Steeped in Roman and Hellenic history, Alexandria is well known for the ancient wonders it once housed but Egypt’s second-largest city is also a bustling modern metropolis, says Olivia Cuthbert
The city of Cleopatra, Ptolemy II and its namesake Alexander the Great echoes with the influence of civilisations that have shaped it across millennia. Visitors to the ‘pearl of the Mediterranean’ are greeted by its dual personas: the old-world grandee, tracing an illustrious lineage from ancient times to colonial rule, and its modern visage complete with the all the cosmopolitan clamour of a twenty-first century metropolis. Alexandria is a city that unites the two and, according to its biographers, Justin Pollard and Howard Reid, authors of The Rise and Fall of Alexandria, is a place where “The true foundations of the modern world were laid – not in stone, but in ideas.”
More than perhaps any other city, Alexandria is steeped in legend, partly because it was here that the intellectuals of the ancient world attempted to gather every story under the sun into one place. The Great Library of Alexandria was said to be the largest in the world, containing an unrivalled collection of works by the great thinkers of the day, among them Homer, Plato, Socrates and many more.
The destruction of the old library, believed to have been due to a fire around 2,000 years ago, is still lamented today, though the lack of archaeological remains of this storied structure has led some to suggest its existence was another Alexandrian legend. Today, visitors can visit the modern Library of Alexandria (Bibliotheca Alexandrina), built in 2002, and browse thousands of books gathered in memory of its historic namesake.
Stuff of legend
Another ancient wonder that must sadly be left to the imagination is the famous Lighthouse of Alexandria. It survived in part until around 1480 and was believed to have been a tourist attraction before earthquakes over the centuries reduced it to rubble on the sea floor. Today, visitors can visit an underwater archaeological park and swim among its remains.
Journey through time
Little survives of the city in its heyday but there are plenty of (slightly) more recent historical sites that offer an insight into Alexandria across the centuries. The first port of call is the Alexandria National Museum, which conveys a sense of the city from prehistoric times through Pharonic, Graeco-Roman, Coptic and Islamic civilisations via a series of archaeological displays.
Guarding the city
Next, pay a visit to Qaitbay Fort, part of the citadel that was built by Sultan Qaitbay in the 1480s on the site of the old Alexandria Lighthouse to ward off the threat of crusader invaders.
Final resting place
Plunging back into ancient times, the Catacombs of Kom el Shoqafa were the final resting place for the Antonine emperors in the 2nd century AD but fell into disuse after 4 AD before they were unearthed in 1900 when a startled donkey fell down the access shaft. An ancient circular staircase winds down into the darkness of the necropolis, where the décor reflects the different cultural influences that characterized Alexandrian design across the centuries, with a mix of Roman, Greek and Egyptial cultural points evident in the tombs, statues and reliefs.travelgoals
Head to Stanley Bridge for a panoramic perspective of the Mediterranean during the day or a romantic lookout by night from this breezy spot, which is a short walk from nearby cafes and restaurants
Shopping takes on a whole new meaning in the backstreets of Alexandria, which offer a taste of the traditional Arabian market experience, when every price was up for discussion and items could be exchanged as well as bought and sold. Souk El Attarine is the essence of old Arabia, with its winding network of alleyways crammed with shops that spill out onto the street and sell a huge variety of wares, from antique furniture and coffee pots to Egyptian costume, herbs and spices and tourist trinkets.
Trawling the malls
The high-street shopping experience is concentrated in downtown Alexandria along Al Askander Al Akbar and Ebadah Ibn Al Samet while more upmarket shops can be found in the city’s malls, including San Stefano Mall, which features several cinemas and a variety of luxury outlets and dining options.
As the site of the most renowned literary collections in history, it’s no surprise that Alexandria is well-stocked with places for visitors to augment their personal libraries. The Book Centre of Alexandria sells volumes in English, Arabic, French and German while Diwan offers a comprehensive selection of English and Arabic fiction to buy or browse in the in-house café.
East meets West
Mediterranean flavours blend with traditional Arabian cuisine in Alexandria, which incorporates the best of both culinary traditions into a brilliant fusion of flavours that sets this apart from other Egyptian cities. For meat-lovers, Middle Eastern barbecues are a revelation and Abd El Wahab Village is a great place to start with huge mixed grill platters piled with succulent lamb skewers, tender chicken and beef kebabs flavoured with local herbs and spices.
Straight from the street
For cheap eats and simple street snacks, Foul Mohamed Ahmed at 17 Shokour Street is a firm favorite, serving up tasty bowls of crispy falafel and other mezze favourites in a simple, homely setting. A must-try meal is Koshari, which is seen by many as Egypt’s national dish and features a filling mix of rice, lentils, macaroni and chicpeas in tomato sauce topped with fried onions. El Tahrir on Khaled Ibn El Walid Street serves up some of the best.
Fresh from the sea
Seafood is a particular Alexandrian speciality, thanks to its waterside setting and White and Blue restaurant at the Greek Club produces some of the finest Mediterranean-style fish dishes in the city. An excellent fine dining option, Sea Gull combines first-class food with sea-side views and first-rate service.
TAKING IN THE SIGHTS
Strolling the shore
One of the best ways to get a feel for Alexandria is to walk through the different neighbourhoods and gain a sense of the very different vibes that make up this eclectic city and the influences that have combined to create it. The Corniche, which spans 10 miles of the Eastern Harbour, is the perfect place for a leisurely waterside stroll, buffeted by gentle sea breezes that take the edge of the heat of the day.
At one end of the promenade is Montaza Palace, where the shady gardens provide another serene spot in the manicured surroundings of the former King Farouk’s outdoor retreat.
Make like a local
Tours by Locals offers visitors an opportunity to experience everyday Egyptian life with an Alexandrian as their guide, including dining in a local restaurant.
For a past perspective, swap the Lonely Planet and Rough Guides for Lawrence Durrell’s The Alexandria Quartet (1957-60) and EM Forster’s Alexandria: A history and a Guide (1922)
WHERE TO STAY
Four Seasons Hotel Alexandria
At the upper end of the scale, this luxury hotel comes with all the five-star trimmings, including spacious suites, sea views and excellent facilities, including a private beach, pool and choice of dining options. There’s also easy access to the adjacent mall and a very good concierge service for advice on how best to explore the city.
Hilton Alexandria Corniche
Boasting its own slither of private sand and overlooking the Mediterranean Sea, this property packs in all you need — a range of restaurants and a wealth of leisure facilities, including a spa and sea-facing swimming pool —while standing a few steps from the Corniche and historical sites.
Alexander the Great Hotel
With its light, airy rooms and friendly owners always on-hand with advice for guests, this is a popular choice for budget travellers looking to keep costs down on accommodation without compromising on cleanliness or comfort. There are no pretentions to being high-end, but it earns its three-stars.
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