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Modern Alexandria is the second-largest city in Egypt. Set on the shores of the Mediterranean, it has long been a popular holiday spot for Cairenes, a refuge from landlocked Cairo’s searing summer heat. A visit to Alexandria, even if only for a couple of days, is the perfect counterbalance to the intensity of Cairo. With its string of beaches and Mediterranean outlook, Alexandria is much more laid-back and a good place to relax. Here, the Nile is no longer the lifeblood of the community; instead the Mediterranean Sea and its maritime influences hold sway.
Even though it was an important centre of the Hellenistic civilisation and the capital of Ptolemaic, Roman and Byzantine Egypt for almost 1,000 years – making it the most renowned city of the ancient world after Athens and Rome – sadly there is very little left of the buildings and monuments that graced the city during these periods.
An odd column or two on the skyline, dank catacombs deep under modern pavements, a Roman pillar propping up the gateway to a pre-Revolutionary patrician villa and a growing inventory of masonry, columns and statues beneath the Mediterranean, are all that is left of this glorious past.
Today’s Alexandria covers a stretch of coast extending about 32km (20 miles) and is filled with concrete apartment buildings, office blocks and traffic-filled streets.
But it does feature an interesting crop of museums, and over the past few years the city, which has more than 5.2 million inhabitants and is the Mediterranean’s largest urban centre, has seen considerable cosmetic rejuvenation and has recovered a little of its former prestige. Making it a popular sight in Egypt.
While bustling Cairo is steeped in tradition, Alexandria is shaped by Mediterranean values. It is a city less about sights and more about ambiance.
Alexandria has been an important city for thousands of years, so the best things to do here are old, varied and exciting. Here's what to experience.
One of the most exciting developments in the city in recent decades – and one that has given the city a renewed cultural focus – is the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, which is located on the Corniche to the east of the historic Steigenberger Cecil Hotel.
This vast modern library was inspired by the original Mouseion Library, which was the pride of the ancient city and the world’s first-ever centre for scientific research.
The impressive glass and steel building, an architectural evocation of the sun rising on the eastern Mediterranean, is intended to be an international centre of knowledge and culture, with the capacity to hold 8 million books in many languages, and 50,000 rare manuscripts.
The manuscripts include Spanish donations documenting the period of Moorish rule, and French documents dealing with the building of the Suez Canal.
A good place to begin unravelling Alexandria’s past is the Alexandria National Museum, which is set in a fine Italianstyle villa, once the residence of a prominent timber trading businessman, and the United States Consulate, on Shari El-Horeya. The museum illustrates the city’s history with beautifully displayed and labelled artefacts from various eras.
The layout is chronological, with the basement devoted to the Pharaonic period, displaying numerous statues of different ancient Egyptian rulers and gods and very interesting portraits of Menkaure, Ikhnaton and Hatshepsut; the ground floor to the Graeco-Roman period, with statues including a sphinx; while the top floor is devoted to Coptic, Islamic and modern Alexandria, showing coins, candle holders, icons and various other items.
Panels in every room explain various facets of religion and history, and the most interesting section is the exhibit of sculptures that were found in the Eastern Harbour.
On Shari Al Naby Danyal, close to the Misr train station, are the extensive excavations of Kom Al Dikka. Below Muslim tombs dating from the 9th to the 11th century, archaeologists have found baths, houses, assembly halls and the site where Christian mobs burnt objects from the Serapeum.
The main attraction is the small 2nd-century amphitheatre with marble terrace seating and well-preserved mosaic flooring. Some fine mosaic floors of a Roman villa, known as the Villa of the Birds, are also on show.
Follow Shari Al Naby Danyal back towards Shari El-Horeya. The point where the two streets meet has been the chief crossroads of the city for more than 2,300 years. Here, from east and west, the Canopic Way (Shari’ Tariq al-Hurriyyah) once ran from the Gate of the Sun to the Gate of the Moon, and in ancient times was lined from end to end with colonnades.
At the end of the breakwater of the Eastern Harbour west of the Cecil Hotel, sitting on the site of the ancient Pharos of Alexandria lighthouse, is the handsome Citadel of Qaitbay.
One of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, the lighthouse, constructed in 279 BC, was a marvel of its day. It rose to an estimated 100 metres (330ft) and hydraulic machinery may have been used for carrying fuel to the top. The lantern collapsed as early as the 8th century, followed by the circular storey.
In 1477, Sultan Al-Ashraf Sayf al- Din Qa’it Bay built the citadel that still stands on the site, incorporating some of the debris from the Pharos – you can make out granite and marble columns, for example, in the northwest section of the enclosure walls.
The current citadel, however, is not all original, having been heavily damaged in the British bombardment of Alexandria in 1882. It was rebuilt at the turn of the 20th century, and restored in 1984.
East of the palace on Shari Ras al- Tin, near the end of the tramline, are the Ptolemaic Anfushi Tombs, with decorations that marry Greek and Egyptian styles. Their stucco walls are painted to imitate alabaster and marble blocks and tiles.
At this point, you can turn into the old Turkish quarter of Anfushi at the heart of what was once the island of Pharos. Continuing southeast along Shari Ras el-Tin you will reach Shari Faransa (Rue de France). You are now in one of the most “native” parts of the city, where you may like to stop to look at the Terbanh Mosque.
Built in 1684, it has a distinctive pale-yellow exterior, with plaster over a red and black Delta-style facade of bricks and wooden beams. Two huge Corinthian columns mark the entrance to the mosque itself and support its minaret.
The Catacombs of Kom El Shoqafa (“mound of shards”) are the largest Roman-period funerary complex in Egypt.
They date from about the 2nd century AD, a time when the old religions began to fade and merge with one another, as demonstrated in the curious blend of classical and Egyptian designs.
The catacombs are set out on three different levels, the lowest being flooded and inaccessible.
The first level is reached by a wide circular staircase lit by a central well, down which the bodies were lowered by ropes. From the vestibule you enter the rotunda, with a well in its centre, upon which eight pillars support a domed roof.
A small staircase descends to the second level and the amazing central tomb is revealed. Bearded serpents on the vestibule wall at the entrance of the inner chamber hold the pinecone of Dionysus and the serpent-wand of Hermes, but also wear the double crown of Upper and Lower Egypt, while above them are Medusas in round shields.
Inside the tomb chamber are three large sarcophagi cut out from the rock. Roman in style, decorated with fruits, flowers, Medusas and filleted ox heads, none of them has ever been occupied and their lids are sealed.
Montaza Palace was built as a summer residence in 1892 by Khedive Abbas II, the ruler of the Khedivate of Egypt and Sudan from 1892 to 1914.
In 1932, the larger Al Haramlik Palace was added by King Fuad, the last successor of the Muhammed Ali dynasty before the 1952 Revolution, also as a summer palace.
The palaces were renovated during the 1970s to serve as an official presidential residence during the summer months, but today Montaza now functions as the characterful El Salamlek Palace Hotel.
It has suitably palatial rooms and suites, splendid public areas, a small casino and various restaurants. If nothing else, come for afternoon tea on the terrace and a walk through the lovely 140-hectare (350-acre) gardens – a popular spot for a picnic. The complex also has five beaches for swimming.
Rashid (Rosetta) is 65km (40 miles) from Alexandria on the western branch of the Nile near the sea. It was here that the Rosetta Stone, which enabled Champollion to decipher the hieroglyphics of the pharaohs, was discovered by Pierre Bouchard, a Frenchman working for Napoleon, in 1799.
About the size of a gravestone, it was of very hard granite with three parallel bands of inscriptions. The defeat of the French by the British led to the stone passing into British hands and into London’s British Museum. A replica of the original can be seen in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.
Rosetta became the principal port of the northern coast in the 17th- and 18th-centuries and many wikalahs (warehouses with lodging rooms attached) and merchant houses were constructed, built in typical Delta style.
Some 105km (65 miles) west of Alexandria, is El Alamein, the site of a series of World War II battles that began in the summer of 1942 and turned the tide of war in favour of the Allies.
Of the three main war cemeteries in El Alamein, the British is the first one you come to. It is on your left as you enter the town from the east. A walk around the simple tombstones, each of which carries an inscription, cannot fail to move.
In the centre of town is a War Museum housing numerous artefacts of the battle such as uniforms, maps and weapons. Outside are many military vehicles and guns that were used, some of them bearing war damage.
Beyond stands the stone monument to Germany’s fallen soldiers, in a beautiful setting that overlooks the sea. Further down the coast is the Italian memorial, reminiscent of a railway station in a provincial Italian city.
Just off the Cairo–Alexandria desert road, the Wadi El Natrun, or Valley of Natron, snuggles below sea level. It was once home to over 50 monasteries; the best two are open to the public.
Deir Aba Maqar, also known as the Monastery of St Macarius the Great, is the largest and best restored, and the monks give tours of the complex.
It was founded in approximately AD 360 by St Macarius, and most of the Coptic popes have been selected from here; equally, most are buried here too.
During the restoration of the big church, the crypt of St John the Baptist and that of Elisha the Prophet were discovered below the northern wall, with the site being confirmed in 11th- and 16th-century manuscripts found in the library.
Dating to AD 350, the second monastery is Deir Anba Bishoi, or the Monastery of St Pishoy – a disciple of St Macarius. It has five churches and is surrounded by a keep complete with drawbridge.
When it comes to places to stay, there are tonnes of choices in Alexandria. The city has everything from cheap, flea-ridden hotels to historic mansions and five-star luxury. Here's where to stay.
Home to the vast majority of hotels, most of which are bang on the seafront. You'll pay a little less away from the Med. Book in advance.
The Corniche can be noisy, but those amazing Mediterranean views are often worth it. There is a mixture of budget and midrange hotels here, as well as some whopping international chains.
Browse the best hotels in Alexandria.
There are plenty of great places to eat in Alexandria, especially some of the fine dining restaurants at the five-star hotels. But the city offers a lot of excellent and authentic Middle Eastern cooking as well. You just have to know where to look. This is where to eat in Alexandria.
Lined with fresh fish markets, the Eastern Harbour has some great seafood restaurants as well as a number of international chains like Pizza Hut.
Dotted along the Corniche are takeaway food stalls that sell Middle Eastern food like kebabs.
For more grilled fish, there are lots of cheap restaurants on the street in Anfushi.
Alexandria is well served by a number of major transport links, whilst servees (service taxis) and microbuses offer an option for easy arrival too. Here’s how to get to Alexandria.
Alexandria is served by flights from Cairo to Borg El Arab International Airport, 50km (31 miles) along the coast to the west.
There are hourly buses from Cairo, which take no more than three hours.
Trains take about three hours from Ramses Station; be sure to get off at the Misr train station, the central station in Alexandria, rather than the suburban Sidi Gaber station, which serves the eastern suburbs and is where most locals get off.
Find out the best ways to get to Egypt.
The number of days you need to spend in Alexandria depends on your interests, budget, and the activities you plan to do. However, generally, 2-3 days should be enough to cover the major attractions and get a good sense of the city.
During this time, you can visit the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, the Catacombs of Kom El Shoqafa, Pompey's Pillar, and the Citadel of Qaitbay. You can also take a stroll along the Corniche, the waterfront promenade, and visit the Alexandria National Museum to learn about the city's rich history.
Additionally, if you have more time, you can explore other attractions such as the Montazah Palace, the Alexandria Aquarium, or take a day trip to the nearby city of Rosetta.
Looking for inspiration for your trip? Talk to our Egypt travel experts.
Minibuses are the best way to get around Alexandria as they are cheap, frequent and go between the big sights. Taxis are also good, though the tram is best saved for fun rather than getting about.
Central Alexandria is easily explored on foot.
A minibus is usually the quickest way to navigate Alexandria with most travellers using the ones that run along the Corniche. Flag them down by waving your arms as they pass – there are no fixed stops – and pay in cash.
Taxis are plentiful and cheap and can be hired by the day. Drivers are usually friendly, many speak English.
There are no meters here, so the fee is negotiable, but should be around EGP30–40 per hour. If you find a taxi driver you like, swap phone numbers. Uber also operates in Alexandria.
Trams are a slow but fun way to get around Alexandria, and there are now 20 lines serving 140 stops. The main station is Mahattet Ramleh, called Terminus, near the Cecil Hotel.
Yellow-coloured trains go west, including tram No. 14 to Misr Train Station and Nos 15 and 25 along the Corniche to Ras El Tin and Anfushi. The blue trams travel east, including Nos 1 and 2 to Montaza. One carriage is reserved for women.
The best time to visit Alexandria is during the spring (March to May) or fall (September to November) when the temperatures are moderate and the weather is pleasant. During this time, the temperatures range between 20-25°C (68-77°F) and there is a lower chance of rainfall.
The summer months (June to August) can be quite hot and humid, with temperatures reaching up to 35°C (95°F), making it uncomfortable to explore the city during the day. Additionally, the city can get crowded during the summer months due to the high number of tourists.
The winter months (December to February) can also be a good time to visit as the temperatures are cooler and the crowds are fewer, but there is a higher chance of rainfall during this time. It's worth noting that during the winter months, some of the attractions may have shorter operating hours or be closed on certain days.
Find out more about the best time to visit Egypt.