Egypt does not immediately come to mind when most people think of taking a family vacation. This African country captivates foreigners familiar with its colorful history of pyramids, tomb robbers, and Cleopatra, but also frightens many Westerners, and when we told friends we were thinking of taking our children there during their February school vacation, they were surprised and worried.
Egypt may have a rich heritage, but it is now an Islamic state, and didn’t many of the 9/11 bombers study in Cairo? However, a good friend of ours, who lives in Cairo with his wife and young children, assured us that the Egyptians are warm, friendly people who love children, and that the government takes the safety of tourists very seriously.
We were easy to convince. The winter in Europe had been especially cold, and our Vitamin D deprived bodies craved the sun. Furthermore, we wanted to see this ancient country up close. I had seen the King Tutankhamen exhibit as a kid and never lost my fascination for pharaonic artifacts.
Our kids, who were seven and nine years old and already enamored with mummies and pharaohs, had recently seen the animated Asterix and Obelix Meet Cleopatra. Armed with just enough comic book history to fuel their imagination, they were ready to explore Egypt for themselves.
Two to three days in Cairo, four days along the Nile
We were not visiting a cartoon country, however, but a hot, dusty, often chaotic and decidedly non-Western place, and with kids along we had to choose our itinerary carefully. We wanted to see many of the Pharaonic sights along the Nile but also to take in some of Cairo to get a feel for modern Egypt.
Many tourists fly in and out of Luxor and bypass vibrant Cairo altogether. This is a mistake, for despite the challenges of visiting this sprawling city, the juxtaposition of ancient and modern in Cairo is spellbinding. And, in addition to sightseeing, we had a final goal — to spend quality time together as a family and not to leave the country exhausted.
As it turns out this was not too much to hope for. It is possible to have an exciting yet relaxing family vacation in Egypt as long as you keep your visits to the sights short, don’t try to see everything, and schedule some downtime every day.
Here are our family’s suggestions for a five- to seven-day visit. At the end of the article I’ve included links to companies that organize tours with families in mind. If you choose not to arrive as part of a tour group, it is also possible to arrange day-long tours from your hotel.
Cairo, day one
First on your itinerary in Cairo should be the Giza pyramids and the Sphinx. Unless you have someone to drive you out to the site, it is easiest to go with a tour, which can be booked from any hotel.
I was struck by the drama of the setting, with the city’s modern skyline as an incongruous backdrop in one direction, and the endless desert panorama in another.
The kids were similarly enchanted, and their 20-minute camel ride around the pyramids was a thrill. On the other hand, you won’t miss much if you skip the touristy evening sound and light show. The loud show is too long to keep a child’s attention, and not informative enough to interest most adults.
Khan al-Khalili market, the city’s largest bazaar in old Cairo is a crowded, colorful, and cheerfully noisy tangle of twisting alleyways. It is also a safe and fun place for the kids. We gave ours a little spending money and they enjoyed bargaining for miniature pyramids, stone statues, and ceramic scarabs. To buy high-quality crafts made by local artisans, visit the nearby craft collective Al Khatoun, located at 3 Mohamed Abdo Street behind Al Azhar Mosque. Unlike the market, prices are fixed, so there’s no high-pressure selling.
If you are at the souk at lunch time, you will find many restaurants around al-Hussein square which cater to tourists. We enjoyed our lunch at the Naguib Mahfouz Cafe (5 Sekket al-Badistan), a restaurant established by the family of Naguid Mahfouz, Egypt’s most famous writer.
We enjoyed sweet and satisfying fresh mango juice, sandwiches and hummus in the café’s tranquil atmosphere. The excellent service, spotless bathrooms and air-conditioning are a plus.
The Egyptian Museum houses the largest collection of Egyptian antiquities in the world, including the riches of King Tutankhamen’s tomb. If your family has not already seen these treasures on one of their world tours, you shouldn’t miss them, though be warned that many items in the museum are poorly labeled and displayed.
The kids, in particular, will enjoy the Royal Mummy Room. Don’t try to see too much, as kids can quickly succumb to “pharaonic fatigue syndrome.”
Egyptian Museum at al-mathaf al-Mari, Maydan Tahrir, Cairo. Open daily 9 – 4:30
Renting a felucca (sailboat) on the Nile is a peaceful way to end your day. Although you might not want to do this with toddlers, our family brought a picnic aboard and enjoyed gliding around the Nile as we watched the Cairo city lights come on. If you are short on time or if the wind isn’t cooperating, the small motorized boats are equally pleasant. Look for the docks across from the Four Seasons Hotel.
Day two in Cairo
The Gayer-Anderson House (Ibn Tulun Street) is worth visiting as one the best preserved examples of 17th century domestic architecture left in Cairo, and also for Gayer-Anderson’s vast collection of furniture, carpets, curios, and other objects.
There is an atmosphere of intrigue in this house, enhanced by the latticed wooden window boxes that were built to allow the women in the house to peer out at the street without being seen. Similar interior seating areas let you imagine what it was like for the women to secretly watch male-only dinner parties.
Filmmakers found this house compelling as well and filmed scenes here for the James Bond film The Spy Who Loved Me. Guides at the door who will lead you on tours were tolerant of our enthusiastic, but noisy kids.
There are many beautiful mosques in Cairo and you should make time to see at least one. Right next door to the Gayer-Anderson House is the Ibn Tulun mosque. This is one of the largest mosques in the world and, dating from approximately 870 AD, the oldest in Egypt.
Bab Zwayla: We climbed the top of this medieval gate for a terrific view of the Mosque of al-Muayyad and a fascinating look over Islamic Cairo—the kids were particularly taken with the goats wandering about on the rooftops.
Al-Azhar Park: There aren’t many places around Cairo where kids can run around freely, so the verdant 74-acre Al-Azhar Park in the middle of historic Cairo is worth a visit not only so the kids can play but also to get a glimpse of local families at leisure.
Although we had become used to seeing girls in headscarves and women completely covered in the Cairo streets, it was surprising to see girls and women dressed this way while climbing on the jungle gym or pushing a child on the swing.
Locals were as curious about our family as we were with theirs, and several children and young adults approached us to try out English phrases like “Welcome to Egypt” or to request a photo.
The Citadel restaurant inside the park serves middle-eastern cuisine with kid-friendly options in a beautiful setting. The French pastry chain Alain Le Notre Café is next to the restaurant and is a good spot for sandwiches or a pastry.
Nile cruise from Aswan to Luxor (3-4 days)
From Cairo we took a one and a half hour flight to Aswan, where we would start our Nile cruise. After clamorous and exciting Cairo, our three-night cruise was luxuriously relaxing.
On the boat’s rooftop terrace we sunbathed, played cards, read books, and gazed at the Nile.
The most beautiful sites are in Luxor, but Aswan has several sites worth visiting, and the experience of watching the landscape unfold as the boat moves along the Nile is unforgettable.
The high quality meals were buffet-style and included lots of choices — an advantage if you have picky eaters in your family. With the itinerary set in advance and meals provided, we could focus on enjoying time together as a family without worrying about travel details.
Places to see in Aswan
In the early 1960s when the Egyptian government built the Aswan High Dam, artifacts and monuments of the Egyptian Nubian people were saved from the rising waters of Lake Nasser. These artifacts eventually came to be housed in a new museum devoted to Nubian culture and history. We all enjoyed this small, well-organized museum.
Many tours will also offer short boat rides to a Nubian village, which are known for their unhurried way of life. Some of the traditional stone, clay and sand houses are also informal cafés where you can order cold drinks or tea made with bottled water.
This obelisk, still lying in the granite quarry where it was carved, would have been the largest in the world if work had not been abandoned after a large crack appeared in the stone. Our family spent a half hour absorbed in a discussion of how the obelisk’s makers would have managed to transport the more than 1,100 ton monolith.
Philae Temple Complex
Most of the buildings on this island were built in the Roman period and are dedicated to the Goddess Isis. We visited this island after a long day and the kids were too wiped out to fully appreciate it. I highly recommend you take your time to wander about this delightful temple complex.
Places to see in Luxor
Luxor is built on the 4,000-year-old site of Thebes, old capital of the New Kingdom. It encompasses the town of Luxor on the East Bank of the Nile, the village of Karnak, and other villages and monument sites on the West Bank of the Nile.
There is so much to see in this area that monument overload is a real possibility. We therefore decided to limit our sightseeing to Karnak and the tombs in the Valley of the Kings.
Karnak is the awe-inspiring site of the greatest assembly of ancient temples in Egypt. This open-air museum is spread over about 120 acres and the ages of structures and statues span about 2,000 years. It is a place in which to wander and be impressed.
The stillness of the white stone against the azure sky was breathtaking. My daughter was especially struck by the beauty of the monuments’ inscriptions and frequently paused to copy them into her notebook.
The Valley of the Kings on the West Bank of the Nile was the burial ground of ancient Thebes. King Tut’s tomb is located here, although it is empty and not particularly interesting. We skipped it in favor of the tomb of Ramses IV whose sunk-reliefs are still vividly colored.
Egypt is a Muslim country and when we visited in 2009 most women on the street had covered heads, arms, and legs. Although young children can wear what they like, adult tourists will feel less conspicuous if they avoid wearing shorts, sleeveless tops and short skirts.
It is not advisable to rent a car and drive yourself around Cairo. The sights are far apart, and the Egyptian drivers are very aggressive. In addition, languages other than Arabic are not widely spoken. For these reasons, most Western visitors come as part of an organized tour, and this can be an excellent way to see the sights. Some tours offer more flexibility in their itineraries than others.
See Egypt and the World is an Egyptian American travel agency that not only organizes well-designed package tours but will also custom design trips.
Here are some other tour agencies to consider:
Nile Cruise Reservation Center
Alexandra Regan is a travel writer and librarian who lives in the Pacific Northwest.
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