A Classical Egyptian Tour Primer
Part II: Destinations
by Jimmy Dunn
Almost all classical tours originate in Cairo, which is always an overnighter. In other words, even if one plans only to take a Nile Cruise and nothing else, the tour company will, with certainty, arrange for a night's stay in Cairo, assuming that is the first stop in Egypt. There are some other options. A few flights come into Luxor to begin cruises, but that is very unusual. Other tourists who come to Egypt primarily for beach vacations at Hurghada, El-Gouna or Sharm el-Sheikh often arrive by charter plane, and may add a classical tour of some nature to their beach vacation. But otherwise, for almost all classical tourists (tourists who come to Egypt primarily to visit the antiquity sites), Cairo continues to be by far the most common landing point in Egypt.
I think one could spend years in and just around Cairo and never see all the sights, and never experience all it's adventures. Unfortunately, most visitors will not have years to explore Cairo. In the shortest of tours, they may have only a day, and even in longer tours, they may have only two or three, or usually at most four days days in Cairo. Yet Cairo is full of sites and very prominent tourist attractions. First, lets take a look at those that are most common to all Classical Tours.
The Pyramid Fields: Giza, where the Great Pyramid is located, is obviously visited by just about every tour that comes to Egypt. I cannot imagine one coming to Egypt, at least for the first time, and not wishing to see Giza, where there is also the Great Sphinx. Also, obviously, one may spend only a few hours here, frankly, as most tours do, or months. There is a lot that one can see at Giza, including many private and interesting tombs. But in reality, for most people, Giza will take no more than half a day to visit and usually less. In fact, the second most often visited pyramid field near Cairo is Saqqara, where the earliest Egyptian pyramid is located, and which is frequently combined with a visit to Giza over a complete morning (or afternoon), which may also include a short visit to "Memphis", the remaining ruins of Egypt's ancient capital. At the very best, some tours could make a day tour of these locations, and some even may take a day and a half, but if they do, it may also include Dahshur, home to some of Egypt's evolutionary pyramids. More typically, however, only a half day will be spent in the pyramid fields, if even that, and for many tourists, that will be enough.
The Egyptian Antiquities Museum: The second most frequent, and certainly one of the most important stops in Cairo for classical tours is the Egyptian Antiquity Museum, currently still in the downtown area, but to be moved in the future. Again, rarely do tours visit the museum for over a half day at most, and usually only a few hours. People do complain about this, as many would like to spend a whole day or more here. There is much to see in this museum, but there is much to see in Egypt, and usually only a limited time to do so.
Islamic Cairo: Next, almost every tour visits the Khan el-Khalili, Egypt's famous bazaar. It must almost certainly be the third most popular spot to visit in Cairo for standard tours, though there is a twist to this. It is the third most popular destination in Cairo for tourists because it is here that guides earn a considerable portion of their income, receiving commissions from stores that they guide tourists to. Its not that many people do not wish to visit the Khan el-Khalili, or that it is not a fun experience, but I doubt that, without the guide commission factor, it would be the third most frequently visited site in Cairo among tours. However, this part of the tour will sometimes, if the tour is long enough, include other sections of Islamic Cairo. Notably, this will be the Citadel, though some tours may even visit a few of the ancient and beautiful mosques, or even some grand old Islamic homes or one of the Islamic museums..
In the shortest of tours, The Khan el-Khalili will be the only visit in this area of Cairo, and the shopping spree may only last an hour or two. Otherwise, Islamic Cairo, including at least the Citadel, will probably end up being a half day tour, but unless there is a special emphasis on Islamic Antiquities, it will virtually never take longer than that.
Old, or Coptic Cairo: In fact, Islamic Cairo and Coptic Cairo may be combined into a half day tour. Old, or Coptic Cairo is actually the most ancient part of the city. The part of Coptic (Christian) Cairo that is most frequently visited by tourists is located in a fairly defined area, specifically Fort Babylon, and consists of some of Egypt's most famous and ancient churches. Also here is the Coptic Museum. For many western visitors who are Christians, the several hours that most tours will spend in this location may not be enough, but for others it will be.
That's it, for Cairo. Hardly, but that is what most tours take in. Of course, there are probably another fifty museums, some interesting and some not, art galleries, ancient churches, mosques and other antiquities to be seen, but most standard tours will not do so. That is a good reason to pick, perhaps only in the longer ones, a tour that may provide a "free day" or half day in Cairo. Some will take advantage of the shopping opportunities with some free time, while others can see a few special sites.
Obviously there are some other considerations that have to be pointed out about all this. First of all, time is required to get from destination to destination in Cairo. Certainly, if one could go from antiquity to antiquity via teleportation, much more could be squeezed in, but that is not the case. A trip from a downtown hotel out to the pyramid fields will usually require at least 45 minutes, provided there are no traffic problems. A trip from the Nile Hilton to the Khan el-Khalili, not so far away, could also take that long if there are traffic problems.
There are many other options from Cairo, such as heading to Alexandria, which would normally be an add-on, but currently, almost all tours head south, up river and therefore to Upper Egypt. They may go directly to Luxor or Aswan, by way of bus, train or plane. The worst possible mode is probably by day bus, followed by day trains. Both eat up considerable time when one might be touring, although a day bus, would likely mitigate the time loss by visiting some temples in route. Nevertheless, by anything but air, it is a long trip which will take up about ten hours. This is really not much of a problem with an overnight train, as one is doing most of the trip during a period that could not otherwise be used for touring.
There are various reasons that a tour might bypass more northern Luxor heading straight to Aswan. One reason would be to join a Nile Cruise, but other possibilities might exist. For example, some tours might come back up to Luxor, and then from there, take the desert road to Quseir and then the Red Sea road to Hurghada for a short beach stay, before usually flying or driving back from there to Cairo.
But Cruise ships go up and down the Nile from Aswan to just above Luxor, and they must have, or at least would like to have passengers for both the up river and down river legs. Hence, passengers may board these cruises either in the south at Aswan for the down river leg, or in the north at Luxor for the up river leg.
Cruises usually come in four day/three night, five day/four night, seven day/six night and eight day/seven night packages. The shorter tours, to four nights, will only range between Luxor and Aswan, while the longer cruises will head north from Luxor, usually to Qena, where they will dock. Bus tours from there will visit various monuments. Afterwards, the boat will return to Luxor.
If a cruise is not part of the tour, then, except in the case of the very shortest tours, a bus will probably be used to transport tourists between Aswan and Luxor or Luxor and Aswan because between these two cities are several important tourist sites. If, for example, a beach vacation is planned in Hurghada or El-Gouna as an add-on, then the bus may very well stop at some of the sites north of Luxor before taking the desert road to the coast.
Nevertheless, most standard tours will end up in Luxor, which was ancient Thebes, whether they go directly there from Cairo, or indirectly through Aswan. In Luxor, besides visiting the local Bazaar, which up until now I must say is one of the less pleasant ones due to the aggressiveness of the merchants, there are basically two standard tours, plus the Luxor Museum. People go to the West Bank to visit mostly a few of the royal tombs in the Valley of the Kings or Queens, and some of the mortuary temples, and on the East Bank, there are the most famous temples of all in Egypt, that of Karnak and Luxor.
Like the Egyptian Antiquities Museum in Cairo, Luxor is another of those places in Egypt were people frequently tell us they wished to have more time. However, this is really not the case for most people. It is very easy on the West Bank to get "tombed out". After about three tombs maximum, most people tire of them. The same can be said for temples. Hence, most tours will spend no more than a half day on the West bank, and in fact, even the longest tours will spend no more than two half days on the West Bank. Particularly in the summer, it is a hot, exhausting effort, and the better tours with a little extra time will very frequently provide the second half of the day free, where those with more energy may explore other parts of Luxor while others cool down. Doubtless, such tours will visit the Colossi of Memnon on the way in, though this takes about fifteen minutes tops. Almost all tours will also visit the Temple of Hatshepsut, spending no more than a half hour to an hour at that site. They will also visit two or three royal tombs as well, but which ones they visit can vary. If it is open, they will often visit the Tomb of Nefertari, but the others are a toss up. These tombs will usually only take a short time to visit, though there is some amount of walking between them, and may sometimes require a short wait before being able to enter, if many tours are on the West Bank at the same time. Otherwise, the standard tours may virtually do only a drive by of other monuments, such as the Ramesseum. By the way, most tours to the West Bank will attempt to get an early start, in order to beat the heat, but also, if the tour is very short, so that the East Bank Temples can be visited in the afternoon. Of course, every variation is possible, and some tours may spend considerable time on the West Bank, visiting even a few private tombs.
Likewise, visiting the East Bank Temples is also rarely more than a half day tour, or at most a full day, which may and should also include the Luxor Museum if the tour has enough time. If a half day tour, it will usually be a long half day, as these are very large monuments that usually require at least a few hours each even to make a cursory visit. This is actually somewhat sad to me. The Karnak Temple Complex is one of the largest religious centers ever built (if not the largest), and consists of any number of individual temples and temple complexes. I would personally rank it as the most important historical monument in Egypt.
Again, assuming we are beginning the southern leg of the tour in Luxor rather than Aswan, after visiting Luxor, a typical tour will head further south. However, if the tour includes some of the archaeological sites north of Luxor, then before heading south, the tour will head north, usually for no more than a day tour if by bus, or an overnight if by Nile Cruiser. Frequently, however, unless the tour is fairly long, these sites north of Luxor will be a tour add-on, and might include Abydos and/or Dendera, as well as other sites.
Whether by boat or bus, a standard classical tour of any length will probably make stops at several sites between Luxor and Aswan. Very short tours may take a flight between the two, completely missing these, but most will stop at the temples of Edfu and Kom Ombo, and may also stop at Esna. Of these, Kom Ombo will probably take the shortest time to tour, but neither should take over about an hour and a half, if even that. Both are interesting temples with some particular features that make them very worthwhile.
Bus Tours between Luxor and Aswan will almost certainly make this leg of the tour in one day. Short Nile Cruises will overnight between Luxor and Aswan, and longer Nile Cruises may overnight twice between the two cities.
Many of the standard archaeological sites in Aswan could be visited in a single day, though that would be difficult and since one must usually overnight at Aswan anyway, they are split into two days. The most prominent site, Philae Temple, is actually south of Aswan, and since one must pass the High Dam, it too will be a part of the itinerary. Philae and the High Ham usually take up a half day tour. A few of the other possible stops (ancient) in Aswan include the Nubian Museum, the Unfinished Obelisk and quarries and Elephantine Island. One or more of these may make up the other half of the day that includes Philae, while the others, in tours of a reasonable length, will be included the next day. Of these, the longest visit will usually be to Elephantine Island, while others will be fairly brief tours. Hence, there will frequently be a little time to rest and relax before the trip back to Cairo.
It should be pointed out that any particular tour may include some site visits that others may, or may not, have as add-ons, but many tours have add-ons. They basically come in two flavors, consisting of long and short add-ons. Long add-ons are frequently referred to as extensions, but we might further delaminate them between components tours and real extensions. For example, some tour companies may, for example, have a Cairo tour, to which, a southern tour may be added as a component or perhaps a tour of the Sinai as a further component. In other words, these are very large add-ons that basically change the whole nature of a tour. We might more think of extensions as day tours, though they may in fact require an overnight stay. Examples would include an Alexandria extension, which might include an overnight stay in Alexandria, or might not. Another very common extension would be to Abu Simbel, almost always from Luxor or Aswan. This is usually a day tour. By the way, one of our favorite add-on is to Ain Sukhna on the Red Sea just below Suez. This is a quick trip from Cairo, where hotels such as those at Stella di Mare (its really become one of my favorite places on the Red Sea), including the PlanHotel and Swiss Inn, are very reasonable and at the same time, luxurious, and from there, further extensions can be made to visit the Suez Canal and the newly renovated St. Antony's Monastery, one of the oldest in the world (and also St. Paul's).
However, both Alexandria and Abu Simbel can both become more than a day tour, actually becoming more of an extension or component. At one time, there was very little to see in Alexandria, and it was relatively rare for tourists to visit the city. However, with more and more sites available in the delta, with the monasteries, particularly at Wadi El-Natron, and with more and more sightseeing available in Alexandria itself, it is possible to make a much longer tour north of Cairo than simply a day trip, and this is becoming more common. Likewise, there are Nubian temples between Aswan and Abu Simbel, and some add-ons include a full blown tour of these along the way to Abu Simbel, making it more of an extension as well. Many other extensions are available, but common ones include tours into the Western Desert to the Oasis, to the Fayoum and two various sites in the Eastern Desert.
Short add-ons are somewhat different. Frequently, they are half day tours available to those who don't want to rest when given the chance. For example, very short tours may have, as a standard part of their itinerary, a half day tour of the West Bank at Luxor followed by a free afternoon for rest or other activities. If so, they may offer the tourists, for an additional fee, a tour of the East Bank. At Aswan, a short add-on might be a visit to Saint Simeon monastery by camel. In Cairo, there can be any number of short tours lasting no more than a half day if even that, to various museums and other areas.
Actually, add-ons need not necessarily be arranged with the tour company providing the primary classical tour, and they need not, of course, be to typical classical tour sites. For example, most hotels will provide various short tours, as well as companies such as Misr Travel. An afternoon's Felucca ride might be arranged with the owner of a boat, for example, though these more typically last for less than an hour.
A final note about Classical Tours. Egyptian tours are more than sightseeing, hotels, guides and how to get from location to location. There is also the evening, and one must carefully examine that part of the tour as well. Some tours offer extensive entertainment, while others call it quits after the last tour session of the day. While Nile Cruisers almost always have nightly entertainment, this is not necessarily a standard practice outside of cruises, and there is a lot that can be done. In fact, it is even a fine idea to inquire about lunches times while on tour. Some companies will, as even part of a regular tour, provide a Dinner Cruise in Cairo, or a lunch at the Saqqara Country Club. Others will offer lunch at well known restaurants, or evening visits to nightclubs, and don't forget about the wonderful Sound and Light Shows at various major monuments in the evening. This too, plays a part in the fun of a tour, and it is good to get the details.
See Also: Articles Relating Specifically to Classical Tours
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Last Updated: June 13th, 2011
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