This is the time of year when Cairo is gripped by the summer heat. As temperatures push above 40 degrees, now is the time to get your things and run to the beach. Although not commonly thought of as a beach destination, the city of Alexandria on the Mediterranean coast can be a great summer getaway. The city is as vibrant and cultural as any in Egypt but a lot calmer and less chaotic than Cairo. As it is so easily accessible from the capital, whether by road or rail, Alexandria can be the ideal weekend destination or daytrip, as well as accommodating for longer stays. With so much to see and do, you can be sure not to run out of activities.
Things to see
It is impossible to go to Alexandria without visiting its many historic and cultural sites. Founded in 332 BC by Alexander the Great, Alexandria has a rich cultural legacy to be explored.
The Citadel of Qaitbay has stood on the eastern entrance to the Eastern Harbour for more than 500 years. It was conceived by the Sultan from which it takes its name as a means to prevent the Ottomans invading Egypt: an invasion which nonetheless took place. The Citadel was built on the site of the famous Pharos Lighthouse which, after standing for 1,400 years, was destroyed by earthquakes in the 14th century. It is most likely that many of the stones used to build it were taken from the lighthouse. The complex also houses the naval museum. Both are moderately priced and open to the public.
If you’re looking to take a stroll, but need to escape the sun, then the shaded Montazah Palace and Gardens may be what you’re looking for. The gardens are open 24 hours and cover a large area which pushes up against the beach, which is open to Montazah’s visitors. The palace itself was built around the turn of the century in a Turko-Florentine style, and as such is an attractive blend of Western and Eastern architectural practices. The ticket price for all is inexpensive.
If you come to Alexandria, you will find it difficult to avoid visiting The Corniche. The iconic circular perimeter of the Eastern Harbour is one of the main arteries for traffic in Alexandria and you are bound to find your way on to it sooner or later. However, it can make for a nice walk in itself – weather permitting. Rows of shops and cafes line the road, with picturesque views onto the Mediterranean, making this a great spot to wander and get a feel for the town.
One fascinating old quarter of the city can be found on the land bridge between the Eastern and Western Harbours. The quarter of El Anfushi is where one of the largest continuous settlements of the city can be found. Aside from just wandering through the streets and admiring the old architecture, this quarter also boasts 3rd century catacombs and the palace of Ras el-Tin, the former summer residence of Muhammad Ali – although only the former is open to the public.
Where to stay
If you are looking for luxury when you come to Alexandria, then you will not find better than The Four Seasons. An international brand, the hotel at Alexandria is a relatively recent addition to the city. Unmatched in its style and comfort, the Four Seasons is a destination in itself. In addition to an infinity pool overlooking the sea, the hotel also has an indoor pool, as well as its own large private beach, connected to the main building via a private tunnel. A fully equipped spa, complete with gym and squash courts, is available to all guests. As befits a city with such a diverse cultural heritage as Alexandria, the hotel features a variety of fine dining restaurants from the wider region, catering to Lebanese, Southern Italian, and North African cuisine among others. The Fish restaurant and lounge, located on a private beach, provides an option of private dining for couples, for a more romantic setting. All in all, the Four Seasons is the number one choice for comfort, and with seasonal packages constantly advertised on their website it is definitely worth looking at. The Four Seasons, 399 El-Geish Road; Tel: +20 (3) 581-8000; www.fourseasons.com/alexandria
One hotel which has been a staple feature of Alexandria since 1929 is the Steigenberger Cecil Hotel on Saad Zaghloul square. Originally built by the wealthy Jewish French-Egyptian Metzger family, the hotel has seen its fair share of historic visitors, including Winston Churchill and Al Capone. Steeped in history, the building looks as though it hasn’t changed since the war, complete with old fashioned elevator and early 20th century decor. Although the amenities of the Cecil Hotel do not approach that of the Four Seasons (the hotel has no pool or beach front) the historic charm and central location of the Cecil make it a great option for those looking to see the authentic side to Alexandria. Steigenberger Cecil Hotel, 16 Saad Zaghloul Square; Tel: 19623
Where to eat
If you’re looking for good food in Alexandria, you’ll be spoilt for choice. Of course, a weekend in the city isn’t complete without trying some of the local fish, brought in by the same boats which line the sea walls. Again, there is a multitude of fish restaurants to choose from but we would recommend The Fish Market, not far from the Citadel. Although this restaurant is a well-known tourist destination, its stunning views of the harbour and great location are reasons enough to pay it a visit. As the name suggests, the restaurant serves up fresh fish from the harbour below, cooked to a high standard by experienced chefs. The Fish Market, El Corniche; Tel: 03 4805114
Whilst you may not book a trip to Alexandria to find Mexican cuisine, there’s always time for a taco. The family run restaurant of Tejano’s has a great atmosphere to go and enjoy a meaty meal after a full day’s sightseeing. As you expect from a Mexican restaurant, the menu is meat heavy and covered in cheese. If you’re coming as a family, this is the place to take the kids! Tejano’s Mexican Grill, San Stefano, 19 El Ekbal Street; Tel: 03 5853454
Another culinary surprise to be found in Alexandria is China House. Located on top of the Cecil Hotel, this Chinese restaurant boasts panoramic views of the harbour and the old town. China House is a part of Dragon group, the same people who run Dragon House on Street 9 in Maadi. You can expect the same quality from China House as we have previously seen in their other restaurants, with great service at reasonable prices. China House, Steigenberger Cecil Hotel, 16 Saad Zaghloul Square; Tel: 03 4877173
Most Cairo dwellers have at least heard talk of the famous Royal Mohamed-Aly Club, a relaxing oasis that is often home to various festivities.
With Egypt’s tourism at a low in recent years, even as nicer weather starts to creep through Cairo’s streets these past two weeks, it is up to Cairo residents and companies to gather and develop creative plans to draw tourists to the city whose streets feel like home to all.
It’s not common to go on a trip from Cairo to Gouna and come back on the same day. Apparently, though, if you’re a desert rally racer, this is just part of your usual routine. You know, wake up early, drive 450 KM to Gouna, then take a turn into the desert, practice aggressive driving and navigate for another couple of hundred kilometers until finally driving back 450 KM home. This is exactly what I experienced/ got to experience when I decided to ride along with my friends from Gazelle Rally team in one of their practice sessions.
“Every society can fix all their problems,” Amgad told me. Can it? More than 5 years after the Egyptian revolution of 2011, when the people gathered at Tahrir square to take problems into their own hands, things appear not to be so. When I speak to Egyptians today, I am confronted with countless problems.