When deciding where to go in North Africa
, make sure you include a visit to at least a few of its best destinations. Visit the medieval cities of Marrakech and Fes in Morocco and Tunis in Tunisia. Trek in the Atlas mountains to the highest peak, Jbel Toubkal, where the views are awe inspiring. Dive among schools of sharks in Ras Mohammed, a marine national park in Egypt's Red Sea. North Africa's biggest draw has to be Egypt's ancient civilizations: Luxor, the Pyramids of Giza, and Abu Simbel. Desert trips to Tunisia's Sahara and Egypt's Siwa Oasis should not be missed.
Click on each heading for more information
The Pyramids of Giza, just outside Cairo
, represent one of the greatest architectural feats by man. The last surviving member of the Seven Wonders of the World, the Great Pyramid of Giza is one of the world's oldest tourist attractions, built more than 5000 years ago.
There are in fact three main pyramids in Giza: the Great Pyramid of Khufu (or Cheops), The Pyramid of Kafhre, and the smaller Pyramid of Menkaura. Each pyramid is a tomb to a different king of Egypt.
In front of the pyramids lies the Sphinx, or Abu al-Hol in Arabic, "Father of Terror".
For information about getting to the pyramids and what to see check out my travel guide to Cairo. For more photos see images of Cairo.
© Sjaak Zijlma
Situated at the foot of the Atlas mountains in Morocco
, the imperial city of Marrakech
is large, noisy, polluted, and fascinating city. If you enjoy a daily assault on all your senses, you'll have a lot of fun.
There are so many things to see that you should spend at least 3 days in Marrakech. Stay in a Riad in the medina (old walled part of town) because this is where all the action is. The Majorelle Gardens offer a lovely respite from the bustle of the souqs and shouldn't be missed. The heart of the medina, the Djemma el Fnaa, should also be a priority for anyone who visits.
More About Marrakech
is known as the world's largest open-air museum. The city is built on and around the ancient site of Thebes, which tourists have been visiting since the Greco-Roman times. The modern day city of Luxor has its own spectacular temple
, as well as excellent museums.
Close to Luxor is the ancient site of Karnak, which was the most important place of worship in ancient Egypt. Karnak is a spectacular complex of sanctuaries, kiosks, pylons, and obelisks, all dedicated to the Theban gods.
Across the Nile from Luxor lies Thebes -- the ancient burial grounds of Pharaohs and Queens known as The Valley of the Kings and the Valley of Queens. This is where you'll find Tutankhamun's tomb.
More about Luxor, Karnak and Thebes
© Sjaak Zijlma
The most complete medieval city of the Arab world, Fes
is a strange and appealing mix of middle ages meets the modern world. The extraordinary medina city of Fes El Bali
is worth a few days walking in itself. Other highlights include the Merenid tombs, the Royal Palace, and the Mellah (Jewish quarter). Fes was Morocco
's capital for more than 400 years and is still considered the religious and cultural center of the country.
Personally I prefer Fes to Marrakech because it's a little grittier and the medina is filled with Moroccans who actually live inside its walls; they're not visiting or just coming in to sell their wares. Don't miss the tanneries.
More About Fes
Getty Images/Sylvester Adams
The Siwa Oasis
is in Egypt's
Western Desert, close to the Libyan border. It is Egypt's most remote oasis town and the Siwans have developed their own distinct Berber culture. A decent road and a small airport have certainly put the Siwa Oasis on the tourist map, but it is still off the beaten track.
As well as its unique culture, the Siwa oasis is known for its geographical beauty, hot springs, and the fact that Alexander the Great traveled here to visit the Oracle of Amun. Check out Fatnas island and take a desert safari while you're there. The best time to visit is the spring and fall. There are plenty of accommodation options to suit all budgets.
More about the Siwa Oasis and travel in Egypt.
Getty Images/Sylvester Adams
Tunis, the capital of Tunisia, is often ignored by the many European tourists who flock to Tunisia's beach resorts. But they're missing a true gem of a city, particularly the Medina
, which rivals that of Marrakech
Tunis is home to one the best museums in North Africa, The Bardo, which is housed in a beautiful palace filled with the treasures found at numerous ancient sites dotted around Tunisia.
While there are many hotels in Tunis, a light rail system makes it very easy to stay in the gorgeous, picturesque village of Sidi Bou Said on the coast, just 20 minutes away. En route are the ancient ruins of Carthage.
More about Tunis and travel in Tunisia.
Next to the Pyramids of Giza
, Abu Simbel in Southern Egypt
is perhaps the most recognized monument of ancient Egypt. The two temples built for the Pharaoh Ramesses II have been attracting visitors since Victorian times. Almost as impressive as the monument itself is the story of its restoration in the 1960's. The temples had to be dismantled and physically moved 60 meters up a cliff where they were reassembled in the exact same relation to each other and the sun.
A daily sound and light show should not to be missed. You should also check out the Abu Simbel Festival, which takes place twice a year in February and October. Natural sunlight and architectural brilliance combine to light up the inner sanctum.
More about Abu Simbel.
Atlas Mountains, Morocco
Jebel Toubkal, situated in the High Atlas Mountains, is North Africa's highest peak at 4,167m (13,667 ft). It's a challenging trek
to the summit, but worth it for the spectacular views. While you can make it to the summit and back to the town of Imlil
in a day, it's recommended you take at least 3 days to get the most out of it. Click here
for information about different routes. Imlil is only about an hour from Marrakech
The Atlas Mountains cover a wide territory and there are many good treks available in the Mid-, High-, and Anti-Atlas Mountains. All offer a chance to meet with Berber people.
Companies that organize treks to the High Atlas Mountains include:
Getty Images/Sami Sarkis
The Red Sea offers some of the best diving on the planet and Ras Mohammed National Park, in the Gulf of Aqaba (Egypt
), is top of the line. There are more than 1000 species of fish accounted for in this marine park, all enjoying their underwater heaven amidst 300 species of coral (both hard and soft). There are 20 dive sites to explore including Shark Reef, Yolanda Reef, Anemone City
and Eel Garden (where eels reach over 20m in length).
The best time to dive (and to see sharks) is July and August.
You should also check out the Thistlegrom wreck dive just north of the park.
Recommended diving operators who will take you out to Ras Mohammed are listed here, courtesy of Scuba Travel.
More about diving in Ras Mohammed, and Egypt travel.
Getty Images/Sami Sarkis
The Sahara Desert crosses every country in North Africa. I've singled out the Tunisian Sahara because of its many interesting and easily accessible sights.
There are unique troglodyte dwellings around the Matama area. Star Wars fans will recognize this area as the planet Tatooine in the movies.
Stone forts (Ksars) and fortified granaries built into the desert mountains hundreds of years ago are fascinating to visit, in particular the Ksar Ouled Soltaine. Beautiful dunes, Chott el Jerid a huge salt lake, and of course a few nights in a tented hotel makes the Tunisian Sahara a wonderful destination.
Sahara tours are easy to book from Djerba, Douz and Tozeur.
More about Tunisia's Sahara Desert and travel to Tunisia.