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Exploring Ancient Egypt with Children

In November, we travelled with our children to Egypt, a truly fascinating country, to explore its many ancient treasures. It was a fabulous trip. There were many highlights from sailing along the Nile in a Dahabiya boat, Agatha Christie style (minus the murder!), to a hot air balloon ride over the Valley of the Kings, to the awe-inspiring pyramids and an overnight train from Cairo to Aswan.

In ten days, we packed in many experiences and lifelong memories. Honestly though, if you can, spend at least two weeks here. There is so much to see, and it would make for a more relaxed holiday!

Egypt has been on my bucket list for a long time. Given the varied terrorist attacks over the last 30 years, we’d given it a wide berth. But, having researched its current safety situation, and reassured somewhat by the presence of COP 27, we felt it was a good time to visit. Whilst there is a risk whenever you visit any country (as there is when you step into a car), I felt completely safe throughout our 10 days in this amazing country.

Most people book their Egypt excursion as part of an organised package. These can be very expensive. Instead, we organised it all ourselves, which made it cheaper. To reassure you, this was not difficult to do. If you’re planning something similar, here’s what we did over the 10 days. I’ve included advice on everything we learned throughout the experience. Hope it helps.

Day One – Arrival into Cairo

Taking a direct flight from London, we landed in Cairo by 5pm. As we didn’t have long in Cairo and the pyramids were a must see, we decided to spend our first evening in Giza. That way, the next morning, we could beat the crowds and lay our eyes on the last standing of the Ancient Wonders of the World, without being surrounded by hordes of people. This proved to be a great decision.

We’d organised a taxi through Booking.com to take us to our hotel in Giza. Pre-ordering a taxi is a wise move as it was utter carnage at the exit of the airport. Travelling by car in Cairo is an eye-opening and sometimes hair-raising experience. Not for the faint-hearted! The journey took us over an hour and despite many sharp intakes of breath as we narrowly avoided cars doing unbelievable manoeuvres, it was actually a fascinating introduction to this country. My adrenaline junkie, Rosie, loved it!  

We stayed at the Queen Pyramids View Inn Hotel. I can’t highly recommend this hotel, but it was acceptable for one night. And the owner did organise for us to have a takeaway delivered to eat on the roof garden, overlooking the beautiful pyramids.

Day Two – The Pyramids, Egyptian Museum and an Overnight Train

The Sphinx

We very much appreciated our location the next morning though. It was only a five-minute walk to the Sphinx entrance gate and ticket office. There were many people offering camel rides from here to the pyramids, but it really wasn’t a long walk. Also, the camels did not look well-treated, often being openly beaten. So, we saved our camel ride for Luxor, where we hired from a reputable stable.

Arriving at the Sphinx around 8:30am, we had the place to ourselves. A real treat. At that time in the morning, the sun shone beautifully but it wasn’t yet too hot.

Although I’d been warned that the Sphinx was much smaller than it appears in photos, I thought it was incredibly special. I felt quite moved seeing it first-hand. Even missing its nose and beard, it was a majestic beast, guarding as it does the pyramid of the pharaoh Khafre, whose face it represents.

The Pyramids

Next, we wandered over to Khafre’s pyramid, the middle and second-biggest. It was honestly fascinating to look at the structure up close and marvel at its construction 4,500 years ago! Its peak is still capped with the original polished limestone casing. Originally, this casing would have covered all the pyramids, but it has been mostly stripped away over the centuries for use in palaces and mosques.

The ticket price for entry into its inner chamber is substantially cheaper than that of the Great Pyramid. And we’d been told by several people that there wasn’t much difference between the two. So, we opted to squeeze ourselves along its steep passageways to the central burial chamber, which contains Khafre’s large granite sarcophagus. It did feel quite thrilling and otherworldly to crawl and climb through those tiny corridors. Almost like we were in a Famous Five novel, and we’d discovered a secret tunnel!

On reappearing into the light, we walked over to the smallest of the three main pyramids, Menkaure. It was interesting to see the gash along its side, testament to a failed attempt by a sultan to dismantle this behemoth.

A set of three Queen’s pyramids are located just behind here and beyond that the open desert.

It was too tempting not to meander into the rolling dunes for a little exploration. Inadvertently we arrived at fantastic spot for viewing all nine pyramids. We realised this was where they took tourists on their camel rides for a great photo opportunity. However, it really wasn’t far from the main site, and totally walkable.

Finally, we meandered over to the Great Pyramid of the pharaoh Khufu (father of Khafre), the largest in Egypt. At around 137m high, it’s very impressive.

Egyptian Museum

We needed to pick up our train tickets for our journey that evening, so we took another hairy taxi drive into the centre of Cairo. We also managed to fit in a visit to the famous Egyptian Museum.

This is an odd museum. On the one hand, it is one of the world’s most important collections of ancient artefacts, jam-packed with treasure after treasure. On the other, inside it’s very dark, with limited information about each object and a cluttered and confusing layout. But it’s worth persevering as there are some captivating gems in here.

On arrival, we headed straight for the Tutankhamen Galleries on the top floor. This gallery showcases the relics famously discovered in the tomb of Tutankhamun by Howard Carter. After reading so much about this pharaoh, it was unbelievably special to look into the eyes of his iconic golden burial mask (sadly we weren’t allowed to take photos). The room held a certain reverence for the perfectly preserved artefacts from his remarkable sarcophagus to striking amulet jewellery to the statue of Anubis, guarding the coffin. It is worth the visit just for this.

A historian buff could spend days in this museum but with children in tow, we did the rest of the museum at pace taking in only the most impressive. There were hundreds of sarcophagi on display with intricate hieroglyphic inscriptions. Rosie had fun finding her favourite hieroglyphs from Only Connect!

There were also the enormously long scrolls of the Books of the Dead, more sphinxes, many a towering statue, and numerous mummies.

Some of the mummies were incredibly preserved, with the hair from thousands of years ago still intact. A somewhat macabre experience. Rosie and I were torn between fascination and a feeling that we should leave the dead at peace in their original resting place.

Train Tickets

From here, we collected our luggage from the agency through whom we’d booked our train tickets (Djed Egypt Travel). I’d opted to book these tickets through an agency as the website for the Watania ‘luxury’ (I wouldn’t call it luxury…) overnight train was a nightmare. I couldn’t get it to work. So, for peace of mind and an additional 10%, I took the easy option and booked with Djed (who were fantastic). Later, we found other people who had persevered with the website and got it to work for them. Either way, it is essential to book the tickets ahead of time as all the compartments in our train were full.

To reach our departure point, Giza station, from central Cairo, we tried out Cairo’s Metro system. This is a supremely efficient and inexpensive method of transport. Even in rush hour, it wasn’t too busy. It was certainly a lot less stressful and crowded than the roads above!

The Overnight Train to Aswan

We were excited as an overnight train has also been on our bucket list for many years. I think in my head though I had images of Orient Express style of travel. This it wasn’t. But then it was a fortieth of the price.

Boarding at Giza, we found our two cabins and were shown around the tiny space by the steward for our carriage. In our girls’ cabin, Rosie was very excitable! We ordered our dinner immediately as it was already late, and we’d packed a lot into the day. It was a little like an aeroplane meal on a tray but very tasty.

Next, we asked the steward to fold down the lower bunk for us and readied ourselves for the night.

We used the cute little basin for our teeth and snuggled down.

Sleep came very quickly. I woke a few times in the night but the rocking motion of the train was very therapeutic. Although at times, the rocking increased to the point that it felt like sleeping in a tumble dryer. But it was oddly relaxing.

The next morning, we woke for our tray of breakfast. It was fascinating to watch the changing landscape outside the window, with palm trees, desert and the odd glimpse of the Nile.

Exploring, we found the restaurant car with its awesome retro swivel chairs and faded décor, treating ourselves to a coffee and a chat with some fellow travellers. It wasn’t long though before we arrived in the very hot but pretty Aswan.

It was a great little adventure. Plus, it was much cheaper than flying the 875km, especially as it saved on a night’s accommodation. Highly recommended.

Day Three – The Birdman of Aswan

In Aswan, we stayed in a family room in the Basma Executive Suite. This I would highly recommend. The mini apartment had two large interconnecting rooms, an enormous bathroom and even a kitchen. The views of the Nile from up here were spectacular.

As we only had one day in Aswan and a packed schedule for the rest of the trip, we opted not to do the 7-hour return drive to Abu Simnel. If, however, you had an additional day here, I would definitely recommend this excursion. Despite the long day, we were told it was absolutely worth the effort.

Instead, though, we organised a trip out with Mohamed Arabi, known as the ‘Birdman of Aswan’. He is renowned in the area for an extensive knowledge of the local bird life, and where to spot them. He took us out on a little boat, and we glided around the beautiful channels between the islands.

His eyesight is phenomenal, and he spotted bird after bird. We were lucky enough to spot many different species.

Some examples were Senegal thick-knees, Squacco herons, ibises, stilts, kites, bee-eaters storks and many more.

My personal favourites were the cheeky pied kingfishers who skittered across the surface of the Nile.

He also took us across to Kitchener’s Island to the Aswan Botanical Gardens. Here he gave us a mini tour of the many tree species. We also saw trees full of bee-eaters and this cute little hoopoe:

All in all, it was a fantastic way to spend an afternoon. The boat trip back with the sun setting against the islands was truly glorious. If you do fancy this tour, remember to bring your own binoculars from home!

Then it was back for an early night ready after a busy couple of days.

Days Four, Five and Six – The Nile by Dahabiya Boat to Luxor

The Dahabiya Boat

The next three days on board the tranquil and cosy Dahabiya boat was without doubt the highlight of the trip. We had in fact planned our entire holiday around it and were right to do so. The image of its deck, half-shaded with its wooden floors and cosy spots to sit and chill had been on my computer screen for weeks. It is what had encouraged me to book the trip. In reality, the experience of sailing along the Nile in our glorious boat – The Orient – was as relaxing and perfect as it could possibly be.

Based on the design of an original Dahabiya from the late 18th and early 19th century, it is built in the colonial style. With only 5 double cabins, there are a maximum of 10 guests. We in fact had only 9. This intimate feel combined with the sumptuous décor made us feel truly like we were in an Agatha Christie novel, thankfully without the murder. A copy of Death on the Nile was of course available in the library of its cosy salon.

The cabins themselves were masterpieces. I loved the chintzy wallpaper, antique beds with obviously the finest Egyptian cotton, and the traditional style bathrooms.

Lazing on the bed with the Louvre shutters open onto the peaceful Nile with its ancient sites, riverside villages and breathtaking scenery was the epitome of relaxation.

Our Schedule

And the food. Oh, my goodness, the food. Three times a day, our little group were served an array of delicious dishes with fresh local produce prepared with Egyptian and Mediterranean-style flavours.

Dinner, in particular, was a triumph of three exquisite courses, eaten under the stars, chatting about the day with your fellow travellers.

We were also incredibly lucky with our fellow guests: an English lady, a French couple and a Belgium/English couple. You see, we even had a Belgium onboard, although sadly he didn’t look like Hercule Poirot! All the guests were young. All interesting and very kind with the children. I loved watching Rosie joining in the conversation with everyone after dinner. Although still definitely a child, it’s fascinating to see these tiny glimpses of her transition from childhood to adulthood.

The fact that for the next three days our schedule was entirely planned out for us was the icing on the cake for me. All we needed to do was laze around in the hammocks or sunbeds reading or watching the world pass by, or in the case of the children play many a game of backgammon, and then wait to be told to eat or head out to see a temple or local village. Pure hygge!

Day Four – A Swim in the Nile & Kom Ombo Temple

At about 10am that first morning, we boarded our little slice of heaven. We found our cabins and had an introductory meeting with our guide, Hussein. Then the boat drifted off to start the journey. Our first stop was at a little island and a safe spot for swimming in this mighty river.

The kids and James were the first to brave the cool waters. Then started a jumping from the boat competition. Our Belgium friend joined in as the characters of our guests started to emerge! I explored the island by foot, relishing the tranquil atmosphere and variety of birdlife.

Back on the boat, it was time for our first taste of the divine food at lunchtime. And then for a relaxing couple of hours reading and for the kids, competitive backgammon playing.

In the afternoon, we visited the Temple of Kom Ombo, beautifully situated on the banks of the Nile. Uniquely, it’s dedicated to two gods: the local crocodile god Sobek and Haroeris. As such it is perfectly symmetrical along the main axis of the temple, an identical section for each god. There were some excellent hieroglyphs to see here. Thanks to the Egyptology knowledge of Hussein, their meaning was demystified. He clearly explained each story in turn, showing us what the pictures represented.

After a little time to explore on our own, we headed off to the unique and slightly odd crocodile museum. Here was a museum dedicated to a series of mummified crocodiles, eggs and foetuses! We didn’t linger; once you’ve seen one mummified croc, you’ve seen them all!

Our Dahabiya moved off to moor at Gebel el Silsila, a quiet spot, where the large cruise ships are forbidden from stopping. Which left just a delicious dinner to go before crashing into our cosy beds.

Day Five – A Sandstone Quarry and a Local Village

After an enormous breakfast, we headed out to explore the sandstone quarries at Gebel el Silsila. These quarries were worked by thousands of men from the 18th dynasty to the Roman era, as they cut the enormous blocks needed for the many temples. Hussain guided us around. He explained how they mined the blocks, their working conditions and how they worshipped their gods. Finally, he showed us around the rock-cut chapels of Horemheb, Seti I, Rameses II and Merenptah.

The rest of the day was saved for relaxing on the boat, chatting to our fellow travellers and a delicious lunch.

Late afternoon, we arrived at a tiny quiet island, where we moored. Hussain led us ashore through a banana plantation to a local village.

This was quite an eye opener for us all, in a positive way. It was a little like going back in time. The people had little, but they were very happy and so friendly. Instead of sitting on phones, the children played outside together on the mud streets. There was much laughter. Hussien asked me to bring along any sweets I had to give to the children. Luckily, I’d brought a large bag that we had from Halloween. Harry and Rosie shyly handed them out to the little ones, who were thrilled with the treat.

They were even more excited when I took a photo of them and showed them the result on my phone. This caused great hilarity, and everyone wanted to be photographed!

The village had such a lovely feel, we didn’t want to leave. But when we did head back to the boat, after giving away my hair clips too, we all felt quite humbled and moved by the experience.

Day Six – Edfu and Esna

A day of temples. In the morning, it was the Temple of Horus at Edfu. This was enormous, extremely impressive and my personal favourite. Plus, we had it all to ourselves.

In the late afternoon we arrived at Esna, for one final temple. The colours of the hieroglyphs here were exceptional and amazingly well-preserved given just how old they were.

And then it was time for a bit of haggling in the mini souk and then one final dinner together. It was sad to leave everyone the next morning. We’d made firm friends and our experience had been so special. I think if there was an option of staying on the boat for another week, or even one more day, we would have jumped at the opportunity!

If you come to Egypt, I cannot recommend a Dahabiya trip on The Orient with Djed Egypt highly enough.

Day Seven – Luxor’s West Bank

The Dahabiya trip included a transfer to our accommodation in Luxor. We chose Villa Bahri which cost an unbelievable £30 per night for a 2-bed apartment with access to a shared pool! I would highly recommend this place if you’re coming to Luxor.

Valley of the Kings and Hatsheput’s Temple

Refreshed from the boat, we were keen to explore the many treasures of what is known as the world’s greatest open-air museum. The Valley of the Kings was top of our list.

Only a selected number of the tombs were open. We opted not to pay the extortionate fee to see Tutankhamun’s tomb as it was empty bar his mummified body. Everything else is currently in the Egyptian Museum.

Instead, we looked inside the Tombs of Merenptah, Rameses III, VI and IX. The Tomb of Ramses VI was the most impressive. Here we walked down its broad, long shafts covered in a variety of colourful hieroglyphic decoration.

This led to the burial chamber, itself beautifully decorated with the Book of the Day and the Book of the Night on the ceiling.

There was something very special about exploring this UNESCO World Heritage Site. Imagining all the work required to carve out and decorate these final resting places for the pharaohs of the New Kingdom. And then the effort to excavate them in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Next on the agenda was visiting the mighty Temple of Hatsheput. This has been almost entirely reconstructed. It is however definitely worth a visit to see the grand funerary temple of this famous pharaoh-queen.

The Camels

The final activity of the day was a sunset camel ride around the West Bank of Luxor. We booked this with Nobi’s Arabian Horse Stables as we’d been advised the animals were well cared for. This appeared to be true. Picking us up from our apartment, these camels were so much healthier looking than the ones in Giza.

Weirdly, I’ve always wanted to ride a camel! I loved wandering along the dirt backroads on these gentle animals. It was a real privilege and a very relaxing way to get a feel for the local area.

Day Eight – Luxor Temple and Karnak

The next morning, we were up early to try and beat the crowds to Karnak. This is a temple complex spread over 2 sq km, large enough to contain 10 cathedrals. It’s really quite spectacular. The Great Hypostyle Hall for example contains a veritable forest of 134 towering pillars, each intricately adorned with hieroglyphs.

You could spend a day exploring the hidden corners with its multitude of statues, obelisks and hieroglyphs galore. With kids, we opted to do it at a relatively swift pace.

Their favourite was the giant scarab statue. Ancient Egyptians believed that circling the scarab seven times brought good luck, so of course, we had to try this out!

From Karnak, we walked along the 3km Avenue of Sphinxes directly to Luxor Temple.

This temple is dedicated to the rejuvenation of kingship and is possibly where the Egyptian pharaohs were crowned. To say that the colossal statues of Rameses II outside the temple are impressive would be to do them a disservice. They’re extraordinary.

After a busy morning temple viewing, we headed for the cooling sanctuary of Sofra restaurant with its fabulous smoothies. The food here was delicious.

Day Nine – Hot Air Ballooning & More Tombs!

The Hot Air Balloon Experience

James has been trying to get me to join him on a hot air balloon trip for about 20 years. I’m terrified of heights and have never been brave enough to venture into one. But the photos of the hot air ballooning over the Valley of the Kings were simply stunning. And with a New Year’s resolution of pushing myself out of my comfort zone, I booked us a trip. I then tried desperately not to think about it. This I managed until the night before. James said I was hyperventilating in my sleep, having nightmares of me and the children falling out of the basket.

But early that morning, we arrived at the launch site. It was fairly chaotic which helpfully distracted me from my fears. The basket was enormous with five separate compartments. I wedged us in towards the middle, away from the edge. My back up plan was just to sit down if it all got too much.

Can you see the fear in my face?!

And then we drifted upwards. So slowly and gently. The views were utterly breathtaking and bit by bit, I relaxed into it. Even at our highest for some reason, I didn’t feel scared. It was honestly an amazing, almost spiritual experience.

People had warned us the landing could be a little bumpy. But we landed in the middle of the desert and the ground crew caught us on our descent and lowered us down. As gently as could be.

I am so very glad I did it. James and the kids loved it.

Valley of the Queens, Worker’s Tombs, Tombs of the Nobles and Medinat Habu

By this stage in our holiday, the kids and James were exhausted and a little temple and tombed out. But I was chomping at the bit to explore, so I left them to relax around the pool and headed out on my own. I felt perfectly safe travelling on my own as a woman, but I was hassled for tips more than with the family. But as long as you stayed strong and calm, it was fine.

I visited a few of the Queen’s tombs, those of the Nobles and finally the workers. The latter were my favourites. I loved squeezing through what felt like hidden secret passageways in the hillsides to find tiny but beautifully embellished inner sanctums.

And finally, to Medinat Habu, my final temple.

Day Ten – Cairo and Home

After a delayed flight back from Luxor the night before, we didn’t get to our hotel rooms until 1am. So, for our final day, we relaxed around the warm pool, soaking up those last rays of sunshine before our flight home.

It was a phenomenal holiday full of experiences and memories. If you haven’t been, I hope this has encouraged you to venture out to this exceptional country, filled with ancient treasures and adventures galore.

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