Updated: Oct 8, 2019
First off, let’s just discuss briefly what exactly is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, because I personally always had a vague idea (it was something old and cool?) without knowing the exact definition.
So, to quote the United Nations themselves: “UNESCO seeks to encourage the identification, protection and preservation of cultural and natural heritage around the world considered to be of outstanding value to humanity.”
To be a World Heritage site, it has fit one of these ten criteria, and Egypt’s the proud home of 7 of these sites.
So let’s go through the list together and we’ll give you our local recommendation about which of the sites you *must* see if you only have a certain amount of time in Egypt.
1. Memphis and its Necropolis – the Pyramid Fields from Giza to Dahshur
Founded in 3000 BC, Memphis was the first capital of Ancient Egypt, and its necropolis is close to modern-day Cairo. Besides being the home of the pharaohs, and the center of the country’s administration, Memphis was considered a site sacred to the Ancient Egyptian gods.
Today many temples and monuments are left standing in Memphis, as well as evidence of the development of the royal tombs from their original shapes as "mastabas" until the final pyramid shape.
There are more than 38 pyramids in Memphis’ Pyramids Field: the pyramids of Giza and the pyramids of Abusir, Saqqara and Dahshur.
How to get there: you can easily pre-arrange a short day trip to Memphis, the Pyramids of Giza, Saqqara and Dahshur from either your Cairo hotel or any of the tour groups you can book online.
Is it a must-see: YES
2. Historic Cairo
Cairo was originally founded in the 10th century, quickly becoming the new centre of the Islamic world and reaching its golden age in the 14th century. Modern Cairo has built up and around Historic Cairo, or as we locals call it, “Old Cairo”. The most famous street in Old Cairo is Moez street, called by the UN "the greatest concentration of medieval architectural treasures in the Islamic world”. Here's our detailed local's guide to Moez Street.
In Moez street and other places in Islamic Old Cairo, you'll find breathtaking mosques, and in Coptic Cairo, Christianity’s early stronghold in the country, you'll find centuries-old cathedrals and churches. There’s also the world-famous bazaar Khan el Khalili adjacent to Moez Street, which grew out of an original caravanserai.
How to get there: it’s an easy cab ride from anywhere in Cairo.
Is it a must-see: yes
3. Ancient Thebes with its Necropolis
Thebes, now modern-day Luxor, was the second capital of Ancient Egypt, after Memphis, during the Middle and New Kingdoms.
Still-standing remnants of this Nile-side capital in Upper Egypt are world-renowned temples such as Luxor Temple (the world’s largest open air museum), Karnak, Hatshepsut’s Mortuary Temple and the necropolises of the Valley of the Kings and the Valley of the Queens.
How to get there: you can fly into Luxor Airport, or take a (very long) train from Cairo, or a cruise from Aswan.
Is it a must-see: yes
4. Nubian Monuments from Abu Simbel to Philae
This mind-blowing archaeological site was actually saved by UNESCO in an international effort to relocate the immense Ancient Egyptian monuments away from the flooding of the Nile river from 1960 to 1980.
Now safe, the temples of Ramses the Great at Abu Simbel are still as spectacular as they were when they were built around 3200 years ago, and the Sanctuary of Isis at Philae Temple serenely overlooks the Nile from Aswan.
How to get there: you can fly into Aswan Airport, take a (very very long) train from Cairo, or a cruise from Luxor.
Is it a must-see: yes
5. Wadi el-Hitan (Whale Valley)
According to UNESCO: “These fossils represent one of the major stories of evolution: the emergence of the whale as an ocean-going mammal from a previous life as a land-based animal. This is the most important site in the world for the demonstration of this stage of evolution.”
How to get there: drive from Cairo to Fayoum
Is it a must-see: not really, unless you’re an archaeology buff or have enough time to explore Egypt at leisure. It’s obviously very cool, but if you’re tight on time, you can pass.
6. Saint Catherine Area
In Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula is Mount Sinai, or as called in Egyptian Arabic, “Gebel Moussa” (Moses’ Mountain). It’s here that the three Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam), believe that Moses encountered the Burning Bush and received the Tablets of Law.
At the foot of Mount Sinai is the Orthodox Saint Catherine Monastery, which was founded in the 6th century and is the oldest Christian monastery in the world still used for its original function.
According to UNESCO: “Its walls and buildings are of great significance to studies of Byzantine architecture and the Monastery houses outstanding collections of early Christian manuscripts and icons. The rugged mountainous landscape, containing numerous archaeological and religious sites and monuments, forms a perfect backdrop to the Monastery.”
How to get there: fly into Sharm El Sheikh airport and arrange a tour from there or Dahab. It’s about a 3 hour drive from Sharm.
Is it a must-see: not unless you’re already nearby (meaning already in the Sinai area), or unless you’re very interested in its religious significance (or interested in hiking, because thousands of people annually make the trek up to the mountain summit, either on foot or by camel).
7. Abu Mena
Abu Mena is the remnants of an early Christian holy city, built over the tomb of the martyr Menas of Alexandria, around 50 km south of modern-day Alexandria. It’s believed that Menas died in either the late 3rd or early 4th century. Not much remains standing in the ancient Christian city today besides the foundation of some of its great buildings, such as the basilica.
Abu Mena was put on UNESCO’s “World Heritage in Danger” list due to a rise in the water table, which made the foundations of the remaining structures unstable or collapse.
How to get there: drive from Alexandria
Is it a must-see: not really. Unfortunately not much remains of Abu Mena, but if you’re in Alexandria and have some spare time, it’s always good to see a World Heritage Site -- especially since it’s in danger of disappearing forever.
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