa’s Mediterranean shores. Many of Alexandria’s restaurants and bars were popular places for writers to meet while others make fitting film sets.
After he wrote A Room with a View, novelist E.M. Forster settled in Alexandria for a few years. Reflecting on his time in the city in the early 1900s, Forster wrote Alexandria: A History and Guide; and Pharos and Pharillon. Sadly, the elegant Majestic Hotel, where Forster lived, has faded into obscurity and is no longer a functioning hotel.
A little later, in the early 1940s, author Lawrence Durrell made his home in the city and his books, The Alexandria Quartet, brings the interwar years alive. Anyone who has read Justine, the first volume in Durrell’s literary tetrad set in the city, will want to make a beeline to the Cecil Hotel. Within is the Monty Bar; named after frequent patron Field Marshal Montgomery. Many famous people have stayed at the Cecil including Somerset Maugham, Winston Churchill and Al Capone. Today the historic Steigenberger Cecil Hotel remains one of the most prestigious places to stay in Alexandria. Another historic hotel in Alexandria is the El Salamlek Palace Hotel and Casino which was built as a royal hunting lodge in Montazah gardens at the end of the 19th century.
Alexandria has a surprising number of watering holes, a hangover from its multicultural past. The 1930s grandeur of Trianon Café is a little faded but it is worth stopping by for coffee and pastries if only to admire the ornate ceiling and panelled walls. Significant patrons include Constantine Peter Cavafy, the influential poet who lived above the tea rooms. The Trianon was also used in Ice Cold in Alex, the film set during the Western Desert Campaign of the Second World War. Other iconic Alexandria institutions include the art deco Cap d’Or and Spitfire, one of the city’s oldest bars. Both have seen brighter days, but are worth popping in for a taste of the ambience of old Alexandria. We do, however, recommend popping into Delices, a tea room that has been serving tea and cake since 1922. With its inter-war architecture, a sense of old-world atmosphere pervades.
Soak up the Mediterranean ambience of the Corniche
The Corniche has been Alexandria’s heart and vertebrae since its inception 150 years ago. Stretching for fifteen kilometres from the Citadel of Qaitbay to Montaza Palace, many of the city’s best-known sights are along the Alexandria waterfront promenade. These include Sidi Abo El Abbas El Morsi Mosque, one of the city’s most architecturally notable religious buildings; and the Citadel of Qaitbay with an enviable position overlooking the Mediterranean, as does the Bibliotheca Alexandrina.
All of our favourite Alexandria hotels are in excellent positions along the Corniche, from the downtown Steigenberger Cecil Alexandria to the luxurious Four Seasons Hotel Alexandria at San Stefano within a tower in the stately Grand Plaza, to the historic El Salamlek Palace Hotel and Casino in the gardens of Montaza Palace at the northern end of the Corniche. Many of Alexandria’s finest restaurants also line the Corniche including the Greek Club (White and Blue Restaurant) and the Malakite Restaurant.
For an alternative perspective, take a boat trip from the old harbour and take in the views looking back at the Corniche and the city skyline. But perhaps the quintessential Corniche activity is to join the Alexandrians and take an evening stroll as the sun sets across the Mediterranean sea.
Savour fresh seafood at Halaket El-Samak
Alexandria’s fish market has been in operation for over 200 years and is the place to go for a seafood feast. Situated on the Corniche near the Citadel of Qaitbay the market is considered an important part of Alexandria’s heritage. The fish auctions start early so you’ll need to be an early bird to catch most of the action, although the aroma of freshly grilled fish lasts until late into the night. Do as the locals do and select your meal from the catch of the day and have it cooked to your liking and delivered to your table to enjoy while admiring the ocean view.
Go deeper at one of Alexandria’s fascinating museums or galleries
Museum aficionados will be very happy in Alexandria. Beyond the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, which is home to an astounding four museums, the National Museum is worth spending some time in, as is the Greco-Roman Museum.
A little more niche but none-the-less fascinating are the Cavafy Museum, set in the Greek poet’s former residence, and the Royal Jewellery Museum where a striking collection of jewels and jewellery from the Muhammad Ali Dynasty are on display.
Discover Alexandria’s military history
Those with a keen interest in military history will find Alexandria and its nearby sights absorbing. The region has been a strategic place for military battles and invasions across the centuries, in part due to its position on the shores of the Mediterranean, the natural border between Europe and Africa. Beyond the Roman and Hellenistic battles of ancient Alexandria, more modern campaigns include the Battle of Alexandria and the Battle of the Nile where Nelson fought French fleets at Aboukir Bay in 1798.
In World War II, El Alamein was the site of a decisive turning point of the North African campaign when ‘Monty’ defeated Rommel in 1942. It is possible to visit the site of the desert battlefield as well as the Commonwealth War Graves at El Alamein Cemetery.
In conclusion, is Alexandria worth visiting? We strongly believe so, but don’t take our word for it… speak to one of our Egypt experts and start planning a tailor-made holiday to Alexandria.
How to get to Alexandria
Alexandria is a port city lying to the north of the country on Egypt’s Mediterranean coast. The distance from Cairo to Alexandria is approximately 240 kilometres and the road journey can around 3 hours depending on traffic in and out of the city.
There are some flights between Cairo and Alexandria, however, the most comfortable way to travel between Cairo and Alexandria is by train. The VIP express has air-conditioned carriages and covers the distance in as little as 2½ hours.
Alexandria has limited international flight connections with Europe although direct flights to Jordan, Oman, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates open up the possibilities for some interesting combinations within the region.
Combining Alexandria with other places in Egypt
In addition to Cairo, it is possible to fly directly from Alexandria to Egypt’s Red Sea resort in Sharm el-Sheikh and Hurghada. Combining an exploratory visit to Alexandria with a relaxing stay at a luxury Red Sea resort would be a great holiday for second-time visitors to Egypt.
Suggested Egypt itineraries including Alexandria
At Corinthian Travel, our Egypt experts specialise in tailor-made holidays; designing bespoke holidays to exactly match your interests, pace and style of travel. We are more than happy to discuss any ideas you have, however, we have a couple of suggestions that can be adapted:
Egypt off the Beaten Track
Featuring a stay in Alexandria, Egypt off the Beaten Track has been designed for the second time visitor who wants to get to know Egypt, explore beyond the traditional pharaonic sites, and engage with the destination to gain an insight into the lifestyles of the Egyptian people.
Alexandria & Nile Cruise: Cleopatra’s Egypt
A private tour providing a rounded picture of Egyptian civilisation through the ages. The holiday combines visits to Alexandria and Cairo with a relaxing three-night cruise aboard a boat that is considered to be amongst the most elite on the Nile.
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