There is a wonderful Italo Calvino story about a city so removed from its own history that it is as if the modern metropolis sits on the site of an unrelated ancient city that just happens to bear the same name. At times Alexandria, which Alexander the Great founded in the 4th century BC, feels like that. Yet the fallen Alexandria of the ancient Greeks, of Ptolemy, Cleopatra, Julius Caesar, and the Romans, and of pagan cults and the Great Library is underfoot, quite literally, as all of modern Alexandria has been built on the ruins of the old, a city that was capital of Egypt from the 3rd century BC until AD 642, when the Arabs first arrived. Overlay a map of the contemporary city with one from antiquity, and you see that many of the streets have remained the same: Shar'a al-Horreya runs along the route of the ancient Canopic Way, and Shar'a Nabi Daniel follows the route of the ancient Street of the Soma. Near their intersection once stood the Mouseion, a Greek philosophic and scientific center that had at its heart the collection of the Great Library. Yet only fleeting glimpses of this ancient city peak through the modern crust. By the early 20th century, Alexandria was a wealthy trading port. The merchants were fantastically rich—cosmopolitan without beingintellectual—and they enjoyed the sort of idle existence that is born of privilege, a privilege not of high birth but rather of colonial rule, which shielded foreigners from Egyptian law. They lived in villas with extravagant gardens, frequented luxurious shops, gossiped over tea in grand cafés, and lounged on the beach in private resorts along the coast. The population was a multicultural mix of Greeks and Arabs, Turks and Armenians, French and Levantines, Jews and Christians, and this spawned a unique atmosphere. It was this city that belonged to Constantine Cavafy, now regarded as the greatest Greek poet of his era. It was this city to which the novelist E.M. Forster, author of A Passage to India, was posted during World War I. And it was this city that gave birth to Lawrence Durrell's Alexandria Quartet, which captivated a generation of American readers when the books were published in the late 1950s. Then quite suddenly everything changed. The intellectuals and merchants fled, driven out of Egypt by the nationalist revolution of the 1950s, the wars with Israel, and the nationalization of their businesses. It's been five decades since most of the foreigners left—some Greeks and Armenians remained. But if you take the city as it is today and not as a faded version of what it once was, you will find that Alex (as it's affectionately known) remains an utterly charming place to visit. The Mediterranean laps at the seawall along the Corniche, and gentle sea breezes cool and refresh even in the dead of summer. Graceful old cafés continue to draw lovers and friends—Egyptians now, rather than foreigners—while the streets remain as lively and intriguing as ever. Alexandria is still a great city, even now, shorn of its many pasts.
Alexandria has grown so rapidly in the last 50 years that it now runs along the coastline from the Western Harbor all the way to Montazah, a distance of more than 16 km (10 mi). It is, nonetheless, a great walking city because the historic Downtown occupies a compact area near the Eastern Harbor, while the ancient sights are a short taxi ride away.
Alexandria's culinary gift is extraordinary seafood, drawing on the best of the Mediterranean and the Red Sea. The preparation tends to be simple: grilled or fried, perhaps laced with garlic, herbs, or butter, and typically served with tahini (sesame paste) and a couple of salads on the side. The ingredients are so fresh that anything more elaborate would obscure their flavors. Most places display their offerings of fish, shrimp, crab, calamari, and mussels on ice, and you pay by weight or per serving. The price includes preparation and everything else—there are no hidden costs. If you need help choosing, there will always be someone on hand to guide your selection.
Because the focus is on fresh seafood, restaurants in Alexandria (especially the good ones) tend to be informal and quite inexpensive for the quality of what they serve. Naturally, many are near the water, some of them appropriately weathered, while others consist of no more than a few tables in an alley. A few places will levy a service charge, but most will not. In all places a tip of 10% is appropriate. Do not expect alcohol to be served in most restaurants.
Off-season, Alexandrians eat meals at standard times: 1 to 3 for lunch and 8 to 11 for dinner. But in summer dinner often begins much later. There is nothing more Mediterranean about Alexandria than the pace of dinner in the summer: after an evening siesta, have a shisha (water pipe) around 11, arrive at a waterfront restaurant after midnight, then wrap up the meal with an early morning espresso at an outdoor café nearby. You don't have to eat so late, of course, but you might be surprised how seductive it is.
Hotels in Alexandria are located in two clusters that are roughly 30 minutes apart. Upscale resort hotels are all out along the eastern shoreline in Montazah, close to or even within the manicured khedivial palace gardens—but not convenient to the city or the historic sights. Lower-budget hotels are almost all Downtown, much more convenient but less tranquil.
In truth, with the exception of the Salamlek Palace and the Four Seasons, the luxury hotels in Alexandria are drab, generic places not worth what they charge. Fortunately, a couple of mid-range hotels, including the surprisingly elegant Metropole, make attractive alternatives in the city center. Summer is a busy season, when advance reservations are essential. In spring and fall you may find hotels fully booked on weekends (Friday through Sunday), when residents of Cairo head to Alexandria for some downtime. Outside peak summer season, most hotels discount their prices by 30% to 40%. Many hotels quote prices in U.S. dollars or euros, but if you pay with a credit card, your payment will be charged in the equivalent of Egyptian pounds.
The joke among foreign residents in Alex is that if you want nightlife, go to Cairo. Things aren't quite that dire, but you'll still find that your nocturnal activities lean toward the wholesome rather than the iniquitous. Some top-end hotels have what pass for discos, and the Salamlek has a casino, but the city as a whole is definitely quieter than the capital.
Alexandria isn't a shopping city. There's little to buy here that you can't do better finding in Cairo, where the selection is much greater. If you're looking for chain stores, try Shar'a Suriya in Roushdi, Alexandria's most upscale neighborhood (15 minutes east of Downtown by taxi), or one of the new shopping malls that have opened up in the past few years.
The arts scene in Alex lags way behind Cairo, but there are some beacons of interest to explore. Although Alexandria has a couple of annual and biennial festivals, none would warrant a special trip to Alexandria in itself; however, several events are worth attending if you're in town when they're on.