Last Updated on November 18, 2022
When I touched down in Cairo and sat down to map out my Egypt itinerary, I was shocked when I saw how far Siwa was from all the other places I was planning to visit. Siwa was one of the places I’d been most excited about, ever since I’d found out about the little desert oasis. But a 12-hour night bus ride from Cairo just didn’t sound too appealing.
However, throughout my trip I kept meeting people who were raving about Siwa. Everyone was talking about how magical Siwa was. By the time I’d reached the eastern border of Egypt, the Red Sea, I decided I couldn’t leave Egypt without visiting the desert oasis close to the Libyan border.
And I am so glad I did! Siwa turned out to be my favorite place in all of Egypt. Most people only spend 3 or 4 days in Siwa, but if you have a few more days to spare, it’s worth spending a week in Siwa to soak up all the desert magic. If you’re pressed for time, I recommend at least 3 days to make the long trip worthwhile, and if you’re wondering what’s there to do in Siwa to fill a whole week, here are the best things I did in Siwa.
The Best Things To Do In Siwa
1 Explore the Shali
The Shali, the Old Fortress, is right in the center of town, and was built on and into natural rock. The fortress and the surrounding buildings were built in a style unique to Siwa: using natural building materials from the area, mainly salt from the nearby salt lakes and mud. This salt-mud-brick mix is known as kershef, and all of Siwa’s buildings used to be made from it. The roofs of the buildings were fortified with palm logs. Unfortunately, during three days of heavy rains in the 1920s, most of the shali and the surrounding houses were severely damaged, and were consequently left abandoned when the inhabitants left to find a new home.
The ruins of the Shali are still fascinating – towering above the newer buildings in the city center, not only do they offer a glimpse into the past of Siwa, but the shali also offers sweeping views over the desert oasis. Take a couple of hours to wander around the maze of ruins and partially collapsed buildings, which often have deep cracks, and if you look closely, you’ll see that some of the crumbling walls reveal big chunks of salt and palm logs above door frames and in the still existing ceilings.
Tip: If it is a sunny day, stay for sunset. The sunset views from the shali are amazing!
2 A Desert Tour in a 4×4
When I signed up to do a desert tour in a 4×4, I imagined us cruising through the vast sand dunes of the Saraha Desert at a leisurely pace. It turned out that my imagination and the reality of this trip couldn’t have been further apart. Instead of a smooth desert ride, we found ourselves speeding up and down sand dunes at an insane pace, making me feel like I was in some sort of offroad race. Our driver certainly thought that he was a race car driver, taking on sand dunes with a 90-degree vertical drop at full speed. My adrenaline was pumping for the majority of the trip, and there were several moments when I was convinced the car would flip over. Magically, we all survived the trip unharmed (don’t ask about seatbelts).
There were moments though that made this insane desert ride worth the countless near-heart attacks (and I should point out that my fellow passengers were squealing with joy most of the time – apparently, for some people this is as enjoyable as a thrill ride, and if you like roller coasters, you will enjoy the driving part of this tour!): we stopped several times to take in the beauty of the desert, marveling at the dramatic sand dune formations and the uniform sand patterns, created by the wind. We also stopped in a part of the desert that was much “rockier” than the usually very soft sand dunes. There, we found hundreds of fossilized shells, proof that this whole area used to covered by the ocean thousands of years ago.
The grand finale of the trip, before returning to Siwa, is a desert picnic. You’ll get to enjoy the sunset while sipping on some tea or Arabic coffee, and snack on some cookies and peanuts. Even though I found the driving quite nerve-wrecking, in hindsight it is one of the best things to do in Siwa – don’t leave the oasis without a trip to the desert!
Cost: The going rate per jeep is EGP1,500, so depending on how many people you find to share the costs with, it can be as little as EGP250 per person (the 4x4s fit up to six people).
3 Visit the Hot Springs
There are over 200 natural springs in Siwa and the surrounding area – both hot and cold. It’s bizarre to think that you’re going to a place in the middle of the desert, and you’ll need a swimsuit!
Not all of the springs are accessible, but the ones that are open to the public are well worth a visit, especially if you visit during the winter, or at a time when it gets colder at night – being in the hot water while the air is a bit chilly is so nice (I visited when it wasn’t too hot and loved the Hot Springs)! The Hot Springs are open until late at night, so you can also stargaze while soaking in a hot spring – magical! The two main hot springs are:
Almaza Hot Springs
Almaza Hot Springs has not only a hot spring, but also a camp where you can spend the night. There’s only one hot spring, but it is fairly big and you can visit during the day and at night, which means you can stargaze without being cold.. instead, you’re soaking in (very!) hot springs. There is a café on-site that serves drinks and food.
Cost: Admission is EGP20 (less than US$1), plus what you consume at the Hot Springs.
Hayaat Siwa Hot Spring
This hot spring is a little further away from the town center (about 25 mins by car / tuktuk), right on the edge of the desert. It is worth coming here especially for sunset or after dark, when you can see the Milky Way and thousands of stars in the desert sky.
You can also spend the night here, which is an amazing experience (check it out on Booking.com – the reviews are fantastic). Relax in the hot tub while stargazing, and really soak up that “we’re in the middle of the desert!” feeling, away from the town, for a tranquil experience. They have rooms, tents and larger family rooms (they start at US$25, which includes breakfast).
There is an onsite restaurant, and there are changing rooms and bathrooms.
Mountain Camp Ali Khaled
The Mountain Camp is not just a great place for a hot springs visit, but also for a night out: if you’re looking for a party in Siwa, you’re most likely to find it here (see #4 below). There’s live music and entertainment most nights, and you can also eat at the restaurant here.
The Hot Spring here is part of a larger camp where people spend the night. There are guest rooms and tents, even though the tents are quite basic (tents start at US$30 a night, rooms at around $45). The grounds of the Mountain Camp are beautiful, with plenty of flowers and little gardens and even a tree house.
The Osman Camp is similar to the previously mentioned camps: accommodation AND hot springs in one. Tents start at US$19, triple rooms at US$30, quadruple rooms at US$40 per night, breakfast included. It’s a simple camp, surrounded by desert, with undisturbed stargazing at night.
4 Party at the Mountain Camp
I already mentioned the Mountain Camp for the Hot Springs, but they also have some of the best parties up there. When I visited, a DJ played African music to which the locals were dancing (it was fascinating to watch the local men dance Siwan dances in their traditional dress) and later in the evening, people were starting to play the drums. If you want to party in Siwa, the Mountain Camp is the place for you.
Cost: No admission fee, but whatever you consume at the restaurant / bar.
5 Climb Mount Dakrur (Gabal Dakrur)
Mount Dakrur is one of several higher mountains surrounding Siwa. It’s worth climbing to the top for the panoramic views of all of Siwa, to see the hundreds of thousands of palm trees, and the desert around the oasis. And when I say climb, I’m using this term very loosely.. while it’s strenuous for a little bit, since you’ll be scrambling up the rocks on one part of the trail, the hiking path up to the top of the mountain is clearly marked and it won’t take you longer than 20 minutes to get to the top. While we were there, families with kids arrived at the top, so this is something everyone can do.
6 Float in the Salt Lakes
Floating in the Salt Lakes was one of the coolest things I did in Siwa. First of all, the Salt Lakes are worth visiting no matter if you go for a dip or not, because they come in different shapes and sizes and make for great photo opps.
Tip: When you ask your tuktuk driver to bring you to the Salt Lakes, he’ll most likely stop at the large ones closest to the main street. The nicer ones with unusual shapes are a little further away – I’d recommend using the satellite view on Googlemaps to see where some of the smaller, more interesting ones are.
Cost: You don’t have to pay to see the salt lakes / enter the area, but you’ll have to pay for a Tuktuk to get there. Most Tuktuk drivers offer a combined tour of salt lakes and hot springs and charge EGP200 per Tuktuk. The driver waits while you float / take pictures / soak in the hot springs, but you can also just pay for a ride out there, if you really want to take your time. You’ll be able to find a Tuktuk to take you back into town on the main road. Make sure to agree on a price with your driver BEFORE you start the trip.
7 Rent a bicycle and explore all of Siwa
Renting a bicycle is a great way to get to some of the further away places, such as Fatnas Island, the temples, or Cleopatra Spring, but it’s also an excellent way to simply cruise around Siwa and get to know the town. You’ll quickly discover that Siwa Oasis is quite large – a town of 40,000 people – and spread out.
If you don’t want to pay for a desert tour in a 4×4, type “desert viewpoint” into GoogleMaps and head to the beginnings of the vast white desert by bike. You can also ride out to the hot springs to soak your sore muscles after a long day of cycling. Or your sore butt – because most of Siwa’s roads are unpaved and there are ample potholes, so be prepared for a bumpy ride!
Cost: The going rate is EGP80 for a day rental (morning until evening), or EGP120 for a 24-hour rental.
8 Watch the sunset at Fatnas Island
Fatnas Island is without a doubt the place to go to see the sunset. So don’t expect a quiet, romantic sunset spot – this place is also popular with locals and tends to get crowded. When we arrived, there were several buses in the parking lot and I wished we would’ve gotten there earlier, since the best seats were taken. I’d recommend arriving at least 90 minutes prior to sunset. There is a café – enjoy a smoothie or a tea and just relax for a couple of hours. Even though it was a bit of a spectacle, it is well worth the trip to the island.
9 Temple of Amun & Temple of Umm Ubayd
The Temple of Amun sits atop a hill on the eastern outskirts of Siwa and was dedicated, as the name suggests, to Amun. The temple itself is quite small, and there’s not much left of it beyond ruins, but this used to be a significant temple and must have been a spectacular sight before it started to fall apart. It dates to the era of the 26th dynasty, 663 – 535BC. The temple was famously visited by Alexander The Great when he came to Egypt in 331BC. He consulted the Oracle of Siwa, which was one of the most famed oracles in the Mediterranean. People – including Greek and Persian rulers – would come for questions and prophecies, and priests acted as interpreters of the divine. Legend has it the Oracle declared Alexander The Great the son of god and thus legitimized him ruling over Egypt.
It is worth taking a closer look at the ruins of the temple, and it also offers fantastic views over the oasis and the desert beyond.
The Temple Of Umm Ubayd is just a short walk down the street from the Temple Of Amun. Sadly, there’s not much left of the temple beyond a part of a wall on the side of the road, with some interesting inscriptions on it. It is worth visiting the temple for the well-preserved inscriptions though, and you can combine it with a trip to nearby Cleopatra’s Pool.
Apparently, this temple was demolished back in 1896 to make room for a mosque and a police building. Before it was destroyed, there used to be a causeway connecting this temple with the Temple of Amun, and they were both used during oracle rituals.
Cost: There’s no admission fee for this temple.
10 Cleopatra’s Pool
Cleopatra’s Pool is a small round pool on the outskirts of town – if you are planning to visit the Temple of Amun & Temple of Umm Ubayd (see above), you can combine it with a dip in this pool. While the pool itself is man-made, it is fed by a natural spring.
The stone pool is popular with Egyptians, so if you don’t want to feel uncomfortable and get stares, make sure to not just wear a bikini (the local girls go in fully covered). A shirt over your bathing suit should suffice.
Around the pool, there are a number of small shops and cafes, so you can enjoy a fruit juice or coffee after you take a dip – or if you don’t want to go in, you can also just enjoy a drink while people watching.
11 The tombs at Gabal Al-Mawta
This hill is located on the northern end of Siwa, and is easier to climb than Gabal Dakrur (#5). It is worth visiting for the dozens of rock tombs, which have plenty of ancient wall paintings. The name “Gabal Al-Mawta” translates to “Mountain of the Dead”, and that is exactly what this used to be: a mountain filled with dead people. Now, the tombs are empty, but some of the wall paintings are still in excellent condition. If you enjoyed the Valley Of The Kings, you will not want to miss the tombs here. You can find a detailed description of the Gabal Al-Mawta paintings here.