6 misconceptions I had about Alexandria – in Egypt

I’d never been to Egypt until my visit in May to see a friend, my only other experience of the Arab world being Lebanon a couple of years before. Inevitably I had a few preconceptions about Egypt, but things were not quite as I expected…

Faded grandeur or crumbling away?

If Alexandria would like to style itself as a Meditteranean tourist destination, there may be an uphill struggle with many of the buildings appearing to be crumbling away before your very eyes. This isn’t faded grandeaur, this is genuine dust and decay. The road runs along the seafront corniche and if anywhere this would normally be place for beautiful old buildings to be renovated to make the most of the sea view and the promenade. But even here, the buildings are pretty scruffy.

Crumbling houses in Alexandria Photo:Heatheronhertravels.com

Crumbling houses in Alexandria

I was told that the reason behind the crumbling buildings was that an Egyptian law passed some years ago fixed the rents of many apartment buildings and these low rents can now be passed down from generation to generation, This means that faced with minimal income from their properties and with no means to raise rents to market levels, the landlords spend no money on their buildings, leaving them to crumble away for lack of repair.

Cover yourself, Ladies

I had an image of Egypt as being one of the more stable and liberal of the Arab world and I thought that this might translate to their dress codes.  After visiting Beirut where uncovered heads for women seem almost the norm I guess I was expecting something similar in Egypt. Not so, as the norm for Muslim women, even those that are not terribly religious, to cover their heads with a scarf. If you see a lady in Alexandria without a headscarf, chances are that she’s a Christian or foreign. I’m told that this has been a change over the last few years and where once young women would have their heads uncovered, they are now submitting to peer pressure and covering up.

It was fun to see however that teenagers were still finding their own style, pushing the scarfs back to show their hair or wearing them somewhat gypsy style and in brighter colours than their mothers. It was also interesting that the young also often wear western fashions such as strappy tops with jeans, it’s just they wear them with a long sleeved high necked T-shirt underneath. In Alexandria it’s probably fine for tourists to wear a short sleeved t-shirt as long as it covers your shoulders and cleavage, but in more conservative rural areas, you’ll want to cover your arms to the elbow and legs below the knees.

Cafe in Alexandria Photo: Heatheronhertravels.com

Cafe in Alexandria

Fresh fish and seafood in Alexandria

Being on the Meditteranean coast, there is a plentiful supply of fish in Alexandria and there are many restaurants renowned for their seafood. The Alexandrians pride themselves on being able to choose the freshest fish and in a fish resturant you’ll find a refrigerated counter where the fish is laid out on ice. Take your time to make your choice, then the fish is weighed and you are charged according to the weight.

Fresh fish in a restaurant in Egypt

Fresh fish in a restaurant

The fish is normally cooked quite plainly without sauces, your main choice being whether you’d like it grilled or fried. On my last night in Alexandria I enjoyed a seafood meal at the Greek club at the end of the harbour wall near the lighthouse. The whole building was once a private club but now the top floor restaurant is run separately and anyone can go there to eat. You get a view over the harbour and the sailing club next door and can choose to eat inside or on the terrace overlooking the sea.

Fish in a restaurant in Egypt

Fish in a restaurant in Egypt

The Alexandria library is modern not ancient

Having heard about the library at Alexandria, a wonder of the ancient world, I assumed that there would be some remains to see, but nothing at all is left . So when people speak about the library, they mean the Biblioteca Alexandrina, the modern library complex which was was completed in 2002 near the site of the ancient library. The Biblioteca houses art galleries, museums and exhibition spaces as well as a number of libraries on different levels. After visiting the desert oasis at Siwa I had hoped to visit the library but unfortunately we ran out of time so I never made it there.

Biblioteca Alexandrina Photo by Moreno on Flickr

Biblioteca Alexandrina

Alexandria is Mediterranean rather than Oriental

I haven’t been to the south of Egypt or to the Nile delta but I’m told that the feeling in Alexandria is quite different, with a Meditteranean outlook. Until many were forced to leave in the late 50s by President Nasser’s anti-European policies, there was a thriving European community of Greeks and Italians and you can still wander around the old Greek and Italian quarters. The climate is more temperate too and when I visited in May it was pleasantly warm in the day with a sea breeze and cool enough for a cardigan at night.

In the back streets of Alexandria Photo: Heatheronhertravels.com

In the back streets of Alexandria

Friendly people and no hassle

I had this preconception of Egypt as a place where you can barely move without someone trying to sell you something whether it be a camel ride or fake antiquity. The hassle factor was the one thing that kept Egypt at the bottom of my wish list to visit. But things are very different in Alexandria to the tourist traps around Cairo and Luxor. In Alexandria there are barely any tourists and so life goes on as normal around you with everyone I met being friendly and welcoming. Of course I was with local friends and I might well have experienced more hassle had I been an single woman wandering around alone, but I left with a feeling of Egypt as a much more relaxed and hassle free place than I had imagined.

Check for the best hotel prices in Alexandria and book here.


More Egyptian stories

My trip to Alexandria and Siwa with My Vacation iPhone app
What makes the perfect holiday in Marsa Matrouh
More than the pyramids – a grand tour of Egypt’s museums



heatheronhertravels' Egypt - Alexandria photoset heatheronhertravels’ Egypt – Alexandria photoset


Photo credit: Alexandria Library by Moreno

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  • Reply
    August 3, 2011 at 7:39 am

    Good to know that a visit to Egypt can be hassle free. I’ve been wanting to go there forever, but the thought of all the harassment’s been what’s kept me away thus far.

    And how disappointing about the library and the state of neglect of all the buildings. I still want to go and see it though, but perhaps now that my expectations have been lowered a little it won’t be too disappointing 🙂

    • Reply
      August 3, 2011 at 9:21 pm

      I think Alexandria had a charm but it was the sort of place where you have to wander the back streets to see what’s going on

  • Reply
    Barbara Weibel
    August 3, 2011 at 5:42 pm

    Hi Heather: Thanks so much for this article. I’m contemplating a trip to Egypt after the first of the year, so it was immensely helpful and I must admit that I held some of the same misconceptions about Egypt in general. As a result, I’ll be sure to add Alexandria as a destination.

    • Reply
      August 3, 2011 at 9:20 pm

      Barbara – I think you’d really enjoy Alexandria, it’s the kind of place where you get the feel by just wandering around rather than sightseeing – loads of atmosphere and friendly people. But also if you get to Alexandria you must go on to Siwa, the desert oasis where we stayed which I know you would love

  • Reply
    August 9, 2011 at 9:09 am

    Can I recommend Lawrence Durrell’s ‘The Alexandria Quartet’ … rather heavy going, but a great portrait of Alexandria as it used to be.

    We did visit once, on a cruise stop, but the English speaking tour was full, so we went to the Pyramids instead. So, Alex is still on the bucket list, but not in a very high position.

    • Reply
      August 9, 2011 at 9:15 am

      Yes, I should have thought of reading the Alexandria quartet as I enjoy novels that put you in the place as an alternative to the guide books – a sort of cultural immersion.

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    February 26, 2016 at 7:43 pm

    im here now and i have the same thoughts as you on the dilapidated buildings. really disheartening

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