Planning a Trip
Alexandria is a long, narrow city spread out over a 25km (15-mile) strip of coastline, with no part of it much more than 5km (3 miles) from the sea. At the western end of the city lies the harbor, where the famous lighthouse once stood (now the site of the Qaitbey Fort); at the eastern end are the Montaza Gardens, once a royal hunting ground and now the site of the Helnan Palestine and Salamlek hotels. The two are rather unfortunately linked by an enormous road that runs where you would expect the beach to be and cuts the city off from the sea. Known as the Corniche, it represents one of the biggest failures of urban planning in Egypt. It's almost completely unbroken by any traffic lights, and only a few of the promised pedestrian tunnels have been built. Locals, let alone tourists, cross with trepidation. Fortunately, there is little to draw you over -- the beaches are narrow, rocky, and, in the summer, crowded.
The most interesting area of the city, which contains almost all the sites worth visiting, is within a 2km (1 1/4-mile) radius from Saad Zagloul Square. Facing south here, your back to the Corniche and the sea, the eastern harbor is spread out behind you. To your left (east), after about 1km (2/3 mile), is the new Bibliotheca Alexandrina. To your right is the long curve of the harbor that will take you, after 2km (1 1/4 miles), out to Qaitbey Fort. Ahead of you is the neighborhood of Raml (or more properly Mahatet al Raml, which means "Raml Station" and refers to the tram station that you might be able to see just over to the left side of the square), and beyond that (no more than 0.5km/ 1/3 mile) is Attarine. Connecting the two areas is the north-south Al Nabi Daniel Street, which was once known, 2,000 years ago, as the Street of Soma.
The major street that runs through Attarine is the east-west Horreya Street (granted, it becomes Fouad Street at some point), which used to be called the Canopic Way. Soma and Canopic Way were the two main axes of the grid-patterned Ptolemaic city.
Be careful where you step on either of these streets: The ancient sewers run underneath, and local stories abound of people who have disappeared through holes in the street never to be seen again.
East of Al Nabi Daniel Street is the neighborhood of Kom el Dikka, which literally means "hill of rubble." If you came from Cairo by train, you likely arrived at the Misr Train Station and came to Raml by taxi, descending over this hill of old, mostly Roman, building materials. If you walk east from Al Nabi Daniel along Horreya, the old Roman site of Kom el Dikka will be on your right. You will, however, be around the back and have to walk almost all the way up the hill to the train station to find the entrance. The Graeco-Roman Museum also lies to the east of Al Nabi Daniel.
To the west of Al Nabi Daniel is the antiques shopping district of Attarine, followed by Ahmed Orabi and Tahrir squares. Tahrir Square is generally known as Mansheya Square, and there is a large statue of Mohamed Ali on a horse here.
Long and narrow, Ahmed Orabi Square is around 0.7km (1/2 mile) southwest from Saad Zagloul Square, but it stands at the edge of another universe. If you go north(ish) on Fransa Street, you'll find yourself embraced by narrow alleys and masses of tightly packed stores and stalls selling, according to the area, just about everything from buttons and cloth to fish and vegetables. As you make your way up this street, you're heading into a neighborhood called Gumrak, which means "customs" and is named for the Customs facilities at the dock, which are close to here. You're heading out onto the western arm of the bay, and you'll ultimately arrive (if you maintain your orientation) at the end of the headland where the Qaitbey Fort is located.
The Kom el Shaqafa Catacombs and Pompey's Pillar lie to the southwest of Ahmed Orabi Square.
By Train -- There are regular and fairly comfortable trains to Alexandria from downtown Cairo. They take about 2 1/2 to 3 1/2 hours depending on how many stops they make and the usual range of exigencies that afflict everything in Egypt. The 1960s rolling stock isn't as clean as it could be, but the atmosphere and view of the Delta countryside make me a big fan of this journey.
Trains leave Ramsis Station between 6am and 10:30pm. Trains are named either French, Turbina, or Spanish. First-class tickets range from LE35 ($6.35/£3.20) on the French, which stops three times, to LE46 ($8.35/£4.25) for the nonstop Turbina and Spanish trains. Second-class tickets are LE19 to LE29 ($3.45-$5.25/£1.75-£2.70). At the price, there's no point in riding second class, where the seats are narrower, the floor a little grungier, and the air-conditioning not so reliable. Your ticket has a car and seat number on it, and if you feel like having someone carry your bags to your seat, a LE2 (35¢/20p) tip should adequately cover this convenience.
There is a food and beverage cart on the trains, but I would avoid the food and beware the scam in which the waiter demands payment immediately -- he should come around 30 minutes or so before arrival and tally up your total. Drinks are around LE2 (35¢/20p) and sandwiches LE5 to LE7 (90¢-$1.25/45p-65p).
By Plane -- EgyptAir's internal flights go both to the old, convenient Al Nozha Airport and the newer Borg al Arab Airport. Prices are the same (around LE460/$84/£43) round-trip, but while Al Nozha is a short taxi ride into town, Borg Al Arab is about 30 minutes to an hour away via shuttle or taxi. The downside of Nozha is that the facilities are older and the runway very short, resulting in some quite abrupt landings.
By Car -- Arriving by car from Cairo is very simple, as the main Cairo-Alexandria desert road takes you past Lake Maryut on the south side of Alexandria and feeds into the city's main arteries. Go directly for the Al Misr Train Station or, better, to Saad Zagloul Square and ask at the tourist information office for a map. A number of excellent maps can also be purchased at bookstores around Saad Zagloul Square.
By Bus -- Unfortunately the bus station has recently been moved from its old, and very convenient, location in Sidi Gaber to Al Mawkaf el Gedid, which is near the beginning of the Cairo-Alexandria desert road. Expect to pay LE15 to LE20 ($2.70-$3.60/£1.40-£1.85) for a taxi into town (about 30 min.).
Southbound buses run every hour to Cairo from Alex between 5am and 1:30am. They terminate either at the Turgoman bus station (LE23/$4.20/£2.10) or the airport (LE35/$6.35/£3.25). The first bus to Marsa Matruh leaves at 7am and the last one goes at 1am. The tickets cost LE35 ($6.35/£3.25) for the air-conditioned and toilet- and video-equipped bus. It's about a 3-hour ride. Buses run every 30 minutes to Damiatta for LE10 ($1.80/95p) and to Port Saied from 6am to 8pm at regular intervals for LE25 ($4.55/£2.30). The West Delta office (tel. 03/4809685) is located on Saad Zagloul Square between the Hotel Sofitel Cecil Alexandria and the tourist information office.
By Taxi -- Other than the color -- Alexandria taxis are black-and-yellow instead of black-and-white -- taxis work the same way here as in Cairo, though drivers do tend to be a bit more aggressive about demanding exorbitant fees from foreigners. The table below will provide you with some guidance. Amounts are approximate, so don't be afraid to bargain before you get in.
By Tram -- Alexandria has some beautiful old trams rattling up and down its streets. Unfortunately the whole system is extremely run down, slow, and not very clean. It can also be very crowded. If you're a fan of such things and understand their romance, try a midmorning trip to Pompey's Pillar or, to the east of Raml Station, the Said Mahmoud Museum; otherwise you're better off in a taxi.
The main hub for tourist purposes is at Raml Station, on the edge of Saad Zagloul Square. The most useful line is no. 2, which runs east to west. Tickets are LE0.25 (5¢/2p) and are purchased onboard from the conductor. During busy periods, the front car is reserved for women.
By Foot -- As long as it's not raining, Alexandria is a fine city for walking. In fact, your feet are probably the best way to navigate the back streets and alleyways around Raml or the souks up Fransa Street. I wouldn't recommend trying to make much distance up and down the Corniche, however -- the level of traffic and (in the summer) the level of hassle will quickly overwhelm your sense of fun.
By Car -- A car is the most comfortable way to see the city while avoiding the hassles of negotiating with taxis. A car with a driver should cost around LE250 to LE350 ($45-$64/£23-£32) inside the city and around LE400 to LE500 ($73-$91/£37-£46) outside the city, while a rental will set you back LE165 to LE275 ($30-$50/£15-£25) per day plus mileage. (Most companies offer 100km/60 miles free and charge LE1/20¢/10p per km after that.) Try Avis, Hotel Sofitel Cecil Alexandria lobby, Saad Zagloul Square (tel. 03/6857400), or Francis Brothers Travel (tel. 012/3108173; firstname.lastname@example.org), a small family business run by a pair of brothers, both of whom speak fluent English. They have a small bus and a car that can be used across the north coast as well as the Sinai.
Alexandria is blessed with one of the most efficient and helpful tourist information offices in Egypt, tucked away at the edge of Saad Zagloul Square in Raml (tel. 03/4851556; daily 8:30am-6pm). It may not look too promising, but the ladies know everything they should about the city, and then some. Stop at the office in Al Nozha Airport, to the left as you are about to exit the main doors (tel. 03/4202021; daily 9am-5pm), before you head downtown, and anything they can't answer, the main office in Raml probably can. There's an office at the far end of Al Misr Railway Station, where the Cairo trains arrive (tel. 03/4925985; daily 9am-5pm), but it's less helpful than the main office in Saad Zagloul Square.
Maps & Books -- The small bookstore in the Hotel Sofitel Cecil lobby, Saad Zagloul Square (tel. 03/4877173), has a small-but-good selection of books about Alexandria and some maps. Alaa Eldin Bookstore, 63 Sofia Zagloul St. (tel. 03/4876186), is a small store a few steps up the street from Saad Zagloul Square and is crammed with books in Arabic; it's also a good source for maps. The owner speaks English. Monshat Al Maaref, 44 Saad Zagloul St. (tel. 03/4873303), just off Saad Zagloul Square, stocks English books, including some guidebooks, in the back to the left; the staff are very friendly and helpful. Al Ahram Bookshop, 10 Horreya St., Raml (tel. 03/4848563), has a small collection of English-language books, including some guidebooks, and maps; the staff speak no perceptible English, however.
Visa Extensions -- Take at least one passport photo and a copy of your passport to the visa extension office, 28 Talaat Harb St., which is open 8am to 1pm. The earlier you get there, the better, and don't expect to be able to apply after noon.
E-Mail & Internet -- Staying connected in Alexandria is a lot easier than it was even a couple of years ago. Around Saad Zagloul Square, there is now a thick scattering of Internet cafes. Expect to pay LE5 to LE 10 an hour (90¢-$1.80/45p-90p) for good bandwidth and a clean, decent place. Pharos Net, 25 Horreya St. (tel. 03/4976405), which has a dozen PCs with clean, modern furniture and excellent bandwidth. My personal favorite is MG Net, 10 Shohoda St. (tel. 03/4806981), which has 12 PCs stuffed into a little corner shop. Staff are friendly, and the bandwidth is excellent.