The beautiful and lavish city of Alexandria was once the governing ground of Cleopatra, modelled after Alexander the great. This city is currently the second largest in Egypt and is known for its excellent architecture and spectacular locations. A major economic centre now, this city is home to Alexandria’s Great Library and Pharos Lighthouse, one of the ancient world’s seven wonders.
Here are 15 magnificent places of Alexandria’s iconic attractions that will offer the most beautiful snapshot of the city’s history and architecture:
1. Bibliotheca Alexandrina
A re-imagination of the ancient Great Library of Alexandria, this beautifully designed cultural center features a number of galleries and one of the most innovative libraries of the modern world. Its architecture— a giant sun disk— presides over the Corniche waterfront, while an enormous reading room can hold 8 million volumes inside.
The Museum of Manuscripts, with its impressive collection of ancient documents and books, and the Museum of Antiquities, with its Greco-Roman antiques and sculptures discovered in the harbor during underwater exploration, are the two main attractions.
2. Abu Abbas al-Mursi Mosque
One of the major landmarks in Alexandria, the Abu Abbas al-Mursi Mosque, was built in 1796 on the tomb of the Holy Sufi man Abu Abbas al-Mursi in the 13th century. Coming from Murcia (in the Andalusia province of Spain), Abu Abbas became a highly regarded religious leader in Alexandria, and his teachings in Egypt are still admired.
The colossal cream-colored mosque with its name is a huge pilgrimage site. The major draw card is the exquisite facade of the mosque of swirling Islamic calligraphy designs and motifs for non-religious visitors. To see the beautiful and complex mosaic halls one should dress modestly and leave the shoes at the main entrance.
3. Catacombs of Kom el-Shuqqafa
The Catacombs of Kom el-Shuqafa are carved out of a rock on the southern slopes of a hill in the Carmous district. They offer an admirable example of the characteristic Alexandrian fusion of Egyptian and Greco-Roman styles, thought to date from the 2nd century AD. Found in 1900 (thanks to a donkey falling in) and are positioned on several grades of chambers of sarcophagi and loculi (shelf tomb). A spiral staircase leads down to the main rotunda into the ground. One will reach the central burial chamber on the right, as well as the 91-loculi Sepulchral Chapel, each large enough to accommodate three or four mummies. To the left is a large room known as the Triclinium Funebre, which in memory of the deceased would have been used for banquets.
4. Fort Qaitbey
Walking west along the long shore-front Corniche path and one shall eventually get to Fort Qaitbey. It may be a poor substitute for what was once the location of the majestic Pharos Lighthouse — one of the ancient world’s seven wonders — but since 1480 this tiny and dinky fort has been standing guard over the eastern harbor of Alexandria. In 1303, when it was destroyed by a powerful earthquake, the Pharos itself said adieu to Alexandria. The largest stones in the citadel, including the lintel and the gateway of its entry, as well as the red granite pillars in the mosque inside the walls, were possibly all retrieved from the huge tower that once stood there.
For a long time, the citadel has given up some military purpose. Today it houses a tiny military museum, but to discover the inside of the fortress and visualize the huge structure that once stood on its base may be worth a visit.
5. Montazah Gardens
Montazah is an oasis of peace on the eastern edge of the city, a green refuge with high palm trees, clipped lawns, and blossoming flowers once off-limited to all but the royal court and its hangers. Built by Khedive Abbas Hilmi as a hunting lodge in the 1890s, it was later greatly expanded by King Fuad and replaced Ras el-Tin Palace as the summer house of the royal family.
The eccentrically built Montazah Palace, with its ornate Florentine-inspired towers and vibrant Rococo, is not open to the public, but everyone is welcome to stroll in the vast gardens, which after a day spent in the hustle and bustle of Alexandria can be a relaxing slice of nature. A tiny beach with a strange whimsical bridge to a small island is situated on the coastal end of the park.
6. Kom el-Dikka
Nobody knew about the ancient mound of ruins in central Alexandria before, in 1947, they agreed to remove the area and make way for new homes. Alternatively, the area known as Kom el-Dikka uncovered a whole swag of ancient ruins, including a tiny Roman theater. Excavation work began, and today this park area includes the remains of a Ptolemaic temple and the mosaic flooring of a rich Roman-era residence now known as the Villa of the Birds.
7. Pompey’s Pillar
In Carmous (in the city’s southwest) is a hill riddled with ruins of ancient buildings, structural fragments, and debris on which the only ancient temple of Alexandria remains standing. Pompey’s Pillar rises from the ruins of the ancient and famous Serapeion (Serapis Temple), once used to store the manuscript overflow from Alexandria’s Great Library. This pillar of red Aswan granite with a Corinthian base, standing on a poorly damaged substructure and growing to a height of approximately 27 meters, has nothing to do with Pompey and was instead set up in 292 AD in memory of Diocletian, who after the siege of the city distributed meat to the starving population.
8. St. Catherine’s Cathedral
The Franciscans have been in Alexandria since the seventeenth century, where European pilgrims on their way to the Holy Land are particularly concerned. The new convent and school buildings were established in the 1840s. The new church, a basilica with a classical dome, was also constructed as the Apostolic Vicariate Cathedral, which was built in 1839 and was named after the martyr Catherine of Alexandria. On November 24, 1850, the ceremony took place. The new façade, built in the Roman Baroque style by Mario Avena, was installed in 1927.
9. Cavafy Museum
Constantine Cavafy (1863-1933), one of the most prominent sons of Alexandria, was a Greek Alexandrian poet who after his death gained fame and recognition for his poetry. His flat on Sharm el-Sheik Street is a tribute to his life and a great attraction for anyone on a literary pilgrimage to Alexandria. Cavafy lived his working life as a reporter and civil servant, rarely known for his poetry outside a small group of Alexandrian authors (including English author E.M. Forster, who was Cavafy’s job champion). His literature, however, captures Alexandria’s vast history— especially its Hellenistic origins — and has become one of the city’s most revered literary figures. There are many of his manuscripts and correspondence in the small museum.
10. Main Souk Area
The main souq (market) of Alexandria stretches through the backstreets west of the central city of Midan Tahrir. In this district, one shall find everything from fresh produce to silver drinks. To be fair, tourists are not much on sale; this is a real-life local souk, and one come here to capture an essence of Alexandrian life rather than shopping. The whole field of the souk is a squiggle of lanes that separate from each other, each of which is skilled in different products. An ideal example of an urban set up in a historical city focusing daily people’s lives and activities.
11. King Farouk Palace
This sprawling property was the controversial King Farouk’s summer home, who took power in 1936 at the age of 16. The palace was constructed between 1940 and 1945, but after the 1952 uprising, this site was occupied, and today it sits behind locked gates in the Montazah Gardens and is only used for official purposes. Although it remains closed, the fenestrated exterior of the Palace is a breath taking marvel of architecture to visit!
12. Royal Jewelry Museum
The Royal Jewelry Collection, formerly the residence of the Egyptian royal family, is a hidden gem worth a visit in the center of Alexandria. It will take at least an hour for the entire visit. Recently renovated, the villa has been decorated with floors, ceilings and stained glasses. Visitors will read all about the royal family and their past. This is a good place to go if one is an enthusiast of art and history.
13. Ras el-Tin Palace
Sumptuous Ras el-Tin Palace was once Egypt’s sultans ‘ summer refuge when Cairo’s desert heat was too much to handle. It is also the famous place where King Farouk — the last king of Egypt— formally abdicated in 1952 before shipping out of the harbor of Alexandria and into Italy’s exile. Currently, the Egyptian navy operates the building, ensuring that its beautiful interiors are beyond the reach for casual tourists, but the majestic white façade, best viewed from the harbor waters, is a must visit!
Dedicated to Serapis and built by Ptolemy III, Serapeum’s temple is one of Alexandria’s various religious centers. Destroyed by the Romans in 391, some of the original pieces survive on the ground, like the Pompey’s Pillar, flanked by two massive sphinxes. The temple has also been one of the most significant annexes to Alexandria’s Great Library in the past. Thanks to its historical importance and the beautiful location, the Serapeum is definitely worth a visit.
15. Alexandria National Museum
The National Museum of Alexandria is a must-stop if one wants to get grips with this famous city’s vast history. Inside, the collection guides you from the Pharaonic era (in the basement), to the Hellenistic heyday when Alexandria and Egypt were governed by the Ptolemy dynasty started by Alexander the Great (in the ground floor) and up to the Byzantine and Islamic periods (in the first floor).
As well as the exhibits, sculptures and antiques found in and around the city (including discoveries from underwater explorations in the offshore area), there are excellent map sketches that envision what Alexandria’s ancient environment might look like, which really allows tourists to appreciate the changing face of this region.
Paushali Raha is an architect with the writer bug. Her love for history and literature has helped her understand the true amalgamation of storytelling and architecture. Amidst the chaos of varied vocations, she hopes to promote social architecture through practice and words.