Alexandria is Egypt’s second largest city and the country’s window on the Mediterranean Sea.
The city is a faded shade of its former glorious cosmopolitan self, but still worth a visit for its many cultural attractions and memories of a glorious past. It remains an important city, as Egypt’s chief seaport on the Mediterranean and a home to at least 3.5 million Egyptians.
HISTORY: Sic transit gloria mundi – Alexandria was the eponymous foundation (in 334 BCE) of the Macedonian conquerer Alexander the Great (Iskander al-Akbar), a rival of Rome in its heyday, and the world’s greatest center of learning for millennia, now a dusty seaside Egyptian town with an over-inflated population of 5 million. The French-style parks and the occasional French street sign survive as a legacy of Napoleon, one of Alexandria’s many conquerors. But the final blow came when Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalized most of Alexandria’s Greek-owned businesses, leading to an exodus of 50,000 Greeks from the country – but the few remaining Greek restaurants and cafés still dominate the cultural scene.
• Fort Qait Bey – Built by Mameluke Sultan Abdul-Nasser Qait Bey in 1477 AD but razed and reconstructed twice since. At Ras el-Tin at the western tip of Alex, take the yellow tram to get there.
• Bibliotheca Alexandrina – A huge modern library and research center constructed on the site of the former Library of Alexandria (destroyed c. 400 AD), located just to the east of the Corniche. Open Saturday to Thursday (including Tuesdays) from 11:00 am to 7:00 pm and Friday from 3:00 pm to 7:00 pm.
Like its illustrious predecessor, the modern Bibliotheca Alexandrina is much more than a library. In addition to millions of books and Internet archives, the complex houses three museums, a planetarium and children science exploratorium, a nine-screen multimedia presentation of Egyptian history and culture, an interactive 3-D virtual reality simulation lab, a conference center, academic research centers and art galleries.
Guided tours are offered in English, Arabic, French, Italian, and Spanish, featuring the history of the ancient library, the concept and construction of the new library, and an introduction to the different sections of the library.
• Graeco-Roman Museum
• Roman Catacombs at Kam-el-Shuqqafa
• Roman Amphitheater
• Pompey’s Pillar
TO DO: Rent scuba gear and swim through the East Harbour’s ancient remains.
Bars and Nightclubs – Visitors to Alexandria often complain that it can be hard to find a decent drinking venue in the city – what a change from the bars and nightclubs that used to fill the city before and after the war! Even so, frequent travellers do recommend a number of reliable establishments:
• the Spitfire Bar, Sharia Sa’ad Zaghloul – easy to overlook despite its obvious location on the corner of a square on this busy street. The building looks slightly derelict but is clearly marked above the doors. Walk west along Sharia Sa’ad Zaghloul from Midan Sa’ad Zaghloul for a few blocks until the road opens up in front of you into the beginning of a square. Turn right and the bar is a few doors down on the right.
• the Havana Bar, Sharia Fouad, near Sharia Salah Salem – considered by many to be the best bar in Alexandria, a very small downtown venue with about six tables. Great atmosphere, however, and good food (no menu, just ask) alongside the usual Stella Local, Premium and Meister beers. Spirits also served at a reasonable price (unusual for Egypt). (Getting to the Havana Bar: walk west along Hurreya Street from Cinema Amir for about 500 m until the road splits with two forks to your left, one to your right and Hurreya Street carrying on straight. There should be a big building with columns on your left. Go over the junction and Havana is behind stained glass windows and a stained glass door on your right. There’s no sign and you have to knock to get in).
Cafés – Cafe Trianon. Midan Saad Zaghlul (by the seashore), tel. 48220986. The poshest cafe in Alexandria, famed for the best om ali in Egypt — although LE 14 for what is essentially a bowl of sweet cornflour pudding is little steep. The food is also good and slightly more reasonably priced, try the moussaka for LE 13.
• Normandy Hotel. 8 Gamal el-Din Yassen – Raml Station, tel. 034806830. email. firstname.lastname@example.org. The Normandy hotel is an excellent place to stay. It is a one floor hotel located on the Corniche, with unbeatable views of the city’s Eastern Harbor. It is the building behind the famous Cecil Hotel, on the fourth floor. Rooms range from 15LE to 30LE per night, depending on availability, view, and season. The rooms are well-appointed, large and clean, but spare. The bathrooms are down the hall, and also clean. Staff is very friendly, helpful, and honest. The staff speaks both English and Arabic, with limited knowledge of a few other random languages.
• Short term lettings. If you’re thinking of a more lengthly stay (a month or more), why not try renting in Alexandria. Perhaps surprisingly, lets are easy to come by, coming in a range of prices (from 180LE per week to over 1000LE) and states of repair! Needless to say, it’s definitely worth visiting an apartment during the late afternoon (It’s worth seeing a place around this time for two reasons: First, you’ll get a better impression of how well the lighting works, and second, you’ll be able to see the worst of any insect problems. It’s highly unlikely to find any accommodation near the coast that is completely ‘roach-free’, so please bear this in mind!) before placing any money down. Landlords/lady’s tend to live in the same blocks and will be willing to haggle the rates.
Mid-range – Holiday Hotel. 6 Orabi Sq, tel. 03801559. A no-frills two-star hotel with private bathrooms and hot water, not far from the shore and within walking distance from the center of town.
• Hilton Alexandria Green Plaza, 14th of May Bridge Road, Phone: +20 3 4209120 (Fax: +20 3 4209140).
• Mercure Romance Alexandria, 303 Tareek El Gueish, Phone: +20 3 5840911-12.
• Renaissance Alexandria Hotel, 544 El Geish Avenue – Sidi Bishr, Phone: +20 3 549 0935 (Fax: +20 3 5497690).
• Sheraton Hotel Montazah, Corniche Road, Phone: +20 3 5480550.
• Sofitel Cecil Alexandria, 16 Saad Zagloul Square, Phone: +20 3 4877173 (Fax: +20 3 4855655).
• Helnan Palestine, Montazah. Houses the old king’s palace and gardens.
SAFETY: Street kids harass tourists with offers to sell bango (marijuana) and nimble fingers probing pockets. They will usually desist after a stern La! or two.
In Alexandria, crime is perhaps as bad as anywhere else in Egypt: only really found where invited. Therefore, a few rules of thumb should see anyone through:
1. Never wear a bum-bag/fanny-pack – it only advertises the fact your valuables to the world.
2. Keep valuables out of sight where possible.
While Alexandria is one of the more westernised cities in a moderate Muslim country women are still advised to cover their shoulders, midrifs, cleavage and legs above the knee. This works in both parties favour: you won’t receive undue attention while remaining respectful to the religion and culture of others. It’s also advisable to cover your head when entering places of worship.