Alexander the Great founded it. Queen Cleopatra lorded over it. Alexandria’s birth and early history is a calling card of famous names. This was the Mediterranean’s dazzling jewel of a city, home to the Great Library of Alexandria, and the colossal Pharos Lighthouse — one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. In more recent times, from the late 19th century up until the 1950s, Alexandria was something of a bohemian bad boy, with a glittering cast of writers, poets, and artists who made the city their home.
More than any other large city in Egypt, Alexandria has a romantic days-gone-by atmosphere that can’t be beaten and that history lovers shouldn’t miss. Plan your trip with our list of the top things to do in Alexandria.
1. Bibliotheca Alexandrina
A re-imagining of Alexandria’s ancient Great Library, this gorgeously designed cultural center contains a host of museums, as well as one of the modern world’s most ambitious libraries. Its architecture — a giant sun disk — presides over the waterfront Corniche, while inside, a huge reading room can hold eight million volumes.
Below the main library, visitors can explore a range of beautifully curated exhibitions. The Manuscript Museum, with its magnificent collection of ancient texts and scrolls, and the Antiquities Museum, with its Greco-Roman antiquities and statuary found during underwater exploration in the harbor, are the two prime attractions. But there are also rotating art exhibitions, a permanent Egyptian folk art collection, and a Science Museum and Planetarium that are aimed squarely at children.
2. Alexandria National Museum
Alexandria’s National Museum is a must-stop if you want to get to grips with the vast history of this famed city. Inside, the collection guides you from the Pharaonic era (in the basement), to the Hellenistic heyday, when Alexandria and Egypt were governed by the Ptolemy dynasty begun by Alexander the Great (on the ground floor), and up to the Byzantine and Islamic periods (on the 1st floor).
As well as the displays, statuary, and antiquities unearthed in and around the city (including finds from underwater explorations in the area offshore), there are excellent map drawings that imagine what the classical city of Alexandria would have looked like, which really helps visitors understand the changing face of this city.
Address: Tariq al-Horreya Street, Alexandria
3. Fort Qaitbey
Walk the long shore-front Corniche road heading west, and you’ll finally arrive at Fort Qaitbey. It may be a poor substitute for what was once the site of the mighty Pharos Lighthouse — one of the seven wonders of the ancient world — but this squat and dinky fort has been standing guard over Alexandria’s eastern harbor since 1480. The Pharos itself said adieu to Alexandria in 1303 when it was toppled by a violent earthquake.
Fort Qaitbey was built by Mamluke Sultan Qaitbey in an effort to fortify this important Egyptian port from attack, and rubble from the toppled lighthouse was used in its construction. Inside, you can explore the series of stone-walled chambers and climb up to the roof to look out over the Mediterranean.
Location: Corniche, Eastern Harbour
Downtown Alexandria’s wide waterfront road is as much a symbol of the city as any of its monuments. It’s here that you get a real feel for the era of cosmopolitan elegance and decadence that marked this city in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Much of the architecture from this era still stands along the Corniche, though these days, much of it is heavily dilapidated and falling into disrepair.
During your stroll check out the colonial remnants of the Steigenberger Cecil Hotel and Paradise Inn Windsor Palace Hotel, which are still the key harbor-side addresses for visitors who want to wallow in bygone-days ambiance. The Cecil played host to Winston Churchill and the British Secret Service during WWII, and both hotels have endeavored to restore and keep much of their original Edwardian charm.
5. Kom el-Dikka
Nobody thought much of the ancient rubble mound in central Alexandria until, in 1947, they decided to clear the site to make way for new housing. Instead, the area known as Kom el-Dikka(“Mound of Rubble”) revealed a whole swag of ancient ruins, including a small Roman theater. Excavation work commenced, and today, this park area includes the remnants of a Ptolemaic temple and the mosaic flooring of a wealthy Roman-era dwelling now known as the Villa of the Birds.
Address: Yousri Street, Alexandria
6. Catacombs of Kom el-Shuqqafa
The Catacombs of Kom el-Shuqqafa are hewn from the rock on the southern slopes of a hill, in the Carmous district. Thought to date from the 2nd century AD, they offer an admirable example of the characteristic Alexandrian fusion of Egyptian and Greco-Roman styles. Discovered in 1900 (thanks to a donkey falling into them) they are laid out on several levels of sarcophagi and loculi (shelf tomb) chambers.
A spiral staircase leads down into the ground to the main rotunda. To the right, you can enter the main burial chamber and also the Sepulchral Chapel with 91 loculi, each large enough to accommodate three or four mummies. To the left is a large room known as the Triclinium Funebre, which would have been used for banquets in honor of the dead.
7. Pompey’s Pillar
In Carmous (in the southwest of the city) is a hill littered with the remains of ancient walls, architectural fragments, and rubble on which Alexandria’s only ancient monument is left standing. Pompey’s Pillar rises from the ruins of the ancient and famous Serapeion (Temple of Serapis), which was once used to store the overflow of manuscripts from the Great Library of Alexandria. This column of red Aswan granite with a Corinthian capital, standing on a badly ruined substructure and rising to a height of almost 27 meters, actually has nothing to do with Pompey and was instead set up in AD 292 in honor of Diocletian, who supplied food for the starving population after the siege of the city.
8. Montazah Gardens
An oasis of calm on the city’s eastern edge, Montazah is a lush haven of tall palm trees, trimmed lawns, and blossoming flowers that was once off-limits to all but the royal court and their hangers-on. Built as a hunting lodge in the 1890s by Khedive Abbas Hilmi, it was later extended substantially by King Fuad and replaced Ras el-Tin Palace as the royal family’s summer house.
The eccentrically designed Montazah Palace, with its ornate Florentine-inspired towers and Rococo flourishes, is not open to the public, but everyone is welcome to stroll within the sprawling gardens, which can be a welcome slice of nature after a day spent within Alexandria’s hustle. On the coastal end of the park is a small beach with a peculiarly whimsical bridge to a small island.
If you need a dose of tranquility, a trip to Montazah is just the ticket to restore your sanity before diving back into the inner city fray. Minibuses heading west up the shore-front Corniche road all pass by Montazah. They charge between 1-2 EGP depending on where you board.
9. Ras el-Tin Palace
Sumptuous Ras el-Tin Palace was once a summer escape for Egypt’s sultans when the desert heat of Cairo got too much to bear. It’s also the famed location where King Farouk — Egypt’s last king — officially abdicated in 1952 before sailing out of Alexandria’s harbor and into exile in Italy. Today, the palace is used by the Egyptian navy, which means its glorious interiors are out of bounds to casual visitors, but the monumental white facade, best viewed from the harbor waters, is a must-see.
10. Cleopatra’s Palace
There may be only scant remnants of the once grand Hellenistic city above ground, but dive into the waters of Alexandria’s Eastern Harbour area, and you’ll find there’s plenty more of ancient “Alex” to explore. Archaeologists have been plumbing the depths for years, searching for the lost sunken city of the Classical age and bringing up many treasures to the surface (now on display in Alexandria’s museums), but recreational divers can now visit the archaeological ruins under the sea, too.
The most popular site has been (unsurprisingly) nicknamed “Cleopatra’s Palace” and indeed was once a palace area — though if the great lady herself was ever in residence, we’ll never know. There are sphinxes and tumbled columns and statuary galore still in situ here, which makes for a fascinating underwater experience.
11. Cavafy Museum
One of Alexandria’s most famous sons, Constantine Cavafy (1863-1933), was a Greek Alexandrian poet who found fame and recognition for his writing after his death. His flat on what is now Sharm el-Sheikh Street is a tribute to his life and a major attraction for anyone on an Alexandrian literary pilgrimage.
Cavafy spent his working life as a journalist and civil servant, little recognized for his poetry outside of a small group of Alexandrian-based writers (including English novelist E.M. Forster, who was a champion of Cavafy’s work). His poetry, though, richly captures the vast history of Alexandria — particularly its Hellenistic origins — and he has become one of the greatly celebrated literary figures of the city. The small museum contains many of his manuscripts and correspondence.
Address: Sharm el-Sheikh Street, Alexandria
The working-class district of Anfushi stretches west from Fort Qaitbey and the harbor in a warren of lanes that contain some of Alexandria’s best seafood restaurants. Just after sunset, this is the city’s liveliest area to explore with traditional coffeehouses spilling out onto the street, and the scent of sheesha (water-pipes) and grilled fish hanging in the air. On Qasr Ras el-Tin Street are the city’s shipyards, while farther along the street is the bustling Alexandria fish market, which is prime territory for photographers in the mornings, when the haggling is at full throttle.
13. Abu Abbas al-Mursi Mosque
One of Alexandria’s major landmarks, the Abu Abbas al-Mursi Mosque was built in 1796 over the tomb of the 13th-century Sufi holy man Abu Abbas al-Mursi. Originally from Murcia (in Spain’s Andalusia region), Abu Abbas became a highly esteemed religious leader in Alexandria, and his teachings are still revered in Egypt.
The mammoth cream-colored mosque that holds his name is a major pilgrimage site. For non-religious visitors, the mosque’s exquisite facade of swirling Islamic calligraphy designs and motifs is the major draw-card. Those that want to enter to see the beautiful and intricate mosaic halls should dress modestly and leave their shoes at the main entrance.
Address: Mohammad Karim Street
14. Main Souk Area
Alexandria’s main souq (market) stretches through the backstreets heading west from Midan Tahrir in the central city. You’ll find everything from fresh produce to silver trinkets by poking about in this district. To be fair, there isn’t much on sale to interest tourists; this is a real-deal local souk, and you come here more to capture the essence of Alexandrian life than to shop. The entire souq area is a squiggle of lanes that flow off from each other, with each alley specializing in different products. If you want to dig a bit deeper into Alexandria’s soul, don’t miss a wander through here.
15. Day Trip to Aboukir
Presiding over a promontory, defended on all sides by old forts, the little fishing village of Aboukir, about 24 kilometers northeast of Alexandria, has an illustrious history that defies its small size. This is where, on August 1st 1798, the Battle of the Nile was fought in which Nelson inflicted an annihilating defeat on the French fleet. Here, too, in 1799, Napoleon defeated a numerically superior Turkish force; and here also, in 1801, Sir Ralph Abercromby defeated the remnants of the French army and compelled them to evacuate Egypt.
For naval history buffs, this military past of battles is enough of a reason to visit, but for the average sightseer, the main reason for a journey here is to sample some of Egypt’s finest seafood. Aboukir bay is home to a host of fabulous fish restaurants that locals flock to in the summer months. Stuffing yourself full of seafood while sunset sears over the Mediterranean is the perfect end to an Alexandrian day.
16. Day Trip to the El Alamein War Memorials
The hardscrabble township of El Alamein, about 112 kilometers west of Alexandria, holds a fascinating place in modern world history. It was across this parched piece of nondescript desert that the Allies’ first decisive victory in World War II’s North Africa campaign was won. The bloody battles that took place here in October 1942 killed or wounded more than 80,000 soldiers from countries as varied as Australia, New Zealand, India, and Great Britain (Allies), as well as Germany and Italy (Axis Forces).
Today, the war memorials that stand are a poignant reminder of the 13 days of fighting that claimed so many lives. The rather excellent El Alamein War Museum does a good job of giving an overview to the El Alamein campaign, with plenty of military memorabilia displayed. The Commonwealth Cemetery is a beautifully kept tribute to the fallen, with the 7,000 tombstones in regimented rows between well-tended desert plants.
Just north of town, along the coastal highway, is the boxy German Memorial, where most of the 4,500 German dead are buried, and another couple of kilometers north is the Italian Memorial, which is also home to a tiny, but interesting, museum.
17. Diving in Alexandria
Diving is a big activity in Alexandria. Unlike Egypt’s other diving centers, you’re not here for the colorful coral reefs. Instead, in the eastern harbor area, Alexandria’s diving is all about ancient underwater ruins. For divers, this is a unique opportunity to see the toppled statues and columns strewn across the sea bed.