The choice between Alexandria or Cairo is a choice between the two largest metropolises in Egypt. One, the great capital, is home to upwards of nine million people and reigns as one of the biggest cities in the whole of Africa. The other, sat on the glistening waters of the southern Mediterranean Sea, counts just over five million inhabitants.
But which is better for travelers? Well…that’s precisely what we’re here to find out. This guide will run through several key aspects of both destinations so you can get an idea about which one suits you the most for this year’s adventure to the land of pyramids and pharaonic tombs.
The good news is that both Alexandria and Cairo have plenty to entice. The first is fringed by a happening promenade on the Med, comes spotted with shimmering sand beaches, and offers traces of amazing Hellenistic history. The other is crowned by the mighty Giza Pyramids but also has a fizzing Coptic area and enthralling bazaars to boot. Let’s delve deeper…
Table of Contents
Alexandria or Cairo for ease of travel?
Cairo is going to be the easier of these two places to get to, there’s no doubt about that. In fact, many travelers who end up making their way across to Alexandria actually arrive at Cairo in the first place. The reason for that is the capital’s big international air hub. It’s the largest in the whole of Egypt and hosts both short-haul and long-haul connections coming in from Europe, Asia, and all over the Middle East.
Alexandria does have its own airport – the Borg El Arab International Airport – but it’s not a major hub, mainly because it only opened in 2010. There are only a few links to European cities like Paris and Milan but it’s mainly connections to Middle Eastern hubs like Dubai and Doha. There are also no longer any ferry connections into Alexandria from Europe. Getting here from Cairo is easy on the train line, though – it takes about two hours each way.
Winner: Cairo. The capital is easier to reach that’s for sure.
Alexandria or Cairo for things to do?
A trip to Alexandria is really about soaking up the atmosphere in a cosmopolitan city on the Med. The Corniche is the main attraction. That’s the promenade that links up the whole town center, running from the elaborate Montaza Palace in the east to the 14th-century Sidi Morsi Abu al-Abbas Mosque in the west. Along the way, the faded hotel façades hearken to a time when Alexandria was a hub for thinkers and poets in the 40s and 50s, and the people watching is fantastic. You can also make a pitstop at the all-new Bibliotheca Alexandrina en route down the Corniche – it’s one of the most famous libraries in the world.
Then comes Cairo. Be in no doubt what should be top of the itinerary here: A trip to Giza to see the pyramids and the great sphinx. That’s best done with a tour guide, who can offer amazing insights into the ancient era of the nation. Camel rides or quad biking there is also doable under the gaze of the mighty structures. After, head over to the acclaimed Egyptian Museum to see treasures like the Gold Mask of Tutankhamun, but also spare some time for more modern Cairo – at the Khan el-Khalili bazaar and the Old Cairo Bazaar.
Alexandria or Cairo for outdoors adventure?
We wouldn’t recommend either of these places if you’re craving an escape to the North African wilds. These are booming, seething megacities. AKA: Not the spots for fresh air and stargazing. You can get out. From Alexandria, the obvious place to go is the coastline of the Mediterranean. There are some urban beaches, but the quieter ones span out to the east and west in the form of Zomoroda and El Zohour. There’s also scuba and snorkeling aplenty in the Med itself if you’re keen to get wet.
You’ll need to work even harder to get out of Cairo – it’s a MUCH larger city than Alexandria. However, lots of people manage to get at least a taste of the wild Egyptian desert while exploring the pyramids. There’s the chance to ride camels (not sure on the ethics of that one, so check the outfitter carefully!) or 4X4 over the dunes. Day trips further out can take you to glistening Qarun Lake, which looks like a mirage, or the fertile lands of the Nile Valley to the south.
Winner: Draw – one has beaches, the other has dunes and the Nile.
Alexandria or Cairo for history?
The big one. Yep, history is likely to be one of the main things on your mind when you come to plan that trip to Egypt. For us, there’s one clear winner when it comes to a toss up between Alexandria and Cairo: Cairo. Mhmm, the Egyptian capital offers a bucket-list whirlwind of historical sites. The collections of pyramids, sphinxes, and ancient temples over in Giza tops that, but you also have the amazing relics of the Egyptian Museum and the moving religious sites of medieval Coptic Cairo. And that’s really just for starters.
Alexandria won’t disappoint, though. The town was founded by Alexander the Great himself, you know? Sadly, the monuments of its Hellenistic golden age are now all but disappeared. You can still see the spot where the Pharos lighthouse once stood, now claimed by the muscular Mamluk Citadel of Qaitbay from the 1400s. You can even see the location of the legendary Library of Alexandria, which was razed by the Romans but is now rebuilt in modern style.
Winner: Cairo gets this one.
Alexandria or Cairo for food?
There’s not all that much variation in the food that’s served in these two towns. They are both northern Egyptian cities and both have bazaars and street-foot offerings that should tempt the taste buds of flavor-chasing travelers.
Overall, we’d say that Alexandria probably just about wins out on account of its proximity to the sea. Fresh fish and seafood is added into the mix on the platters here, in the form of spice-sizzled red snappers and prawns. However, you can still taste Egyptian flatbreads and kebabs in the stalls of the Souq District.
Cairo basically covers ALL bases when it comes to food. It might not have access to the freshest seafood, but there are lots of places that serve freshwater river fish from the Nile. On top of that, it’s got some of the most enthralling food bazaars in the country. You’ll smell the spices twisting in the air around the ancient Khan Al-Khalil bazaar, there’s a farmers’ market on Saturdays in the hip district of Zamalek, and sellers of grains and pulses abound in the old city core.
Winner: Alexandria, mainly because of the seafood contingent.
Alexandria or Cairo for cost?
Alexandria might not be the capital of Egypt, but it actually comes in as just a touch more expensive for travelers. Price collator Hikersbay reveals that the cost of three-star hotels in the city by the sea is about $7 more per night than it is in the capital, with rates in salt-washed suites by the Corniche coming in at $39 to just $32 for what they cost in Cairo. That’s true over the whole accommodation spectrum too, as everything from hostels to five-star hotels will set you back more in Alexandria.
It’s also true of the food. Estimations for a bargain meal at a casual Egyptian kitchen run from $4.40 in Cairo to over $5.50 in Alexandria. Oh, and you’ll almost certainly pay more to get to Alexandria. That’s mainly because of the dearth of flight connections to the city compared to the abundance that go into Cairo International. Without so much competition on the routes, airfares are free to creep skywards.
Winner: Cairo. It’s just a touch cheaper.
Alexandria or Cairo for hotels?
Cairo has more than double the number of available hotels for travelers as Egypt’s second city up the Nile in Alexandria – it’s something like 1,200 options to just over 450. Both cover each end of the spectrum. However, there’s probably a little more luxury on offer in Cairo, where you get big-name hotels that gives some real quality, sometimes with striking views of the pyramids to boot. It’s also possible to get very cheap stays for less than $15 a night that are still clean and comfy. Check out these:
- Maran Residence ($$-$$$) – Get yourself a chic and stylish modern room in the heart of New Cairo.
- JW Marriott Hotel Cairo ($$$) – A favorite with luxury seekers and business travelers, this chain hotel has all the bells and whistles, most notably a gorgeous pool surrounded by palms.
- Victory Of Downtown Hotel ($$) – A fine midrange option that gets you near to the enthralling bazaars of old Cairo.
The top hotels in Alexandria are typically wedged into the busy boulevards of the Corniche part of town. That means sea views are common throughout, as is proximity to the Mediterranean Sea and beaches. The downside is that many an accommodation in Alexandria hasn’t been updated since the 50s and 60s, so a lot of the spots are now showing their age. That said, the following tend to be pretty good picks:
- Sunrise Alex Avenue Hotel ($$-$$$) – A lovely all-rounder resort with an eating terrace that’s a couple of steps above the Mediterranean.
- Blue House ($$) – Just outside of the main fray of the city, this home rental is great for families who want a little extra space to spread out and relax.
- Hilton Alexandria Corniche ($$$) – The top lux option in town, offering an infinity pool overlooking the coast.
Alexandria or Cairo – our conclusion
Frankly, we’d opt for Cairo over Alexandria if it was our first time visiting Egypt. The capital is certainly one of the bucket-list draws of the country. It’s got enthralling souks, brilliant bazaars, old mosques, churches, and – most of all – those pyramids! Alexandria is more niche, but is the pick if you’re after beaches and more alternative history that reveals the story of Egypt throughout the Greek and Hellenistic eras.