Visiting Alexandria Cruising to Egypt
Visiting Alexandria is not really on anyone’s bucket list unless you are into ancient Egyptian history – but if you are on a cruise you will undoubtedly stop at Alexandria for a day or so. Alexandria is the second-largest city in Egypt and you can spend one day in Alexandria before you head off to Cairo to see the pyramids.
Alexandria has of course been around a few years. Founded by Alexander the Great around 331 BC. It is an important Mediterranean port city and the second-largest city in Egypt. Now when your ship docks at the port the countdown begins. We spend the first day headed to Cairo but our second day we put together a list of everything we could see while spending 1 day in Alexandria.
I am somewhat mobility challenged and I enjoy a cruise for all that it offers with regard to tours, trips and making getting around different places easily. For some folks with different abilities and considerations like wheelchairs, travelling can be a challenge, to say the least. Cruising is one of the ways you can see the world and a lot of cruise liners are wheelchair accessible.
History of Alexandria
Since the Hellenistic period when Alexandria was home to the Pharos Lighthouse and the Great Library, both among the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World things have gone a little differently. Alexandria also used to be where the rich and lazy hung out with a stream of intellectuals during the early part of the 20th Century.
Not really an appealing city from a cruise ship or really any other vantage it can be difficult to see why you might want to spend 1 day in Alexandria. From the ship, the city looks like a concrete jungle and the smell of diesel and other fumes takes a bit of getting used to. The streets are chock full of traffic and the back streets tend to be dirty and there is tons of garbage.
I don’t mean to put you off spending 1 day in Alexandria as there are some fine historic attractions and treasures to be found. There are beautiful gardens, Greco-Roman monuments, the Citadel, cafes where you can smoke some flavoured hookas. There are also some gorgeous beaches and important religious sites.
Most visitors to Alexandria come in on a cruise stop (as we did). These are some practical tips on getting around Alexandria, top things to do in Alexandria, and how to put together your own perfect itinerary for Alexandria Egypt.
Things you need to prepare before visiting Alexandria
- An Egypt visa is required for most travellers including American and British passport holders. Americans and citizens fro 40 other countries can obtain an Egypt visa on arrival at the Cairo International airport at the bank kiosks before the immigration counters for $25 USD and are valid for visits up to 30 days. If you arrive by cruise ship, the visa is usually handled onboard the ship for you. If you arrive by air (as when you are taking a river cruise), you can procure an electronic visa either at the airport or online before you arrive.
- At the time of visiting, 1 Egyptian Pound = .06 cents US or 10 US $ = 166 EP.
- It is advisable to dress to respect the culture when in Egypt. For women that means keeping your arms covered and preferably skirts, dresses and shorts that cover the knee, carry a light wrap to put over your hair when entering religious sites. Truth is it doesn’t matter what you wear as a woman you will be followed, catcalled and experience the “joy” of being an “object” by Egyptian males everywhere.
- Buy a good guide book so you can understand what you are seeing and plan what you want to see. Many areas have signage in both Egyptian and English but the translations can be a bit muddled.
- A guide is not needed for the Alexandria Library as a member of the library staff provides a free 30 minute guided tour (English is an option) with the entrance fee.
- Almost all attractions in Alexandria have an entry fee, including some gardens and beaches (fee normally includes beach gear and access to toilets). Entry fees normally range between 5 to 50 EGP, the library was the most expensive at 70 EGP.
- Create a tip or cheat sheet of Arabic phrases and numbers to help figure out prices and directions when visiting.
- The souks and some shops in smaller shopping areas won’t be able to take credit or debit card so carry some smaller bills and coins for paying. Large notes can be a problem for shop keepers so the smaller bills can help pay for your purchases of gifts to take home. You should have these available as tips as well as you will often want to tip a waiter or washroom attendant. In some cases, you need a little cash to pay for the toilet paper.
- Egypt has had its share of violence and terrorist activities so check your countries warnings and advisories and take precautions when visiting. The type of crime you are likely to encounter is petty like purse snatching, pickpockets and theft.
Where is Alexandria Egypt?
Located right on the Mediterranean Sea, Alexandria is around 140 miles or 225 km northwest of Cairo. Most cruise ship tours will pass right through Alexandria and head to Cairo which is around 3 hours drive from Alexandria.
Getting to Cairo from Alexandria
Your cruise ship will have some great tours to Cairo from Alexandria but we booked privately and ended up in a nice air-conditioned van with a family of 4. We passed most of the cruise ships buses on the way to Cairo and there was even one that broke down. So check out private tours on google to see which one works for you. There is also a Cruise Critics website where you can chat in the forums with other passengers and arrange to share private tours which is great.
Getting around on your 1 day in Alexandria visit
We hired a driver to take us around the City. We managed to see many of the sites on our list and even a few we didn’t anticipate. We paid around $100 Canadian for the day but we did get to see everything we wanted and we were picked up and dropped off at the Cruise docks. The one thing to be aware of is that very often a private driver unless booked through a reliable source like a hotel can be cheap but you will pay for it in the end when the driver drives to get more money out of you.
I would highly recommend getting a Get your Guide Tour, there are 2 of them based in Alexandria as follows:
What should I see if I only have 1 day in Alexandria?
- Lighthouse of Alexandria
- Citadel of Qaitbay (outside only)
- Bibliotheca Alexandrina and the Library of Alexandria
- Pompey’s Pillar
- Catacombs of Kom el Shoqafa
- Roman Amphitheatre
- Abu al-Abbas al-Mursi mosque
- Alexandria National Museum and
- Royal Jewelry Museum
- Montaza Palace and Gardens
- Al-Haramlik Palace
- Shopping souks
Lighthouse of Alexandria
The Lighthouse of Alexandria, sadly no longer exists as it was almost destroyed by an earthquake and by 1323 AD was abandoned. In or around 1480 AD the remaining stones of the tower were used to build the Citadel of Qaitbay. The Citadel of Qaitbay sits on the same spot where the Lighthouse once stood.
The Lighthouse was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World and was one of the tallest manmade structures in the world during its time. The remains of the Lighthouse have however been found by divers and there are plans for UNESCO protection for the remains and the building of an underwater museum is in the works. dives by French underwater archaeologist Franck Goddio have revealed statues with the faces of Ptolemy and Cleopatra, falcon-headed crocodile sphinxes and priests holding canopic jars.
The Citadel of Qaitbay
The Citadel of Qaitbay was built in 1480 A.D. by the Sultan Al-Ashraf Sayf ad-Din Qa’it Bay and was one of the most important defensive strongholds for Egypt along the Mediterranean Sea. Subsequent rulers maintained the Citadel to prevent against Ottoman attacks but in 1882 it was badly damaged by the British and fell into ruin. King Farouk turned the remains into a royal palace in 1904. It is located on Pharos Island.
In 1952, after the Egyptian revolution, it was turned into a maritime museum. There really isn’t much to see inside apart from some great views of the harbour. Tickets are £100EGP, tripod tickets are £20EGP (£1).
The Corniche is a waterfront promenade that runs for about 10 miles along the Eastern harbour of Alexandria from the Citadel of Qaitbay to the Montaza Palace. It is a beautiful walk with lots of restaurants, cafes, gardens and beaches along the way.
The Corniche is extremely popular with locals, especially in the evening time when the locals come out to watch the sunset.
The Library of Alexandria
The Great Library of course no longer exists although it was believed to have been one of the most significant sites of the ancient world. It was founded by the Macedonian general and Pharaoh Ptolemy I Soter I. It was thought to have contained a massive collection on Papyrus scrolls of the most famous works in the world.
When Julius Ceasar’s army set fire to the City in 48 BC the library was believed to have been partially destroyed but the complete destruction came in an attack by the Roman Emperor Aurelian in the 270s A.D.
The Bibliotheca Alexandrina was officially opened in 2002 as a commemoration of the original Library of Alexandria, and it was built in the area where it was believed the original once stood.
The new library houses books in three main languages: Arabic, French, and English and it also houses galleries, temporary exhibits and has several museums within.
The library has tours in English and the cost to enter the library is around EGP 80 for non-Egyptians which includes a 30-minute guided tour (available in 4 languages) from a library staff member.
You can still visit the ruins of the Old Library of Alexandria today. All that is left of this great learning centre is the storerooms underneath ruins of the Serapeum (the cost is around 70 EGP) and it is under Pompey’s Pillar!
Pompey’s Pillar really has nothing to do with Pompey as it was a mistake during the Middle Ages that named it such. The column is actually to commemorate the victory of the Roman Emperor Diocletian in end the revolt in Alexandria. You can’t miss this site on your 1 day in Alexandria tour.
It is the largest Roman column constructed outside of Rome and stands over 85 feet or 26 metres tall. Made from a single piece of Aswan granite with a Corinthian capital and base it is one of the largest monoliths ever constructed. The column has two sphinxes either side of the column and they are constantly finding more artefacts.
Serapis, also spelt Sarapis, was a Greek/Egyptian sun god. Serapis was introduced to Alexandria by Ptolemy I Soter who had the Serapeum built to honour the god. The Serapeum contained many cult statues and the God became known as the lord of healing and fertility.
Destroyed by the Romans in 391, a few of the original pieces are left on the site such as the Pompey’s Pillar, which is surrounded by two big sphinxes. The Serapeum is definitely worth a visit due to its historical importance and the beautiful location. Around the memorial column, you’ll also find a number of statues, artefacts, and the remains of a Serapium, a temple to the deity Serapis.
Catacombs of Kom El Shoqafa
Legend has it that the Catacombs, another of the Seven Wonders of the World, were discovered by a donkey that fell into a hole in the ground. The name translates as “mounds of shards” as the area was used as a dumping ground for broken pottery. It is also the largest Roman burial site in Egypt. There are 3 tiers of tombs and chambers within and the architecture is a Graeco-Roman style.
It is a fascinating merging and blending of Roman, Greek and Egyptian (Pharaonic) systems of belief demonstrated by the now very faded wall paintings, and sculptures.
Underground passages take you to a pillared lobby, a Roman triclinium which was a banqueting hall where the last respects were paid to the dead by grieving relatives. There is also the main tomb area and the Hall of Caracalla. It is very tight and narrow and definitely wasn’t good for my claustrophobia.
It’s still an active dig site and they continue to make new discoveries with the excavation. You can visit these tombs for £100 EGP and you’re not technically allowed to take photos inside.
Kom El Dekka the Roman Amphitheatre
Constructed in the 4th century the Roman Amphitheatre is the most complete Roman ruin in Egypt. The word Kom El Dekka, in Arabic, means the hill of rubble or the hill of the benches, and it was named by a famous historian, El Neweir passed by this area at the beginning of the 20th century.
The actual Amphitheatre was really discovered in the year 1960. Workers building a new government building removed a pile of dust and sand and found some iron columns. Excavation work began and revealed one of the most important discoveries in Egypt in the 20th century.
The Amphitheatre was used to host a wide variety of artistic events from plays to concerts and readings. Over the years it also became an area to announce government events, wars, taxes and other such municipal doings.
The site itself has turned up a bathhouse and a gorgeous Villa Roman villa that dates back to the period of Roman Emperor, Hadrian with some incredible mosaics.
Abu al-Abbas al-Mursi Mosque
The striking Abu al-Abbas al-Mursi Mosque is also the most famous in Alexandria. It has a beautiful cream-coloured exterior and contains the tomb of the 13th-century saint Abul Abbas al-Mursi.
Non-Muslim visitors are welcomed but all visitors must be modestly dressed, women should cover their head, and shoes must be removed upon entry. Don’t forget to bring a few coins with you to tip the shoe keepers. The entrance doors are separated for men and women and women are not allowed in the main area of the mosque. They can, however, visit the mausoleum and view the main interior from the women’s prayer area behind a barrier.
The Alexandria National Museum
The Museum was opened in 2003 in a restored Italian palace that used to house the United States consulate. The collections tell the story of Alexandria and include jewels, weapons and coins. It is considered one of the best museums in Egypt.
Royal Jewelry Museum
Formerly the palace of the Egyptian royal family, the Royal Jewelry Museum has been renovated fairly recently. Stunningly decorated floors and ceilings dominate amidst incredible stained glass windows.
The Museum houses over 11,000 displays that include the collection of Prince Mohamed Ali Tawfik that includes 12 cups made out of bronze and gold, 2,753 precious stones and diamonds, and a money bag made out of gold and other precious stones.
It also includes the Prince Mohamed Ali Tawfik Sultan solid gold pocket watch and a number of glass cups that are decorated with 977 lobes of diamonds.
Al-Haramlik Palace (Montazah Palace)
Al-Haramlik Palace which is also known as the Montazah Palace was built by King Faud I in 1932 as a summer residence. After the revolution in 1952, it was also used as the home of the Egyptian presidents. Entrance is free for pedestrians but you need to pay up to £50EGP for a car pass.
A striking mix of Italian and Turkish design is set in 150 acres of gardens. The gardens are open to the public but the Palace is gated and guarded. The smaller but older Salamlek Palace is also located in the Montaza royal gardens and was used as a hunting lodge and resident for the companion of Khedive Abbas II.
The Salamlek Palace has since been converted into a luxury hotel and casino and is covered in marble with stunning stained glass windows.
Sometimes called the Love Garden the Montaza gardens include swaying palm trees and a stunning view over the Mediterranean Sea.
Shopping in Alexandria Egypt
With only 1 day in Alexandria, a must for your to-do list is to visit a Souk. Now if you are not careful you could end up spending hours here as the streets and alleyways are labyrinthine.
If this is your jam (it is mine) you will revel in the sounds and smells of a traditional Egyptian shopping The Souk El-Attraine is an absolute warren of shops and stalls and it is considered one of the top 5 souks in Egypt. This is located near the Attarine Mosque and is an area full of narrow alleyways filled with a vast variety of shops and stalls. You can buy antiques, spices, clothing, fabrics, hookahs and more.
You will more than likely be approached by someone trying to sell you ancient Egyptian antiquities but they probably aren’t real and if they are that is illegal. You will also be followed down the alley after looking at a piece and not buying with constant shouts lowering the price of the item until you feel you have to buy it. Don’t forget to bring your bartering skills with you.
Eat the Local Seafood
Alexandria is known for its fabulous seafood and you will find dozens of restaurants within walking distance of the Citadel of Qaitbay.
Alexandria Fish Market
I think that the Fish Market is locally known as “Halaket El-Samak” is the best place to enjoy the freshest seafood in Alexandria. After all what better way to end your day in Alexandria eating fish by the beaches of the Corniche. The fish market has been here for over 200 years and you will soon spot the portraits and pictures of famous celebrities who have eaten here.
Here you choose your fish from the display and are charged by the kilo. Then you choose your extras like rice, bread, potatoes. You can also get starters and desserts here as well. It’s great value for money.
To be honest that was the only place I ate in Alexandria, apart from some pastries and coffee in the fabulous Cafes by the Souk. We were on a cruise so we had plenty of food options on board ship.
One of the best Cafes is the Trianon dating back to 1905 it was the famous Art Deco haunt of the literati in the ’20s and ’30s. You can pick up some great treats and sandwiches here. Be warned though everyone here is smoking a hookah these are offered with a variety of flavours from apple to cherries and even the women smoke.
There is a great deal to choose from when spending 1 day in Alexandria, in fact, you can fill up your day surprisingly quickly. So pick your favourites and head there with a private driver it will make the day much easier.