Alexandria, Egypt is a very popular weekend destination from Cairo. It’s a very short flight or about a 3.5 hour drive north from Cairo. You can technically hit the highlights in a long day trip, but with kids an overnight is best. We decided on 2 nights to have a bit more downtime and to get us out of Cairo for a bit longer. Note: At the end of the blog I have a suggested schedule for those trying to duplicate
We drove and left Cairo at 10 am on a Thursday morning. This slightly later start let us miss all the Cairo morning traffic and we actually had smooth sailing all the way up to Alexandria. Only hit a small amount of traffic in Alex, but not much. We hired a driver and van as ours had not arrived yet. There are a couple rest areas along the way for bathrooms or food. We packed lunch and ate it in the car, but stopped for a bathroom break halfway. One interesting thing in Egypt is that tour companies in marked cars must have a plain clothed tourist police officer as a security measure for certain nationalities, including American. So we had a security guy riding shotgun the whole way and to all the sites we drove to. I’m not really sure what he would do in a terrorist attack, though he did have a gun. But he would be useless against any sort of bomb.
Once in Alex, we checked into our hotel and then headed out on our own to explore on foot. Our hotel was the Cherry Maryski, which had good reviews online but did not live up to our expectations. It was conveniently located and we got 2 connecting rooms at a very good price, but it had definitely seen better days. Chipping walls, regularly clogging toilets, tiny old gym, and just a general look of disrepair. The elevators had no sensors and closed on us regularly. Food took forever in the restaurant and almost always had things wrong. For example, we ordered a cheese pizza for the kids and it came with olives and bell peppers all over it. We tried to do room service for dinner one night because the restaurant didn’t open til 7 for dinner, which was too late for the kids, and they told us room service wouldn’t open until 7 when the restaurant opened. Kinda defeats the point of room service! The rooms were spacious though and we really appreciated space to spread out.
On Day 1, we walked from our hotel to some Roman ruins called Kom al-Dikka. It contains the only known Roman amphitheater in Egypt, villas, baths, classrooms and more. The amphitheater is also called the Roman Odeum. It’s from the 4th century AD, originally had a roof, held 600 people, and was used for music and poetry competitions. Kom al-Dikka means “hill of rubble” and is right in the middle of Alexandria. It was discovered in the 1960s by archaeologists. There is one spot on the stage that is marked by a stone where sound echoes perfectly. Stand there and sing a song and hear the acoustics! The odeum was destroyed by an earthquake around the 6th century.
Also at Kom al-Dikka is the Villa of the Birds, a residential building from the 2nd century AD (the reign of Hadrian). The mosaic floor is well preserved and covered in magnificient birds. There are also many geometric motifs.
We then walked along the Corniche on the sidewalk between the road and the water. It was great looking out at the water and DS loved the boats, but the road is busy and the sound of traffic can overpower the sound of the water. Little kids definitely need to be contained somehow. We ended with dinner at The Fish Market, which had lovely views of the water. You look at their selection of seafood and pick out which pieces you want. Then they cook them and bring out sides that you order. Food was good, but service was slow.
On Day 2, we had a guide and car for exploring. We started at the Catacombs of Kom al-Shuqafa to take advantage of decreased traffic on a Friday morning. Photos are not allowed in the Catacombs. These are from the 2nd century AD and blend Hellenistic (Greek) and pharaonic architecture and art. It was worth having a guide to point out the different elements and how one god might be portrayed two ways to appeal to both the Greek and Egyptian sides.
The Catacombs were discovered by accident. Our guide said a boy and his donkey fell into a hole and that’s how they were found. To enter, you go down a spiral set of stairs. Parts are dark and the stairs are not perfectly even. Underground there are several tombs to see and statues. Upstairs on ground level are some statues and tombs to see as well.
Our next stop was Pompey’s Pillar and the Serapeum. The Serapeum complex used to house a temple and other structures, which were destroyed by Christians in 391 AD and possibly an earthquake. The only thing above ground that is left is Pompey’s Pillar. Our guide said it survives earthquakes because the base is not solid and allows for movement. While it is called Pompey’s Pillar, there is no actual evidence that it was actually named after him, and was most likely erected for the Roman emperor Diocletian.
Underground are subterranean chambers which housed a statue of the bull Apis. The bull is now at the Greco-Roman Museum (which is closed for renovations), but there is a replica underground. Archaeologists also believe that there was an underground library due to shelving carved into the walls.
Our final stop was Qaitbay’s Fort, built in the 1470s for Mamluk sultan Qaitbey. The fort was built to defend against Turkish attack and was originally on an island. It was built from building material from the famous Alexandrian Lighthouse, one of the wonders of the ancient world. It collapsed in 1303 from an earthquake and tidal wave and was further destroyed by another quake in 1326. The current fort was built in the early 19th century by Muhammad Ali and then restored in the 1900s. So, the fort is a combination of old and new. There is a small mosque inside and great views from the various levels.
At this point, the kids were cranky, tired, hungry and done with sightseeing. So we headed back to the hotel and said goodbye to the guards. Lunch at the hotel took way to long to come and then the kids napped. We explored by foot a little bit after nap. DS had a horrible time falling asleep at night and eventually would only sleep in our bed. He of course ended up perpendicular to us, taking up most of the bed even though he was the smallest occupant!
On Day 3, we simply did the Jewelry Museum and then started the journey home. The Royal Jewelry Museum is in former palace of Princess Fatma al-Zahra. Both the palace and jewelry are worth seeing and DD in particular was thrilled to see real royal jewelry. It contains pieces from Muhammad Ali (early 1800s), King Fuad, his family, and more. Beautiful tiaras, pocket watches, earrings, necklaces, jewel-encrusted desk sets, and more. Plus lovely painted ceilings and stained glass windows.
The outside of the building is not well marked, but it is on google maps and the palace itself (and the security around it) is fairly obvious. We did get into a debate with the guard about entering with our framed backpack baby carrier. He was afraid we’d scratch the glass with it. DH argued with him that letting our son run around was more of a risk and he eventually asked his supervisor who said it was ok. The museum is 2 floors and lovely.
Our drive home was a bit eventful as about 1.5 hours from home our rental van broke down on the side of the highway. Radiator and timing belt problems it seemed. The driver and guard tried to fix things, we puttered along another mile, and then it broke again. At that point I called the travel agency, who sent another van (though of course, coming from 1.5 hours away). Luckily I had downloaded shows from Netflix onto the iPad, and the kids were pretty happy watching that and eating snacks while we waited. We were so glad to be on our way again and when we saw the pyramids, even I cheered a bit. I still can’t get over how you can just see the pyramids while driving home!
Where is it? North coast of Egypt along the Mediterranean Sea
How to reach it? You can fly, though most people drive from Cairo. 3 hour drive if the traffic gods somehow smile upon you, but most likely a 4 hour drive. Roads are wide and nice. Several rest stop areas along the way that are nice with bathrooms and food.
Transportation in city? Taxis are easy to use, though be prepared to navigate them. Uber exists. You can also hire a car and driver, which is convenient if you have kids and are going from site to site. Depending on your lodging location and what you want to see, some things are walkable, but be prepared for heavy traffic.
Lodging? Several of the big name resorts have hotels here, including Four Seasons, Hilton, etc. There are also many mid-ranged hotels. We stayed at Cherry Maryski which was a convenient location but slow service and fairly run down and I can’t really recommend.
Kid Friendly? Nothing is particularly stroller friendly. The historic sites have lots of ruins or stairs. The library does not allow children under 6 to enter, though our guide said you can bring them in if part of an organized tour by the library. We wore our toddler and that worked well, though we had to argue with the Royal Jewelry Museum guard about using our framed hiking carrier inside the museum (he was worried it would scratch the cases, but his supervisor allowed it). My preschooler enjoyed the sites we visited, but our toddler really wished there was more opportunity for running around.
What to do? Fort Qaitbey (the citadel), the catacombs, the Roman amphitheater (aka Kom al-Dikka and the Roman Odeum), Pompey’s Pillar and the Bibliotheca Alexandrina (aka the library) are very popular to see. The Royal Jewelry Museum was excellent. The Greco-Roman Museum is closed, but the National Museum is open. Montaza Gardens is outside the main part of Alexandria but also popular.
Tip: If you have diplomatic ID, it worked to get us free admission to the catacombs, Jewelry Museum, and Pompey’s Pillar, but not the Fort (and we forgot to ask at Kom al-Dikka).
Suggested Itinerary: I really suggest doing a Thurs-Saturday jaunt, using Friday as the main sightseeing day for less traffic.
10 am —Depart Cairo to avoid major traffic out of the city.
1:30 pm—Arrive Alexandria and check into hotel
2:30 pm—Royal Jewelry Museum if staying at Four Seasons, Hilton or that area of town. It is just a 3 min drive from the Four Seasons. It closes at 4 pm. If staying in the older part of town, closer to the historic ruins, visit Kom al-Dikka instead.
4 pm—Return to hotel to relax and have dinner on grounds, or check out a local restaurant
Day 2: (Ideally Friday)
9 am—Depart for Catacombs (30 min drive from Four Seasons)
Morning—visit Catacombs, then Pompey’s Pillar (5 min drive), then Fort Qaitbey (25 min drive)
1 pm—lunch at Greek Marine Club (near Fort), Fish Market (on Corniche not too far from Fort) or other restaurant
3 pm—Kom al-Dikka (if did not visit on Day 1), followed by Bibliotheca Alexandrina (closes at 7 pm). Check tour schedule for Bibliotheca Alexandrina, especially if you have kids under 6 who can only enter with an official tour. Or start with the library and then do the Royal Jewelry Museum.
9 am—visit any place not visited on Day 1 or 2. Or add in Montazah Palace Gardens (18 min drive from Four Seasons towards North Coast) for some outside walking, Alexandria National Museum (18 min drive from Four Seasons towards old part of town), or the beach.
12 Noon—check out of hotel and get lunch
1 pm—drive back to Cairo. Expect to arrive back between 5 and 6 pm