Alexandria’s past is illustrious: but how much remains, today, of this greatness? Let's plan a trip to the city and discover the places of interest.
Alexandria has a thousand years of history and, while today it is not one of the most popular destinations in Egypt, it is undoubtedly a city that merits a visit.
Cosmopolitan by vocation, Alexandria is just the place if you wish to discover the more unexpected face of Egypt and breathe the cultural ferment that still exists in the city today. Booking a flight to Alexandria means discovering splendid monuments and getting a feel of what this city has represented over so many centuries. Because, even though most of the buildings that have characterised its flourishing past no longer exist, the city still has much to show to those who decide to venture into this so-little appreciated part of Egypt. All we have to do is pack our bags and go and discover the places of interest in Alexandria in Egypt.
The history of Alexandria and its cosmopolitan vocation
Alexandria was for centuries a place of great cultural ferment. Founded in 332 BC by Alexander the Great, the city that takes his name soon became one of the most important of the time, and not only because of its privileged location on the Mediterranean.
Queen Cleopatra was born here and over the centuries illustrious personalities lived here: from Euclid to Callimachus, from Eratosthenes to Hypatia (the first female mathematician in history); Vittorio Emanuele III of Savoy also died in Alexandria and the English writer Lawrence Durrell resided here for many years.
In short, the time has come to discover the wonders of this city that, for too many decades, has been unjustly ignored by tourist routes. The cosmopolitan vocation of Alexandria is still alive and, although it is commonly believed that many of the wonders of the past are now under the sea, the city still has much to give and show. Leaving aside the genesis of the city for moment, let us go and discover what to see today in Alexandria, starting from the place that gave it lustre: the sea.
What to see in Alexandria: a stroll along the seafront and a visit to places of interest
Our itinerary in Alexandria starts from the sea and, in particular, from the Corniche, the city's seafront. This is an unusual beginning because, usually, the first moments in a new city are dedicated entirely to its most famous monuments.
In Alexandria, however, it is very important to first breathe in the whole atmosphere of the city, and the corniche is one of the perfect places to do this. In the half-hour that it takes to walk along the promenade, you can take in the city from its shore and admire the beautiful buildings that overlook the wonderful expanse of water.
The visitor’s gaze will immediately be captivated by the Fort of Qaitbay (now a naval museum), which marks the seafront to the east: it is a fort that rises in the place where once the famous Lighthouse of Alexandria stood: considered one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, the Lighthouse was sadly destroyed by an earthquake almost 1600 years after its construction. 120 metres high and built in 279 B.C., the unforgettable lighthouse served as a maritime boundary and this role is captured in its original name, the Pharos of Alexandria: Pharos, indeed, was the Greek name for the islet on which his magnificent signalling tower for sailors approaching the city rose.
Opposite the Fort of Qaitbay, at the other end of the seafront is the modern Alexandrian library (Bibliotheca Alexandrina), a tribute to the most famous Library in Alexandria, the largest in the ancient world and gradually destroyed over the centuries. The current library is splendid, with a unique design, both without and within: overlooking the sea, today it is one of the largest libraries in existence, with space for 8 million books.
Sights in Alexandria: the Kom El-Shuqafa catacombs and the Roman amphitheatre
Moving away from the sea we enter the city streets to get to one of Alexandria's jewels, the Kom El-Shuqafa catacombs. It is a unique place in the world, open to the public after extensive restoration works that have reclaimed the site from the wastewater of the Nile.
We stand before the largest necropolis in Egypt which, inside, makes manifest and visible the stylistic and cultural blend of those traditions that lived harmoniously together in the city during the times of its greatest splendour: because, when observing the tombs and visiting the rooms for preparation of the dead, it will be immediately clear how, in Alexandria, radically different traditions lived cheek by jowl - those of ancient Egypt and of the Graeco-Roman world. Ancient Egyptian art, living alongside Roman art, bears witness to a cultural amalgamation that is unique in the world. Photography is not allowed inside the catacombs.
Places of interest in Alexandria: Pompey’s Pillar and the Roman Amphitheatre
Retracing our footsteps we leave the catacombs to head for another place of interest in Alexandria: the Roman amphitheatre. Before reaching this splendid archaeological site, however, we can stop off along the way to take in Pompey's Pillar, the sole remains- 28 metres high - of a Roman-Egyptian temple. Lying around it is what remains of the Serapium, i.e. the temple built in honour of the God Serapis.
Now we resume our journey towards the amphitheatre, one of the most famous tourist monuments in the city. The name given to this place by the inhabitants of the city is not, however, one of the most inviting: Kom el-Dikka, in fact, literally means "pile of rubble". Fortunately, this is not what the amphitheatre looks like today. The name refers to the late 1950s when archaeologists started digging and, instead of finding the tomb of Alexander the Great (still missing!), they brought this wonder to light. Indeed, they not only the discovered the amphitheatre, but also the remains of an entire citadel, complete with houses and baths. In short, this is a city destination not to be missed.
Life in the districts of Alexandria and the city markets
Visiting Alexandria means taking in the most authentic atmospheres of the place, very much alive in the neighbourhoods. The road from the sea to the amphitheatre is, for example, one of the most important in the city. We are referring to Sharia An-Nabi Daniel, an avenue where the most commercial and cosmopolitan soul of Alexandria is concentrated. Wandering among shops, book markets and beautiful twentieth century buildings, you discover the spirit that lives in the city today.
Among the districts less frequented by tourists is undoubtedly the Turkish quarter: this is the Anfushi district where, every morning one of the most traditional souks in Egypt is held: this is the market and, in particular, the fish market. As well as the fish market, in a very special architectural context, the neighbourhood is also where the general market is located, and where you can find any kind of food.
If you are interested in enjoying a little more local life, we suggest you take a walk in the neighborhood of Rue Attarine: here, instead of the old perfumes souk, today you will find antique and second-hand dealers where you can "pick up" any type of object you may desire.
Other places of interest in Alexandria
As mentioned at the outset, in Alexandria the glories of the past are not always clearly visible, but it is undoubtedly a city that offers many surprises and many poetic glimpses. Once you have seen all the main places of interest, it is sufficient to walk through the city to discover what remains to be admired.
You can visit the Archaeological Museum or the Museum of Modern Art, you can behold the many mosques in the city or the churches (such as the Cathedral of St. Catherine where Victor Emmanuel III of Savoy is buried), and then continue towards the Christian Coptic Orthodox Church of Egypt or the great Synagogue. If you're looking for a little peace, head to the Antonyades Gardens, whose border is drawn by the course of the El-Mahmoudeya canal. This is a predominantly green space, constellated by the bright tones of flowers.
What to eat in Alexandria
Overlooking the Mediterranean Sea, Alexandria is the ideal place to enjoy fish, obviously fresh. You can eat it either grilled and flavoured with local spices, or fried. Among the meat dishes, the mutton and the lamb are the centre-pieces. And it is precisely lamb that is made into Kofta Meshweya, a special kebab flavoured with onion and parsley.
To enter Egypt, you need a passport with a residual validity of at least six months, or an identity card (paper or electronic) valid for expatriation with a residual validity of six months accompanied by two passport photos, necessary in order to obtain a visa that is issued by the border authorities on arrival in the country. Extended identity cards with a paper or stamped coupon will not be accepted.
An entry visa is always necessary but, whereas for business stays it must be requested before departure at your home country’s Consulate or Embassy in Egypt, for tourist stays it is also issued at airports.
The website to apply for the first departure visa online is: www.visa2egypt.gov.eg
When is the best time of year to go to Alexandria? Located south of the Mediterranean and mitigated by the presence of the sea, Alexandria enjoys a winter that more resembles spring (including rain!) and a rather sultry summer, sometimes mitigated by sea breezes. If you want to visit the city for cultural purposes, it is recommended to book your flight to Alexandria for April, May and September. In these months the risk of rain is practically zero and the temperatures are tolerable.