Egypt’s vast Western Desert boasts numerous interesting oases, but arguably, the one that best fits the non-desert dweller’s stereotypical image is the Siwa Oasis. Think lush palm groves, bubbling natural springs, and an alluring old town. Around the oasis lie shimmering salt lakes and an endless sand sea.
Isolated in the far western reaches of Egypt, 800 dusty kilometers from Cairo, it takes time and effort to get to Siwa, but you’ll be rewarded with an amazing “off the beaten path” experience. While Siwa has some impressive historical monuments that are worth visiting, it’s really a place to chill out and absorb the oasis magic.
Things to do in Siwa
Explore Siwa Town: Looming over the center of Siwa Town are the impressive ruins of the 13th century Shali Fortress. Scramble to the top for a wonderful view. In the evening, floodlights lend an exotic glow to the ruins. As you wander through town you’ll notice that life is simple, unhurried and very conservative. Donkey carts and bicycles outnumber cars; men wear jellabiyas (long cotton robes) and head scarves; and the few women who aren’t tucked away fulfilling domestic duties are heavily enshrouded. Respect local customs by dressing modestly.
Rent a bicycle or donkey cart: Rental bikes are available in Siwa Town’s main square. We got lost in the tangle of unmarked streets, but that’s part of the adventure.
If you’d prefer to have someone else do the work, donkey cart drivers are eager for your business. A great peddle or trot takes you through lush palm groves to the Temple of the Oracle, visited by Alexander the Great in 331BC. A bit further is Cleopatra’s Bath, a deep circular pool of spring water used for bathing by local men. Enjoy a cold drink or puff on a sheesha at Tanta Waa’s, a funky cafe next to the pool. Another easy destination is Fatnis Island about 6km from the town center—a romantic spot to watch the sun set over gorgeous Birket Siwa, a large salt lake.
Take an excursion into the Great Sand Sea: Many hotels and tour operators provide fun half or full day 4X4 excursions. We used Abdu’s Safari, a respected company that owns a restaurant of the same name. Our awesome guide, Mohamed Gad, took us on a thrilling drive across the high dunes, a hunt for fossils on the ancient sea bed, and a soak in a picturesque hot spring at Bir Wahed, where he brewed up a mean peppermint tea. We even tried our luck at sand boarding (a humbling experience).
Hang-out at Abdu’s Restaurant: This little restaurant in the center of Siwa Town is a lively gathering spot for travelers and desert tour guides. It has an extensive and reasonably priced menu. We spent many a meal and tea break there. It’s also a great place to get local information and the folks that work there are super helpful. Without our buddy Achmed we may never have found our way to Fatnas.
How to Get to Siwa
If you’re not on a tight budget, the easiest way to get to Siwa is to hire a car and driver from Cairo or Alexandria. It’s a boring or scary (depending on your driver) 9-10 hour drive from Cairo, albeit on a well-maintained road. Most hotels in Siwa are happy to arrange transport, but prices will vary depending on the establishment and your bargaining skills. Regular bus service is much cheaper. There’s an overnight bus from Cairo, and numerous daily buses from both Cairo and Alexandra to Marsa Matruh with connection to Siwa.
Where to Stay in Siwa
For such a remote spot, Siwa has a surprising selection of accommodations. One of Egypt’s finest and most expensive hotels, the Adrere Amellal is located in splendid isolation about 16km from SiwaTown. A lovely, slightly less expensive alternative, also outside of town is the Taziry Lodge. There are some great mid-range options in town, like the Shali Lodge, Albabenshal and Siwa Safari Gardens. There are plenty of budget places of varying quality and cleanliness. Wherever you decide to stay, give yourself three full days, and more if you can, to indulge your oasis fantasy.