Luxor, Egypt: Hot Air Balloon Rides

. .

Most tourist activities will have you getting your start before the sun rises to beat the exhausting African heat, taking a tour in a hot air balloon is no exception. Numerous companies operate tours, most easily booked through your hotel for around $75 per person, including transportation to the balloon site. Beginning your day around 5am, you’ll be brought to an open field where you will assist the tour operators in laying out the massive balloons for inflation. Bursts of light from the hot air flames dramatically showcase the balloons as they take shape and begin to fill the dark morning sky.

Upon piling into the large woven basket hanging underneath the balloon, you’ll take off, rising as the sun comes up to witness the start of daily life as you sail through the skies. The balloons will carry you over the landscape and swoop you over houses as people begin their day. After a quick mid-air lesson in the proper landing position, you’ll soon be back on the ground with the rest of the day ahead of you to explore the rest of what Luxor has to offer.

Edit: A crash in 2013 killed 19 tourists.

Cairo, Egypt: Citadel of Salah al Din

. .

Built on a hill of limestone, the citadel began as a pavilion built in 810 and was later fortified by Saladin between 1176 and 1183 to create a fortified royal city. Saladin, of the Ayyubid dynasty, who had come from Syria, introduced to Egypt the custom of building a fortress to serve as a stronghold for the local ruler. He utilized the most advanced building techniques of the time, such as the inclusion of large round towers that would allow defenders of the fortress to more easily deter any intruders attempting to scale the city’s walls.  Following Saladin’s death, his nephew reinforced the citadel, adding several more large towers.

Today, as one of Cairo’s most popular historical sights, the Citadel provides insight to the area’s Islamic heritage as well as into its centuries old past. The site provides stunning, sweeping views of the city from every direction. Visitors can tour a variety of  monuments at the Citadel, such as the Mohammed Ali Mosque, which is dominant in the city’s skyline, the Mosque of Sultan al Nasir, the Police National Museum and the Military Museum. The mosques are much more visually alluring than the museums, but it is well worth the time to spend at least half a day exploring all of the sights of the Citadel.

Giza: Touring the Ancient Pyramids & Great Sphinx

. .

Located a short distance from modern-day Cairo, Giza is where an estimated 20,000 workers built the pyramids over a period of 80 years. Of the three pyramids located at Giza, the oldest and largest, simply known as the Great Pyramid, is the only surviving structure of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. The same site is home to the Great Sphinx, a statute featuring a human’s head on a lion’s body, a form that was used a royal portrait statue in ancient times. The one built at Giza is believed to be the earliest example of the sphinx form.

Arranging a tour of the pyramids is a fairly simple process as most hotels or cab drivers will arrange for you to meet with pyramid guides who will help you plan your visit. The planning stage involves deciding whether you would like to see all three pyramids and the sphinx or whether your prefer an abbreviated version of that trip. If you are dealing directly with the guides, you will likely be shown a “map,” like the one pictured, to help you with your decision. Once the route is planned, you are left to choose whether you would like to ride a camel or  mini horse through the desert or whether you prefer to be pulled in a carriage along the roadside. The guides will lead you (and your animals) through the desert and up to each of the pyramids and the sphinx. Although you can’t enter the pyramids, a good guide will make stops to point out hieroglyphics and surrounding tombs during the tour. For additional tips, some guides (usually the ones you are introduced to by a cab driver or come upon on your own) will also allow you to climb the pyramids, despite it being strictly prohibited. Aside from being forbidden, it is also a lot of work since the stones are huge, which does not  make for an easy climb up or down.

Egypt: Sailing the Nile in an Egyptian Felucca

. .

Feluccas are traditional Egyptian sailboats, dating back to ancient times, that have maintained their popularity as the preferred mode of transportation along the Nile. Perfect vessels for catching cool breezes off the Nile during hot Egyptian summers, felucca rides offer relaxing cruises along the river. The boats and their captains are easily found along the waterfront and will generally offer rates by the hour or half hour.  Longer multi-day trips are also available, but due to the limited facilities of the feluccas, they are ideal for short evening sunset cruises. The boats are generally outfitted with cushioned benches around the sides and a bench table in the center, which is fitting for enjoying a casual picnic as you sail the Nile.

Cairo’s Open-Air Dining at Sequoia

. .

Sequoia’s location on the Northern tip of Zamalek, the main island in the Nile lying between Downtown Cairo and Giza,  allows diners to enjoy sweeping views of the river from any seat in the restaurant. Easily one of the most stylish dining destinations in the city, Sequoia’s dining room is a large open space with overhanging white canopies and minimalist decor to best highlight the views of the Nile and glowing city skyline. The cuisine is Mediterranean, featuring dishes originating from Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco, Syria, Greece and Spain.  The extensive menu and convivial atmosphere, make Sequoia ideal for group dining. Beginning  with a selection of hot or cold mezza followed by a sampler dish such as the mixed grill, a platter of kebab, kofta, shish tawouk and veal chops, would be a good start for exploring the menu. After the meal, the low-lying, comfortable couches and stuffed chairs make the restaurant an ideal spot to lounge late into the evening enjoying a mint tea, cocktail or hookah.

53 Abu El Feda, Zamalek, Cairo