It’s hard to believe, but one of the most challenging places that my family and I visited while traveling through Egypt was also one of the most amazing places that we’ve ever traveled to. Our visit to the Siwa Oasis was epic from start to finish. And our three days in Siwa were bookended by midnight rides through some of the worst roads that we’ve ever been on. We arrived and left Siwa Egypt with bleary, sleep-deprived eyes. So what made this one of the best places that we visited in Egypt? In a word, everything.
The experience in Siwa was worlds away from the vendor filled madness at the Great Pyramids of Giza. For a small-town, there were more things to do in the Siwa Oasis than we imagined. And it’s one of the first places that I want to get back to once we return to the country.
Getting To Siwa Oasis
Our visit to the Siwa Oasis came at the end of a long day where we made the drive from Cairo to Alexandria. After spending as much time in Alexandria as we could manage, we made the 8-hour drive into the night towards Siwa. The drive itself started off as a regular drive along the remote highways of Egypt. But as the hours ticked by it became clear that this would not be like many of the other drives.
The desert sun dipped below the horizon, dropping us into the moonlit darkness of the vast Egyptian desert. A short while later, we stopped at the first of four army checkpoints. Our first time stopping at one of these checkpoints took us completely off-guard. Our family was dozing away as we approached the guard post where the van was waved to the side of the road. The man who opened our door and requested our passports wasn’t wearing a uniform. Our Traveline Egypt driver assured us that this was all completely normal. After a quick check of our passports, the guards apologized politely for waking the children before waving us on our way.
The frequency of the security stops increased as we got closer to the Libyan border. But, ironically, due to the remoteness of the Siwa Oasis, these stops also presented the only opportunities for food and bathroom stops along the way. Having dinner at an army gas station/security checkpoint was not as five-star as it sounds though. But the boys absolutely LOVED getting to choose from a vast selection of chips and chocolate bars before bed.
As we continued down the highway towards Siwa, the roads began to fall apart. And by fall apart, I mean that there would be with holes that looked like they could swallow a Volkswagen Beetle. My hat was off to our amazing driver Ibrahim. Between the lack of light, the late hour, and the condition of the road, he was a rock star.
We rolled into Siwa around 1 am, and it was incredible to see that many stores in the town were still open. And with nothing in our bellies, we were so happy to see that our hosts at Siwa Paradise Hotel had left dinner for us in our room. After eating, we laid down in the comfortable beds and settled in. The morning would be here soon and we had plenty of things to do in Siwa Egypt!
Things To Do In Siwa Egypt
Siwa is tiny in Egyptian terms. Compared to the massive 25 million person population of Cairo, the Siwan region has only about 25,000 people. And it feels even smaller. But for its small population, there are a lot of amazing things to do in Siwa Egypt. In fact, before we had to leave the country in a rush during the 2020 shutdown of Egypt, Siwa was one of our favorite places to visit in Egypt. Perhaps, it was the remoteness. Or, perhaps it was the lack of crowds compared to our visit to the Great Pyramids of Giza with kids. Perhaps it was the unique people and places to visit in Siwa. But before the sunset fell on our first day, we were in love with the Siwa Oasis.
With a mixture of hot and cold springs, massive sand dunes, and incredible history, Siwa has so much to offer visitors. It may not be the easiest place in Egypt to get to, but once you get to Siwa, you may not want to leave. These are our favorite things to do in the Siwa Oasis.
Explore The Shali Fortress
The Shali Fortress, or the Fortress of Shali as it’s known to many locals, is at the literal heart of Siwa. Wandering through this ancient, towering clay and salt city is like stepping back in time. The Shali fortress, which is built on a hill, served as the center of Siwan life for over 800 years.
As modern life encroached upon the ruins of the Shali Fortress many residents used walls from original houses to combine with their own, more modern structures. This makes for a unique gradient of the ages as the new city slowly merges with the ancient one of the Shali Fortress.
You can still climb to the top of the fortress to take in the incredible views of the city and see this fascinating city design for yourself. Or even a wander around the fortress borders will show it off. Sometimes was hard to determine if I was in the Fortress of Shali, or walking among the shops of downtown Siwa.
Although it rarely rains in Siwa, when it does the Shali Fortress suffers damage. This is due to the fact that it’s primarily built from salt blocks. At the time of our visit, the fort was closed for repairs. But, thanks to the help our guide Abu Bakr Ismail, who is the manager of the local House of Siwa museum, we were able to secure access inside the fort to appreciate the views.
Wander The Tombs Of The Mountain Of The Dead
One of the most incredible things to do in Siwa Egypt is a visit to the incredible Mountain of the Dead. Gebel al-Mawta, or the Mountain of the Dead is a Siwan mountain that is riddled with tombs. These tombs cover the mountain base to its peak. It is one of the most fascinating and mysterious places to visit in Siwa. A visit to the Mountain of the Dead had us walking through tombs ranging from local villagers to that of a pharaonic king and his family.
The Mountain of the Dead is located at the northern end of Siwa Town. The tombs that dot the mountain date as far back as the Ptolemaic and Roman times. In fact, one of the tombs is the tomb of a Roman, Si Amon, who decided to make Siwa his home. But the importance of the mountain continued into modern times. During WWII, when the Italians bombed Siwa, local Siwans sheltered in the tombs. In fact, the most magnificent tombs on the mountain were discovered during this time.
There are no cameras or tripods allowed inside the tombs, however, visitors are welcome to use the cameras on their cellphones.
Take In The Sunset From Fatnas Island (Fantasy Island)
After experiencing the magical sunsets of Jordan in the Wadi Rum desert, I knew that desert sunsets are some of the best in the world. But when I traveled to the Siwa Oasis, I did not expect that I would be sitting on the edge of the Great Sand Sea watching the sunset on an island in the middle of a lake while families zoomed around in pedal boats around me.
But Fatnas Island, or Fantasy Island, as most tourists call it, has some of the best sunset views I’ve ever seen. This picturesque little island on the edge of Siwa Lake is just a short drive from Siwa Town. It’s a popular spot for both tourists and locals alike. Fatnas Island isn’t just for sunsets either. There are two small cafes on the island serving tea, coffee, and cold drinks. And for those wanting to enjoy the sunset views, there are hammocks, chairs, and even a fire pit to off the chilly desert night air.
Discover Your Future At The Temple Of The Oracle (Alexander’s Temple)
One of the most important temples in Siwa is the Temple of the Oracle. Also known as the Temple of Amun, this 26th Dynasty temple was a focal point of the region and continued to be well into the Greek and Roman times. The Amun Temple was famously visited by Alexander the Great. It was here that he was told that he was a son of Zeus. Alexander used this information to help solidify his rule of the region.
One fascinating thing to pay attention to is the hidden hallway that runs along two sides of the main temple chamber. It’s just big enough for a man to walk through comfortably. And if you call out from inside, those inside the temple chamber might just think that you’re the voice of the Oracle.
One of the local Berber tribes continued living within this hilltop temple until not long ago. You can find a UNESCO supported mosque and several village homes that you can explore as well. This is definitely one of the coolest things to do in Siwa Egypt.
Just a short drive from the Temple of the Oracle you’ll find a single, decorated wall standing amid ruins. This lone wall is all that remains of what was once the vast Amun Temple. This once beautiful temple was almost completely destroyed in 1896 when a local Ottoman governor razed the entire structure with dynamite. He had been hoping to use the stone of the temple for building material. It is believed that the original structure dates back to the 30th dynasty.
Take A Dip At The Siwa Salt Quarry
One of the things at the heart of the Siwan economy is the export of salt. Just outside the city sits a sight that completely contrasted with the palm tree and desert-filled landscape of the Siwa Oasis. Here, mixed among mountains of excavated salt are emerald-blue waters that are so idyllic to gaze upon that few visitors can’t help but get closer.
The Siwa Salt Company runs the excavation operation that surrounds the Siwa salt lake. But visitors are welcome to enter the quarry and bathe in the mineral-rich waters of the lake. The lake has one of the highest water to salt ratios, even higher than the famed Dead Sea. Nothing lives in the crystal-clear waters due to the high salt content. But beware, any scratches you have will sting in the healing waters.
Enjoy The Local Waters Of Cleopatra’s Well
With loads of natural springs in Siwa, it’s hard to understand why Cleopatra’s mention holds such an important place in the hearts of the locals. But this warm-water spring located right inside the town is where many of the locals first learn how to swim. The well was never visited by Cleopatra herself, but the legendary Egyptian queen did use warm water for her own baths.
The natural sulphuric spring water is a perfect way to relax after a day of exploring. Or to wash off the salt from the Siwa salt lake. The well is surrounded by cafes and small restaurants. It can get very busy during the summer months, but during the cooler months it remains quite easy to access.
Learn About Berber History At The House Of Siwa Museum
We were blessed when we found out that our travel partner in Egypt, Traveline Egypt, had secured the manager of the local Siwa Museum, Abu Bakr Ismail as our guide through much of the historical places in the Siwa Oasis. Part of the experience with him was a visit to his House of Siwa Museum.
This small, locally run but internationally funded museum displays a collection of historical clothing, pottery, and artwork. The displays show off the history of the local Berber tribes. And along the way it showcases how the locals’ adaptation of modern technology has changed the Siwan landscape. You won’t find the House of Siwa Museum on the internet. In fact, they don’t even have email. But if you’re looking for things to do in Siwa, make sure you set aside time for this.
Great Sand Sea Safari And Sandboarding
One of the most incredible things to see in the Siwa Oasis is the Great Sand Sea. Most tours of the Great Sand Sea will include visits to some of the natural hot and cold springs sprinkled throughout the landscape. And, of course, you’ll likely end up tearing up and down the world’s largest sandbox in an old Toyota Landcruiser while checking multiple times to see if your seatbelt is still attached.
The Great Sand Sea Desert tour in Siwa is one of the highlights of the city. It’s thrilling, beautiful, and even educational. One of the coolest things that we saw was a part of what was once a seabed. Scattered throughout the stone floor were countless marine fossils, including the remains of an ancient whale! What a cool thing to find in the middle of the desert.
We combined our Great Sand Sea tour with a desert sandboarding experience. The dunes weren’t nearly as high as the ones that we rode down in Huacachina Peru, but it was still an absolute blast. Our tour ended with a chance to enjoy some Bedouin tea while watching the sunset over the sand.
Wander Through Siwa Town
Between exploring all the incredible things to do in Siwa Oasis, we spent much of our time exploring the streets of Siwa Town itself. The town was going under considerable renovations when we were there. The normally paved city streets were torn up and messy while new sewer pipes were installed.
But all of that construction just added another level of authenticity to this peaceful town. Siwa is a place where you’re as likely to see a donkey pulled cart as you are a car. The streets are lined with bakeries, cafes, and small restaurants. There’s organized chaos about everything that’s happening in Siwa Town. And everywhere you look there are smiling faces.
The only time I felt odd while walking around Siwa was late at night when I was strolling through town looking for some night shots. Two young men followed me down an alley on a scooter. When I reached a dead end and knew that I would have to turn to face them, they stopped and looked at me. “Where are you from?” they asked. “Canada,” I responded. “Do you need help? We saw you walking alone and wanted to make sure you were ok.”
That is the peaceful and friendly attitude that my family came across everywhere in Siwa. From the restaurant owner who happily posed for photos with my kids. To the Great Sand Dunes driver who got so much pleasure from dune bashing that his laughs penetrated our entire family. Siwa is as much about the people as it is about the scenery.
Our Siwa Oasis Video
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Our Dramatic Escape From The Siwa Oasis
It was while we were sandboarding in the Great Sand Sea that I got the phone call from our Traveline Egypt rep, Ramy. I could hear the stress in his voice as he explained that Egypt’s worst storm in 40 years was barreling down between us and Cairo and that we would need to leave immediately or risk being stuck in Siwa.
We had plans to visit Abu Simbel and then enjoy a Luxor hot air balloon tour, so we did not want to miss our chance to explore more of Egypt’s majesty. We shook off the sand and rushed back to our hotel. Within three hours we had returned, packed, and loaded our gear up into the van for an overnight drive back to Cairo. We made it just as the rain began to fall.
About Siwa Egypt
The moment that we arrived in Siwa, Egypt, it was impossible not to recognize just how special this desert town is. The city is built around the historic Shali Fortress. This massive wall dominates the Siwa town center. Although the country follows Egyptian law, it still maintains a traditional Berber government in which the leaders of each of the local tribal governates come together to dictate the rules of the region.
The Siwa region has around 225 freshwater springs sprinkled throughout. Although not all are accessible. The easy access to both hot and cold water springs have led this tiny and remote desert community to become a literal oasis of fruit and date farming. This helped to establish Siwa as a popular trading destination after the reign of Ramses II. Although the growth of the town is relatively recent in Egyptian terms. Almost nothing is known about the Siwa region prior to that time.
Where Is The Siwa Oasis?
The mysterious Siwa Oasis lies at the edge of the Great Sand Sea just 31 miles (50 km) from Egypt’s border with Libya. The area that Siwa is located is called the Qattara Depression. It’s unique history, and relative isolation has led to the town becoming one of the most peaceful, and fascinating destinations in the country.
Where To Stay In Siwa
Tourism in Siwa is booming, and a number of great ecolodges have popped up in the town to cater to the demand. Choosing the best places to stay in Siwa was tough. Because we were visiting Siwa with kids, our choices were narrowed down for us. We chose Siwa Safari Paradise Hotel as they had a proper family room with two full beds and an available cot and was conveniently located within walking distance to the center of town. Siwa Safari Paradise is a great property too. There’s a beautiful pool and the food and staff were excellent.
But if you don’t need a family room, there are a lot of options for great places to stay in Siwa. You can check out the prices and availability of all of the best properties here.
Important Festivals In Siwa Egypt
There are a number of amazing festivals in Siwa Egypt. And, if you’re fortunate enough to time your visit with them, you should definitely take part.
Siyaha Festival (Festival of Forgiveness)
Siyaha, or the Festival of Forgiveness, is considered the most important festival in Siwa. This unique festival happens over a three-day period during the full moon of October. Every year locals descend upon Mount Dakrur for Siyaha, or Asihaite, in the local Berber language. During the Siwa Festival of Forgiveness all Siwans join together, eat, dance, renew bonds, and present themselves as equals. This festival is all about settling grievances and is a big part of what makes Siwa such a peaceful place to visit.
Moulid at Tagmigra is an important festival in Siwa. It’s dedicated to Siwa’s patron sheikh, Sidi Suleyman. The festival, often called the Saint’s Festival, includes Zikr dancing by circles of men during the late summer corn harvest. The festival takes place near the tomb shrine of Sidi Suleiman.
Siwan Art Project
This non-traditional Siwa festival takes place every two to three years. The festival was started by local entrepreneur Neatalla. It features large-scale art projects such as the launch of thousands of kits, or, the “Ship of Siwa” launched on one of the local lakes. The last two events were canceled due to security issues surrounding uprisings in the country, but keep checking for future events.
Is It Safe To Visit The Siwa Oasis With Kids?
Visiting Egypt with kids is an incredible experience. And of the few families who travel to Egypt, only a small number make their way to the Siwa Oasis. But I can honestly say that Siwa was one of the most amazing places that we visited in the country. The people are warm, kind, and helpful. The history is awe-inspiring. And with all the things to do in Siwa, it’s worth the long and challenging drive.
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