Where the greatest ancient lighthouse once stood
Even though we had a very tight agenda and not too many days and time overall while in Egypt for this trip, we definitely planned a day out to visit what was once upon a time, one of the greatest, most luxurious and vibrant cities the earth has seen, Alexandria. Unfortunately, today that glorious of the past is long gone. First, and main cause, the many earthquakes which made the ancient city to sank and disappear under the Mediterranean Sea, together with the remaining of the Great Lighthouse; and secondly, for the current state of the city where no one seems to take care that much for the old architecture and buildings, the lack of cleanliness and general care.
We found ourselves immersed in a city full of waste. In every park, corner or even by the beach, there was dump. Hundreds of plastic bags full of rubbish everywhere. Really disappointing to see, and at points quite uncomfortable. We knew it was just a matter of bad luck that time since it was a general cleaning strike; still, the dump was not just coming from it, but for months and months of careless behaviour.
Then, all these countless beautiful French colonial buildings in that state of disrepair. Just some paint and general care and would make a totally different city. I hope they don’t take that long until they realise what incredible potential they have in this city and do something about to solve it. It could definitely be a very beautiful and elegant city.
Now, when thinking about antiquity, this city was one of the greatest centres for architecture and learning among plenty others. A jewel in a key location at the mouth of the River Nile and the Mediterranean Sea where one of the 7 Wonders of the Ancient World once stood, the Great Lighthouse; and the largest and most complete library known to humanity, the Great Library. Not just the Egyptians created wonders, but did also the coming civilizations that took over, with the Greeks and Romans all leaving a massive cultural heritage, most of which still buried deep under the current layout of the modern streets. You dig a hole for a new building, and its treasures afloat, but of course in a city so rich in archaeological ruins, it is impossible to keep the space without building anything on top just for displaying the ruins. These are all traced, studied, valuable objects retrieved and then all cleared for the new buildings to come.
Getting to Alexandria is pretty simple if coming from Cairo. It’s approximately a little over 2 hours journey by train, and therefore, if you really have some time to spare, don’t hesitate in coming and have a different view of another city. There is definitely a great fact, the city is by the sea, and not far from the city there are indeed great beaches. Do not get in your personal opinion what you see by the city centre beach, it clearly cannot show that there are two realities coexisting, the down and dirty areas, but as opposed, the clean and nicer ones not far away.
For more information about the city check Wikipedia and Wikitravel sites. Egypt’s currency is the Egyptian Pound (LE). Please note that any price reference is true as from when this guide was created, therefore check prices in advance as with the time they change.
What to see and do in Alexandria
- Eastern Harbour The ancient former city that sank lead to the current line by the city and the sea. This harbour connects through the promenade both the Citadel of Qaitbay at its western side and the Great Library towards the easternmost side.
- Corniche It is the waterfront promenade, 15km long, although the section of the Eastern Harbour is the nicest, where the old French colonial buildings are.
- Monument of the Unknown Navy Soldier In a section of the Corniche halfway between the Citadel and the Great Library, at one of the main arteries connecting the Downtown with the sea.
- El-Mursi Abul Abbas Mosque Heading west after the monument on direction towards the Citadel. The biggest mosque in the city.
- Citadel of Qaitbay This is the fortress overlooking the Mediterranean and built in the precise site of the ancient Lighthouse and city, using some of the original stone blocks. There is an entrance fee of LE25 or LE15 for students.
- The Great Library Right at the opposite end of the Citadel, from where you can see it. LE10, open daily except Tuesday, from 11.ooam until 19.00pm, Friday and Saturday from 15.00pm. A masterpiece of a building, built atop the very same site of the ancient Great Library.
- Kom el-Shouqafa Catacombs A big network of underground Roman catacombs, one of the best sights in the city. LE20 entrance fee.
- Pompey’s Pillar Built in honor of Emperor Diocletian in AD 297, almost 27 meters high made of a single piece of red Aswan granite. LE15 entrance fee.
- Roman Theatre Located at Kom El-Dikka. LE15 entrance fee.
- Misr Train Station The main railway terminus, in an Italianate architectural style.
- Ras el-Tin Palace Built in 1847 in Italian Renaissance style, it is the oldest royal Egyptian palace still in use. Located at the west of the city, at the other side of the Eastern Harbour. The best view of it is from the distance, with the sea at the front.
- Stanley Bridge and Beach One of the beaches of the city, small but nice, with the beautiful road bridge crossing it side to side. Located towards the east, far from the downtown.
- Montazah Palace and Gardens Farther east along the coast from Stanley Bridge, passing nice beaches. One of the most impressive sites in the city for the architecture and richness of constructions, and finest gardens surrounding it. Especial mention is the Al-Haramlik Palace built in 1932 as a summer palace in a blend of Ottoman and Florentine styles. LE10 entrance fee to wonder around the gardens.
The most likely way you would be coming to the city is overland from Cairo. Trains leave from Ramses Station in downtown Cairo. There is no need to get a 1st class ticket. A 2nd class is perfectly fine, and although trains are really old and dirty(ish), they are efficient and pretty much comfortable. Tickets cost LE 52 (6£) one-way. You can book online if you wish, but buying tickets at the station is not hard. In any case, you will need to stand strongly, people will come from both sides trying to make their way to the ticket vendor window in front of you.
The best train times in order to spend a whole day would be any Special, which run every hour at the hour, so at 10.00am or 11.00am the best, and as for return, the same, a Special around 18.00pm or 19.00pm so you don’t arrive too late back in Cairo.
Within the city, although the main sights are walking distance from each others, there are buses and one of only 3 remaining tram networks in the world using double decker cars. The ridiculous price per ride is 25 Piasters, (0.06£). Tickets are bought on board. The yellow tram number 25 runs from Raml Station to Ras el-Tin and Fort Qait Bey, being the most helpful route.
Not many people I suspect would be staying overnight in Alexandria, mostly because after one or two days there is nothing else to do and see, and definitely you don’t come to Alexandria looking for beaches, for that you go to the Red Sea resorts. We felt in this description, and our base was Cairo, therefore not much more I can say or in this case, other than the usual. Having a look at some of our preferred affiliate hotel search engine such as Hotels.com, Booking.com, Expedia, Otel.com, Agoda, Opodo, LateRooms or Ebookers as the best way to start. Then, if your budget is still not met, there is a good selection of properties through airb&b and the likes of course.