Here at the Time Out office, when people ask us to think of Alexander the Great, we’re torn between a highly effective, world-conquering Greek military leader and the mental image of Colin Farrell in a silly blond wig. But as of earlier this year, when Alexandria – the Egyptian city that the ‘great’ man founded – was announced as the first ever Capital of Arab Tourism, there is now thankfully a third option.
And what an option it is. Around three hours north of the capital, Cairo, and the ancient Pyramids of Giza, Alexandria sits on the coastline of the Mediterranean Sea and feels more European than the rest of the country. A corniche, lined with shops, seafood restaurants and coffee shops, runs the length of the city, with beaches and other opportunities to sample the sea air.
The decision to make Alexandria the Capital of Arab Tourism came from the Arab Ministerial Culture of Tourism, who looked at 12 cities across the region in all. Officials would have weighed up a number of factors, based on history, culture, modern attractions and potential events to attract more tourism should the accolade be awarded. With a history dating back almost 2,500 years, and influences that include Greek, Roman and Islamic, there is no shortage of things to see, while modern buildings such as the Bibliotheca Alexandria give the city an eye to the future.
One of the sites today’s visitors will not be able to see, however, is the Lighthouse of Alexandria – one of the original Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. It sat on the island of Pharos, and for several hundred years was the world’s tallest manmade structure at 120-140 metres. Several earthquakes destroyed the tower over time, and Arab explorer Ibn Battuta once documented how he paid a visit to its remains (strangely, a scale replica now exists in a public park in Guangdong, China). But the site of the lighthouse is still worth a visit, as it now houses Fort Qaitbay, a defensive fortress built in the 15th century. Named after a powerful Sultan who was its first occupant, visitors are free to wander around the building and discover its varied methods of defence, like the hole above the main entrance where hot oil would have been poured on potential invaders.
Other ancient remains can still be found across the city. Pompey’s Pillar, a Roman triumphal column, is one of the better known attractions, built on Alexandria’s acropolis and standing almost 30 metres in height. A miniature sphinx is located just in front of it, symbolising the cohesion of different historic eras. The catacombs, known as Kom Al Shoqafa, can be found nearby, with a large spiral staircase leading down into a multi-level maze consisting of various chambers and statues.
The Royal Jewellery Museum is worth a look too – the former palace occupied by the Mohamed Ali dynasty until 1952. It houses a huge collection of jewellery that the family had collected from far and wide for generations, as well as valuable paintings and architecture. Some pieces are so elaborate they redefine the word ‘bling’, and you would be hard-pushed to find anything as over the top in a shopping mall.
Fast forward to the modern day, and the Bibliothecha Alexandria serves as both a library and cultural centre/museum for the city. It is said to house around 8 million books, arranged on 11 floors, with a planetarium, art galleries and book restoration facilities on site. But its architecture is just as much of a talking point, with the roof of the main reading room consisting of a 32-metre glass disc that tilts out towards the Mediterranean like a huge sundial – very striking as you pass it along the corniche.
With souks to be found inbetween, coffee shops and restaurants serving fantastic seafood (located on the Mediterranean, the quality of the fish is amazing), you can definitely sense a strong case for appointing Alexandria as the first Capital of Arab Tourism. If you talk to residents, the only thing that seems to be lacking is any form of nightlife, with only several decent bars and nightclubs – the majority phased out by the numerous casinos that line the seafront. But with so much to see, maybe an early night is advisable, as that way you won’t miss any of the landmarks that make this city what it is.
Qatar Airways flies direct to Alexandria from about QR1,630 return (excluding taxes)
Where to stay
Sheraton Montazah Hotel (+20 3548 0550; www.starwoodhotels.com)
Where is it?
North-central Egypt, on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea
Typical Mediterranean climate, with mild, rainy winters and hot, humid summers
Majority Arab-Egyptian, with some European
Roman ampitheatre, Fort Qaitbay, Bibliothecha Alexandria, Alexandria Aquarium, Graeco-Roman Museum, Royal Jewellery Museum, Museum of Fine Arts, Alexandria National Museum, Catacombs of Kom Al Shoqafa, Pompey’s Pillar
Take a stroll in the manicured grounds of Montazah Royal Gardens, eat a plate of kushari (macaroni, rice, lentils and tomato sauce) at Kushari Bondok in Smouha, and buy charred corn on the cob from the vendors along the corniche
Where's the buzz?
Grab coffee and shisha along the seafront, a favourite nightlife spot is the San Giovanni nightclub
A brief history
Founded around 331 BC by Alexander the Great (he is rumoured to be buried here), the city served as Egypt’s capital for around 1,000 years. At one point it was the largest city in the world. It fell under Roman rule for a time, and with the Muslim conquest of Egypt in 641 AD, a new Egyptian capital was established that was eventually absorbed into Cairo. Alexandria was once home to one of the original Seven Wonders of the World, the Lighthouse of Alexandria, since destroyed over time by a series of earthquakes. The English fought Napolean and his French armies here in the Battle of Alexandria in 1801. Today it remains an important trading post and harbor for the rest of the country
Actor Omar Sharif, American writer André Aciman and former Harrods owner Mohamed Al Fayed were all born here
The Book on Fire by Keith Miller, Flow Down Like Silver, Hispatia of Alexandria by Ki Longfellow, and Pashazade by Jon Courtenay Grimwood, also the movies Cleopatra and Alexander
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Quality of life