Exploring Egypt: Traces of the past in Old Alexandria

Hatem Maher , Wednesday 21 Sep 2016

Ahram Online takes you on a tour of the picturesque Mediterranean old districts in Egypt's second capital

Sayed Darwish theatre
A man walks past classical Greek style columns as he leaves Alexandria Opera House towards Fouad Street. The opera house, which was built by French architect G. Parcq between 1921 and 1929, was inspired by Viennese opera houses (Reuters)

Alexandria, Egypt’s second biggest city and the capital of the country in ancient times, is famed for its rich history and glorious past.

Traces of past glory remain standing today despite the adverse and often ugly consequences of so-called modernisation.

The air of the older Mediterranean city can still be best breathed in the Bahari district at the western end of the corniche, a seafront promenade that stretches for over 17 kilometres.

The journey to explore the gems of an old Alexandria, away from the fancy hotels, buildings and restaurants that are now ubiquitous, starts at the Citadel of Qaitbay, a defensive fortress built by Mamluk Sultan Al-Ashraf Qaitbay, who ruled Egypt from 1468 to 1496.

The Citadel of Qaitbay
The Citadel of Qaitbay (Photo: Hatem Maher)

With an entrance fee of a modest 10 Egyptian pounds, you can get inside the fortress and move through the narrow corridors and get a glimpse of the outside world through tiny and steely windows.

You can also move upstairs and enjoy a stunning view of the Mediterranean from above, where many lovers gather.

At the same complex just outside the citadel, vendors line up to sell souvenirs to tourists and kids enjoy smooth bike rides on a long corridor, while others simply relax by the sea.

Vendors line up to sell souvenirs at the Citadel of Qaitbay (Photo: Hatem Maher)

A few metres away, the Greek Club’s White and Blue Restaurant stands out with a wonderful view of many fishing boats decorating the sea, offering a variety of dishes and drinks and relaxing Greek music, although its prices are relatively high.

On weekends, you will probably have to reserve a table in advance for a minimum charge of EGP 100 per person. 

Greek club
The beautiful view from the Greek club (Photo: Hatem Maher)

For more modest prices, the same complex also hosts Al-Kal3a, another restaurant with a superb ambiance including an open air area right by the sea.

Moving outside the complex back towards the corniche, a walk would be enjoyable in the older part of Alexandria. Signs of the bygones are obvious in the architecture, with old and ship-shape residential buildings lined up along the coast.

An old and beautiful residential building in Bahari (Photo: Hatem Maher)

Bahari 2
An Old and beautiful residential building in Bahari (Photo: Hatem Maher)

The wall that separates the corniche from the sea in the Bahari district is another important feature of the good old days, given its small size which allows passersby and daydreamers an unhindered view of the sea. It stands in stark contrast to the eastern end of the corniche where high walls were erected.

During the stroll in Bahari you will find Azza, one of the most famous places to offer cheap ice cream in Alexandria, as well as several humble cafes that all have in common a great view of the sea.

For romance seekers who are willing to spend about 400 Egyptian pounds for an unforgettable lunch, the historic Windsor Palace hotel near Al-Raml Station would be a safe bet, with its sky roof offering a panoramic view of the Mediterranean.

Another stop from the corniche side is Al-Raml Station itself, a commercial hub that includes many cafes and restaurants, from common ones like Kentucky Fried Chicken to decades-old places like pastries kings Delices, which was founded in 1922.

Abul Abbas Al-Mursi Mosque

Just a few steps from Azza Ice Cream and across the colourful boats on the corniche, cross the street and treat your eyes to this beautiful mosque from the 13th century dedicated to the Andalusian Sufi Saint Abul Abbas Al-Mursi, which also contains his tomb.

Sea food restaurants

Abul Abbas Al-Mursi is located in an area called Al-Anfoshi. This area, along with Al-Mansheya just next to it, is home to some of the best sea food restaurants in Alexandria's Bahari.

On the corniche there is the famous Qadora, Hosni, and a few blocks down the road there is Arous El-Bahr. These are local restaurants where you can have loads of fresh sea food delights for relatively cheap prices, but the restaurants lack ambiance. If you are after a more glamorous setting, head to the Fish Market, right by the sea in a posh restaurants complex that includes Chicken Tikka and other restaurants.

Street Markets

Keep walking down the manshiyat on the corniche or delve into the side streets to enjoy the street markets. The oldest of all and the most famous is Zanqet El-Setat, where you can buy anything from handmade scarves to puppets and household stuff.

Also on the corniche is Alexandria's delightful fish market mentioned in Alexandrian literature. It is home to many of Ibrahim Abdel-Meguid's scenes in No One Sleeps In Alexandria. This fish market is delightful for a walk or if you are after some fresh sea food to cook at home.

Keep walking down the corniche and enjoy the sea breeze and the beautiful architecture of some of the old buildings-turned-embassies like the Swedish and French embassies.

The Cecil

Towards the end of this walk you will find yourself at Saad Zaghloul Square, the end of Bahari and beginning of Al-Raml district. This is home to the most famous hotel in Alexandria, the Cecil. It was recently bought by Steigenberger and they are refurbishing it.

The Cecil hotel was built in 1929 by the French-Egyptian Jewish Metzger family as a romantic hotel. It still maintains a magnificent sea view. The Cecil was mentioned in Laurence Durell's Alexandria Quartet and Naguib Mahfouz's Miramar. This hotel is historic, as Winston Churchill stayed here, as well as author Somerset Maugham.

The British Secret Service had a suite there for their operations. The hotel was seized by the Egyptian government after the 1952 revolution and the Metzger family was expelled from the country together with most of the Jewish community, who either fled to Europe or Israel.

This left Alexandria with only traces of what was a real cosmopolitan culture where Greeks, Italians, Frenchmen, Jews, Christians and Muslims had lived and owned businesses for generations. You can still see the lovely Greek shop facades in Bahari at many of the shops, cafes and restaurants.

End your walk with a drink and a Chinese dinner and enjoy the breathtaking views of the Mediterranean from the Cecil’s rooftop restaurant. Try their prawns barbecue and steamed rice, as well as their vegetable spring rolls.

A little bit away from the corniche, Fouad Street represents another landmark of a beautiful and old Alexandria. Named after the late Egyptian king, who ruled the country from 1917 to 1922, it is filled with antique shops, fancy restaurants, and most importantly the Sayed Darwish Theatre, which is now the Alexandria Opera House. It resembles a European street and offers a reminder of what was once the cosmopolitan nature of Alexandria, which used to host many expatriates decades ago. 

Fouad street
Fouad street (Photo: Hatem Maher)

Alexandria Bahari hotels

Steigenberger Cecil Hotel

The four-star Steigenberger Cecil Hotel in Alexandria was built as the Cecil Hotel in 1929 by the French-Egyptian Jewish Metzger family as a romantic hotel.

Address: 16, Saad Zaghloul Square, 16 El-Gaish Rd, Al Mesallah Gharb WA Sharif Basha, Qesm Al Attarin, Alexandria Governorate 21311
Phone: 03 4877173

Le Metrople Hotel
Dating from 1902, this elegant hotel overlooking the Mediterranean Sea is a two-minute walk from the Alexandria National Museum’s history exhibits and 2 km from the Bibliotheca Alexandrina.

Casual rooms and refined suites are decorated with traditional European furnishings. All come with free Wi-Fi and satellite TV, and upgraded quarters add sea views.

Breakfast and parking are complimentary. There are 2 sophisticated French restaurant/bars, 1 with regular live music.
Address: 52 Saad Zaglol Street, Raml Station, Alexandria, El-Seifarah El-Etalia, El-Mesallah Sharq, Qesm El-Attarin, Alexandria Governorate
Phone: 03 4861465

Paradise Inn Windsor Palace hotel
Dating from 1906, this palatial, luxury hotel overlooks a waterfront promenade, and is a 6-minute walk from the Alexandria National Museum. It's also 2 km from the modernist Library of Alexandria.

The antiques-filled rooms feature gilded walls and hand-decorated high ceilings, as well as free Wi-Fi and flat-screen TVs. Most have private balconies with Mediterranean Sea views. Upgraded rooms have living areas, while suites add stately living rooms and art from the hotel's collection.

Breakfast is free and served on the rooftop terrace. A restaurant adorned with frescoes serves high-end cuisine, while a cafe and terrace offer light fare.
Address: 17 El-Shohada Street Alexandria, El-Gaish Rd, Alexandria Governorate
Phone: 03 4808123

Budget hotels

These are basic hotels where you can find a clean bed and basic breakfast. Some rooms share a bathroom, others have an ensuite bathroom. Most of the rooms have an unbeatable sea view terrace.

Union hotel

Al Mesallah Gharb WA Sharif Basha, Qesm Al Attarin, Alexandria Governorate
Rooms are clean and spacious, and the sea views are terrific. The hotel serves a basic breakfast of bread, butter, jam and croissant with tea or coffee, and the kitchen can make some basic sandwiches and drinks. The food is nothing special but there are plenty of restaurants, cafes and supermarkets in the area.
Phone: 03 4807312

Le Crillion hotel
Two buildings away from the union hotel, this beautiful hotel is characterized with the old high ceilings and beautiful European wall encriptions. There are a couple of family rooms with a private bathroom, and the rest of the rooms share bathrooms. The kitchen of the hotel provides a very nice traditional Egyptian breakfast with foul, falafel, Egyptian cheese, salads, and omelets.
5 intersection of 26th of July St. Al-Raml Station,Alexandria
Phone: 03 4800330

Ramses Hotel
Al Mesallah Sharq, Qesm Al-Attarin, Alexandria Governorate
Phone: 03 4869620

Triomphe hotel
Al Mesallah Gharb WA Sharif Basha, Qesm Al-Attarin, Alexandria Governorate
Phone: 03 4807585

Hotel Acropole
Al Mesallah Gharb WA Sharif Basha, Qesm Al-Attarin, Alexandria Governorate
Phone: 03 4805980

Getting there
Alexandria is a two-hour ride from Cairo by car, bus or train.

Fouad Street 2
A woman gets into a yellow and black cab in front of L-Passage food hall on Fouad Street (Photo: Reuters)

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