Pyramids, ancient tombs painted with intricate motifs, and temples whose walls and columns are covered in hieroglyphics—it’s no wonder Egypt has fascinated writers, artists, filmmakers, and architects for centuries. There are plenty of places in the world where you can marvel at feats of modern engineering, but in order to grasp the fundamental principles of architecture, you need to visit Egypt. Seeing the ancient temples built adhering to the precise rules of symmetry and decorated by hieroglyphics carved as reliefs into the stone, puts all other architectural feats into perspective.
“I have been to Egypt about ten times, and I never stop being amazed and falling in love with it all over again,” Marcia Gordon told AD. She is a cofounder of the award-winning tour operator Extraordinary Journeys, which has been giving tours of Egypt since its inception in 2008. “I love the fact that this is the only place in the world I know of where you can you see the physical evidence of the development of a culture over a period of more than 3,000 years: the development of pyramids, the transition to tombs, the development of hieroglyphics, of tomb drawings, of a sophisticated religion with a panoply of gods, and goddesses each with their own stories and personalities, the dramas of the royal families and shifts in power. And all this takes place in hauntingly beautiful edifices, many of them built to honor a spiritual connection, and I feel that connection even today. There is a plan and symmetry on such a grand scale that it strains imagination to understand how any of it was possible with the tools of the time.”
Of course, traveling in Egypt—especially for first-time visitors—is quite challenging logistically. Extraordinary Journeys will not only make your trip seamless, but the tour operator will also give you unparalleled access to sites without the crowds and send one of the country’s foremost Egyptologists to guide you and make these ancient places come alive. Here are the sights not to miss.
Cairo and Giza
Fly into Cairo and be whisked away to nearby Giza, home of the Pyramids. The best place to stay is Marriott Mena House, which was originally built in 1869 and hosted the likes of Winston Churchill and Dwight D. Eisenhower. Request a room with a view of the Pyramids, which can also be admired as you stroll the grounds. From here, the Pyramids and the Sphinx are just a quick drive away.
Another reason to visit Giza: The $1.1-billion and 5.2 million-square-foot Grand Egyptian Museum—which will be the second largest museum on earth and the largest museum dedicated to a single civilization—is currently under construction. When it opens in November, it will display some 50,000 ancient artifacts, including King Tut’s chariots and objects that have been languishing in storage in Cairo’s Egyptian Museum.
Your next stop should be Luxor, which is a quick one-hour flight from Cairo. This is where you’ll discover the most incredible temples and tombs that make the Pyramids seem plain in comparison. Check into the Sofitel Winter Palace, a historic grand dame built in 1886 that still exudes colonial luxury.
The pharaohs of ancient Egypt’s New Kingdom (1539–1075 B.C.) were no fools. Having seen the Pyramids of Giza raided by tomb robbers, they decided to build their tombs underground on the banks of the Nile near Luxor, in the area now known as the Valley of the Kings. There are 62 tombs, though only a handful are open at a time. Contrary to what you might think, King Tut’s tomb is not the most impressive one. If you can, visit the tombs of Ramses IV and Sety I, both of which have hieroglyphics painted in vibrant shades of blue and gold that have been miraculously preserved for thousands of years. Afterwards, enjoy Egyptian specialties in the garden of the Marsam Hotel, where visiting archeologists typically hang out.
The ancient temples here are some of the most impressive in Egypt. Luxor Temple is lovely to visit as the sun is setting, when you can admire the larger-than-life statues and massive columns as the sky turns shades of pink and purple. Karnak Temple is Egypt’s largest remaining temple complex with ten pylons, massive columns carved with hieroglyphics, and obelisks carved out of sandstone. (The obelisk that stands in Rome’s Piazza del Popolo came from this temple.) If you want to shop, stop at Radwan Bazaar, where you can buy jewelry, beautifully embroidered pillowcases and table runners, and wood boxes inlaid with mother of pearl.
Nile River Cruise
In Luxor, you can board one of the boats that sails the Nile River south toward Aswan. Depending on your party size, you can choose a mid-size ship or your own private dahabiya, a small traditional Egyptian boat that can dock in places where larger ships can’t. The cruises typically last three or four days and stop along the way at places like the impressive Temple of Horus at Edfu—once home to the largest library in Egypt—and the Temple of Kom Ombo, an unusual example of a temple split between two gods. Another advantage of taking a private dahabiya is that your guide can plan your temple visits around the cruise ship crowds so you can have a more peaceful experience.
The ancient city of Aswan is a great place to finish your trip. Consider spending a night or two at the Sofitel Legend Old Cataract Hotel, where Agatha Christie penned part of Death on the Nile. Built in 1899, the luxurious property boasts rooms and suites with views of the Nile, three restaurants and bars, two pools, and a spa with a hammam.
In Aswan, the top must-visit site is Philae Temple dedicated to the goddess Isis. When the British built the original Aswan Dam in 1902, this temple was completely submerged underwater and had to be carefully moved and rebuilt on an island. It features gorgeously carved stone walls covered in hieroglyphics, columns topped by capitals inspired by papyrus and lotus flowers, and inscriptions from Napoleon’s era. You can take some incredible photos as you sail around the island on a small boat. Afterwards, stop at Darwish Cotton for clothes, bedding, and tablecloths made of premium Egyptian cotton and linen. You can also find beautiful baskets and other decorative items at the souk in Aswan, which comes alive at night.
Originally Appeared on Architectural Digest