How to Spend 7 Perfect Days in Egypt

Pyramids! Pharaohs! Temples! It’s easy to get overwhelmed by ancient history in Cairo and beyond, so follow this itinerary to get the most out of your trip.

February 23, 2023 6:49 am
The Giza Pyramids are the first stop on our week-long travel guide to Egypt, which includes time in Cairo and a Nile River cruise
You've waited your whole life to see these pyramids. Here's how to do it (and the rest of your Egypt vacation) right.
Jake Emen

Egypt has been at the top of bucket lists since “bucket lists” became a thing that people talked about. That’s what happens when you have 5,000 years of historic civilization to pull from, capped by the remaining existence of the only Wonder of the Ancient World you can walk up to and snap a selfie with. Don’t act like the pharaohs wouldn’t have approved of obsessive documentation; they spent their entire lives building statues of themselves.

“The Egyptians saw the sun set and return, the Nile ebb and flow, and thought that life, too, returns,” says Hussein Elgabry, one of my guides in Egypt with Kensington Tours. “They thought about eternity.” The culmination of that emphasis on the eternal is everything from ancient Egypt that’s still standing today: the pyramids, the tombs, the temples and so much more.

Whether due to the pandemic or political upheaval, though, Egypt took a backseat for many would-be travelers over the past decade. The good news is that the wondrous remnants of one of the most spectacular and influential societies in human history haven’t gone anywhere. You’ve waited long enough, so go ahead and pack that selfie stick (or not) and plan a full week in the country with our thorough Egypt travel guide.

Getting to Egypt

There are a few direct flights to Cairo from North America, though most routes will connect through major European hubs before arriving into Cairo International Airport. Expect a drive of about 45 minutes to an hour from the airport, and plan to book your driver in advance, either with a tour operator or your hotel.

The Great Sphinx of Giza in the foreground with the Great Pyramid of Giza in the background
Go ahead, take a selfie. But don’t forget to put down your phone and take it all in, too.
Jake Emen

Day 1:

Stay: Marriott Mena House, Cairo

See: Let’s not waste our time picking around the edges of excitement. Head straight for the good stuff on your first morning, the Giza pyramids. You can walk there from the back door of your hotel, the Marriott Mena House. The hotel is a landmark dating to 1886, with the property abutting the grounds of the gargantuan tombs themselves.

There are three main pyramids on the site, including the Great Pyramid of Giza, the Pyramid of Khafre — which, unlike the others, is still crowned in part by its original smooth-stone surface — and the Pyramid of Menkaure. There are also six smaller pyramids on the Giza plateau, a number of remaining constructions ranging from a workers’ village to cemeteries and assorted temples. Oh yeah, there’s the Great Sphinx of Giza, too.

Regardless of how much you know about the pyramids, or how many photos you’ve seen online, their scale, as well as their history and longevity, are staggering. It’s hard to make sense of these colossal monuments, perhaps the most iconic and idealized historical site we grow up learning about, especially considering the juxtaposition of the modern city of Cairo encroaching upon them from one end, and the vast Sahara Desert flowing in the opposite direction.

Do: Try to beat the rush with an early morning arrival, and plan to spend the day exploring the grounds. Opt into a camel ride as well; besides the fantastic photo op, it will provide one of the best ways to get a vantage point of all nine pyramids together.

Pro Tip: You want to walk inside one of the pyramids, right? It’s a unique experience, but it’s not as if there’s a whole lot going on in there. “There’s nothing inside the pyramids, it was all robbed and stolen,” Elgabry says. Therefore, skip the slow-moving, claustrophobic crowds at the Great Pyramid and opt to enter the Pyramid of Khafre instead.

A man riding a camel and leading another animal in front of the Giza pyramid comlpex
Trust us, a camel ride will help you get the best vantage point.
Jake Emen

Day 2:

Stay: Aboard the Historia Nile Riverboat

Do: With the pyramids conquered on day one, catch an early morning flight down to Luxor for day two. You’re hopping aboard a four-night Nile River cruise, and there are dozens to choose from. The Historia is one of the nicer and newer options, offering a luxe stay leaning into sleek, modern style as opposed to the colonial-tinged theme that many of the older boats showcase.

Itineraries from one boat to the next are more or less the same, typically running from Luxor down to Aswan on one leg, and back up to Luxor on the next, two trips which can be booked as one if you’d like a longer stay. If the on-boat itineraries are largely equal, the differentiator you can most benefit from is opting for a private guide.

As opposed to a group tour with 10 or 20 people and a strictly by-the-books approach, a dedicated guide from an operator such as Kensington ensures you have more flexibility with what you’re doing and when, while allowing for any add-ons you might want to include. In this case, the operator customized an Egyptian itinerary for me with a combination of classic sites, luxurious accommodations and some food-focused stops along the way. A private guide ensured I could set my own preferred pace, often circumventing times known to be overcrowded, as opposed to being beholden to a large group.

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The colorful columns at the Karnak Temple in Luxor, Egype
While Giza is the obvious destination, the Karnak [pictured] and Luxor temples may be the highlight.
Jake Emen

See: Hit the ground running by heading straight to Karnak and Luxor, two awe-inducing adjacent temples. “These are some of the big highlights in all of Egypt,” says Hassan Wahab, another of my guides. While the pyramids are a show of gargantuan force, these sites offer a more artistically complex grandeur. Karnak in particular is a favorite for many visitors with its vivid, intact colors decorating an abundance of massive columns, statues and obelisks.

Pro Tip: Secure a window seat for your flight to Luxor. It’s just an hour long, but you’ll be treated to sensational views of the boundless, stark and inhospitable desert somehow carved up by the life-giving Nile and the narrow swath of lush green oasis extending away from it on both sides.

An Egyptian tomb with decorative walls and hieroglyphs
Some tombs are more extravagant than others.
Jake Emen

Day 3:

See: The major sites keep on coming one after another in this part of the world. Next on the docket is a visit to the Valley of the Kings and the Valley of the Queens, each of which is a collection of unearthed tombs buried into and hidden by the surrounding mountains.

The Valley of the Kings is where you’ll get a chance to enter King Tut’s tomb. “King Tut is famous because his tomb was found intact,” Wahab says, noting the teenage ruler hadn’t accomplished much before his untimely death. “His era was very mysterious, and he was very unlucky.” King Tut’s actual mummy is still kept within, though the dedicated museum exhibit in Cairo is where you’ll see the assorted treasures and artifacts.

There are half a dozen tombs to enter in the Valley of the Kings, and a few of the others are far more impressive. Across the two sites, though, the most vibrant of them all is Queen Nefertari’s, the favorite wife of the long-ruling Ramses II, which showcases wild displays of colorful paintings and hieroglyphics.

Do: Other stops in the region include the mortuary temple of Hatshepsut, one of the first queens who ruled as pharaoh, and the Colossi of Memnon. A sunrise hot air balloon ride over the region is a popular option as well. After another busy day of touring, your river cruise will embark from Luxor and begin its voyage down the Nile.

The gigantic Colossi of Memnon, two statues across the Nile River from Luxor
The Colossi of Memnon are both about 60 feet tall and weigh roughly 720 tons each.
Jake Emen

Day 4:

See: The beginning of this trip has been a historical whirlwind, but another major site awaits to begin the day. Head to the Temple of Edfu, a victory temple for the god Horus constructed during the Greek reign in Egypt. From the docks, you’ll ride on a horse carriage to and from the temple, unlocking yet another romantic mode of transportation.

In the afternoon, enjoy a languid trip down the Nile. Weather allowing — and it usually does — it’s a good opportunity to enjoy your boat’s roof deck pool while soaking up the sights as you sail down the river. By the evening, you’ll have time to enjoy a visit to the Temple of Kom Ombo, one of the few historical sites in Egypt to be open during the nighttime with well-lit features.

The site is noted as being an unusual “double temple” honoring two gods. One of the two is Sobek, the crocodile god, and there’s a small museum next door dedicated to him with mummified crocodiles on display. (The other is Horus, a falcon-headed god you’ll recognize.) 

Back on your boat, from one night to the next you’ll be enjoying a leisurely evening routine often featuring onboard entertainment and lavish dinners.

The Philae temple complex on Agilkia Island in the Nile River
The Philae temple complex was dismantled and moved from its namesake island to Agilkia Island in the late 1970s.
Jake Emen

Day 5:

See: It’s your last day aboard the riverboat, and there’s plenty more to see as you arrive into Aswan. Head to the Philae temple complex, a site which was left partially underwater by the creation of the Aswan Low Dam by the British in 1902. The buildings were relocated to a more elevated island in the 1970s as part of a UNESCO rescue project. On your way back to town, stop into a stone quarry to view the largest ancient obelisk in the world, or at least what would have been. The so-called “Unfinished Obelisk” was damaged during its creation and left abandoned within the bedrock.

Do: Round out the day with a felucca boat ride to the Aswan Botanical Garden on Kitchener’s Island, or opt for a visit to a traditional Nubian village to experience their distinctive culture and way of life. “The culture is different, the accents, the dress, the homes, everything,” Wahab says. Much of their ancestral land was flooded by the creation of the Aswan High Dam, completed in 1970, forcing tens of thousands of people to be relocated.

Pro Tip: Consider a half-day excursion to Abu Simbel, the gigantic rock-cut temples and statues which were also relocated due to the flooding from the High Dam. The excursion can be accomplished with a short round-trip flight from Aswan, and can be combined with the above activities in a single day, or can be taken in place of them.

Paintings and hieroglyphics in Egyptian tombs
The paintings and hieroglyphics found in some tombs are unexpectedly vibrant.
Jake Emen

Day 6:

Stay: Kempinski Nile Hotel

See: It’s time to disembark and hop on a flight from Aswan back to Cairo. Don’t worry, it’s not like you’re leaving the past behind. Far from it. Today, you’ll be heading to the Egyptian Museum and the National Museum of Egyptian Civilization.

The Egyptian Museum is soon to be replaced by the Grand Egyptian Museum, where more than 100,000 artifacts will be on display in a majestic building several times larger than the existing space. The new museum’s opening is theoretically set for June 2023, but has been delayed numerous times since the original planned opening in 2018. Whether you visit the original museum or the new Grand upgrade, one of its highlights will be the extravagant King Tut collection.

At the National Museum of Egyptian Civilization, which itself is new and opened in April 2021, the key attraction is an entire floor dedicated to an enthralling mummy exhibition. It’s a fascinating experience to view the preserved remains of ancient rulers, their features largely intact, in some cases with full heads of hair and others showcasing physical deformities or injuries.

Relax: Check into the Kempinski Nile Hotel, which is located alongside the eastern banks of the Nile in central Cairo. Choose your own R&R adventure for the evening, either decamping to its Jazz Bar for live music accompanied by fine spirits and cigars, its spa for a much-needed sauna session or massage, or its rooftop pool for a view of the city.

The view from the bottom of a Giza pyramid looking up the blocks to the top
This is the view from the bottom of a pyramid. You really need to see this for yourself.
Jake Emen

Day 7:

See: You haven’t had your fill of ancient sites yet, have you? This is what you came for! Take a short drive outside the city to the Saqqara Necropolis complex to view pyramids that predate those of Giza, with a series of rectangular layers having more of the appearance of enormous steps than a smooth pyramid.

Stroll: Back in Cairo, there’s plenty more touring to do. It’s known as the City of a Thousand Minarets, and as such there’s a multitude of mosques to explore — most notably, the Alabaster Mosque within the Citadel of Cairo. Round out your final day with a food tour, making stops for shawarma, kofta and koshari, the latter a distinctly Egyptian staple concoction layering multiple types of pasta noodles with rice, chickpeas, lentils, fried onions and tomato sauce.

Pro Tip: Head to the sprawling Khan el-Khalili Bazaar in historic Cairo, where you’ll find an endless succession of shops offering all types of crafts. Plan to walk through from one of the historic gates to the other. Not only is it a prime opportunity to pick up souvenirs before heading home, but you’ll need the steps after the koshari. Trust me.


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