Alexandria, known by Arabic speakers as Iskandariyah, enchants with its mix of rustic charm and modernity. Situated along the coast of the Mediterranean Sea at Egypt's north, Alexandria is the country's second-largest city and is hugged by a 32km-long coastline. Founded by Alexander the Great, it was initially the Egyptian capital for almost a thousand years until the Muslim conquest in 641AD.
Remnants of that era remain in the Catacombs of Kom El Shoqafa, which now serve as popular tourist attraction. But Alexandria is not all ancient history. The city is an important cultural hub in the region, and led by the imposing Bibilothecha Alexandria (the New Library of Alexandria), it is home to a vibrant arts scene, from local theatre groups to boutique galleries and a plethora of small bookstores.
The most interesting aspect of Alexandria is its haggard charm. The city has clearly seen better days, with scores of colonial era buildings aching for refurbishment. This blend of wear and tear, coupled with Alexandrians' zest for life, makes it a more accessible entry point to Egypt. It is an ideal place to begin your Egyptian adventure or a handy location to recover after the hustle and bustle of Cairo.
A comfortable bed
Nearly every reputable hotel in Alexandria faces the sea, so the real questions are which part of Alexandria do you want to stay in, and what era of accommodation do you prefer?
For old colonial elegance, you can't go past the Sofitel Cecil (www.sofitel.com; 00 20 3581 8000). Built in 1921 and located in the central business district Saad Zaghloul Square, the hotel recalls the Alexandria of old, with purple-suited, bow-tied staff and rooms furnished with French beds and chandeliers. A double room with a balcony and views over the sea costs from 1,256 Egyptian pounds (Dh756) per night, including taxes.
For a family stay, the Alexandria Mediterranean Suites (www.mediterraneansuites.com; 00 20 128 934 4441) is a good choice. Located in the quiet Mandarah district, at the other end of the coastline, the suites are well furnished, with a living room, dining area and a private balcony. A continental breakfast is also delivered to your room daily at a time of your choosing. A standard twin room costs from 1,525 pounds (Dh918) per night, including taxes, but if you book in person on arrival, try haggling and ask for a sea view.
Find your feet
While Alexandria is easy to navigate on foot, transport options include taxis, microbuses and horse-drawn carriages. The city's expansive promenade is excellent for those who want to take in the coastline and the regal Stanley Bridge.
Taxis are reasonably inexpensive and most drivers use the meter. However, if the "meter is broken", then the scale is 25 pounds (Dh15) from one side of the coast to another, so make sure that you adjust your offer accordingly.
The Citadel of Qaitbay (entry is 25 pounds; Dh15) is well preserved, its towers offering breathtaking views of the Mediterranean. If you look past the casino and fast-food vendors, the Montazah Palace (entry is five pounds; Dh3) is a great example of 19th-century Alexandria. Its manicured gardens, stretching over 80 hectares, are a good spot for a family picnic.
Meet the locals
Alexandrians, or "Iskandaranis", are often more laid-back than their counterparts in Cairo. A favourite subject of most Alexandrians is how they are socially superior to those in the capital, so expect a witty diatribe if they find out you're coming from or travelling to Cairo.
Booking a horse-drawn cart ride (the average price is Dh120 per hour) is recommended because often the tour operators, as well as dispensing local information, may enquire if it's OK to pick up an elderly citizen who is travelling the same way. If you don't mind the intrusion, it is a great opportunity to directly interact with the locals or simply observe their droll exchanges.
The Bibliotheca Alexandria (www.bibalex.gov.ae), especially its front courtyard, is a great place to watch the city's post-revolutionary students congregating for their caffeine fix after classes. Remember to stay quiet inside the library and keep your mobiles silent because the officials can get quite testy about noisy disturbances.
Book a table
The Mediterranean influence is most apparent in the city's restaurants, with Greek, Italian and Lebanese dishes readily available. To eat with the locals, head to Baba's Village (00 2 03 5503500), which has branches downtown and near the City Center mall. It is a raucous environment, with grilled meats, fish and a variety of dips on the menu (a mixed grill with two dips costs about Dh50 per person).
Another popular eatery is Hosni Grills (00 2 03 4812350; Bahary & Gamal Abdel Nasser St), which has fresh seafood. Spaghetti fish carbonara with a dip, salad and soft drink costs Dh60 per person.
For branded products, venture to City Center and San Stefano Grand Mall. For a more comprehensive experience, visit the old town for antiques, furniture and paintings.
Arabic book lovers should head to Nabi Danyal Street, where the bookshops range from established institutions to a one-man operation involving novels stacked on a portable stand. English translations of the local legends Naguib Mahfouz and Alaa Al Aswany are also available; hardbacks cost about Dh70.
What to avoid
Not being vigilant when on a walking or horseback tour. Ensure the price is agreed upon and the route firmly fixed. Watch out for vendors taking you off course for a visit to "a friend's store".
The Mediterranean breeze. If you are staying in a sea-view room, turn of the A/C, open the balcony door and luxuriate in the fresh air.
Return flights with flydubai (www.flydubai.com) to Alexandria from Dubai cost from Dh1,135, including taxes.