Here at Seven Suitcases, we have an abiding love for Egypt. Amelia’s third child is named Cairo Zephyr – she felt his first kick in the capital, and later, her pregnant belly was brushed by the soft, warm winds of Sinai – and, in more recent times, we’ve visited again and again, and followed its beleaguered recent history closely. In 2011, we watched with baited breath as the country experienced its ‘Arab Spring,’ held its referendum and parliamentary election, and voted in the first new president in 30 years. In 2013, that president was ousted by the military. In 2014, a new constitution was institutionalised, but tourism had been hard-hit. We continue to watch, and hope that Egypt will find the stability it’s seeking.
But the country’s history is defined as much by millennia as by months, and though you may be hesitant about taking a trip with your tinies, so long as you (sadly) steer clear of the Red Sea Coast, with the exception of the package-holiday hub of Sharm al Sheikh – with which we’re not in love – then the travel advisories give the All Clear. The Great Pyramids of Giza. The remnants of Ozymandias, “King of Kings.” The grand hotels overlooking the Nile, like something straight out of an Agatha Christie…and that’s just the tip of this North African iceberg. With kids in tow, you’ll find no end of attention. Little gifts will be proffered; preferential service will be provided – that’s just the way things are. And you’ll likely find you love it every bit as much as we do.
Here, then, in no order of favourites, are our personal top 10 picks for travel in Egypt with kids.
Grand, crumbling, chaotic, exuberant, and ancient. Cairo is all these things, and far more besides (we think that if Paris experienced some sort of cataclysmic, climate-altering event, Cairo is what it would look like afterwards). There’s a lot to see, but there are some things we think are unmissable with children.
- The incredible, dusty Egyptian Museum, where mummies and Tutankhamun’s treasures are to be found. Trust us: it’s an absolute must for even the most museum-reluctant little one.
- Zamalek A lovely leafy area of quiet streets, cafés and antique shops, perfect for when the city gets too much for you. If your kids require a little home comfort, head to Maison Thomas (26th July St), with is great pizzas, sandwiches, and cakes; if you can swing a sitter, pop out for a parental drink at the hidden, first-floor Aperitivo (157 26th of July St). A nice stay here is the Marriott Hotel: grand but calm (it was originally a palace), and with a fabulous pool.
- Al-Azhar Park (Darassa Hill) When the need for a wide green space presents itself, taxi up to this lovely park on a hill, where kids can frolic in the fountains and you can enjoy the view out over the city. If you want a truly local experience, come at the weekend, when you’ll be strolling with thousands of Cairenes.
- Coptic Cairo This lesser-visited section of the city, complete with thousand-year-old churches, is well worth a stroll. Wander the beautiful backstreets, look in on the Hanging Church and the Church of St. George, and explore the little cemetery at the back of the Church of St. Barbara, over which local residents often fly their flocks of homing pigeons.
- Islamic Cairo Many consider old Islamic Cairo the very heart of the city: browse the stalls of the colourful (if touristy) Khan al-Khalili market, marvel at the manifold mosques and minarets, stand in the shadow of the great 11th century Bab Zuweila gateway, and pick up a sweet (if bulky) souvenir on Sharia Khayamiya (Street of the Tentmakers), where lovely decorative cotton tents – usually used for eating the evening itfar meal during the fasting month of Ramadan – come in children’s sizes, perfect for a playhouse back home.
- Older children – particularly bibliophiles – will likely love a dip into L’Orientaliste bookstore on Sharia Kasr El Nil, with its dusty tomes and old maps. Similarly, Lehnert & Landrock (44 Sherif St) has books (including kids’ books) and vintage photos of Cairo that make for great framing.
- Food is everywhere in Cairo, and unless you’re visiting in Ramadan (when only hotels vend food during daylight hours), you’ll never go hungry. Our kids’ fave is to dip into a big bowl of kushari : rice, lentils and macaroni, topped with tomato sauce and crispy fried onions, sold from huge cauldrons in the lanes of Islamic Cairo.
- Stay: Cairo abounds with five star hotels at surprisingly affordable prices, and it’s great to be able to retreat to something with a touch of luxury after a long day pounding the hot city streets. The Sofitel (in Zamalek; see above), Four Seasons and Kempinski Nile are all good, solid, child-friendly choices, with the added benefit of excellent security.
Home to the three mighty Pyramids of Khufu, Khafre and Menkaure, Giza, about 13 miles (20km) outside Cairo, has been a favourite tourist spot since Roman times. Once you’ve headed to the plateau to explore the pyramids themselves (kids can take a camel ride, though you’ll need to bargain on the price), remember also to look in on the Sphinx (which you might find somewhat smaller than you imagined) and the Solar Boat Museum. There’s a Sound and Light Show nightly at 8.30pm in summer (7pm September-April), though beware the sound isn’t great, so you might not be able to entirely make out the story.
For an incredible stay in Giza, look no further than the historic Mena House Hotel, Eschew the modern ‘Garden’ wings, and spring for a room in the palace itself. Kids will be in awe simply wandering the immense halls and public rooms, and where else can you swim in a pool beneath the shadow of a real Egyptian pyramid?
Whilst the world and his wife (and kids) have all, throughout the ages, visited Giza, there are several lesser-known sites well worth exploring in the general vicinity of Cairo. Heading out 30km by taxi to the vast, sprawling necropolis at Saqqara, which served as the graveyard for the ancient city of Memphis, you’ll find the ancient Step Pyramid of Djoser (or Zoser), the oldest of its kind on the planet and with far fewer tourists than at Giza. Kids might be interested in the fact that in 2011, archeologists found millions of animal mummies here. Once you’re done exploring the site, head over to the excellent Fagnoon Art Centre, for an afternoon of outdoor artistic family fun. Little ones can paint on the walls, throw a pot, and enjoy the bucolic feel at this child-centred centre, founded by Egyptian artist, Mohamed Allam.
4. Take the Train: Cairo to Luxor
Our children love nothing more than a night spent on board a train, forging through the darkness into places unknown, and one of the world’s greatest train rides also happens to be extremely family-friendly. Take the Overnight Deluxe Sleeper from Cairo to Luxor to transport your gang from the teeming capital to this city of antiquity, slung out along the banks of the Nile; departing from either Cairo or Giza (depending on the train number), you’ll be assigned a small berth which converts to simple bunks for the night. Food (albeit simple) is served, and you’ll see Egypt melt into darkness, and dawn break, right outside your window. The Man in Seat 61 offers excellent updated instructions on timetables, how to buy tickets, and what to expect when you board: read all about it here. Bear in mind, though, that this ain’t no Orient Express: for extra comfort, bring some provisions (and perhaps a cheeky parental beer) with you, and prepare for a bumpy – but incredibly atmospheric – night on board.
5. Luxor & Around
There’s so much to see and do around this lazy Nile-side city that it’s well worth settling in for a few days, rather than trying to race your kids about the sites, resulting in heat-exhaustion, fatigue and an overdose of Egyptology. Great family stays include the idiosyncratic, wonderfully personal and extremely budget-friendly Mara House Hotel – whose Irish owner loves having children to stay – and, if luxury is the order of the day, the Maritim Jolie Ville (3km from the city centre and set on its own riverine island, but with lots of bells and whistles) or the historic, central, opulent Winter Palace Hotel (which we adore!), now run by Sofitel. Alternatively, set up residence on the opposite, west bank of the Nile, far from the city bustle (about 30 minutes away), in the quiet, calm, and highly luxe Al Moudira.
It’s hard to select which tombs and temples to select in Luxor, since there are simply so many of them…but here are our top picks that you and your little ones really shouldn’t miss.
- Temple of Karnak Probably our favourite of all Luxor’s magnificent monuments, Karnak is an incredible, sprawling temple complex (around two square km in all), containing the Temple of Amun, the largest religious structure ever built. Your little ones can race around the dozens of immense columns and through dusty courtyards while you admire the still-vivid wall paintings; arrive early, or later in the day to escape the (currently less frequent) tour bus deluge. There’s a Sound and Light Show nightly.
- Valley of the Kings Cross the Nile and venture out into the West Bank wilds (a taxi will whisk you there in relative comfort: no need for a tour bus) to the great expanse where the greatest Egyptian rulers were buried. Children will enjoy making like Indiana Jones, clambering down into the manifold tombs, including those of King Ramses VI and King Tut himself.
- Temple of Medinet Habu A lesser-known but nonetheless stunning Luxor gem: Medinet Habu is the mortuary temple of Ramses III, with incredible, well-preserved colours, and a stunning West Bank mountain backdrop. Come early, and you’ll likely have the place all to yourselves (though you may have to politely fend off would-be guides).
- Luxor Temple Yet another of Luxor’s unsurpassable temple complexes, this temple is right in the heart of Luxor town itself, built by Amenhotep II and Ramses III, and still stunning in its carvings, reliefs, columns and pylons. Not quite as atmospheric as Karnak (since you’ll hear the traffic noise whilst wandering), it’s nevertheless well worth a visit, and a return at night to see it all lit up.
- Luxor Museum Older children who have energy leftover for yet more Egyptian exploration will likely love this museum, most especially its two unwrapped pharaoh mummies. A great respite from the heat for an afternoon hour or two.
- Animal Care in Egypt Throughout Luxor, you’ll see horses and donkeys pulling carts full of wares…and tourists. Animal Care in Egypt is a fantastic charity offering sorely needed help to these overtaxed creatures, and you can visit their stables to support them, and give their furry folk some loving, from Saturday to Thursday, 9am to 5pm. Highly recommended.
- Ramesseum “My name is Ozymandias; Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair.” Read your kids Percy Shelley’s poem, before heading over to the West Bank to explore the mortuary temple of Ramses II (Ramses the Great), where Ozymandias itself – now lying down, in pieces – would once have towered 19m over its visitors.
6. Cruise the Nile
Whether it’s a sunset ride on a billowing-sailed felucca or a full-blown-luxury cruise, you must get your gang out onto the waters of the Nile at least once during your visit to Egypt. In both Aswan and Luxor, short felucca rides can be arranged by your hotel or privately, at the water’s edge (our kids love them), whilst historic boats such as the luxurious Steam Ship Sudan (which accepts children 7 and over) and the incredible, if pricey, Nour El Nil (no family cabins: best for older children) ply the waters on multi-day cruises, with all the attendant little luxuries worthy of the best Agatha Christie.
7. Aswan & Around
Further south down the Nile from Luxor you’ll reach Aswan, a sleepy, leafy town on the banks of the mighty river. Like Luxor, Aswan is home to one of the country’s great Victorian hotels: check yourselves into the Old Cataract (now a Sofitel), and bask in 19th century splendour. Whilst in town, visit the wonderful Nubia Museum and ruins of Abu at Elephantine Island, the Tombs of the Nobles on the high cliffs above Aswan, take a felucca ride along the Nile, and wander through the two lovely, colourful Nubian villages of Koti and Siou, near the Movenpick Resort.
Temple of Isis at Philae No more the Victorian images of rowing out to see the temple glistening underwater, submerged by the flood-waters of the Aswan Dam: now, thanks to UNESCO, the temple shimmers on dry land, atop the little isle of Philae, to where it was moved stone-by-stone in the 1970s. Take a boat across to explore it without getting your toes wet, and stay on for the sound and light show.
Temple of Horus at Edfu Roughly half-way between Luxor and Aswan (around 100km from each), you’ll find the last of the Pharaoh’s great monuments, completed just over 2000 years ago by none other than Cleopatra’s father. Less visited than the ‘big-ticket’ temples, it’s exceptionally well preserved and your gang will be able to wander largely undisturbed, conjuring up the ghosts of Ancient Egyptians Past at every turn. You can get here on an organised day-trip from either Luxor or Aswan; little ones will likely enjoy the short horse-and-carriage ride to the entrance.
8. Abu Simbel
True adventuring families will want to press on southward from Aswan, 280km to the great temples of Abu Simbel (including Ramses II’s glorious Great Temple), which are just a 40km hop, skip and jump from the Sudanese border. Here, when plans to dam the Nile were introduced, archaeologists painstakingly moved 14 temples stone-by-stone to safe haven, ten of them to higher ground above the flooding waters of Lake Nasser. Bus convoys leave Aswan early in the morning (think 4am) for the three-hour journey to the site, allowing you three hours to look about before heading back on the return journey. But even if the thought of a 6-hour bus ride with small children makes you shudder, steel yourself and do it anyway. This is one of the most atmospheric sites in the whole of Egypt, and you won’t regret it.
9. Sinai & The Red Sea
Sadly, current government travel advisories are advising against all non-essential travel to Sinai, Egypt’s usually fabulous Red Sea region, in the north-east of the country, with the exception of the resort towns of Sharm el-Sheikh and Hurghada. In calmer, quieter times, however, there’s Mount Sinai to climb, all the way up to St. Catherine’s Monastery, and great diving snorkeling, glass-bottomed boat riding, and – for older family members – diving at Dahab, where the Red Sea is teeming with colourful sealife, and, offshore, at the Ras Mohammed National Park. Hurghada and Sharm el-Sheikh (the latter also known as “Egypt’s Las Vegas”), by contrast, are teeming with package tourists, all slowly roasting themselves in the Sinai heat. If you’re up for not much more than splashing about in a hotel pool, they’re still decent enough destinations; otherwise, skip Sinai until such time as its mellower shores are once again wanderable in the warm desert winds.
10. Siwa & The Great Sand Sea
To add a true voyage of (soft) discovery to your Egyptian soujourn, don’t miss a trip out to Egypt’s enchanting south-eastern desert region, also known – likely to your children’s delight – as “The Great Sand Sea”. The main draw-card here is the wonderful little settlement of Siwa Oasis, a scant 50km from the Libyan border (but a world away). Date palms, dusty lanes and donkey carts will enchant your entire family into wanting to stay longer in this sleepy place where the Berber language and local customs dominate; visit tombs and temples, ride horses, traverse dunes and seek out fossils, soak in hot springs and gaze at the incredible desert skies, and your gang won’t be bored for a moment. And Siwa isn’t all: head out to Dakhla, a sublimely beautiful oasis where there’s the village of Mut with its maze of atmospheric streets, and the abandoned Medieval town of Al Qasr, and you’ll see a side of Egypt that few – so far – have been lucky enough to.
In Siwa, great family-friendly stays include the small, simple but charming mud-walled Albabenshal Heritage Lodge (note that tinies should not be let loose on the roof terraces), the lovely Siwa Villa (there are four large bedrooms, so you can rent the whole house or just part of it), or the exquisite Adrere Amellal Eco Lodge.