Karim El Minabawy stands on the Nile Terrace at the Semiramis InterContinental Hotel in Cairo, grinning as he gestures at the rainbow of lights surrounding the iconic river.
“See these colors all around? … It is an amazing view by night. Three o’clock in the morning, you see these colors until sunrise,” says El Minabawy, adding that “it is the city that does not sleep.”
The river is dotted with brightly lit cruising restaurants, casting pink, blue and green lights across the water, and there are hotels that overlook the banks of the river and the pulsing night life of revelers out for a stroll. Even from the balconies of many facilities, you can turn off the lights in your room and sway to the cacophony of bouncy music that blasts from the hot spots along the river.
“We have two icons in Egypt: the pyramids and the Nile,” says El Minabawy, president of Cairo-based Emeco Travel Egypt. “Around the Nile, we have all of our attractions, our night life, all of our entertainment. … Most of the hotels are downtown. You can see the 6th of October Bridge, the longest in all of Africa. … You will see such fantastic dream scenery, always by the Nile. It’s a mix of entertainment, the food and enjoying [Zamalek] island.”
El Minabawy was speaking to a group of international journalists on a media delegation arranged by the American Chamber of Commerce in Egypt (AmCham Egypt). The visit, including Cairo, Luxor and Sharm El Sheikh, was aimed at increasing tourism in Egypt, which was hurt badly by the 2011 protests that forced President Hosni Mubarak from power. Security is still tight in some places, but tourists are beginning to return, and there’s a lot to do, and jaw-dropping sites to explore.
Obviously, the first thing one should see is the pyramids—and Giza is smack dab in what locals call Greater Cairo.
They can be seen in all their splendor from the frenetic expressway on the way, and when you get there, they simply take your breath away. Tourists stand on sand that was once walked upon by pharaohs and crane their necks to look up at Khufu—also known as the Great Pyramid. It was built as a funerary complex for that pharaoh, beginning around 2575 B.C. One can ride camels or horses between the pyramids and can even enter the largest and smallest. There are many vendors, some of whom can be a bit aggressive, and available for purchase is everything from painted parchment to small statues of the Egyptian cat goddess Bastet.
In the same complex stands the immense Great Sphinx of Giza, believed to be around 4,500 years old. Her ruined face—she seems female—has what some describe as Negroid features as she stares majestically toward the rising sun. You can’t stand between her paws anymore, but they are the size of a city bus. Tourists were taking numerous selfies, including some in which they appeared to be kissing this iconic limestone figure. It almost feels as if the human-headed lion is speaking, if one only knew how to listen.
You can actually hear its voice if you take in the spectacular sound-and-light show, and see the pyramids and the sphinx lit with brilliant colors, as the massive monument tells the story of the rule of the ancient Egyptians.
Whether you are a serious shopper or simply a student of history, no tour of Cairo is complete without a visit to historic El Moez Street. Not only are there gorgeous mosques along one of the oldest streets in Egypt, but there is also a buzzing bazaar where you can watch artisans working on their creations on the street. There are also coffee shops where you can take a load off and people-watch, and you might even run into a vendor with a monkey that might hop on your shoulders for a visit. Be careful, though—he may bite! The street is lit up like a Christmas tree at night, with throngs of tourists and locals wandering through to pick up a thing or two.
Fans of history must visit the iconic Egyptian Museum, which is currently displaying about a third of the objects found in the tomb of King Tutankhamun in 1922.
A friendly Sphinx stands outside to greet you, but once you get inside, you’ll have to catch your breath over the breadth of pharaonic objects inside. There are life-size statues of the king, who died at the age of 19, as well as jars that once contained wine, which were buried with him. Tourists can also see, in bright living color and in person, the iconic funerary mask that has traveled the world. But be prepared to spend some time, since every available bit of space in this museum is taken up by amazing, sometimes surprisingly brightly colored artifacts.
Outside of Cairo, the charms of Luxor beacon, including the historic Valley of the Kings and Queens. The first tomb, that of Ramesses IV, gives tourists a stark look at how hieroglyphics that are faded in the sun can become bright as stars deeper inside. Some of the tombs look as if they were painted only yesterday, and the images will blow your mind.
You should also see the Mortuary Temple of Hatshepsut, the only female pharaoh, which is breathtaking.
At night it is brightly lit, so one can see the incredible detail that still adorns the obelisks and the columns of this temple, dating back to around 1392 B.C. An aisle of Sphinx stands out in front and once connected Luxor to the jaw-dropping Karnak Temple, which also hosts a colorful and cool sound-and-light show.
Once you’re done with the culture and history, you may want to hit the beach. Sharm El Sheikh, on the southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula, has water so clear that tourists can see nearly to the bottom from the plane. Spend some time on the beach—or, better yet, go scuba diving or snorkeling off Tiran Island. Hop on this boat for a day of water sports, great food and friendly company you won’t soon forget.
You might also take a crack at a genuine bedouin dinner in the desert, where you can nosh on Egyptian delicacies, ride a camel and watch amazing feats of fire dancing while lying back on a comfy cushion. If you stay at the Four Seasons Resort in Sharm El Sheikh, one can be arranged for you.
The bottom line is that, yes, security is still very tight in many places, including the airport at Sharm El Sheikh and even at the five-star hotels in Cairo. But tourists are returning to this North African nation, and a life-changing visit to historic sites that are thousands of years old is worth it.
Allison Keyes is an award-winning correspondent, host and author. She can be heard on CBS Radio News, among other outlets. Keyes, a former national desk reporter for NPR, has written extensively on race, culture, politics and the arts. Follow her on Twitter.