Luxor or Alexandria is a choice between two very ancient cities. On the one hand you have the historic wonder of the Nile Valley, where mighty temples loom overhead and the tomb of King Tut himself lurks mysteriously underground. On the other there’s a shimmering city by the Med, where the former glory of its Hellenistic age is hidden by car-clogged streets and enthralling blocks.
This guide can help you pick the place that’s right for you and your travel buddies this season. How? It will delve into a series of key areas to weigh up the pros and cons of both places, to show where is easier to get to, where has the best history and culture, which one is the option for outdoorsy travelers.
The good news is that we think there’s a pretty clear-cut answer. While neither of these destinations should be overlooked, there’s certainly one that trumps the other with its unforgettable monuments and bucket-list caliber. Ready to find out which?
Luxor or Alexandria for ease of travel?
Alexandria stands out as probably the easier of these two places to get to. The reason? It’s located in the north of county, in the developed area of the Nile Delta. Yes, it has its own airport – the recently built Borg El Arab Airport (HBE) – but it’s really the closeness to the larger international air hub in Cairo that makes it a cinch to arrive at. There are trains linking the two cities, not to mention good motorways if you’re willing to drive.
Luxor can also be reached by train from Cairo, though the journey is an epic one of 10 hours (sometimes by day, sometimes overnight) that takes you down the whole length of the Nile Valley. Compare that to the two hours it takes to get to Alexandria from Cairo! The distance means that most people who come here will fly. Luxor International Airport (LXR) is the arrival point and it’s a good one, with new links to many European cities throughout the winter peak season and internal arrivals from Sharm El-Sheik and Cairo.
Winner: Alexandria. It’s in northern Egypt, which means easier to reach.
Luxor or Alexandria for general vibe?
The first thing to note about these two places is that they are quite different in terms of character and atmosphere. Take the population. Alexandria is home to just over five million people. It’s the second-largest town in the whole country, dwarfed only by 10-million-strong Cairo. Luxor isn’t small, but is just a fraction of that, counting 1.2 million people in total. Naturally, that means that the first will be pretty darn busy and big, while the other runs to a more relaxed – although nowhere near as relaxed as Hurghada et al – tune.
Geography also plays its part. Alexandria is very much a port city. It has one foot in the cooling Mediterranean Sea and strong links to the rest of Europe when it comes to trade and culture. Luxor doesn’t. It’s one of the centers of Upper Egypt (AKA the south) and was once even a part of the uber-ancient Nubian kingdom. That means it’s got different traditions and tends to feel a whole load more exotic than the cities of the north.
Winner: Draw – this is all down to personal taste.
Luxor or Alexandria for things to do?
It’s likely that you’ll split your time between the city and the sea in Alexandria. Urban neighborhoods filled with old-timer cafés abound around the old Corniche and Al Ibrahimiyyah. You can dive in and wander, tasting Egyptian coffees and smelling the scents of shisha pipes. The bazaar of Zanket el-Setat is a doozy for people watchers and foodies, while the Alexandria National Museum is great for those on a history mission. For unwinding, head to wavy Abu Qir Beach under the Burj fort or clear-water Cleopatra Beach closer to the downtown.
In Luxor, the history takes center stage. You’ll probably spend the bulk of your trip checking off the main UNESCO sites and temples. Chief among them is the Temple of Karnak on the east bank of the Nile and the tombs of the pharaohs that lie in the Valley of the Kings to the west – those are the musts! After all that, you can also plan river cruises on sightseeing boats that go all the way to Aswan or 4X4 desert rides in the backcountry.
Luxor or Alexandria for outdoors adventure?
Alexandria might not be the same whopping great big size as Cairo and it’s no longer one of the largest cities in the Mediterranean world as it was back when Alexander the Great ruled the roost. However, it’s still a pretty hefty metropolis, which means there’s not all that much for outdoors enthusiasts. That is, unless you look north, to the sea. The coastline is forever beckoning here, with wave-lapped beaches on the Corniche and more remote sands to the east and west. It’s got scuba diving, wild swimming, and snorkeling in abundance.
Luxor certainly doesn’t have any salt water. It’s deep in the heart of central Egypt at least four hours’ drive from the Red Sea coast at Hurghada. No matter. It is surrounded by wild desert lands and cinnamon-tinged ridges. It beckons hikers with three- and four-hour trails that weave through the lush lands of the Nile Valley and into the dusty Valley of the Kings. It’s a great place to launch desert safaris to spot snakes and reptiles in the sand hills. And it’s a base for river adventures down to Aswan. All that helps it win here.
Luxor or Alexandria for history?
Alexandria is a truly ancient city, but the ravages of the centuries haven’t been kind. Where once stood a Wonder of the Ancient World (the Pharos lighthouse) now stands a big fortress that’s a mere 700 years old (that’s positively young in these parts!). The famous ancient library burned down in the Roman era. A shiny new one stands in its place. The whole Corniche of the city has also been totally redeveloped but still offers a glimpse at a bygone heyday when Alexandria was a hub for artists in the 50s.
No such problems in Luxor. This southern town has been called a veritable open-air museum and it’s hard to argue. It’s the single most amazing historic draw in Egypt if you ask us. The sights come thick and fast, starting with the colossal columns of the Temple of Karnak (4,000 years old), going through the mystical tombs of the Valley of the Kings (some of which are 3,500 years old), and ending with the Deir el Medina village, the onetime home of the folk who built these great shrines and chambers all those decades ago.
Luxor or Alexandria for food?
Foodies hunting the finest cuisine in Egypt will do very well in Alexandria. This is arguably the most European of all the cities in the country, which means there’s a touch of the Greek mezze and Italian flair about the cooking, something that’s bolstered by the presence of the sea – a continuous source of fresh fish that Luxor could only dream of. The dishes you’ll want to sample here include Alexandrian fondue spreads, chili-topped snappers and prawns, and the famous liver sandwiches.
Luxor is better for those looking to taste their way through the earthy cooking of Upper Egypt, the southernmost part of the country. It’s a type of cuisine that looks much more to sub-Saharan Africa and the Indian Ocean for its muse, which means hearty soups of pulses and chicken, along with fire-cooked breads like the local aish baladi (the Egyptian answer to pita or nan).
Luxor or Alexandria for hotels?
Luxor can lay claim to some of the very best hotels in the whole of Egypt. There’s not a huge choice – Booking.com returns just over 190 stays in all. But it’s certainly a case of quality over quantity when you check out the palatial pads with views over the palm-speckled Nile River and pools glistening in the garden. Luxor still has enough budget and midrange accommodation to cater to its range of visitors, too. Check out these hot picks:
- Nefertiti Hotel Luxor ($$-$$$) – There’s serious style to this riverside hotel, what with its nomad-themed terraces and
- Djorff Palace ($$$) -Unquestionably one of the best hotel sin Luxor. Choose this if you’re coming on a temple-packed honeymoon.
- Nile Youth Hostel ($) – Bargain stays that cost less than $15 a night await at this backpacker stay with doubles and twins.
Alexandria isn’t really on the major tourist trail of Egypt. For that reason, it has nowhere near the overload of hotels that you get in other big cities, like Cairo, for example. The best of the bunch is usually located on or close to the Corniche, the arch of a bustling promenade that fronts the Mediterranean Sea. Others – often cheaper – will be nestled in the atmospheric blocks just behind. Check out:
- Sunrise Alex Avenue Hotel ($$$) – It’s over $100 a night for this colossal resort hotel with pools and sunning terraces. It’s one of the largest and most opulent in the whole city.
- Downtown Sea View Suites ($$-$$$) – You should be able to see the Med from your room in this well-rated aparthotel.
- Hilton Alexandria Corniche ($$-$$$) – Another top-rated hotel on the Corniche, this branded Hilton is a taste of luxury with good access to the beaches.
Luxor or Alexandria – our conclusion
Luxor has to win this one. First-time travelers to Egypt should have it close to the top of their bucket list period, no matter where it’s up against. The mighty temples and the tombs of the Valley of the Kings represent perhaps the single most amazing collection of sites in Africa. Don’t miss them. Alexandria is a good option for those who don’t have much time and can only explore northern Egypt. It’s also better if you prefer city breaks and beaches.