I entered my thirties with one goal: to get out of my comfort zone more often. Our recent trip to Egypt flung the door to my comfort zone wide open, and with surprising gentleness, ushered me out of it. What exactly does that mean? Well, it was way easier to tour Egypt than I imagined it would be—especially considering that we decided to do it without a tour.
I tend not to be a fan of tours (with maybe one notable exception), but the blogs I’d read and the news I’d watched had convinced me that maybe Egypt was too daunting for me. Go the easy route, book a tour, and have fewer things to worry about. I solicited a few offers for Egypt tour packages, but every quote I got back was absurdly expensive. So, Tim and I put together our own Egypt trip itinerary and were pleased to find that it worked like clockwork (and was budget-friendly, to boot!).
7-Day Egypt Itinerary Without a Tour
Day 1: Travel + Cairo
Our originally planned itinerary had us in Cairo for the duration of the trip—and I’m glad AF we changed it. Cairo is chaotic and intense, and those seeking a relaxing getaway are advised to minimize their time here. We spent two days in the Egyptian capital.
Our flight (delayed out of Istanbul) arrived at Cairo International Airport in the late evening. By the time we’d processed our visas, found our hotel shuttle, and made it to our hotel in the Giza strip, we were pretty wiped out. Our hotel, located on the strip right beside the Sphinx, had a roof deck and bar overlooking the Pyramids, so we bundled up and enjoyed a glass of wine with a staggering view.
The verdict? Definitely choose a hotel with a roof deck (there’s plenty to choose from). Sitting at the hotel eating breakfast or having a chilled wine with the pyramids practically in your lap feels unreal.
Day 2: Cairo – Zamalek, Khan el-Khalili, and the Egyptian Museum
This was the rockiest day of our trip. Cairo is famous for its tourist scams, and sad to say, we fell prey to one smooth operator pretty early on our first day. Though that put us in a decent grump, the rest of the day, which featured visits to the Cairo Tower, the old Cairo souk Khan El-Khalili, the Egyptian Museum, and dinner in Zamalek before heading back to watch the Pyramid Light and Sound show from the hotel balcony.
Pro Tip: Arrive at both Khan el-Khalili and the Egyptian Museum later in the day to avoid the big tours. We arrived at the Egyptian Museum at 15h, which gave us three hours to explore its riches before closing at 18h.
Day 3: Cairo and Travel to Aswan — The Pyramids!
Obviously, if you’re in Cairo, you must stop at Giza to see the last remaining Ancient World Wonder. I read a lot of TripAdvisor posts saying you need only 2 hours to see this site, but I wholly and emphatically disagree. Yes, you can see the pyramids in 2 hours, but to really enjoy the experience, I recommend giving yourself a solid half-day. We first walked around two of the Great Pyramids, then went inside the Pyramid of Khufu, then took a half hour camel ride around the necropolis. We finished up with a visit to the Sphinx before heading back to our hotel to pick up our bags for an evening flight to Aswan.
Day 4: Abu Simbel
If you’re thinking, “Hey Abu Simbel isn’t in Aswan,” you are completely right. Unfortunately, Aswan got the shortest end of our stay, with little over one night. At 4am the next morning, we were on a shuttle drive to Abu Simbel. We toured the temples there and then jammed back to the hotel and got into a separate hired car to take us to Luxor.
Lesson learned: This was an aggressive day of driving, and in retrospect, we’d’ve been better off taking the train to Luxor. Drivers of tourists aren’t allowed to use the main highway because it’s too dangerous, and so a drive meant to take 3 hours wound up taking nearly 6. The train is safe and cheap and would have been a better bet.
Day 5: Luxor — Mortuary Temples of Hatschepsut and Seti
After all that driving, we wound up taking this day pretty slowly. Through our hotel, the Jolie Ville Resort, we hired a private car for our days exploring the West Bank. We decided to visit the very famous Mortuary Temple of Hatschepsut, which was crowded even in the “off hours”, and to the Mortuary Temple of Seti, which was completely abandoned and absolutely stunning. Instead of packing more into the day, we headed back to the hotel to enjoy the pool and the sunset over the Nile.
Day 6: Luxor — Hot Air Balloon Ride, Karnak and Luxor Temples
We splurged on a hot air balloon ride over the Theban mountains, and it was worth the indulgence! The dreamy height of the balloon offered the perfect vantage point for previewing the Valleys of the Kings, Queens, Nobles, and Workers. We paused for a quick nap, refreshing swim, and a piping-hot Egyptian coffee, and in the late afternoon, headed back out to Karnak. Once the light had truly faded, we took a caleche ride to the Temple of Luxor, which is completely lit at night, to explore more.
Day 7: Luxor — Valley of the Kings and Valley of the Queens
It seemed fitting to spend the Day of the Dead visiting the tombs of the lost Egyptian royalty. We spent the early morning at the Valley of the Kings, choosing to see the tombs of Ramses III, Setnak, and Merenptah, and bought the extra tickets for Ramses V / VI and of course, Tut Ahnk Ahmun. After deliberation, we also went back and bought the very extra ticket to newly-opened tomb of Seti I. In the afternoon, we went to the Valley of the Queens. With the normal ticket, you can visit the three open tombs (Titi, Amenherkhopshef, and Kahemwaset), and again, if you want to splurge, you can visit the newly-opened tomb of Nefertari.
The verdict? It was hard to know if we should spend the extra money (which, at 50 USD per tomb, was quite a lot) to see the tombs of Seti I and Nefertari. I wrote a post about that dilemma so you can decide if you should visit one or both of them.
Day 8: Travel to Cairo + Cairo
Our flight left Luxor in the late morning, giving us a good chunk of free time in Cairo. With the German winter looming ever closer, we chose to spend it relaxing in the sun. In fact, Tim and I debated quite a bit whether it would have been better to front-load the trip with the tombs and end the trip in Cairo, since the Egyptian Museum holds all of the artifacts and mummies found in the tombs—which is maybe a useful note to others planning their trip. I guess it’s sort of a chicken-and-egg situation: do you prefer to see the mummies who inhabited the tombs first, or the tombs and then the mummies? In hindsight, I think I would have preferred to see the mummies at the end—but Tim heartily disagreed. To each their own!
Day 9: Travel Home
One thing to note about the Cairo Airport is that the security is no joke. Make sure you leave a healthy breather to a) get through Cairene traffic to the airport, and b) get through the multiple security checks to your flight.
With all the trouble in Northern Africa and the Middle East in the last years, the tourism flood has really slowed to a trickle, meaning that you can see a lot of the sites with few others. Asides from a general uneasiness in Cairo, we found Egypt to be mythically lovely—and without embellishment, I have to say I haven’t been that sad to leave a place and a people in a long, long time.