Some places on Planet Earth deserve a little extra recognition. It might be a rare natural phenomenon, some incredible feat of human engineering, or a cultural event of epic proportions.
There have been countless attempts to compile such “wonders” in specific lists, but as of yet, we have not been too impressed by these. As the old Danish saying goes “If you don’t like the smell in the bakery…..” then go make your own damn Wonders of the World list. So that’s exactly what we’ll do.
We have created a series of blog posts showcasing the most impressive, awe-inspiring, motivating, or in any other way fantastic, places this planet has to offer. We will continue to add to the list as we explore more of the world but will only be including places that we have personally visited and been wowed by. It doesn’t matter if they are man-made or natural, or whether they are included on some official list or not. They earn our recognition by being unique and extraordinary. And we are quite picky when it comes to that. For each of these wonders, we will provide some background as well as share our best tips and tricks. This will allow you to explore these wonders for yourselves, in the best possible way.
This is the first post in the series and what better way to start than with the oldest man-made wonder of the world. We go to Egypt and the only surviving constituent of the 7 Wonders of the Ancient World: The Great Pyramid of Giza. Let’s go!
We spent a weekend in Cairo, with the main purpose of experiencing the pyramids. It made perfect sense then to choose a hotel which was located right next to the entrance. We even had views of the pyramids from our room and from a great rooftop terrace. That was an excellent decision! Off to a good start then! If you want to know more about how we spent a weekend in Cairo, please see our full travel story and itinerary here.
The Great Pyramid of Giza is by itself enough reason to travel to Egypt. Before we visited, we actually thought it was all the pyramids combined that were considered a wonder of the world. It is not though, stupid us. It is just the Pyramid of Cheops – more famously known as the Great Pyramid of Giza. While it is the largest one, there are in fact more than 100 pyramids in Egypt. At the pyramid complex in Giza, you will see 9 of those. They have been standing on that spot, just south of Cairo, for more than 4,000 years. They are almost unfathomably old.
From the original list of the 7 Wonders of the Ancient World, The Great Pyramid is the only one left standing, AND it is by far the oldest. This still blows our minds. We have labelled this post “The Pyramids of Egypt” though because we think all of them deserve the wonders of the world tag.
The First Pyramids
While the Great Pyramid was the first in Giza, it was not the first in Egypt. That laureate goes to The Pyramid of Djoser near Saqqara – also known as the Step Pyramid.
The name makes perfect sense when you see it, it is basically giant steps (leading into heaven, presumably). It was constructed around the year 2650 BCE. Apparently, the Egyptians favoured smooth-sided pyramids instead because that’s what they have been striving towards ever since.
The first attempt at constructing such a shape didn’t go so well, though. The Bent Pyramid, built by the Pharaoh Sneferu around the year 2600 BCE, is indeed smooth but about halfway up it features a distinct bend. The angle abruptly changes from 54 degrees to 43 degrees giving it quite an odd look. The most reasonable explanation of the bend is that structural problems started to appear halfway through construction and that shifting to a narrower angle solved those.
At this point, the Egyptians were still not experts on pyramid construction, and it is reasonable to believe that they learned a few things in the process. A strong supporting fact for that theory is that the next pyramid in line, commissioned again by Snefuru, was built with an angle of 43 degrees. And it seems they learned from their mistakes because The Red Pyramid did indeed become the first real (smooth and pointy) pyramid in the world. Impressively, it is also the third largest of all the pyramids as it is more than 100m tall. Fittingly, Snefuru was buried inside his accomplishment and voila 4,000 years later it’s still standing there as a great testament to human determination.
We didn’t really know the history before going, but visiting those ancient pyramids were actually the highlight of our trip.
The more famous pyramids at Giza are equally impressive, but the experience at Dahshur was with far fewer tourists and generally more relaxed. You can read about our experiences of visiting Saqqara and Dahshur here.
The Great Pyramid of Giza
Snefuru had a son, of course, Khufu (also known as Cheops), which would eventually become a Pharaoh as well. His dad was an accomplished Pyramid builder, so naturally Khufu decided to build a masterpiece of his own: The Great Pyramid of Giza. Not located in quite the same area, the pyramids complex of Giza is about 30km north of Saqqara and Dahshur. It was completed around 2560 BCE. When completed, it was the tallest man-made structure in the world for thousands of years. It was approx. 147 meters tall, and it was the tallest in the world until the Lincoln Cathedral was built in 1311 CE. It has shrunk to 137 meters today, which is not surprising after more than four millennia. It still stands taller than the Statue of Liberty, Big Ben and Notre Dame though and looks mighty impressive.
Khufu also had a son (surprise, surprise we know) named Khafre. Naturally, he wanted a pyramid of his own to be buried in as well, and it had to live up to the one of his father. For some reason, he built it just about 2m shorter – yet on the top of a plateau so that it indeed appears taller. Why he didn’t want it to be actually taller but had no problem with it appearing taller, no one knows for sure. His own son, Menkaure, built the last of the great pyramids which would complete the line-up at Giza (there are a few smaller ones as well). It was half the size of his fathers pyramid though, and he didn’t manage to see it completed before his death. At 61m, it’s still one of the largest pyramids ever to be constructed, and it looks awe-inspiring in person. You will have to go and see for yourself if you don’t believe us.
The pyramids were coated in highly polished white limestone, and it is thought the suns reflection made them shine like jewels. Unfortunately, only a small patch at the top of the Pyramid of Khafre remains as evidence. The rest loosened during a significant earthquake about 700 years ago and was promptly taken by the rulers at the time to build mosques and fortresses in Cairo. Back in their prime, the pyramids must have been thoroughly glorious to look at it. Even 4,000 years later, they still hold up and are genuinely amongst the most impressive sights we have ever seen. Their history and perseverance only add to that effect.
There are many other “fun” facts about the pyramids. They have proven great conversation pieces with people we met in Egypt, and served as impressive facts we could tell our friends and family when we got back home:
Getting around the Pyramids complex
Most travellers and tourists visiting the pyramids, begin their journey in Cairo. That makes perfect sense, as this is where all international flights arrive and the pyramids are located at Giza, just 18km from downtown Cairo. Large tour buses drive in and stop right by the pyramids, however, if you are travelling in any other way, you will have to get to one of the two entrances yourself. You can then walk to the pyramids or rent a horse carriage or a camel. You can read about our thoughts on having a sustainable and ethical trip to Egypt, touching heavily upon this topic, on our Egypt page.
From downtown Cairo, you are looking at about an hours drive. Although the distance is just 18 km, this can take a while when you factor in the city’s hectic traffic. We recommend booking an Uber, as it is cheaper than a taxi, and there is no haggling with the driver. Even better, you can do as we did, and stay in Giza to enjoy the spectacular views all day long. This is definitely our personal recommendation. We stayed in Pyramids View Inn, and you can see our honest review on TripAdvisor here. The view of the pyramids is undisturbed from the rooftop terrace, and you can walk to the entrance of the site in less than a minute (we timed it, of course).
The site opens every day between 8 am and 5 pm from October to March, and between 7am to 7pm from April to September. Get there early so you can enjoy the sights without the hordes from the tour buses. The general entrance fee is somewhere around 120 EGP for adults. That’s almost nothing – approx. 7 USD for seeing the last wonder of the ancient world. There’s a Pizza Hut just outside which charges more per pizza. However, you have to pay extra for bringing your tripod and if you want to get inside the Cheops and Khafre pyramids. We didn’t go inside any of the pyramids here, and there are several reasons for that. Mainly because everything has been removed, so there is basically nothing in there. Secondly, we knew we would enter the Red Pyramid when we got to Dahshur, which was free. Lastly, some of the pyramids of the queens of Cheops (the three small pyramids just in front) are free to enter (even though a few enterprising locals there might try to charge you for it).
Once you enter the site, you can choose to walk to the pyramids, which is not that far, or you can rent a camel or a horse to get you to the pyramids and the nearby desert. Again, please remember to be informed before you engage in ANY sort of animal tourism! Yes, we did ride camels at the pyramids, but please take a look at our Egypt’s page for what you should be aware of before doing so yourself.
Even before entering the site, you will, without a doubt, meet a lot of hustlers. They will mainly try to sell you camel and horse rides, or “guided” tours of the area. They don’t shy away from a little misinformation to sell you something. We were, e.g. told that you are not allowed to walk around in the nearby desert area without a guide (and this is where the most spectacular views of the pyramids are found). However, that didn’t seem to be true. Don’t allow yourself to be riled up by the unwanted attention. Just remember always to be polite and learn the phrase “La Shoukran” which means “No, thank you”. It will get you a long way. If they are really persistent, we just kept repeating that and did our best to do so with a smile, of course.
The Great Sphinx of Giza is said to have been made in the image of the Pharaoh Cheops and it was most likely intended to be the guardian of his pyramid directly behind it. There are two spots from where to see the Sphinx, but most tourists have to go through some kind of complex on the side of it, where your tickets will be checked. There you can then see the Sphinx from the side, but not from the front. Based on our experience, you can easily get close enough to the Sphinx without going all the way through that complex.
Sound & Light show
It is on every night from 7pm in Arabic, English and a third language depending on the day. It is an excellent way to get a full introduction and overview of the history of the pyramids. You can see more about the show in our travel story here. Not sure it is worth it going from Cairo to Giza just for that, but if you book a hotel with a rooftop view, you will get the whole show straight from the comfort of your hotel. For free and with the possibility of enjoying a glass of Egyptian wine.
What you must not miss
Before you leave this ancient site of wonders, remember to tick off the following. Chances are, you might never be back:
Do you have any questions about Egypt, the pyramids or other Wonders of the World? Perhaps you have a travel suggestion for us? We would love to hear from you. Please throw a comment below or say hello on social media – your choice!
Travel video: For an inspirational look into how a visit to the Pyramids and Cairo feels, so you simply have to go!
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