Saturday, 2 February 2019

11 things to do in Alexandria, Egypt - one is a bit weird!

Citadel of Qaitbey
Me - 'Why are we going to Alexandria?'
David - 'Because we have a few days to spare and Andrew wants to go there.'
Me - 'Egypt is a huge place I'll bet I can find somewhere much more interesting than an old city founded by a dead conqueror'.
David - 'It is too late. I have already booked the hotel and transfers.'

This is what happens when you travel with children (even if they are 26 years old and several metres taller than you). You go places you have barely heard of to see things you won't be interested in. Wrong! Andrew, our son, as often happens, pulled a rabbit out of the hat. Our three days in Alexandria were the most fun of our whole trip. Partly it was lack of expectations and partly it was that Alexandria, with its mix of Ancient Egyptian and Graeco-Roman heritage is a great place to visit. Take my advice. If you get a chance - go there!

Alexandria

A bit of history


Egypt's second largest city was founded in 331 BC by Alexander the Great. He was 25 years old at the time - clearly an over-achiever. After he turned the first sod - or whatever they did in those days - he didn't stick around. He left to continue conquering places and died at Babylon in 323 BC without ever returning to the city which would bear his name. His body did, however, return after being hijacked by Ptolemy, the Macedonian general who ruled Egypt after Alexander's death. Today the exact location of his remains is unknown.

Alexandria became one of the greatest cities in the ancient world, before beginning a long decline from the 3rd and 4th centuries AD. During the next few centuries its population was ravaged by civil war, famine and disease and its monuments destroyed until it was reduced to little more than a fishing village. In about 1810 however Muhammad Ali, the Ottoman Governor of Egypt, set about rebuilding the city. Today, Alexandria is a huge, modern city sprawled along the coastline of the Mediterranean with a population of 5.2 million people, and traffic to match. Built over the remains of the ancient metropolis the entire city is an archaeological playground. As one of our guides said 'dig anywhere in Alexandria and you will uncover artifacts from the ancient world'.



Things to do in Alexandria




Kom al Dikka literally translates as 'Mound of Rubble' but don't be put off by the name, this is one of the most impressive sites in Alexandria. Once a wealthy residential district in Graeco-Roman times, its centrepiece is the only Roman amphitheatre found in Egypt. Wonderfully uncrowded it is a great place to wander around soaking up the history. 

Opening Hours and Ticket Prices
  • The site is open daily from 8 am to 5 pm. 
  • Adult entry is 80 EGP (6 AUD/4.50 USD)

My tip
  • Don't miss the beautiful floor mosaic of the Villa of the Birds. Dating back to the 2nd century AD, it is housed in a separate building within the site.

Kom Al Dikka
Kom Al Dikka



Above ground the catacombs are a disappointing collection of half destroyed statutes and sarcophagi. Once below ground they are an ancient maze of tunnels and tombs decorated with colourful reliefs, statutes and carvings. Begun in the 2nd century AD the catacombs were used to inter the dead for 200 years and came to be named one of the Seven Wonders of the Middle Ages. The catacombs are tailor made for exploring, getting lost, finding yourself again and finally realising with surprise that you are going around in circles - literally.

My tip
  • Don't miss the main underground site. It is tucked away at the back and innocuous looking from the surface. You will know it when you find it because the entrance winds down a huge circular shaft.

Opening Hours and Ticket Prices
  • The site is open daily from 8 am to 4.30 pm. 
  • Adult entry is 80 EGP (6 AUD/4.50 USD)
Note: Cameras are not allowed inside the catacombs.


Catacombs of Kom Ash Shuqqafa
With no photos allowed inside the only photo I have is this disappointing image taken above ground. At least you will know you are in the right place.


3. Pompey's Pillar and the Temple of Serapeum


30 metres high and built from red granite, Pompey's Pillar is all the more impressive because of its lonely position atop the ruins of the Temple of Serapeum. The temple is all but gone with little remaining other than rubble, a few sphinxes and underground tunnels. The whole site is quite large though and lots of fun to explore. Misnamed for the Roman general Pompey, the pillar was in fact erected to honour the emperor Diocletian.

Like Kom al Dikka and the Catacombs of Kom Ash Shuqqafa, a large part of the charm of Pompey's Pillar is the fact that it is surrounded by modern day Alexandria with high-rise apartment buildings, and other urban growth pressing in on all sides. The absence of almost any other tourists adds immeasurably to the atmosphere.

Opening Hours and Ticket Prices
  • The site is open daily from 9 am to 4.30 pm. 
  • Adult entry is 80 EGP (6 AUD/4.50 USD). 


Pompeys Pillar
Pompeys Pillar - and Andrew!

4. Bibliotheca Alexandrina (The Library of Alexandria )


A kind of internet of the Ancient World, the Bibliotheca Alexandria was the greatest repository of books and documents of its time. Established in 283 BC the bibliotheca contained more than 700,000 works, most consisting of papyrus scrolls. With more than 100 full-time scholars as well as lecture areas, gardens, shrines and a zoo, it was unmatched as a centre of knowledge and learning.

Sadly, the bibliotheca was destroyed, although quite when or by whom is the subject of conjecture. Today's modern library which dates back to a much more recent 2002, was conceived with the idea of  'reclaiming the mantle of its ancient namesake'. It is worth a visit, not just for what it was but also for what it is - a stunning piece of modern original design with a main reading room which can accommodate eight million books and 2500 scholars.


Opening Hours and Ticket Prices
  • Sunday through thursday - 10 am to 7 pm
  • Fridays - 2 pm to 7 pm
  • Saturdays - 12 noon to 4 pm
  • Adult entry is 70 EGP (5.50 AUD/4 USD)
Note: Children under 4 years old are not permitted in the library.
Inside the main complex are a number of museums, some of which have an extra charge.

My tips
  • English language guided tours are offered throughout the day. Click here for a list of times. They are included in your entry ticket but numbers are limited. We arrived with only minutes to spare before the 11.15 am tour and had no trouble joining it, although the library's website recommends you reserve you tour online a couple of days in advance. Take a tour if you can. As a well-travelled friend said to me before we went, 'without a tour it is just another library'. Our tour lasted about half an hour. I had hoped it would be more focused on the ancient library and less on the modern building but it was still worth doing. 
  • Although the library faces the seafront the main entrance and ticket window are in the street behind. 


Reading room bibliotheca Alexandrina
Inside the main reading room at Bibliotheca Alexandrina


5. The Citadel of Qaitbey and the Legendary Pharos Lighthouse


With its commanding position on the western headland of Alexandria's Eastern Harbour, you can hardly miss the Citadel of Qaitbey.  Qaitbey was built in 1480 by the Mamluk sultan Qaitbey. He chose the spot where the legendary Pharos Lighthouse, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, once stood. The Pharos Lighthouse existed for 17 centuries before being destroyed by an earthquake. According to Lonely Planet, if you look closely at the outer walls you can see a few pillars of red granite which probably came from the ancient lighthouse. Good luck with that one because we couldn't find them, although to be fair, we didn't look that hard.

Opening Hours and Ticket Prices
  • The site is open daily from 9 am to 4.00 pm. 
  • Adult entry is 60 EGP (5 AUD/3 USD). 

My tips
  • Even if you are not into forts (citadels) Qaitbey is worth a visit for its stunning views across the Mediterranean Sea.
  • Stroll along the Corniche when you leave Qaitbey for a chance to watch the local life and colour. Not far along, towards central Alexandria, you will come to a collection of seafood restaurants with lots of authentic charm. I can't tell you what the food was like because we were determined not to fall prey to food poisoning and decided they weren't worth the risk. For the story of David's bout with food poisoning and its consequences on our last trip to Egypt read my post on Holiday disasters and how to avoid them - Our Great Cairo Catastrophe.

Citadel of Qaitbey
Citadel of Qaitbey

6. The Royal Jewellery Museum


Alexandria's Royal Jewellery Museum began life as a palace built in 1919 for Princess Fatima Al-Zahraa Haidar, a member of the Egyptian Royal Family. It is extravagantly decorated in that lavish, over-the-top way which only those with far too much money can bring off. The rooms and corridors are splashed with ornate stained glass scenes, bright mosaic tiles, colourful murals, floor to ceiling columns and enough gold-leaf to wallpaper a small city. Best of all, it is in perfect condition, as if it was created yesterday. Then there is the jewellery - gold, silver and precious stones all set in exquisite designs. I wouldn't call it a 'must-see' site but the museum is lots of fun for a quick wander through.

Opening Hours and Ticket Prices
  • The museum is open daily from 9 am to 4.00 pm. 
  • Adult entry is 100 EGP (8 AUD/7 USD). 

My tip
  • Don't miss the bathrooms for a peak into how opulent decorations can be carried a bit too far.

Royal Jewellery Museum
Royal Jewellery Museum

7. Montaza Palace


The architecturally striking Montaza Palace was built as a refuge from the heat of summer in Cairo. Although it is spectacular to look at it isn't open to the public and so not worth the journey on its own. We called in to see it on our way to Rosetta. The extensive gardens surrounding the palace are open to the public.

Montaza Palace
Montaza Palace

Ticket Price
  • Adult entry to the gardens is 25 EGP (2 AUD/1.50 USD)

8. The Corniche


Last but not least, don't forget to just go for a wander. The Corniche is tailor made for walking. It runs almost the entire length of the city along the seafront. Once you succeed in crossing the road (no mean feat but possible if you are careful) you can walk for mile upon mile without worrying about cars, buses and motorcycles intent on mowing you down.  Just to give you an idea of how chaotic the traffic can be - our hotel ran a mini-bus service the entire purpose of which was to ferry guests across the Corniche to a private beach directly opposite the hotel. There are pedestrian underpasses but we never seemed to be able to find one when we wanted to cross.

My tip

  • Be patient crossing the roads and always try to find a spot with a median strip wide enough to take refuge on.

The Corniche, Alexandria
The Corniche


Day trips from Alexandria


9. Fort Qaitbey and the Rosetta Stone


If you want to see the Rosetta Stone, you are in the wrong country! One of Egypt's, if not the world's, most famous artifacts is not actually in Egypt but in the British Museum in London. Contrary to popular folklore the British did not steal the Rosetta Stone from Egypt, they stole it from the French (Napoleon to be precise) who stole it from Egypt. The French got the last laugh though.  Before handing the stone over pursuant to the surrender of Napoleon's army in 1801 they made a copy, and it was a Frenchman, Jean-Fran├žois Champollion, who unlocked the secret of  hieroglyphics. 

The Rosetta Stone was unearthed at Fort Qaitbey 5 kms (3 miles) north of Rosetta (not to be confused with the Citadel of Qaitbey in Alexandria). There you will find a neglected facsimile of the stone. It is worth seeking out, not because of what it is, but what it represents - the key to unlocking a centuries old linguistic mystery. The stone records a decree issued in 196 BC affirming the status of Pharaoh Ptolemy V as a god. The decree is recorded in three languages - hieroglyphics, demotic (a less formal form of Ancient Egyptian writing) and Greek which was the language of Egypt's rulers at the time. The inscriptions allowed the language of Ancient Egypt finally to be deciphered. Interestingly the hieroglyphics were a translation from the Greek, not the other way around.

Once you have spent all of three seconds admiring the pathetic copy of the Rosetta Stone in the courtyard of Fort Qaitbey, have a look around the fort itself. Like its namesake at Alexandria, it has great views and, best of all, you are likely to have the place to yourself. 

Ticket Price

  • Adult entry is 30 EGP (2 AUD/1.70 USD)

Rosetta Stone copy
Andrew 'studying' the Rosetta Stone copy.

10. Rosetta (Ar Rashid) - a weird experience


After Qaitbey head south back to Rosetta (Rashid) for what will be your weirdest experience in Egypt. I have no idea why, but the local tourist police in the town do not allow you to wander around on your own. When you arrive at the main square they come to greet you. Then they accompany you through the alleyways and markets pointing out the tourist sites. They are polite and friendly but quite insistent and will wait outside while you visit museums and open houses. The experience is just a little surreal and together with the authentic flavour of the town and the distinctive Ottoman mansions makes Rosetta a must do.

Ar Rashid
Can you see 'our' policeman, in the green uniform, walking ahead of David.

Where is Rosetta and how do you get there?


Rosetta is 55 kms (34 miles) north east of Alexandria. It takes about an hour to get there along the inland highway and half an hour more via the coast. We arranged a car and driver for the day through the concierge at our hotel. There is nothing much to see on the way unless you also visit Abu Qir the site of the Battle of the Nile where in 1798 Horatio Nelson sank Napoleon's french fleet. Off-shore from Abu Qir is the site of the sunken city of Thonis-Heracleion - an underwater wonderland for divers.

Fort Qaitbey
Colourful fishing boats abound at Fort Qaitbey

11. El Alamein


An hour and a half south-west of Alexandria on the coast is El Alamein, where tens of thousands of soldiers were killed or wounded during WWII.  Visitors to El Alamein journey here to honour the dead from both sides of the conflict at the the Commonwealth War Cemetery and the German and Italian War Memorials. We ran out of time and never got there. I would love to hear from anyone who has visited the site.

Getting to and around Alexandria


For a list of tours to and around Alexandria click here. Note: If you book a tour either by following this link, or the ads earlier in this post, I will earn a small commission. The price for you will be the same as it would be if you don't follow the link.

Our other blog posts on Egypt


I hope you get to visit Alexandria one day and when you do this list is useful. If you would like to follow our travels, enter your email address in the 'Never miss a post: Follow by email' box in the right hand sidebar just below our profile picture. If you found this post interesting, fun or useful please share it with friends, family or the world!

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18 comments:

  1. Rosette does sound quite weird, Lyn. I wonder why police need to escort you? As for the Corniche, I waited a good 25 minutes to cross the road to the Corniche in Doha, Qatar. Highway, and the traffic did not stop. Plus I was not being too cautious at all.

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    1. Haha - when we were in Ho Chi Minh City last year we gave up on crossing the streets altogether. It was so dangerous. If we couldn't see something without crossing the street we gave it the miss.

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  2. Thanks for the great suggestions. I haven't heard of some of these spots, usually I've only seen the most popular ones. I'd love to visit The Library of Alexandria even if it isn't the original. #WeekendWanderlust

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    1. The Library was amazing because, although it was a modern building, it oozed history.

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  3. This city looks full of things to do. I love exploring Roman ruins. I can appreciate the tourist police. I think it shows that the city appreciate your visiting and business.

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    1. I honestly don't know whether they were protecting us from Rosetta, or Rosetta from us, but it was all very polite.

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  4. I don't believe I've ever heard of another place where the police escort you around. You're right. It's definitely different. I love going someplace without expectations and finding a whole new world. Well done Andrew.

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    1. Andrew has a track record of dragging us kicking and screaming to places we subsequently love. It is worth bringing him along if only for that - also he looks a lot better in photographs than we do!

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  5. Will definitely bookmark this page as I'd love to visit Alexandria in Egypt. I'm also very much into serendipity and just visiting without expectation. Gosh you are right though ;) Alexander the Great at just 25 years old was a very big overachiever ;) Pinned this post :)

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    1. I hope you get to Alexandria one day. The more we travel the more we try to just enjoy the surrounds and not worry about the things we don't see.

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  6. Heading to Alexandria in just a few weeks with someone who lives there, so haven't done much research -- glad to see going there is worth the time for sightseeing! I'd love to see the Ottoman buildings, but the police escort seems a little odd.

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    1. The police escort wasn't scary just a bit weird. We went on our own with just a hire car and driver. I don't know what happens if you go with a tour group. If you are anything like me you will love Alexandria - except for the traffic which is truly awful.

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  7. The Royal Jewellery Museum in Alexandria must have been breathtaking. I'd love to browse the grandeur of it all. Thanks for the background on the Rosetta stone--a very interesting history on its travels as well as the contributions to modern-day linquistics.

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    1. The Rosetta Stone is so valuable to history. I hope to see it when we visit London again later in the year. David and the boys have seen it but I was sick the days they went to the British Museum many years ago.

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  8. I had no idea there is so much to see in Alexandria! I've long heard about the library, but I would definitely add The Royal Jewellery Museum to my list and also that lovely Montaza Palace.

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    1. You were like me then - had no idea how much there is to see in Alexandria. I hadn't even heard of the library before we went.

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  9. What a shame you couldn't get into the Montaza Palace - it looks amazing! I never made it to Alexandria when I visited Egypt many moons ago, and I'm a little sorry about that. It was so important to the ancient world and I'm a big fan of ancient Egypt especially. And how odd about the police escort in Rosetta!

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    1. We didn't go to Alexandria last time we visited Egypt more than a decade ago and it is only now I realise what we missed. The police escort was weird but not at all scary.

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