Chad and I both love history, so we couldn’t resist spending three days of our Egypt itinerary to visit the famed city of Alexandria, founded by Alexander the Great in 331 BCE. To be honest, I’m not sure it was worth it and we had many challenges during our time there. But we saw some very cool things and it is always fun to be near a sea (and the Mediterranean is one of the best seas to be near) so I’m glad we did it. Here are some of the highlights and lowlights.
Train Trip and Arrival
Our arrival by train in Alexandria was pretty smooth, especially because we’d already purchased the tickets a couple days earlier. As I mentioned, the Egyptian ticketing system is a little confusing. In addition to the separate pricing for foreigners there are also many different types of trains and you want to make sure you pick the right type. The ordinary trains are cheapest but the slowest and often lack AC. The Express, VIP, and Talgo trains are newer, make the trip in about three hours, and have AC in first and second class, though sadly none of the trains seem to have wifi.
We took an Uber to the train station plenty early for the train so we could have brunch at the train station café prior to our 12:00 p.m. departure. The food was pretty good, especially my eastern breakfast that included falafel, stewed beans (called foul), omelet, and the flat Egyptian bread you see everywhere here. Chad got a chicken shawarma crepe that was also good. The train was late, of course, but only by about 15 minutes. We’d chosen first class seats since they were only $5 more each and I’d read that they’re quite a bit wider. There was plenty of room for store our big suitcases above us – Chad is strong enough to toss ours up but there are also plenty of train employees who will do it for a tip.
When we arrived in Alexandria, we went out the nearest exit, which turned out to be the back end of the train station and a little chaotic. We got an Uber pretty easily and headed to our Airbnb (review below; it was not our favorite). We went out and got groceries (which required lots of interactions with the very kind workers at Kheir Zaman supermarket) and came home to find that the power was out in the whole area. Since our apartment was on the 12th floor and we were also hauling drinking water, this not ideal. But we climbed the steps and the power returned at 6 p.m. so we could make dinner. Messaging with the host, we learned that the government shuts the power off in this neighborhood of Alexandria every night in order to conserve energy. Chad made the best of a very difficult kitchen and some ingredient mishaps and we ended our night eating some very simple but tasty pasta with homemade sauce.
The next day we worked most of the day but went out in the late afternoon to explore the Bibliotheque Alexandrina (I’m not sure why or when the “n” was added). This huge library was opened in 2002 as a joint project of Egypt and UNESCO in honor of the famous Library of Alexandria that burned in 48BCE. It contains several small museums inside in addition to being a working library with a huge reading room. You must buy a ticket to enter but it’s only around $5 (with much lower prices for Egyptians again, which is fair). Like everywhere in Egypt, there was a bag scanner and metal detector to go through as well to enter. We started at the information desk to see about a map and they recommended we check out the downstairs museums and then join the free English tour in 45 minutes. This sounded like a great plan.
The two best museums also require an extra ticket, which you purchase from a small booth right next to the bottom of the stairs. We felt it worthwhile to do both, so happily bought a ticket for the Manuscripts Museum for 60 pounds each ($2) and the Antiquities Museum for 100 pounds each (around $3). We were most interested in the manuscripts so started there. The old books and texts were well-displayed and very interesting. Some highlights were a replica of the Rosetta Stone (original is still at the British Museum), a papyrus from the Alexandria Library that had been found in someone’s tomb (I guess it had been checked out when the fire happened?), some cool old Astronomy books, and a very old Ibn Sina (aka Avicenna) medical text.
Next we explored the Antiquities Museum. Most were centered around the Greco-Roman era (which fits with Alexandria) but they also had some Ancient Egyptian and Byzantine items. Plus a couple of sarcophagi. We especially enjoyed the artifacts that were from excavations on the site of the original library, including a very interesting dog mosaic.
The tour was quite informative and explained how the idea for building the museum came about, the architectural competition that was held for it, and the many interesting features. The tour guide said about 5,000 people come to use the reading room every day, and it is the largest open reading room with a 2,000-person capacity. Most of the scholars using the reading room are students and others connected with the nearby University of Alexandria. There were certainly a lot of people there during our visit.
We ended our time at the Bibliotheque in its Anwar el-Sadat exhibit chronicling the life and leadership of the president famously assassinated in 1981. It was especially interesting in light of the current war in Israel (I won’t attempt to recount Sadat’s fame and history but here’s his Wikipedia page).
A Delightful Date Night
We followed our museum visit with an excellent Alexandria date night beginning at the Spitfire Bar, which was an easy 15-minute walk up the corniche (Alexandria’s seafront) from the museum. Egypt is very, very Islamic so bars are few and far between. This one is supposedly the oldest in Alexandria (I think dating back to the 1990s I think) though it apparently changed locations last year. Its current location is above a Greek restaurant on the main coastal road. It wasn’t easy to find but locals pointed the way. We were the only customers at 5 p.m. but they welcomed us and we thought the bar was really charming.
From there we went to the restaurant I’d researched, called Sky View, which is in the Paradise Inn Hotel. The hotel and restaurant were both far more swank than I’d been prepared for but we were again welcomed and able to get a table with a great view of the sea with no reservation. The hotel is apparently historic and has had visits from British royals and other celebrities. We were especially impressed by the open elevator, which was apparently popular in the late 19th century.
In addition to a gorgeous view, our seafood pasta dinner was excellent. We started with a mixed seafood mezze and then Chad got a classic red sauce pasta with seafood and I chose mushroom ravioli, but of course we shared. Even with four glasses of wine, the overall bill was quite reasonable (about $60 including a good tip). We appreciate the ambiance of rundown opulence (we’ve enjoyed similar places in Vegas and even a favorite family haunt back home). There was even a live violinist serenading the crowd. It was a really fun evening.
Catacombs and Other Alexandria Sights
The next morning, we went out for our main Alexandria sightseeing. We started with Catacombs of Kom el Shoqafa, an underground necropolis that is apparently one of the considered one of the Seven Wonders of the Middle Ages from the 2nd century CE. It was rediscovered in 1900 when a donkey fell through one of its shafts. USAID helped fund the excavation and turn it into a tourist attraction, so we felt a bit of American pride as we explored the tunnels.
Since we arrived right at the 9 a.m. opening, we had the facility mostly to ourselves and it was really interesting and atmospheric, but only took about 45 minutes to thoroughly explore. Still, it was well worth the entry fee of 100 pounds each (about $3.25).
From the catacombs we walked about 15 minutes to the Serapeum, the remains of an ancient temple from about the same time. It was an interesting site too but took even less time to visit (seriously maybe 15 minutes) and I don’t think was quite worth the fee, which was the same as the catacombs.
For our next stop I wanted to see the St. Mark’s Cathedral, because it is believed to be on the site of St. Mark’s 1st-century church. It was a couple kilometers away, but we decided to make the 40-minute walk rather than deal with calling an Uber. Like Nairobi, we’ve found Egypt to be very car centric, which is not our preference. The walk was actually a great way to see more of the local flavor of Alexandria, so we enjoyed it even though it was already pretty hot for mid-morning.
The cathedral was interesting but not great, so it wasn’t long before we headed to our final stop, the Citadel of Qaitbay, a 15th-century fort. This time we did take a car rather than another 40-minute walk because it would have been right in the sun along the Mediterranean Sea. The Uber driver dropped us off about a five-minute walk from the citadel but we found shade for most of it. We paid another 100-pounds each entry fee and began our visit right as a large tour group of students was arriving. The citadel was interesting from the standpoint that it was so like so many other forts we’ve seen, especially in Spain and Latin American countries. It is easy to see the influence of the Arab world in those later forts. It was also fun to see all the groups of students of many different ages touring. A bunch of middle schoolers tried to talk to us but the language barrier was too steep.
Our time in Alexandria was brief but more than enough to do the things we wanted. Unfortunately, our Airbnb was pretty rough (my review is below, but I really went easy on him), which hampered our enjoyment quite a bit. For most travelers to Egypt, I think Alexandria is skippable, but I’m glad we made the journey and got to see both the new library and the very old catacombs.
Airbnb review – Our three-night stay at Mahmoud’s place was a challenge, though there were some good points. There is a wonderful cross-breeze so definitely doesn’t need AC. The rooms were bright and spacious. We enjoyed the sea view from the balcony. And it was clean other than the kitchen. The biggest issue was the wifi – slow (typically below 1MB down/.2 MB up but occasionally 6 MB down when lucky) and very inconsistent. Usually it was too slow for our computers to connect to, so we had to hotpot our cell phones. It’s on the 12th floor so if you return while the power is off in the neighborhood from 5-6 p.m. as we did once, you have to walk up 12 flights of stairs. The kitchen and dishware felt dirty and sticky, so we cleaned and double-washed everything we wanted to use. The clothes washer worked well for us using our own detergent but note it is the kind that you drain manually into the floor drain and even doing this as slowly as possible caused a wet floor, though dried it fairly quickly.