Clear, aqua-colored water. World-class coral reefs. Shipwrecks rife with colorful sealife. Sound enticing? When one thinks of an incredible beach vacation, Sharm el-Sheikh may not be top of mind, but that’s exactly why a visit to this humble, under-the-radar beach town should be on your list. Located on the southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula, it’s situated right on the Red Sea, one of the best places in the world for scuba diving, snorkeling, or to simply kick back and relax, with the sun on your face and the water lapping at your feet. Beyond the beach, the city is the perfect starting point for day or weekend trips to Mount Sinai and St. Catherine’s Monastery, the Valley of the Kings, Luxor, or the vast landscape of the Sharm Desert.
Sharm El-Sheikh is divisible into two parts: up-the-hill and down-the-hill. If you are arriving by minibus from the bus station, get off when the bus makes a right off the main road near EgyptAir. You are now down the hill. The hill in question is marked at the top by the sign of the Aida Hotel. A road leads up the hill - continue straight and signs will direct you to the bank area.
The Sharm El-Sheikh and Na’ama Bay area is undoubtedly the mecca of Red Sea diving and the epicenter of the Sinai’s tourism. Despite the large number of wealthy Germans and Italians in five-star hotels, Sharm El-Sheikh still has several unexplored gems in and around the Straits of Tiran, Ras Muhammad National Park, and the wreck of the Thistlegorm.
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Restaurants are concentrated in the Old Market. Turn left off the Sharm-Na’ama highway at EgyptAir to find Sharm’s finest assets: a small, unmarked liquor store that sells beer and the usual assortment of dodgy wine and spirits. You’ll be hard-pressed to find beer for less than twice those prices elsewhere.
The Egyptian breakfast of choice is fuul ("fool")—cooked, mashed fava beans blended with garlic, lemon, olive oil, and salt that are eaten with bread and vegetables. What's known as falafel elsewhere—chick peas and/or fava beans mashed, shaped into balls, and fried—is called ta'amiyya in Egypt, and both ta'amiyya and fuul are sold at street stands everywhere. Street vendors also sell kibdeh (liver) sandwiches, which don't score high on the smell test but go down quite scrumptiously. Shawarma made its way from the Levant to Egypt only recently; it is supposed to be sinfully fatty lamb rolled into a pita with vegetables and tahina, but Egyptians will slap any sort of meat into bogus French bread and call it shawarma. Popular kushari is a cheap, filling meal of pasta, lentils, and dried onions in tomato sauce.
At times you might feel that all you will ever get to eat will be kofta, kebab, and chicken. These meats are almost always served with salads, bread or rice, and tahina, a sesame-based sauce. Kofta is spiced ground beef grilled on skewers; kebab is chunks of lamb cooked the same way. Chicken is either fried (without batter), roasted on a rotisserie, or skewered, grilled, and called shish tawouq. Fried and stuffed pigeon (hamam) is a source of national pride but most travelers are content to leave the dish, served whole, for the birds. Biftek (sometimes called veal panné on restaurant menus) is a thinly sliced veal, breaded and fried. You can get feta cheese with a year-long shelf life in no-refrigeration-needed packs—great for long road trips or cheap breakfasts. The brand La Vache Qui Rit (The Laughing Cow) is also popular.
Fatir are flaky, chewy, doughy delights, filled with anything and everything and eaten either as a meal or for dessert. Other desserts include ba'laweh and rice pudding flavored with rosewater (roz bel laban). Egypt's ruby-red watermelons (butteekh), though sometimes known to be color-enhanced with non-potable water, make a juicy, communal snack. Also try the unbelievable figs (teen) and, in late summer, the papaya-like teen shoki (cactus fruit).
A popular drink among travelers is 'asab, sugar cane juice, said to increase sexual prowess. Egyptians themselves are coffee and tea fiends. Egyptian tea is taken without milk but with enough sugar to make it syrupy. Egyptians prefer ahwa (Arabic coffee). Especially when you are in Upper Egypt, try karkadeh, a red drink made by brewing hibiscus flowers that is served hot or cold. Egypt brews its own beer, Stella, as well as the surprisingly good Sakara.
Most of the writings of the ancient Egyptians, such as the Book of the Dead, deal with magic and religion. The ancients dabbled in poetic love songs as well. Modern literature in Egypt is synonymous with the name of Cairene novelist Naguib Mahfouz. In 1988, Mahfouz became the first Arab to win the Nobel Prize for literature. Mahfouz's major work in the 1950s was The Cairo Trilogy (Palace Walk, Palace of Desire, and Sugar Street), which seamlessly depicts the life of three generations in Cairo from World War I to the 1950s. His classic allegory Children of Gebelawi (1959), banned throughout the Arab world except in Lebanon, retells the stories of the Quran in a modern-day Cairo setting.
Notable among more contemporary authors is Alexandrene novelist and essayist Edward al-Kharrat, who is considered the father of modernism in Egyptian literature. His popular novels City of Saffron (1989) and Girls of Alexandria (1993) are both available in translation. Doctor, feminist, and novelist Nawal al-Saadawi stands out among women authors with her extensive writings (including the notable works The Circling Song and The Naked Face of Arab Women) on the psychological, sexual, and legal liberation of the Arab woman. Her works were once considered so controversial they were banned in her native country, and she herself was imprisoned and forbidden from practicing medicine in Egypt because of the perceived danger she poses to society.
Many non-Egyptians have written accounts of their travels and experiences within the country. In The Innocents Abroad, Mark Twain describes his misadventures in Egypt and other countries. For an engrossing—if oversexed account—of Alexandrene life, don't miss Lawrence Durrell's multi-narrator epic, The Alexandria Quartet. For an eye-opening account of early Western explorers roaming the Nile, read Alan Moorehead's The White Nile and its companion volume, The Blue Nile, which include hair-raising chapters on the French invasion of Egypt and the rise of Muhammad Ali. Michael Ondaatje's award-winning The English Patient contains sensual and incredibly accurate descriptions of early desert expeditions in the area.
Traditional Egyptian folk music incorporates nasal horns churning out repetitive melodies to the incessant beat of drums. Nubian music (called musiqa nubiyya in Aswan) is equally enthralling. In general, it eliminates the horns and focuses on slow drumbeats and chanting choruses. The music blaring from taxis, ahwas, and homes throughout Egypt is a slightly updated version of this traditional classical music. Egypt is the capital of the Arab music industry and the promised land for aspiring artists from all over the Arab world. Sayyid Darwish and the legendary Muhammad Abd al-Wahhab began as early as the 1910s and '20s to integrate Western instrumentation and techniques into Arabic song. Like Egyptian cinema, this type of music had its day in the '50s and '60s but shows no signs of in popularity today. In the '60s, the emphasis fell on strong, beautiful voices to unite Arabic music's disparate elements, and several "greats" of Egyptian music emerged.
The greatest of these was the unmistakable and unforgettable Umm Kulthum. Her rags to-riches begins in the provinces, where her father dressed her up as a boy to sing with him at religious festivals, it ends in 1975 with a funeral that was bigger than President's five years earlier. In the interim, Umm Kulthum gave speeches, starred in musical films, and sang everything from post-revolutionary propaganda to love ballads. Travelers in Egypt cannot and should not escape without hearing her voice and seeing her sunglasses-clad face television or wall mural. Music in the '80s and '90s saw a wholesale in incorporation of Western influences. Modern Egyptian pop is totally danceable, mostly pre-packaged, and rarely long-lived. Among these transitory teen dreams, Amr Diab has endured as one of the best-selling Arab recording artists of all time. His upbeat songs provide sing along material at weddings, parties, and discos.
Egypt has had a near monopoly on the entertainment industry for most of the second half of the 20th century, ranking behind only Hollywood (United States) and Bollywood (India) in its prolific output. Egyptian films range from skillfully made modern dramas to comedies that pit down-and-out students against evil capitalists and bumbling police officers, with a smattering of southern Egyptians (portrayed as idiots) thrown in for comic relief.
Government and banks close for Islamic holidays, but most tourist facilities remain open. The month of Ramadan can be a wonderful (if occasionally inconvenient) time to visit. Along with the regular Islamic festivals, the two Sufi rituals of Zikr and Zar are not to be missed (both rituals are practiced on Fridays in populous areas). In the former, a group of dancers whirl themselves into a frenzy; in the latter, women dance in a group primarily as an exorcism rite. The Coptic celebrations of Easter and Christmas are tranquil affairs marked by special church services. The festival known as Sham al-Nissim falls on the first Monday after Coptic Easter, but has developed into a secular celebration. Sham al-Nissim was originally an outdoor spring festival in which ancient Egyptians and enslaved Jews feasted on pungent fisikh (dried and salted fish) as equals; the highlight of the festival was the ritual casting of a young woman into the Nile. Fisikh is still eaten at modern celebrations, but the young women stay dry; even the ritual of throwing a doll into the Nile has all but disappeared from the present-day activities.
Keep your soles out of sight - in or out of your shoes. Bottoms of feet resting anywhere but on the ground is disrespectful. Before entering mosques, remove shoes and have socks ready to wear. Women must cover their heads and arms, and stand behind men. Outside of mosques, women usually congregate with other females, lining up with other women to buy tickets and sitting at the front of buses and trains. For men, except in the most secular areas like Israel or downtown Beirut, speaking to unknown women is a breach of etiquette and should be avoided.
It is customary for Arabs to refuse the first invitation of an offering; tourists should do the same, as a genuine invitation will be repeated at least twice. If ever invited to a home but unable to attend, the householder will often press for a promise from you to visit in the future, usually for a meal. If you make such a promise, keep it. Failing to arrive will humiliate your host. It is also offensive to offer bakhsheesh to professionals, businessmen, or others who would consider themselves your equals.
Middle Eastern countries outlaw drugs, and in many places, alcohol and pork. If you need to drink in the presence of others, ask first. Explicit sexual material, like magazines, photographs, tapes, or records, is illegal and subject to confiscation.