Alexandria is a Mediterranean port city in Egypt. During the Hellenistic period, it was home to a lighthouse ranking among the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World as well as a storied library. 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.
Best Time to Visit
The best time of year to visit Alexandria is probably autumn or fall (late September to early November) and spring (March and April).
Top Places to Visit 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 Graeco-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.
3. Fort Qaitbey
Walk the long shorefront 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.
4. 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.
5. 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.
6. 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.
7. 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.