Explore the souks of Cairo and visit the ancient pyramids before sailing the Nile to the monuments of Luxor, diving in Dahab and winding up in the Sinai desert.
Cairo souks: Best for shopping
Modern Cairo is a sprawling place, hemmed in by desert and spliced by the Nile. Old Cairo sits on a rise to the east of the river. This kernel, from which the rest of the city has grown, was laid out in 969 AD as a palace enclave. When the royals moved to safer, higher ground two centuries later, the area was given to the people. They built houses, mosques, baths and, perhaps most importantly, souks - whatever else, Cairo has always been a city of commerce.
These souks were marketplaces, labyrinthine arrangements often divided according to trade and produce. The original architecture remains to this day. Slip down an alley off the old city's main street, Sharia al-Muizz li-Din Allah, and you may find a 19th-century palace, a 14th-century hammam or a spice souk, traders leaning against sacks of peppers, the air thick with the dust of cumin.
Khan al-Khalili, a narrow alley marked by a graceful stone archway, remains a popular souk. Here, surrounded by gold merchants and antiques sellers, Atlas Silks is a small shop where Cairene notables used to buy long robes to signify their status. Visitors now come for embroidered jackets and kaftans. 'Trade is the only proper conversation here,' says Saladin Abdelaziz, the shop's owner. 'People talk of politics, sport, love - but commerce rules their lives and their city.' Over tea, we watch people pass by. The scene is little-changed over 700 years - before us scurry Persians, Europeans and Africans, loaded down with purchases, eyes peeled for a bargain.
- Atlas Silks, Khan al-Khalili; 00 20 22 59 06 139
Giza: Best for monuments
To the east of Old Cairo, a limestone ridge marks the edge of the Nile valley and the beginning of the desert. Early on a clear morning, I look out and see three triangles on the horizon - the three main Pyramids of Giza. It is an image endlessly reproduced, but one that never loses its power to excite. Built 4,500 years ago, they have stood as symbols of power, objects of mystery and subjects of debate. For centuries, it was thought they were the pharaohs' granaries, but it is now believed they were burial sites.
The Great Pyramid, a 146-metre-high mountain of stone, was created by arranging 2.3 million limestone blocks, each about 2.5 tonnes, with astonishing accuracy. Those numbers are big (so are the crowds; arrive at midday to avoid the rush), but it's only possible to understand the scale of this achievement when you step inside and come to a soaring gallery. Each enormous block is perfectly cut, polished smooth and fitted so tight not a sheet of paper would slip between them.
In front of the pyramid, the enormous lion-bodied Sphinx adds mystery to this mastery of stone. Why was it carved? By whom? My guess is as good as anyone's (well, perhaps not those who think it was the work of extra-terrestrials). As I walk down the slope towards the monument, I have the sort of sensation one might have at finding the Queen of England in the seat next to you on the flight home, a mix of familiarity and surprise.
From Giza, head 15 miles south to see the Step Pyramid near the village of Saqqara. Completed around 2650 BC, a century before the Great Pyramid, this is the oldest pyramid of all and one of the most beautiful. The pyramid's interior is closed to the public, but a few steps away there is something even more memorable. While the pharaohs were building pyramids, their courtiers were creating elaborate tombs for themselves. One of the best, built by a man called Mereruka, contains 32 chambers. On their walls, the courtier celebrated his life, from hunting in the marshes to listening to his daughter play the harp. Seeing these scenes, the millennia separating us from these individuals melt away.
- Take an online pyramid tour at guardians.net
- Entry to the Giza Plateau is £6. A limited number of tickets are sold each day to enter the Great Pyramid of Cheops (£11; 150 tickets go on sale at 7.30am, and another 150 at 1pm)
- The drive from Giza to Saqqara is best done by taxi - agree a price first (around £20 for the day)
Aswan: Best for sailing
The Nile is navigable for some 600 miles south of Cairo. Beyond that point, granite rocks and islands force the water into a series of rapids; for millennia, the spot marked Egypt's southern frontier with its rivals, the Nubians. Aswan started life here, as a garrison town on the tip of Elephantine Island, before spreading on to the east bank, where it faces the sands of the Western Desert.
The setting seems stark in the midday sun, but when the sun drops and the light shifts, a form of alchemy transforms the scene into one of sensual beauty. 'Sundown is my favourite moment to be on the water,' says Jelal, one of Aswan's many boatmen. 'This is when the colours come out: the black of granite, gold of sand, and the red sunsets we have here.'
Jelal is a Nubian, one of the people who lived in southernmost Egypt and northern Sudan until the 1960s, when the Aswan High Dam flooded their land. He and his family moved north and now make a living from the river. At sunset, with a warm wind blowing off the desert, we sail Jelal's felucca, the open boat that more than any other evokes the romance of the Nile. We pass the café-lined waterfront of the modern city and the ancient ruins on the southern edge of Elephantine Island, and then cut between rocks and islands, disturbing egrets and herons in the rushes. Next we turn north, floating past the fragrant botanical garden of Lord Kitchener's Island and the domed tomb of the Aga Khan, high on a sandbank to our left. Then, the view changes.
Tied up on the east bank are boats - from simple feluccas to massive floating hotels - preparing for their next journeys.
'What really excites me,' says Jelal, waving to a friend who is climbing a mast to tie up his sail, 'is to make the journey from Aswan to Luxor.' One of the most romantic on earth, the trip can be done either by felucca or, for more comfort, in a two-masted, luxury dahabiya. For three to five days, the boat is carried by the current and pushed by the winds, stopping perhaps at temples and the camel market at Daraw. Passengers jump off to walk on the desert sands that edge the water in some places, or to drink tea with farmers at a village café. And all this interspersed by hours adrift on the river, planks and ropes gently creaking in the wind, the water dark and cool, the night sky clear above.
- Jelal the felucca boatman, 00 20 12 415 4902
- Nour el Nil's dahabiyas are the best on the river (from £878 per person for five nights, full board; nourelnil.com)
Luxor: Best for history
For 300 years, from around 1300 BC, Luxor was a great city, the New York of its day, capital of an empire that stretched into Syria and down to Sudan. Goods were traded from here all the way across the Mediterranean, and Amun, the great god of Luxor, was revered throughout the region. The kingdom's pharaohs - including Tutankhamun - built magnificent temples to their deities here. The east bank of the Nile, where the sun rises, became the 'land of the living'; the west bank, where the sun sets, the 'land of the dead'. When the power seeped away, Luxor disappeared beneath mud and sand, only to be uncovered in our own age. An embarrassment of pharaonic riches was revealed on both sides. 'You need time to see all there is here,' says Mohamed Rehim, one of the city's most respected guides.
The key to it all is Karnak Temple on the east bank, one of the world's largest and most spectacular religious compounds. I arrive at 6am, to avoid the crowds and to see the towering columns of the Great Hypostyle Hall in the early light. As the sun catches the carvings and inscriptions, I imagine the pharaohs and animal-headed gods restored to life.
The last resting place of the pharaohs, the Valley of the Kings, is tucked into the west-bank hills. Hardly a land of the dead these days, it is full of human life queueing to enter the tombs. The paintings are worth the wait, the long walls filled with spells and incantations to ensure the kings' safe passage to eternity. At the nearby Nobles Tombs, I linger over images from the lives of high-ranking officials. They serve as an introduction to everyday life in ancient Egypt, the walls filled with scenes showing how statues were carved, cattle slaughtered, wine made, pleasures taken.
As the day draws to an end and the light softens, I walk around the temple of Medinet Habu. Built 3,000 years ago by Pharaoh Ramses III, this is now one of the country's most beautiful ruins. The Theban Hills tower behind, a kite wheels overhead, and the weight of the past lifts.
- Mohamed Rehim (00 20 10 085 2180) is one of Luxor's most inspired English-speaking guides
- For more information on the west bank monuments, visit thebanmappingproject.com
Dahab: Best for beaches and sea life
The east Sinai coastline is a harshly beautiful place. Inland, there are the barren hills of the Sinai desert, brilliant in the morning light, mauve and coral by sunset. Ahead, there is the Red Sea and, across the waves, the shimmering shore of Saudi Arabia. Thirty years ago, Dahab ('gold' in Arabic) was an empty beach above a curving shoreline. Bedouin landed lobster and fish; their huts offered the only roof over a visitor's head. The area is now full of hotels and beach bars, but Dahab retains elements of its past: the bays are still sandy and quiet, the desert backdrop still pristine, the seascapes still unspoilt.
'One of the great things about Dahab,' says scuba-instructor April McCormack, 'is that you don't have to take a boat or be an expert diver to enjoy the views. You can still get up close to the coral and the fish.' I try it and within minutes, I am face-to-face with angels and puffers, the reef beyond them red, violet and pink. It is a world of gentle motion silence. At nightfall, the town remains mellow, with none of the noise and neon that's to be found further south in Sharm el-Sheikh - there is far greater satisfaction to be had in listening to the sound of the waves fall on the shore.
- Poseidon Divers runs a half-day Try Dive course (£40; poseidondivers.com)
Sinai Peninsula: Best for biblical scenery
St Catherine's Monastery sits in the heart of the Sinai desert, on the site where God is said to have spoken to Moses from a burning bush. Above it looms Mount Sinai, known locally as Gebel Musa, where Musa (Moses) is believed to have received the Ten Commandments. Each night, hundreds - even thousands - of people scramble up a steep, rocky path to the mountaintop to wait for the sunrise. As the range of peaks turns from black to red and then gold, the crowd begin to pray.
With the sun bright in the sky, I descend the mountain and head to St Catherine's. From the moment I bow my head to enter its low-slung gate, the feeling of sanctity is inescapable. Everyone whispers out of respect for the age of the place - the Byzantine Empress Helen commissioned the first building here in the 4th century - but also not to disturb the Greek Orthodox monks. Silence is impossible in the gallery, where visitors gasp over some of the world's oldest and most beautiful icons. Even the monk who guards them feels the need to talk. 'To understand the wonder of this place,' he explains, 'you need to be alone.'
Sheikh Musa Abul-Heim - one of the leaders of the Jebaliya Bedouin, a tribe who have looked after the safety of the monastery for the past 1,500 years - is in agreement. 'Go into the desert,' he says, 'and you will see why God chose to reveal himself in this place.' The following day, led by one of the Sheikh Musa's knowledgeable guides, I do exactly that.
Rough wadis (valleys) lead to mountain passes, the red basalt crumbles underfoot, mountains loom overhead. There are surprises - a blooming of flowers, a herbalist collecting plants, the tracks of what might have been a gazelle. We come down from a pass into a valley to Al-Karm Ecolodge: a series of stone buildings, on the edge of a wadi that has enough water to sustain a garden. Dinner is simple grilled chicken, more delicious for being eaten here. I am in a place the monk had made me hope I might find - where life is simple, the stars sit close to the earth and one might believe again in miracles.
- Book a desert trek with Sheikh Musa Abul-Heim (sheikhsina.com)
Anthony Sattin is co-author of Lonely Planet's Egypt, and has written several books on the country, most recently A Winter on the Nile.
The article 'The Perfect Trip: Egypt' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet Magazine.