The last time I was in Egypt was 10 years ago, when I travelled to Cairo and Alexandria with my toothless one year old (pictured above). That baby is now a lanky tween who calls people ‘bruv’, and grudgingly puts up with his two younger siblings, an eight year old brother and a ‘super annoying’ five year old sister. Amazingly, this eldest child, who hides under his hoodie and generally communicates in monosyllables, livens right up if you ask him about Egyptian gods. Turns out, they are characters in some of his favourite books, The Kane Chronicles by Rick Riordan. This, along with a recent upsurge of interest from our clients in Egypt as a destination this year, led me to book the family on a half term break to Cairo, Luxor and Hurghada last October, hoping I could expose the kids to some culture (with the promise of a beach afterwards) whilst also inspecting a selection of the top hotels in key places.
Since I’ve been back, so many parents have asked me whether Egypt really can work for families with young children. Should they wait until the kids are a bit older? The beach side of Egyptian tourism is set to make a huge comeback for families now that Sharm is back in the Foreign Office good books, but how best to incorporate the cultural sites, if at all? Are the hotels still good enough, after nearly a decade of under-investment? Would they be the only Europeans there, a target for all the touts to pounce on to try and sell us their Tutankhamun bottle openers? Now BA and Thomas Cook have cut most of their routes to Egypt, how do you even get there?
Read on, to see how we fared!
Many people don’t realise that Egypt is only 5 hours from London on a direct flight. That’s only 30 minutes longer than flying to Gran Canaria, and nearly two hours shorter than flying to Dubai. It’s so close you could almost pop over for a long weekend. But which airlines fly there? Well, you can get to Cairo direct from Heathrow with both BA and Egyptair, and Easyjet flies direct to Hurghada five times a week. Egyptair also flies direct from Heathrow to Luxor each Monday. Low UK visitor numbers to Egypt means that currently there are fewer direct flights from the UK than there were, but that’s likely to change over the next year, and even if it doesn’t, there’s lots of choice if you don’t mind going indirect, via Germany or Switzerland.
This offers a clue as whether you’ll be the only European tourists in Egypt – you won’t be. Tourism to Egypt is booming from Germany and Switzerland, also Austria and France, who have been going in increasing numbers for the last three years. Just about the only people who aren’t yet there in any great numbers are us Brits. Now it’s our turn to return to this outstanding destination. With relatively low visitor numbers, great prices, and the new Egyptian Museum scheduled to open in 2020 I’d say there’s never been a better time to go.
Getting around within Egypt is also easy – EgyptAir has a network of inexpensive domestic flights running several times a day to key destinations like Luxor, Aswan, Sharm el Sheikh and so on, and travel times are rarely over an hour.
We decided to have a whistle-stop 2 night/1 day tour to Giza so the children could see the Pyramids. Having seen them featured on various TV shows over the years, the kids were absolutely blown away by their size in real life, and couldn’t stop taking pictures! Visitor numbers are climbing but not back to their peak just yet, and we were pleasantly surprised to find that the hawkers who had followed us everywhere last time we visited, waving postcards and trinkets at every step, were nowhere to be found. We were left in peace throughout, although some of this was down to the efficiency of our excellent guide – I always recommend having one at key sites partially for this reason.
We decided not to pay to go inside any of the main pyramids as we thought it might be a little challenging for the kids (plus, frankly, we’d done it on our last trip and once is enough!), but it’s possible to go inside one of the small ‘queens pyramids’ beside the Khufu pyramid for free and these are the perfect exciting-yet-manageable tomb discovery experience for little ones. Although it’s still necessary to crouch and climb down ladders whilst going down the shaft, it’s only a short distance to the burial chamber and the air doesn’t get quite as humid or dank as the far larger main pyramid shafts. The children loved the fact that we had to bend double whilst they could fit perfectly along the tiny corridors, and we were in and out in 15 minutes, the kids very proud that they had climbed inside a real pyramid. There are no artefacts inside, so just prepare them for that ahead of time and everyone will enjoy it.
We topped off our pyramids experience with a camel ride out to the plateau to see the pyramids from a distance. It’s touristy, yes, but oddly my kids really enjoy this sort of thing (the donkeys at Petra had been a surprise success the year before) and were desperate to try riding a camel. Having our guide with us to interpret and negotiate on price with the local camel owners, who have a reputation for over-charging, made this a stress-free experience, and we put the two older boys on one camel and my husband and youngest on another to save on cash. I’ve enjoyed plenty of ‘interesting’ camel rides over the years, so I generously volunteered to stay on the ground and be the official photographer. My least favourite part of any camel ride is when they lurch up off the ground from their knees, throwing the rider backwards and forwards like a terrifying real life game of camel buckaroo. The kids, of course, thought this was fantastic.
After this exciting adventure, we headed back our hotel for an afternoon cooling off in the delightful pool. We passed the building site of the new Grand Egyptian Museum on our way – all the treasures from the existing museum on Tahrir square are being moved here and it’s scheduled to open October 2020, hopefully just in time for half term! It’s currently possible to pay for behind-the-scenes tours in the unfinished museum, watching the conservators restore items which have been kept in storage for decades, but at $250 a head (fine for two adults but rather too steep for this family of 5) we decided to skip it and return when the new museum finally opens.
One other thing we fitted in to our day was a visit to a papyrus museum. In truth, these are shops and not museums, and some of the papyrus ‘art’ for sale isn’t that tasteful. Uncrupulous guides will suggest that you go to one of these, or an alabaster shop owned by his ‘friend’ or ‘uncle’ and most are a waste of time and full of tat. But many of the papyrus shops do free demonstrations of how papyrus, the world’s first ‘paper’ is made, and it’s fascinating. Pop in for five minutes to see a demonstration, stay firm on refusing the dayglo paintings (offer a tip instead) and this is well worth doing.
There are several flights per day between Cairo and Luxor, almost all of which are before 9am. After a good nights’ sleep at our airport hotel, we dutifully got up at 5am and checked in, complete with a comprehensive breakfast box (the hotel is used to preparing these, and we saw almost everyone at the airport also had one). It’s just a short 1 hour flight to Luxor and arriving at 08:00 for our one night stay, we had the whole day to explore, as well as the following day. We chose to book our hotel from the night before so we could check in right away and have a lazy morning to rest, have a leisurely breakfast and a lengthy swim before heading out to the temples. To save on cash, visitors can of course just drop their bags at the hotel then head straight out for morning sightseeing and lunch, returning to check in when rooms become available at 14:00.
Our main focus is always on keeping sightseeing manageable for our three children – despite Egypt’s treasures being (in my opinion) the finest anywhere in the world, dragging hot and whiny children round temple after temple can suck the enjoyment out of anything. So to achieve a balance, we restricted all sightseeing to half day excursions only, with the other half devoted to buffets and swimming, which get equal billing in our childrens’ eyes. On the days we were heading out, we gave them a rundown of the timings and how many temples they would see. We set their expectations. We got them Egyptian-themed colouring books. And we bribed them with ice-lollies. A lot of ice-lollies.
The successes? Luxor Temple at sunset, the avenue of sphynxes outside Karnak temple, and the richly decorated tombs of the Valley of the Kings, where the ‘drawings’ inside kept all three children enthralled. Less successful: The fabulously grand Mortuary Temple of Queen Hatshepsut, which I personally loved, but the kids found a bit too big and open, and very hot. I’m still glad we went, but those less of a history geek than me could give that one a miss.
One trick that we had learned from previous family holidays was to give all three children some sort of camera, as this keeps them busy, makes them feel more involved, and staves off boredom while the guide reels off dates and the names of a bunch of dead people. The pictures the kids take are of variable quality (I’m being polite) but it’s fascinating to see the small details they find interesting, many of which we had overlooked. The key here is obviously not to give your five-year-old your best Nikon SLR but to make use of really cheap or old digital cameras or cameraphones that you don’t mind if they drop. They will drop them. Multiple times.
A real highlight of our whole stay in Luxor was the tomb of Seti I in the Valley of the Kings, where our moody tween came alive naming and telling stories about the various gods and goddesses depicted on the walls, from ibis-headed Thoth (god of magic) to jackal-faced Anubis, the god of death and Ra. It was incredible having him as our miniature tour guide, especially as our real guide had to wait outside (guides cannot enter the tombs, so usually give a talk outside then you explore inside at your leisure). So astonishing was his transformation that against the rules, we filmed it. Now we have something to look back on throughout his teenage years when he stops talking to us altogether.
After each half-day of sightseeing it was back to our lovely Nile-side hotel for a relaxed afternoon. Our five star hotel just outside of town had a resort-like feel and was the perfect respite the tour buses and hustle-bustle of the sites. Cooling off in the sparkling infinity pool watching life on the Nile flow past was bliss, and recharged the kids’ batteries wonderfully, ready for their next hit of culture.
With our heads full of the glorious treasures of Egypt’s ancient kings and queens, after our two nights and two days in Luxor, it was time to move on. The kids had tolerated the temples and tombs brilliantly, partly because they knew this part of the holiday was next.
Just four hours by road from Luxor is the Red Sea resort of Hurghada, home to an array of European-standard hotels and known for its superb coral reefs. It’s so accessible from Luxor that it is almost rude not to combine the two. Unlike Sharm el Sheikh, which is perched on the bottom of the contested Sinai Peninsula on the opposite side of the Gulf of Suez, Hurghada has never been subject to a UK Foreign Office advisory. Surrounded by stark desert, the coastline is a sudden bust of turquoise sea and tall palm trees – with average daily highs of 21-24C in the coldest winter months and virtually no rain year-round, it makes the ideal mid-haul bolthole to escape the cold, dark European winter for a bit of guaranteed sun.
We’d numbered the temples the kids would see so they could mark their progress through the ‘culture’ bit of the holiday and count down to the beach part. I’d warned them that there would be one final temple that we’d stop in at enroute to the beach.
Dendera, one of the best preserved temple complexes in Egypt, was built for by the Ptolomeic (Greek) rulers of Egypt after it became part of Alexander the Great’s empire. It’s about 40 minutes outside Luxor, along the road we were going to take anyway to get to Hurghada. Unlike the major temples in Luxor, the car park here was empty. There were no coaches and no touts, just four or five other people wandering around the huge complex. The beautiful images of the infamous Queen Cleopatra and her son by Julius Caesar (Caesarion) on the outside walls of the temple are particularly evocative, knowing the grisly fate that befell them both shortly afterwards. Kids love a gory story, so as far as mine were concerned this temple was better than most, and as it was the last on the list they actually engaged with it brilliantly, knowing the end was near. Final temple ticked off, we stopped for a bite to eat at the nearby town of Qena and hit the road again for the 3 hour drive to the coast.
The drive through the endless-seeming desert and mountains to the coast isn’t the most scenic, but with ipads in hand (my super-organised husband had pre-loaded them with downloaded Netflix shows before we left the UK), the kids actually relished the chance to get stuck into some telly without us limiting the amount of screen time, for once.
I shut my eyes for 40 winks. When I opened them again the desert was still just as barren, but ahead we could now see the Red Sea on the horizon, with a swathe of green palm trees in-between. 20 minutes later, we’d arrived at our resort, the Kempinski Soma Bay. The kids took all of 30 seconds to wriggle into their bathers and run out to the vast pool complex. They couldn’t believe their eyes – the whole place was covered in water – a huge main pool, a kids pool, a jacuzzi so big you could swim in it, a second main pool and surrounding the whole thing, a giant lazy river complete with waterfalls, lagoons and rubber rings for floating in. Shouting ‘best day ever!’ they piled in.
Ending our trip with four nights at the beach balanced things out perfectly. Feeling virtuous about all the wonderful things we’d seen and done already we used these last few days to unwind and do very little except swim, snorkel, sunbathe and stuff our faces. My husband and I enjoyed a couple of excellent spa treatments and I even got part-way through one of the two books I’d optimistically packed. As any parent knows, when the kids are happy, everyone’s happy, and so we loved this excellent short beach break and could easily have stayed longer. OK so Hurghada doesn’t have all that much to do outside the resort, but we’d already maxed out on culture, so were more than happy to stay within the confines of our resort and do very little indeed.
The clean, private beach at the Kempinski Soma Bay has plenty of sun loungers and umbrellas, with a nifty call button to summon an attendant for drinks or snacks. The sand is soft and the bay is so calm, with such a gently sloping beach, that you can walk out several metres and still only be up to your knees. This makes this spot absolutely perfect for those with young children, as you don’t have to worry about large waves knocking them over or dragging them out to sea. Toddlers can be sat in a shallow pool of water to happily play in the sand for hours on end.
The best part is that about twenty metres out from the shoreline lies a long clump of healthy, colourful coral, complete with an array of stunning tropical fish in only about 2 metres of crystal clear water, with a sandy bottom. Our two boys, who are not confident swimmers, found the saltiness of the water plus the air in their masks made them extra buoyant and they found it effortless to float over the reef. They were so excited to spot clown fish, parrot fish and trigger fish, giant clams and puffer fish. They couldn’t believe their eyes when they found a gorgeous blue spotted stingray nestling in the shallows only a few metres from shore. For my husband and I, both keen divers, to be able to share with them our love of the glorious underwater world in such an accessible way was pure family gold.
It’s worth pointing out one other element which helped us enjoy our trip – the other clients. Some resorts on the Red Sea now cater almost exclusively to non-European markets since their primary market (the UK) dried up – we had been wondering what the mix of clients would be at the Kempinski and whether we’d feel comfortable there if we were massively in the minority. We needn’t have worried. The bulk of the clientele at the Kempinski were well-heeled German, Austrian and Swiss families with very similar interests to our own, and we did see two or three other British clients. We never felt left out as English is the lingua franca at the resort – the staff all speak really great English and most only speak rudimentary German or French. We felt easily able to communicate with both the wonderfully friendly hotel staff and other guests and heard English spoken all around us, albeit accented. Only the (German run) watersports centre had signage in German that we had to ask to be translated. The only other concession I saw to the German clientele (aside from high standards throughout) were pretzel rolls at breakfast – both an absolute bonus in my opinion.
After four blissful days at the beach, it was finally time to head home – tanned, rested, and with five cameras full of random photographs to sift through. A quick 30 minute drive took us to Hurghada airport for our flight home via super-efficient Zurich. Arriving at (less efficient) Heathrow later that afternoon still in our flip-flops and sunglasses, we quickly dug out our trousers and coats to ward off the chilly October air. We all agreed that it felt as though we’d been on a far longer holiday, so much had we seen and done on this single eight-day trip.
Egypt was a resounding success as a family holiday and I would wholeheartedly recommend its combination of culture and beach for any family, especially those with kids of primary school-age or above. Wonderfully warm, even in our coldest winter months, it is ideal as a half-term break in February or October as you can achieve a lot even if you only have 8 nights like we did. Choosing carefully, there are some wonderful luxury hotels offering world-class service in each location, with no need to compromise.
Whether you just pop over to Cairo to see the pyramids and Egyptian museum for a day or two before heading down to the beach for a week, or balance the culture and beach 50/50 as we did, Egypt’s cultural treasures are not only possible but wonderful to do with kids. The key is to keep the culture in small chunks with plenty of downtime, pack a bit of extra kit (cameras, Egypt-themed kids books/colouring books), set expectations, and don’t be afraid of using a bit of bribery (ice lollies). OK, you’re not going to visit every tomb in the Valley of the Kings. But we found that the ones that we did see (3 included in the standard ticket, plus 1 special one) showed the highlights and more than enough variation between the types of tombs – I think that would be enough for me even without the kids in tow. We ticked off the main temples too, Karnak, Luxor and Hatshepsut, plus the Colossi of Memnon (it’s just a quick photo stop). There’s so much more to see in Egypt of course – we haven’t even mentioned Aswan or Abu Simbel for example, and you could actually spend a whole week in Luxor without running out of things to see (the Luxor Museum, Mummification museum, Tombs of the Nobles, Madinet Habu, Ramesseum and the replica Tutankhamun tomb, just to name a few). But we felt what we saw was plenty for a first visit.
Frankly, the best thing about the holiday is the thing that makes every holiday with the kids special – being together as a family. But in this destination more than most we felt that the balance between things the kids loved and things us grown-ups loved was more or less equal. That creates a special synergy that you don’t get on a standard ‘fly and flop’ beach holiday. True, the kids were not quite as blown away by the temples as the grown-ups were (I mean honestly, I think they are the best thing I’ve seen anywhere in the world), but they did enjoy seeing them, in moderation. They may not remember every detail but for us it’s more about instilling a sense of adventure and enquiry than being able to ace their class ‘Ancient Egypt’ project at school. Maybe the impressions left on them from this trip will inspire one of them to become an archaeologist, classicist, or anthropologist. It’s probably wishful thinking and they’ll end up as solicitors, but just spending quality time together doing something everyone enjoys is a rare thing. If we get nothing else out of this holiday than memories of happy family days and a Tutankhamun bottle-opener fridge-magnet (yes, we succumbed), that’s more than enough for me.
I travelled over the October half term for 8 nights, arranged through our local partners in Egypt. All transfers and guiding were included, with our own guide in each city, and private mini-bus. We had two interconnecting bedrooms in each hotel, with a rollaway added in the kids’ room for our third child. The hotels we used were the Le Meridien Cairo Airport in Cairo, the Hilton Luxor in Luxor and the Kempinski Soma Bay in Hurghada. For a longer trip, the Easter holidays is the perfect time of year to travel. The February half term is also great, with lovely warm weather in Luxor. Air temperatures at the beach are more like 22C in February though, so may not be warm enough for everyone – the plus side is that this is probably the cheapest time to go. Avoid summer when it’s unbearably hot. An 8 night trip in February 2020 for a family of four staying in the same hotels as I did, sharing two interconnected rooms throughout, with transfers and sightseeing as described, currently costs around £5350 including flights from Heathrow. Adding an extra child under the age of 6 (sleeping on a rollaway bed) would only add the cost of their flights.
Contact Temple World on 020 8940 4114 to speak to Alice for ideas and inspiration on how to create a wonderful family holiday to Egypt.
P.S. Egypt-themed books for families preparing for a trip to Egypt with kids
Just in case it’s helpful to anyone, here’s a list of some of the Egypt-themed kids’ books we got the kids before travel to help them get excited about their trip – we also brought quite a few of these with us. I don’t get commission from these links, they are just things that we found useful.
The Horrible Histories Awesome Egyptians book is great fun for older kids, and there are novels set in Egypt such as Flat Stanley (Great Egyptian Grave Robbery) for kids aged 5-8, plus the Rick Riordan Kane Chronicles that my son loves so much (perfect for ages 8-12). For visual learners, Usborne has a book of Egyptian things to Make and Do (puppets, pharoh’s headdress etc), and for kids who like fact books there’s a National Geographic Kids book called Everything: Ancient Egypt, plus a whole host of Egypt-themed colouring books for non-readers. Also look at the Usborne lift the flap book Mummies and Pyramids. Not a book, but just for fun if you have children aged 2-4, the BBC’s Go-Jetters series on TV has two episodes set in Egypt, one on the pyramids and one on the Sphynx – available to download from BBC iPlayer. I don’t get commission from these links, they are just things that helped me and my family.