With its breathtaking landscapes and unique Amazigh culture, the Siwa Oasis is a stunning destination – and Egypt’s best kept secret.
The Siwa Oasis is about a 10-hour drive from Cairo down a bumpy desert road full of potholes and cracks.
The trip takes all night through endless stretches of foggy desert spotted with gas stations.
Former president Hosni Mubarak once built a road to Siwa, but the larger forces of wind and sand overtook the thin stretch of tarmac. The oasis has always been either inaccessible or, despite the inventions of modern transport, inconvenient for travel.
But Siwa’s inaccessibility is part of its appeal.
Its remoteness means Siwa has preserved a distinct culture and unique traditions.
Land of palms: inside the Siwa Oasis
When you arrive in Siwa, eyes blurred by the all-night drive, its profusion of palm trees seem miraculous after hours of pale Western Desert.
Siwa boasts some 300,000 palm trees and they grow everywhere – far outnumbering Siwa’s 33,000 residents. The Ancient Egyptians called the oasis Sekht-am, or “palm land.”
And the Siwa Oasis is soft on the eyes. There are no apartment blocks or concrete; no roadblocks or wire. Fences are made from tied dried palm leaves and homes are built from white bricks the color of table salt.
Just 50 kilometers east of Libya, the oasis has its own unique culture and language protected by centuries from outside influence.
If you sit at a campfire at night with locals, you’ll hear Libyan and Amazigh songs. You’ll see elaborate embroidery at the shops in town, full of geometric lines and circles, and you’ll eat meals full of dates and olives – the staples of Siwan agriculture.
The locals all speak fluent Arabic, but amongst themselves they speak Siwi – a language completely foreign to Egyptian visitors.
And when I call the Siwa Oasis stunning, it’s not just click bait. Siwa is the most incredible place I’ve ever visited in Egypt – and I’m saying this as a former travel editor who’s lived in Egypt for 8 years and counting.
So where do you begin to explore this unforgettable place?
Here are 16 incredible things to do in the Siwa Oasis:
1. Stay at an authentic hotel
Siwa is packed with incredible eco lodges and small, atmospheric hotels that are filled with sandy corners and palm trees. If you love minimal, authentic and local, then you’re spoilt for choice.
The Nour el Waha Hotel is a simple yet beautiful hotel on a palm-lined sidestreet that’s a 10-minute walk from the city center.
Breakfast is served at a long table under a cluster of palm trees. It’s a feast of local green olives, fava beans, omelettes, falafel, jam and cheese with fresh bread.
The grounds of the Nour el Waha are soft and sandy, filled with cozy corners and chairs made of palm.
Inside, the rooms are basic though the thick blankets with colorful roses don’t quite match the breezy feel of the hotel.
Outside, there are tiny palms growing wherever the seeds have dropped and there’s the sound of chickens next door. It’s quiet and each room has a beautiful terrace perfect for sipping morning coffee.
2. Take a dip in the salt lakes
When our tour guide pulls into this salt lake, we gush a collective “wow.”
The crystal blue water surrounded by shimmering towers of salt clusters fill us with a childlike glee. Because we know, for this afternoon, we get to swim and float in this otherworldly pool.
Siwa boasts hundreds of salt pools and lakes throughout the oasis – and you can float on their water just like at the Dead Sea.
Siwa’s salty waters are said to cure sinuses, and skin and eye infections. While Siwans carve the salt into lamps that are said to filter the air when illuminated.
Many visitors to Siwa come away with a small chunk of salt, a while or pink souvenir of these magical lakes, broken off the pool’s edge by their guide and offered as a keepsake.
3. Climb the Mountain of the Dead
The Mountain of the Dead (Gebel el-Mawta) is an archaeological site that dates back to the Roman presence in Siwa who settled in the oasis after Cleopatra’s death.
The limestone hilltop some 1.5 kilometers outside of town is home to ancient Egyptian tombs where the Romans buried their loved ones. The tombs date from the 26th Dynasty of ancient Egypt, with some from the Greek and Roman periods.
The base of the mountain contains mounds that lead to different tombs. There are several stunning graves full of wall paintings beautifully preserved in bright colors, although countless robbers have carried off chunks in both ancient and more recent history.
The mummies once housed in the tombs showed that Siwans were strongly influenced by ancient Egyptian culture.
The Tomb of Pathot is one of the oldest in the Siwa Oasis, dating back to a priest who lived during the 26th Dynasty.
It’s a relatively large tomb with a corridor, six small chambers and a burial chamber. The last chamber holds a scene painted in red ochre of the deceased worshipping Osiris and Hathor.
4. Swim in a freshwater desert lake
Siwa has dozens of freshwater lakes – many laying like jewels amid its sandy desert dunes.
A dip in a freshwater lake is perfect to rinse off the salty residue from your skin after a swim in the salt lakes.
A desert tour guide will take you to the peak of the sand dunes in his well-insured off-roader before making an exhilarating, death-defying plunge to the bottom. Once you’re parked alongside the freshwater lake for the afternoon, you can swim in the refreshingly cold water amid the vegetation and the reeds.
5. Visit the Tomb of Si-Amun
The Tomb of Si-Amun is the most striking and important tomb at the Mountain of the Dead.
It was discovered in 1940 but likely pillaged during the Roman period. It’s the resting place of Si-Amun, or man of Amon, likely an official or merchant who lived between the 3rd and 2nd century BC.
He may have been a Greek that practised the ancient Egyptian religion and married an Egyptian woman.
Si-Amun is portrayed on the walls of his tomb as a mature man with a beard and light skin but in typical Egyptian attire. On another wall, his young son is wearing a Greek tunic. Classic images from ancient Egypt fill the tomb, like an embalming scene featuring Anubis and Osiris.
The paintings are striking, although they suffered serious damage during World War II. There’s also a beautiful depiction of the sky goddess Nut next to a sycamore tree offering bread to Si-Amun and pouring water.
On the ceiling there’s a depiction of Nut with her arms upraised, supporting the starry sky with tiny yellow painted starts.
Today most of the tombs are empty. The mountain is the final resting place of Alexander the Great, according to local folklore. But his tomb was never found.
Throughout Siwa’s history the mountain has protected locals from both heavy rains and from the invasions of World War II. Siwans and Bedouins took refuge in the tombs during the bombardment of the oasis in 1940.
It was during the war that locals discovered the existence of these ancient tombs.
If you climb to the top of the mountain, there are sweeping views of the Siwa Oasis, one of the planet’s last surviving oases, where the palm trees give in suddenly to sandy desert on the horizon.
6. Take a Siwan sand bath
The locals have for generations been taking baths in the region’s mineral-rich sands, which is said to cure ailments from rheumatism to infertility.
Siwan Fathi Abdallah would go to the desert with his family as a child and spend a few days doing the sand baths that are a tradition in Siwa. “Everyone learned it from their grandparents or their older parents,” he says.
Now as the founder of Siwa Astro Camp, Abdallah has been organizing sand baths for visitors for over a decade.
The treatment is done in summer and varies in length from three days to one week. After a hole is dug in the sand, the client lays down and is buried neck-deep in sand for 10-15 minutes. Then, usually exhausted and sweating, the client foes into a tent for a few hours to relax and sip warm herbal drinks.
The sand baths were once done by locals or visitors from around the Nile Delta. But now there are many centers for sand baths in Siwa, with more tourists coming to experience the treatment.
7. Explore the Temple of the Oracle of Amun
The ruins of Aghurmi is an ancient fortified village – and Siwa’s old capital.
The temple stands abandoned on a plateau surrounded by palm tree groves.
The temple in Aghurmi was the seat of one of the ancient world’s most famous oracles. Built in the 6th century BC during the 26th dynasty of ancient Egypt, the temple is best known for Alexander the Great’s visit in 331 BC.
The famous conqueror took the long voyage to consult the oracle and confirm himself Egypt’s legitimate king.
No exact record exists of what really happened, but supposedly the oracle’s reply was positive. Alexander was recognised as descendent from Amon and later claimed divine origin.
Very little of the original carving survives. The two halls and the sanctuary, however, have many inscriptions and a drawn figure of King Amasis II, who reigned when the temple was built.
The temple’s simple plan includes a forecourt, two hypostyle halls and the sanctuary, the seat of the oracle. The sacred boat of Amon was probably kept there.
There’s a larger hall near the sanctuary where worshippers waited their turn to visit the oracle and hear his enigmatic replies.
The temple is surrounded by legends of secret treasures and passageways. It’s also a setting for a scene in the video game Assassin’s Creed.
8. Join a yoga retreat
A yoga retreat in Siwa is an incredible experience that will deepen and inspire your practice.
Surrounded by breathtaking nature, Siwa puts you immediately at peace while your noisy city life seems worlds away.
There are dozens of tour groups that organize yoga retreats to Siwa.
I recommend Yoga with Amr – Amr has a passion for practising yoga in natural and serene places, and he’s organised retreats to many of Egypt’s hidden gems. These retreats let travellers connect with nature while deepening their mindfulness and yoga practice.
Amr is a certified yoga teacher who teaches at several yoga studios around Cairo. Though his real passion lays in showcasing Egypt’s natural beauty while incorporating yoga, mindfulness and peace into his retreats.
Amr allows plenty of time to take in the experiences without any tourist rush.
9. Enjoy Siwa Lake
Rent a bike and ride down to Siwa Lake.
A bike ride is a beautiful way to pass through residential homes against the setting sun, with kids waving from doorsteps and palms swaying in the breeze.
The lake is spectacular. And at sunset the sky goes from pink and red to orange and blue.
Try some local tea infused with lemongrass, fruits and dates.
10. Shop for local souvenirs
There are dozens of shops at the Shali, or Siwa’s small downtown, that sell the oasis’ famous dates and olives.
You’ll also find litres of olive oil, handmade soaps, embroidered scarves and dried lemongrass and organic hibiscus jams. It’s a paradise if you’re looking for authentic souvenirs with plenty of local flavor.
11. Spend some time in the desert
The sands of the Sahara Desert lay just to the south of Siwa, marking the beginning of the Great Sand Sea.
The oasis’ geological history goes back some 15 million years, when the entire region was covered by a shallow tropical sea. If you take a trip out into this desert, you’ll see the remnants of this ancient body of water – you’ll find plenty of seashells and bits of sea urchins scattered in the sand.
Spend a day in this spectacular landscape, amid the breathtaking dunes, to really get the feel for the magic and serenity of the desert.
12. Spend the night at Siwa Astro Camp
The Siwa Astro Camp is an incredible place to stay if you want to pitch a tent in the sand – or spend the night under the stars.
The campsite is located in the western desert, 11 Kilometers from the Siwa Oasis. At night, it’s perfect for stargazing far away from any city lights.
The camp is run by Fathi Abdalla Benhgar, a native Siwan who’s been running desert tour operations for nearly two decades. Fathi is a pro desert driver. And he’s a fount of knowledge on desert culture and anything you’d want to know about Siwa.
The Siwa Astro Camp is perfect if you want to feel the atmosphere of the desert. At night the camp comes alive with traditional songs by local musicians and delicious lemongrass tea by the bonfire.
13. Have lunch at Kenooz Shali Lodge
The Kenooz Shali Lodge is a gorgeous and very Instagrammable hotel in the middle of an olive and palm grove. And its spacious outdoor dining area is perfect for a slow lunch in the sun amid swaying date palms.
Kenooz is about a five-minute walk from the center of town (the Shali) – and it also makes a stunning place to stay. Built using traditional Siwan methods, the lodge has 20 different rooms of various sizes. The rooms are all decorated simply with local and authentic touches like Siwan baskets, rugs and chairs made from palm wood.
Kenooz was build in collaboration with local Siwan craftsman as part of an initiative to revitalize the dying art of local building techniques. It’s a gorgeous spot to take in some Siwan architecture and try out the local cuisine.
14. Try some sandboarding
Grab a board and climb to the top of a sand dune for this exhilirating extreme sport. Whether you sit atop your board for more stability, or surf while standing, sandboarding is thrilling for both beginners and seasoned riders.
The Siwa Oasis, because of its stretch of the Great Sand Sea, is one of the best places in Egypt for sandboarding. Some consider Siwa one of the best sandboarding destinations in the world with deep dunes that reach heights of 140 meters.
15. Take a stroll through the Shali
Siwa’s Shali, or downtown, is a historic gem that dates back to the Middle Ages. It’s filled with souvenir shops, cafes and boutiques that are incredible for browsing.
The Shali was founded in 1203 as a fortress that protected the inhabitants from raiders – and it’s build entirely from a unique mix of salt and clay. It’s also called the “city of mud.”
Homes inside the Shali stay cool in the summers and warm in the winters. But they cannot easily withstand rain. A downpour in 1926 and again in 1930 melted parts of the structures and forced the inhabitants to evacuate. In recent years, several projects have worked to restore the historic structures.
16. Soak in a hot spring
Siwa has dozens of hot springs – some in the desert, and some on hotel grounds available for guests.
These hot springs are a soothing and natural experience. And they’re perfect for relaxing in the evenings. Some hot springs, like Almaza, are open late into the night and allow you to bring in drinks.
The most famous spring is Cleopatra’s Bath, where legend says Cleopatra herself swan when she visited the oasis.
These natural wonders, historic sites and unique culture make the Siwa Oasis one of the most spectacular places to visit in Egypt.
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