Exploring Egypt's Surfing Capital: Alexandria

Would you like to explore one of the lesser known cities in Egypt? Is eating the best seafood in Egypt on your bucket list? Do you want to know more about surfing in Egypt's Mediterranean sea? How about getting some hotel, cafe and restaurant recommendations for the area too? If so, read this blog post about our family explorations of Egypt's surf capital: Alexandria.

While every western tourist puts Cairo, Luxor, Aswan and the Red Sea coastline on their Egypt itinerary, far fewer head north to the Mediterranean coastline. Founded in 332 BC by Alexander the Great, Alexandria is the second largest city in the country and extends twenty miles along the beautiful coast. Strategically placed to receive westerly and northerly swells, Alexandria is undoubtedly Egypt's surf capital. A small surf club offers surf lessons in the summer and the waves themselves become bigger and bolder every winter for more seasoned surfers. In addition, the city contains a plethora of remarkable historical sites for general tourists, including the opportunity to dive and explore Cleopatra's palace at the bottom of the sea. Although it's quite crowded with domestic tourists in the hot summer, autumn and winter are the perfect seasons to eat some fish, catch a wave, drink some wine, and explore the wonderful city of Alexandria. Go there now, you won't regret it!

Alexandria Photography Highlights

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The Alexandria Express Train

Our family journey in Northern Egypt began in Cairo's uninspiring airport, where I had the misfortune to spend the night on a cold bench with only a dry tuna roll and bland tea to satisfy my growing hunger pains. Getting a hotel seemed counterproductive due to my late night arrival from Saudi, and my wife and son getting in five hours later from London. Eighteen weeks had passed since our summer together, so the sight of them emerging from luggage collection was so sweet. The time apart certainly wasn't easy to handle, but it's an essential part of our long-term plan to return to a Philippine life in 2020.
Anyway, a taxi whisked us quickly downtown, on unbelievably empty streets, to Cairo's rustic train station. From there we purchased tickets for the first train to Alexandria and made our way to the appropriate platform weighed down with significant baggage and a surfboard. You see Alexandria is famous in surfing circles for being home to sweet waves from time to time. In fact, you could definitely call it Egypt's surfing capital since no other Egyptian city offers such easy access to the Mediterranean's consistent winter waves. Therefore, as long-term residents of Siargao, the Philippine surf capital, we felt we must visit the Egyptian equivalent. Moreover, the idea of surfing a few relaxed waves really appealed to me, especially given my current home is in Saudi Arabia (few waves, dust storms, police hostility towards surfing). Of course whether surf conditions would cooperate was another question, but with an exciting week ahead it didn't matter too much. Miras, Raf and I were together again; that was more than enough for me.

After a two-hour wait in Cairo, the express train to Alexandria finally pulled up and began boarding passengers. The train conductor kindly offered us assistance by finding a safe place for my board and showing us to our 2nd Class seats. Miras and Raf slept through much of the pleasant three-hour journey across flat agricultural plains, through insignificant towns, and over a series of bridges. While it wasn't incredibly scenic, it was a great introduction to Egypt and the perfect way to avoid the highway of death between Cairo and Alexandria.
After passing through the city's suburbs, the train ground to a halt at Alexandria's historical train station and we jumped off and found someone to help us with our luggage. Meanwhile, a friendly looking chap (often a bad sign), who introduced himself as Hassan, offered us a ride downtown. Surprisingly, his first price was more than acceptable so we followed him to his traditional cab with a roof rack for my board. Fifteen minutes later, seconds after we caught a first glimpse of the deep blue Mediterranean, Hassan screeched to a halt outside our abode of choice: the Hotel Triomphe. He helped us with our stuff and we exchanged cell numbers. In contrast to many cab drivers, he didn't go for the one fare rip off and would become our driver for the entire week. After riding the traditional lift to the fifteenth floor, we checked into our large, airy room with fabulous sea views from the wide balcony. Too tired to fully appreciate the blessings of the Triomphe, we all crashed out for a couple of hours and then the true exploring began.

Where to stay in Alexandria

Home to five million Egyptians, Alexandria is a huge, sprawling city built along a lovely stretch of the Mediterranean. Unsurprisingly, Alexandria offers every possible accommodation option you might require: from super cheap hostel to luxurious palace. However, if you're keen to explore the city on foot, choose a hotel somewhere between the Bibliotheca and the Citadel, ideally with a sea view. For reasons of price and ambiance, we chose the perfectly located Triomphe Hotel (see room picture below), which cost just twenty-two pounds ($28) per night for a triple room with private bathroom,  a super wide balcony and both city and ocean views. Situated in a one-hundred-year-old building, the Triomphe immediately impressed with its incredible old-fashioned lift, stylishly-furnished communal areas, and friendly vibe.
If you prefer independence and cooking yourself, then check Alexandria's Airbnb apartments. Alternatively, for a more luxurious step back in time, we'd recommend the fantastic Windsor Palace Hotel (see room picture below). Offering asthetically-pleasing rooms with hand-decorated high ceilings, this historic hotel right on the corniche is a great choice. Standard doubles go for just forty-five pounds ($58), but ideally you should take a superior room with sea view which costs eighty-six pounds ($111) including a buffet breakfast.

Six Awesome Things to Do in Alexandria

1. Explore Bibliotheca Alexandrina

Bibliotheca Alexandrina is an incredible library, museum and science centre all housed within an architectural masterpiece. Reborn in 2002, it is a vast complex where philosophy, history, science and arts blend together. Ideal for young and old people alike, we spent hours getting lost in Egypt's history (both ancient and modern) with an exhibition on President Nasser's achievements particularly interesting. While Raf ran away frightened by the small mummy exhibit, he loved all the other historical artifacts, paintings and photographs. Bibliotheca Alexandrina really is a must-see sight in Alexandria and well worth photographing from the outside too.

2. Citadel of Qaitbay

Situated at the mouth of Alexandria's Eastern Harbour, the Citadel of Qaitbay is a delightful, fully-restored fort with plenty to explore inside the structure and lovely sea and city views from its walls. Although considered iconic in its own right, the Citadel's fame also comes from its unique location: on the foundation of the legendary Pharos Lighthouse. Once you've finished exploring the structure and surroundings, there are plenty of shops, an aquarium, and a few great restaurants worth checking on the peninsula. If the weather is calm, consider taking a boat trip around the Citadel for even more striking views.

3. Catacombs of Kom El Shoqafa

Disappear underground on an old fashioned, spiral staircase to explore something really special: ancient burial chambers. Considered one of the seven wonders of the Middle Ages, the Catacombs of Kom El Shoqafa are another Alexandria must. Two levels are freely accessible; the third is usually flooded. A large banquet hall, rock-carved chairs, couches and tables dominate the first level. Descend to level two to check out the principal tomb and inner sanctum. A short passage away is the definite highlight: a U-shaped chamber lined with holes where the bodies were placed. Hire a guide to make the most of your time at the Catacombs; we did and he helped illuminate the key sections of the site and encouraged Raf to explore some of the eerier passageways.

4. Roman Amphitheatre

Located at Kom-el-Dikka, in the heart of downtown, the Roman Amphitheatre site features a well-preserved Roman village in the middle of a thriving metropolis. Accidently discovered during new construction excavations in 1960, the Roman theatre consists of 16 rows of marble seats, enough for 600 spectators, and a diameter of approximately thirty-five metres. Take your time to check out all the other sections of the village which are well-labelled with information. If you want the site all to yourself, come about an hour before closing and you'll probably be alone; amazing for a place of such historical significance.

5. Montazah Palace

If you take a taxi about 10km east along the coast, eventually you'll get to Montazah Palace and the extensive parks which surround it. Feel the glamorous vibe walking amid tall palms and colourful flowers in the palace's gardens and revel in the architectural mastery of the palace itself. You could easily spend a couple of hours wandering around this beautiful hilltop location overlooking some of Alexandria's best beaches.

6. Pompey's Pillar

Pompey's Pillar is the largest Roman column in Egypt, part of an elaborate marble temple once decorated with precious metals. Today there isn't much left apart from the twenty-seven-metre-high column, two small sphinx statues and a few tunnels to explore. Situated in the same area as the Catacombs, it's still well worth coming up here. Come up an hour before sunset to enjoy the site sans tourists and heat. If you're interested in photography, the surrounding high rise apartments provide an interesting juxtaposition between the ancient and more recent Egyptian era.

Surfing in Egypt's Surf Capital: Alexandria

Retrieving my surfboard from Cairo Airport's conveyor belt drew similar stares to those experienced in Saudi Arabia two years ago. It's obvious why: mainstream surf tourism hasn't reached Egypt yet. Always one step ahead of the crowd, Taylor Steele's epic Sipping Jetstreams surf film, which featured Alexandria, convinced me of Egypt's surf potential years ago. However, I really didn't want to bring my board, so I contacted Surf School Egypt, who promised to lend me a board for free and hook up for a cross-cultural bonding session. Unfortunately, just three days before arriving, the surf school manager changed his mind and said no one would be around to help us out. A quick look at the Mediterranean surf report for Egypt showed solid swell on the horizon. Seemed to me it was impossible to travel without a board with proper waves forecast, so I called the airline and packed up my board for the trip.

Alexandria has two spots featured on the surf report: Agami and Shatby. A wide open beach to the west of central Alexandria, Agami picks up any hint of Mediterranean swell. Given the tiny waves rolling into the corniche on our first morning in the city, we called Hassan, our driver from the day before and asked him to take us to Agami. While he probably hadn't ever seen a surfboard before, he instinctively knew what I was looking for and delivered us to a lovely beach with glassy turquoise reelers. It didn't take too long to rack up a huge wave count with constant waist-high sets and no competition. Agami's beach break peaks run up and down a lengthy two-kilometer beach and it'll never get crowded here even if the local surf crew are in town. Bringing the board had already paid off but I sensed even better lay on the horizon.

Rifling Lefts at Shatby

Two days later we awoke to stormy skies and strong wind. After a quiet family breakfast, I jogged down to Shatby Beach alone and could hardly believe the overhead lefts rifling down the point directly in front of Bibliotheca Alexandrina.  Shatby is super protected from prevailing westerly wind and only comes alive if the sea swell rises over two and a half meters. Lacking general fitness and feeling dehydrated, I grabbed a taxi back to the Triomphe, roused up Miras and Raf, and quickly pulled my wetsuit on.

Once back at the cafe, concerned by crashing waves over the rocky shoreline, the owner tried to persuade me to paddle out from the beach. However, I could see the rip tide would pull me straight out the back if I timed the jump off perfectly from the rocks right in front of the cafe. He told me to do whatever I wanted so, keen to avoid a long paddle, I set Miras up with the camera and decided to follow my gut feeling. It was the right move as thirty seconds later I got out back and lined myself up for the first of a plethora of fun rides. The swell lasted a couple more days and Shatby instantly became my favourite Alexandria surf spot with its incredible backdrop and nicely-shaped waves. Without a surfer in sight for our entire stay, it didn't seem worth searching for secret spots. But they definitely exist, including an amazing left point located somewhere along this historical coastline.

Alexandria Surfing Photography Highlights 

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Four Amazing Places to Eat in Alexandria

Egypt's second largest city offers a huge range of cuisine, enough to satisfy even the most avid foodie. Being on the coast, Alexandria's unmissable speciality is fresh seafood including fish, lobster and crab. You can expect to pay $10-15 for a whole grilled fish to share, $10 for main course dishes, and less than $5 for Arab street food. All our favourite restaurants and a juice bar (listed below) are located next to the sea along the corniche between Bibliotheca Alexandrina and the Citadel of Qaitbay.

1. Kadoura Restaurant

An Alexandria institution, Kadoura is the go-to restaurant for anyone seeking the freshest seafood in the world at surprisingly affordable prices. Located 1.5 kilometres south of the Citadel, the friendly staff ask you to pick raw seafood from a wide selection on the ground floor, then take a sea-view table on the second floor. While soft drinks and water are available, alcohol is not served. Following advice from Hassan, our driver for the week, we skipped expensive 'Fish Market' Restaurant and ate here two times. Coming from a Pacific Island with abundant fresh fish, Miras is sometimes difficult to please in the seafood department. However, Kadoura easily became her favourite seafood restaurant ever, apart from her own kitchen of course. Raf and I loved it too, especially the perfectly cooked fish (US$10 whole fish), large crabs (US$8) and selection of salad mezze dishes (US$2). If you come to Alexandria, choose Kadoura for a seafood experience you'll never forget.

2. Greek Club

Greek Club's delicious Greek and seafood mains and prime harbour location makes it one of Alexandria's finest restaurants. Sipping a glass of crisp white wine, you'll feel a real sense of sophistication surveying the yachts and exotic buildings on the horizon. While the price for fresh fish is quite high in comparison to Kadoura (whole fish US$15+), it's well worth a splurge if you want to experience seafood in a more fashionable and contemporary setting. Alternatively, skip the fresh seafood and choose a more affordable starter and main course from their menu (Greek favourites from US$5+).

For us Greek Club's dining experience was an amazing opportunity to experience Alexandria's high life. Coming directly from dry Saudi, I mildly over-indulged in wine on all three occasions we went there. The polite waiters didn't seem to mind. Even Miras tried a white wine spritzer. Everything we ordered tasted just amazing (Greek meat dishes, fresh crabs, grilled fish and scrumptious desserts). In stark contrast to Saudi, the trendy clientele of rich Egyptians really knew how to have a good time. So if you're looking for some fun, definitely visit the Greek Club for a lovely evening in Egypt.

3. Café Selsela

Everyone loves a seaside café and Café Selsela, directly opposite Bibliotheca Alexandrina, ticks all the boxes. Offering an excellent range of grilled meats, fish, pizzas, pastas, juices, coffee and shisha, it's the ideal lunchtime spot for a family or couple looking for a relaxed place right next to the sea. Conflating a laid back surfer vibe with Arab style, Selsela won't cost you that much either: grilled specials cost around US$7, pizza US$5, juice and coffee US$2. Conveniently in front of one of Egypt's best surf breaks, it proved a real hit with us every time we went there. Don't miss this café if you're in the Bibliotheca Alexandrina area!

4. Elkobissi Juice bar

While juice bars feature on many of Alexandria's key thoroughfares, Elkobissi stands out with its range of juices and prime corniche location. Situated less than two hundred metres away from Kadoura Restaurant, you can order just about every juice imaginable and sit outside watching the traffic race along 21 July street. If you want really fresh juice, stick to native fruits like oranges, pomegranates, melon and grapes. Fresh orange juice costs around US$1 and mixed fruits US$1.50.

Follow in our footsteps

– To get to Alexandria in the first place, start with skyscanner to find the cheapest international flight options. You can fly via Cairo from almost all European and Middle Eastern capitals, and direct flights are increasingly available too.

– Alternatively, stop in Cairo and take an express train (£6/LE125 first class, air-conditioned, one way fare, multiple times a day) or taxi (taxis charge at least £50/LE2200) to Alexandria.

– It costs £3/60 LE per person to enter Pompeys Pillar, Catacombs, Roman Ampitheatre, Bibliotheca Alexandrina and the Citadel. Additional surcharges apply for using a camera and visiting additional exhibitions.

– Check booking.com and Airbnb for accommodation options in Alexandria. It makes sense to book ahead using booking.com (using free cancellation option if plans change) to ensure you have a booking rather than paying an extortionate walk-in rate.


Comments

  1. Your article is a perfect guide for any foreign or domestic tourist to Alexanderia. I myself think that I re-explored Alexanderia while reading your exciting detailed description of the city which I love so much.

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    1. @M M Kamel, thanks so much for taking the time to read the article. Alexandria is amazing:)

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  2. Hi Rafsworld, I love your article and would be keen to have a chat with you about the surf spots around Alexandria for a TV show I am working on. What's the best way to get in touch with you? My email address is [email protected] - looking forward to hearing from you :)

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    Replies
    1. Hello Kathrin, thanks so much for reading my article. I’ve sent you a DM. Cheers, Mart

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