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Things to Do in Alexandria

Things to Do in Alexandria

Founded by Alexander the Great and once the largest city in the world, Alexandria is rich in history. The Great Library of Alexandria and the Pharos Lighthouse, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, were both situated here. In more recent times, from the late 19th century to the 1950s, Alexandria was a popular tourist destination for writers, poets, and artists. While few historical monuments exist today, Alexandria is still a great place to capture a sense of days-gone-by grandeur.

Despite being the second-largest city in Egypt, Alexandria’s valid claim to fame is its storied past and rich history. The city was the capital of Ptolemaic Egypt and the site of the infamous battle between Cleopatra and the Romans. As a leading learning centre, Alexandria was home to two ancient wonders of the world.

While Alexandria may have lost some of its former lustrous, the city’s mix of old and new, beautiful and ugly, is still a sight. There are plenty of attractions for experts seeking technical details, including the Great Library of Alexandria and the Pharos Lighthouse. Plan to explore its many landmarks and monuments to appreciate Alexandria’s rich history fully. There are lots of Alexandria activities, waiting for you!

Dive Alexandria’s Underwater Ruins

Alexandria has just the thing if you want a unique diving experience. While diving in the Red Sea is known for its colourful coral reefs and fish life, Alexandria’s dive sites in the Eastern Harbor offer an opportunity to explore ancient underwater ruins.

It’s important to note that visibility can be low when diving in Alexandria, so it’s best to come prepared. However, for those who venture down, the toppled statues and columns of the ancient city make for an awe-inspiring sight.

Even underwater archaeologists have found riches off the coast of Alexandria in recent years. The bay of Aboukir to the northeast of the city is home to the port town of Heracleion-Thonis, and many of the treasures discovered there are now on display in Alexandria’s museums.

For recreational divers, the Eastern Harbor remains the most popular site. “Cleopatra’s Palace” is a favourite among divers, with sphinxes, columns, and statuary still in situ. While we may never know if Cleopatra herself ever resided here, it’s still a fascinating underwater experience.

Fort Qaitbey

Fort Qaitbey
Fort Qaitbey

Constructed in 1480 by Mamluk sultan Qaitbey, Fort Qaitbay was erected to defend the crucial Mediterranean port of Alexandria. However, this strategic location was once home to the world-famous Lighthouse of Alexandria, Pharos, one of the world’s seven ancient wonders. Unfortunately, the lighthouse was destroyed by an earthquake in 1303, and Qaitbey later utilized its debris to build the citadel.

Although not a perfect replacement for the lost Pharos Lighthouse, Fort Qaitbey has been a steadfast guardian of Alexandria for over five centuries. Its construction employed rubble from the demolished lighthouse, and the fortification boasts a series of solid stone-walled chambers and a rooftop lookout, offering an unparalleled view of the Mediterranean. Visitors can walk along the Corniche road of the Eastern Harbor to reach Fort Qaitbey and explore its fascinating history and strategic significance.

Pompey’s Pillar and Serapeum

In Alexandria, Egypt, there is an ancient column known as Pompey’s Pillar. Despite its name, this red Aswan granite column with a Corinthian capital, standing at almost 27 meters, has nothing to do with Pompey. Instead, it was erected in 292 CE in honour of Diocletian, who provided food for the starving population after the city was under siege. The column rises from the Serapeion (Temple of Serapis) ruins, once used to store the overflow of manuscripts from the Great Library of Alexandria. Although the Serapeion is now badly ruined, there are substructure chambers that visitors can explore beneath the column.

The Serapeum was once Alexandria’s acropolis dedicated to Serapis, the city’s patron god, but it was destroyed around 400 AD when Christianity gained strength in Alexandria. The remains of underground storerooms where they used to keep extra texts and manuscripts from the Great Library of Alexandria can also be found in Carmous, near the Catacombs of Kom el-Shuqqafa. Alexandria’s only fully intact ancient monument is also located in Carmous, where the remains of ancient walls, architectural fragments, and rubble are scattered around a hill.

Explore the Bibliotheca Alexandrina

Alexandria has been home to two of the seven ancient wonders of the world, with Egypt as a whole boasting three out of the seven. The only ancient wonder still in existence is the Great Pyramid of Giza. The ancient Library of Alexandria was another marvel that put the Mediterranean city on the map, in addition to the Pharos lighthouse.

The Roman conquest of Egypt led to the destruction of the Great Library. However, in 2002, the modern Bibliotheca Alexandrina was built to tribute the ancient library and revive the spirit of knowledge and learning.

The Bibliotheca Alexandrina is a significant contemporary landmark in Egypt and the cultural hub of Alexandria. It features one of the most ambitious libraries in the modern world and several museums that explore Alexandria’s history and heritage.

The building’s architecture centres around a large sun disk, which overlooks the waterfront Corniche. The main library and reading room accommodate up to eight million volumes.

Aside from the impressive main library, the exhibition spaces below the library are the main tourist attractions. The Alexandria Antiquities Museum, located below the library, displays a collection of sculptures. This collection dates back to the Greco-Roman period, obtained through underwater archaeological excavations in the harbour.

The Manuscript Museum, also located below the library, exhibits a collection of ancient texts and scrolls. The exhibition halls host rotating contemporary art exhibitions, a permanent collection of Egyptian folk art, and a Science Museum and Planetarium that cater to children.

Stroll the Corniche

The focal point of Alexandria is its Corniche, a coastal road that runs parallel to the Mediterranean Sea on one side and the city on the other. Walking down the Corniche provides a glimpse into what the ancient city was like over 2,000 years ago. The street vendors, parents with strollers, couples, fishermen, and teenagers all add to the vibrant scene. The Corniche Road, which runs along the waterfront of downtown Alexandria, is a symbol of the city and its monuments.

The stretch of the Corniche that runs from Midan Saad Zaghloul to Fort Qaitbey on the western tip of the Eastern Harbor is particularly notable. It captures the essence of the cosmopolitan elegance and decadence that characterized Alexandria during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Although much of the architecture from this era remains, it is heavily worn and falling into disrepair.

While strolling along the Corniche, visitors will come across the Abu Abbas al-Mursi Mosque with multiple domes. They also come across the Steigenberger Cecil Hotel and Paradise Inn Windsor Palace Hotel, once the town’s grandest addresses. These heritage hotels hosted notable figures such as mystery author Agatha Christie, the British Secret Service and Winston Churchill during WWII, and Egypt’s beloved singer Umm Khalthoum. The Cecil also features in Lawrence Durrell’s classic Alexandria Quartet novels.

Discover the Catacombs of Kom el-Shuqqafa

The Catacombs of Kom el-Shuqqafa are a fascinating blend of Egyptian, Greek, and Roman architecture and monuments and are rightfully considered one of the Seven Wonders of the Middle Ages. Dating back to the 2nd century AD, these catacombs consist of three underground levels carved out of rock, with the most profound level now submerged in water. These catacombs were discovered in 1900 when a donkey accidentally fell through the ground-level access shaft.

The second level of the catacombs is particularly noteworthy due to the abundance of sculptures present there. While initially intended as a tomb for a single family, the bones of other individuals and horses were also found there. The Catacombs of Kom el-Shuqqafa were hewn from the rock on the southern slopes of a hill in the Carmous district and are believed to date from the 2nd century CE. They offer an admirable example of the characteristic Alexandrian fusion of Egyptian and Greco-Roman styles.

The catacombs are laid out on several levels of sarcophagi and loculi (shelf tomb) chambers. A spiral staircase leads down into the ground to the central rotunda. To the right, visitors can enter the main burial chamber and the Sepulchral Chapel, which contains 91 loculi, each large enough to accommodate three or four mummies. To the left is a large room known as the Triclinium Funebre, which would have been used for banquets in honour of the dead.

Visit Aboukir

Nestled atop a promontory, surrounded by ancient forts, lies the quaint fishing village of Aboukir, located about 24 kilometres northeast of Alexandria. Despite its modest size, its illustrious history is truly remarkable.

On August 1st, 1798, it was here that the Battle of the Nile took place, where Nelson led his troops to a devastating victory over the French fleet. Additionally, in 1799, Napoleon emerged victorious over a much larger Turkish force, and in 1801, Sir Ralph Abercromby defeated the remaining French army, forcing them to leave Egypt.

For those who enjoy naval history, these battles alone make Aboukir a worthwhile destination. However, for the average traveller, the main attraction is the opportunity to indulge in some of Egypt’s finest seafood.

During the summer, Aboukir Bay is home to several incredible seafood restaurants, which are popular among the locals. Savouring a delectable seafood dinner while watching the Mediterranean sunset is the perfect way to end a day in Alexandria.

Explore Fouad Street

If I may suggest, taking a stroll down Alexandria’s historic Fouad Street would be a lovely experience. It’s worth noting that although Google Maps lists it as ‘El Horeya Road,’ locals still refer to it as Fouad Street, named after the former Egyptian king.

Fouad Street is a charming piece of Alexandria’s belle epoque, where a harmonious blend of Egyptian, Italian, Greek, French, Armenian, Muslim, Christian, and Jewish communities once thrived. The architecture, art, shops, and even food were a melting pot of the diverse communities, all of whom held a deep connection to Alexandria.

Try Alexandria’s famous patisseries

It’s heartwarming to know that Alexandria is renowned for its rich cafe and patisserie culture, some of which have been cherished for over a century, like Trianon near El Raml Station and the family-owned Délices, which has been passed down through generations since 1922. To discover more of Alexandria’s beloved old patisseries, you might want to check out the article 14 Egyptian Dessert Shops & Patisseries More Than 50 Years Old.

View the Art inside Mahmoud Said Museum

If you have a keen interest in the art scene of Egypt, it would be highly recommended that you visit this beautiful Italianate villa, which was once the home of the renowned Egyptian artist Mahmoud Said. This place has now become an art gallery showcasing Said’s remarkable work.

Mahmoud Said is considered by many to be the pioneer of modern Egyptian art. His artwork may have a European flair, but it is infused with a unique Egyptian identity that sets it apart from anything else. His artwork collection covers various stages of his painting career, including everything from landscapes to nudes.

If you plan to visit the Royal Jewelry Museum, include this art gallery, which is only a short one-kilometre walk north. Visiting both places together can make for a truly enriching experience.

Ride the tram

Riding the Alexandrian tram is a must-do activity to immerse yourself in the local culture. This tram has operated since 1860 and was the first public transportation system in Egypt and Africa. It’s an incredible piece of history and one of the oldest tram systems still in existence today.

Not only are these trams an affordable option, but they’re also incredibly safe, making them an excellent choice for those who want to explore the city without any safety concerns. Although they may not be the fastest mode of transport, double-decker cars provide a unique perspective of the city. Women-only vehicles are available for female solo travellers, providing a comfortable and secure experience.

Royal Jewelry Museum

Located in the Alex neighbourhood of Zizenia, the Royal Jewelry Museum is housed in a former palace built in 1919-1923 and once belonged to Princess Fatma El Zahraa. The castle itself is an architectural masterpiece, blending Islamic and European styles, with ornate plasterwork ceilings that are gilded and frescoed.

The museum’s extensive collection of over 11,000 pieces includes jewellery, coins, golden clocks, watches, portraits of the royal family, crowns, and other objects from the Muhammad Ali Pasha dynasty, some dating back to the reign of Mohammed Ali Pasha himself, who became Khedive of Egypt in 1805.

Of particular note is King Farouk’s walking stick, crafted from ebony and gold. Visitors can easily access the museum from central Alexandria by tram, and it is well worth a visit for those interested in the history and culture of Egypt’s royal family.

Have a drink at the Windsor Palace rooftop

The Windsor Palace Hotel, now known as Paradise Inn Windsor Palace, has a rich history dating back to 1906. It was situated in a sought-after location 100 years ago, with proximity to the Raml train station, Alexandria’s old port harbour, shopping district, and seaside promenades.

While the hotel may not be in its prime today, it still boasts a timeless feature that draws visitors from far and wide – the breathtaking view from its rooftop restaurant and terrace.

If you find that the 7th-floor Sky Roof is in ‘club mode’, with blaring music and harsh lighting, don’t worry – you can still enjoy the equally stunning view from the restaurant terrace on the 6th floor.

For more fascinating insights into Alexandria’s iconic old hotels, check out the article 11 Historical Hotels in Egypt You Can Stay At Until Today.

Visit the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Abu Mena

Abu Mena, an early Christian holy city built over the tomb of the martyr Menas of Alexandria, around 50 km south of Alexandria, holds great historical significance. Unfortunately, not much of the ancient Christian city remains standing today except for the foundation of some grand buildings, such as the basilica. It’s believed that Menas died in either the late 3rd or early 4th century, and it’s heartbreaking to see this precious site in danger of disappearing forever.

UNESCO has listed Abu Mena as a “World Heritage in Danger” due to the rise in the water table, which has made the foundations of the remaining structures unstable or collapse. As compassionate humans, we must do our best to preserve this site’s rich history and cultural heritage. If you’re in Alexandria and have some spare time, visiting this World Heritage site could help raise awareness of its plight. Let’s work together to protect and cherish what remains of Abu Mena.

Roman Amphitheatre (Kom el Dikka)

The Roman Amphitheatre in Alexandria, Egypt, was discovered in 1960 during the construction of a governmental building. Dating back to the 4th century AD, this arena was used for performances during the Roman era and public assemblies and summits during the Byzantine and early Islamic periods. The site also includes the ruins of Roman baths from the 2nd-4th century AD to the north of the amphitheatre and a 2nd-century AD Roman villa known as the Villa of the Birds, which features a mosaic floor depicting birds. These additional sites are worth a visit when exploring the area around the amphitheatre.

In the centre of Alexandria lies Kom el-Dikka, once a mound of rubble. In the 1960s, the site was cleared for new housing, and during this process, a treasure trove of ancient ruins was discovered. Among these ruins was a small Roman theatre. Today, visitors can explore the Greco-Roman period of Alexandria at the small archaeological park located at the site. Along with the theatre, the park also features remnants of a Ptolemaic temple, a Roman bathhouse, and several Roman-era villas. One of the most significant discoveries at the site was the well-preserved 3rd-century mosaic floors found during excavation work on the Villa of the Birds. These mosaics have been kept in situ and are a sight for history enthusiasts.

Alexandria National Museum

If you want to learn more about Alexandria’s rich history, the National Museum is a great place to start. The museum’s architecture may not be its most vital feature, but its exhibits more than makeup for it.

The displays are arranged chronologically, covering the Pharaonic, Greek, Roman, Christian, Islamic, and modern eras. There’s even a section dedicated to underwater monuments, some of which still exist in the Mediterranean Sea off the coast of Alexandria.

Venturing inside, visitors are taken on a journey through time. The basement showcases the Pharaonic era, while the ground floor explores Alexandria’s golden age under the Ptolemy dynasty. The first floor covers the Byzantine and Islamic periods.

The museum’s most impressive displays are on the ground floor, where visitors can admire statues and artefacts recovered from the sunken city of Heracleion-Thonis in Aboukir Bay.

Overall, the National Museum is a must-visit destination for anyone looking to understand Alexandria’s fascinating past better. The exhibits are thoughtfully curated, and the museum does an excellent job of bringing ancient Alexandria to life through its maps and other interactive displays.

Montazah Gardens

Located on the eastern side of Alexandria, the Montazah Palace Complex and its royal gardens offer a serene retreat by the Mediterranean Sea. Once the summer palace and residence of the Egyptian monarchy, the Salamlik Palace was initially built in 1892 by Khedive Abbas II as a hunting lodge. Later, King Fuad added the sister palace Haramlik in 1932.

While the palaces are not open to the general public, visitors are welcome to explore the gardens, take in the stunning sea views, and indulge in delicious food at the various restaurants and cafes in the park. Additionally, a charming little island can be accessed via a bridge.

Montazah is a verdant oasis on the city’s eastern edge, graced with towering palm trees, manicured lawns, and vibrant flowers that were once exclusive to the royal court and their entourage. Despite the palace being off-limits, the sprawling gardens are open to all, providing a much-needed respite from the hustle and bustle of Alexandria.

The Montazah Palace is an impressive sight, with its unique design featuring ornate towers influenced by the Florentine style and Rococo embellishments. The park’s coastal end boasts a small beach and a whimsical bridge leading to the island.

For those seeking tranquillity, a visit to Montazah is highly recommended and can do wonders to restore one’s peace of mind before returning to the city’s fast-paced environment. Mini-buses travelling west along the Corniche road pass by Montazah, and the fare ranges from 1-2 EGP depending on the boarding location.

Ras el-Tin Palace

With its grandeur and history, Ras el-Tin Palace was once a cherished retreat for Egypt’s sultans seeking respite from the sweltering Cairo weather. This iconic palace is also significant as it was where King Farouk, the last king of Egypt, officially relinquished his throne before leaving for Italy in 1952.

Although the palace is now under the domain of the Egyptian navy, the magnificent white exterior remains a sight to behold, especially when viewed from the harbour waters. Unfortunately, the beautiful interiors are not accessible to the general public, but we can still appreciate the palace’s grandeur from a distance.

Day Trip to the El Alamein War Memorials

The small and humble township of El Alamein, located approximately 112 kilometres to the west of Alexandria, holds a significant place in the history of the modern world. In this barren and unremarkable desert, the Allies achieved their first decisive victory in the North African campaign during World War II.

The battles fought here in October 1942 were brutal, resulting in the deaths or injuries of over 80,000 soldiers from various countries, such as Australia, New Zealand, India, Great Britain, Germany, and Italy. These events have left a lasting impact on the town, and today’s war memorials serve as a sombre reminder of the 13-day-long conflict that took so many lives.

The El Alamein War Museum is an excellent tribute to the campaign, and it does a great job of showcasing a wide range of military memorabilia from the time. Meanwhile, the Commonwealth Cemetery is a beautiful and well-maintained tribute to the fallen, with desert plants surrounding the 7,000 tombstones arranged in regimented rows.

Along the coastal highway, the German Memorial stands just north of town, where most of the 4,500 dead German soldiers are buried. A couple more kilometres north is the Italian Memorial, home to a small but fascinating museum. These memorials are a touching tribute to those who made the ultimate sacrifice during this dark time in history.

Dine Out in Alexandria’s Fish Restaurants

If you’re planning a trip to Alexandria, you must try the fresh seafood in the city. You’ll find the best fish restaurants on the harborfront, where you can enjoy your meal with stunning sea views, and the Anfushi district, a working-class area extending west from Fort Qaitbey and the harbour.

In the early evening, Anfushi comes alive, with traditional coffeehouses spilling out onto the street and the aroma of sheesha (water pipes) and grilled fish filling the air. Beyond the restaurant scene, there’s so much to explore in Anfushi. Along Qasr Ras el-Tin Street, you’ll find the city’s shipyards, and further along the street, you’ll come across the bustling Alexandria fish market. It’s an excellent spot for photographers in the mornings when the haggling is at its peak.

Abu Abbas al-Mursi Mosque

The Abu Abbas al-Mursi Mosque is a prominent landmark in Alexandria, Egypt, built-in 1796 over the tomb of the 13th-century Sufi holy man Abu Abbas al-Mursi. Algerian sheikh Abu Hassan el Maghreby constructed the mosque, and it is the largest mosque in Alexandria to date, having undergone several renovations since its construction. The mosque’s history dates back to 1307 when El Sheikh Zein El Deen built a mausoleum, dome and a small mosque over the tomb. This mosque became a popular pilgrimage spot for Muslims en route to and from Mecca.

Abu Abbas Al Mursi, an Andalusian Islamic scholar and sheikh originally from Murcia in Spain’s Andalusia region, spent 43 years in Alexandria before passing. His teachings are still revered in Egypt to this day. The mosque’s stunning facade of swirling Islamic calligraphy designs and motifs is a significant attraction for non-religious visitors. The mosque’s intricate mosaic halls are accessible to visitors, provided they dress modestly and leave their shoes at the main entrance.

Shop in Alex’s Main Souk Area

If you’re looking for a taste of everyday life in Alexandria, visiting the local souq is a must. Although there may not be many items that catch the eye of tourists, the market is filled with a vast array of goods ranging from fresh produce to silver trinkets. The numerous winding lanes that branch off from one another all specialize in different products, making it an intriguing and diverse place to explore. More than just a shopping destination, the souq is where you can immerse yourself in the local culture. Stroll through the market to experience the essence of Alexandria’s soul.

Cavafy Museum

Constantine Cavafy was a remarkable Alexandrian poet who unfortunately only gained fame and recognition for his writing after passing. Despite being a journalist and civil servant during his work, he was little recognized for his poetry outside of a small group of Alexandrian-based writers. It’s worth noting that English novelist E.M. Forster was a champion of Cavafy’s work and was part of this group.

Cavafy’s poetry is a rich reflection of the vast history of Alexandria, particularly its Hellenistic origins, and he has become one of the most celebrated literary figures of the city. His former apartment, which can be found on Sharm el-Sheikh Street, has been transformed into a museum that contains many of his manuscripts and correspondence, serving as a tribute to his life and a major attraction for anyone looking to embark on an Alexandrian literary pilgrimage.

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