Whenever any intrepid explorer asks where they should travel to next, the first question could well be, have you been to Egypt? After all, it’s been the go-to destination for adventurers since Herodotus kicked off travel writing in the 4th century BC, and it’s still de rigueur for anyone looking for life-changing cultural experiences.
Egypt remains unequalled for the bounty of its historical heritage. Also, though you may encounter a lineup at the pyramids of Giza or for the mummy exhibition in the National Museum, almost anywhere else you go, you’ll find that you practically have the place to yourself.
This is largely due to the region’s recent past of revolutions and counterrevolutions. Tourism dropped from a peak in 2010 of 14.7 million visitors to 9 million in 2011 after the U.S. posted a travel warning. It then declined by a further 25% in 2014. However, Washington now says it’s safe to travel to Egypt again. The Egyptian Ministry of Tourism launched a global advertising campaign in November, and there has been a modest increase in 2015 to 10 million visitors, but you’ll still find few tourist crowds and extremely affordable prices, making it an ideal time to visit.
The current tourist minister, Hisham Zaazou has said he will focus on getting tourists back to Red Sea resorts. The coastal town of Sharm El Sheik received 4 million tourists in 2015 all on its own. A less crowded alternative is the culinary-rich town Dahab. It’s not far up the coast from Sharm and is the key destination for diving and snorkeling.
On the other hand, desert tourism only sees about 350,000 people a year. What this means on the ground is that you will have many a temple all to yourself. Relish the experience.
But start in Cairo. You’ve landed in one of the great sprawling cities of the world and there’s no way around it. If you want to get to know a place like the locals, you must cast off the guide books, flee the tour buses, walk out the hotel door into Old Cairo at the center of it all and wander. Find the places where pinched alleys wind around central squares, find the many legendary souks, follow the locals and follow your instincts. As Paul Theroux said, tourists don't know where they've been, travelers don't know where they're going. Resolve to be a traveler and wander!
Then, following the traditional route, get down to Aswan at the southern border of Egypt and work your way back to Luxor. Enlist the services of a felucca – the sailing vessels of the Nile with their iconic white angular mainsails. You may want to debark in Edfu, and savor your alone time in its stunning temple.
In Luxor, take a hot air balloon trip over the Valley of the Kings. Drink tea and play backgammon with the locals. Memorize as many Arabic phrases as you can and test them out on the many touts and aggressive salesmen as a way to introduce levity and enjoyment to these potentially exhausting encounters.
Now that you have the essential trifecta of Cairo, Aswan, and Luxor under your belt it’s time to head deep into the desert to one of the storied oases. Dakhla, Bahariya, Kharga, and Farafra lie on the “Great Desert Circuit” that links Cairo to Luxor. But if you must choose only one, follow in the footsteps of Alexander the Great and head deep into the Western Desert to the Siwa oasis. Its isolated Berber culture is utterly unique.
After 2,500 years of beckoning to the intrepid travelers of the world, Egypt remains as mysterious, challenging, and fulfilling as ever. This is the year you should travel to Egypt.