This is the latest edition of our series on underrated destinations, It's Still a Big World.
Ten years ago, the word “Sinai” would have made me think of one of two things—hospitals, which often bear its name, and Sunday school lessons about Moses receiving the Ten Commandments on top of Mount Sinai. I had a vague notion that this mythical place existed somewhere in the Middle East since that’s where all biblical stories took place (Spoiler alert: Jesus wasn’t the blond-haired, blue-eyed European model he was often portrayed as in old-school cinema), but I couldn’t have placed Sinai on a map and didn’t even know it was in Egypt.
While Americans have been flocking to Egypt for decades, the vast majority of them only visit a handful of historical hotspots: Cairo, Luxor, and Aswan. Don’t get me wrong, those are all phenomenal destinations and I’d just about give my firstborn to go on a Nile River sailboat cruise, but the fact is that very, very few Americans ever step foot on the Sinai Peninsula.
By no means am I saying that Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula is some completely undiscovered wonderland where you’ll be the only person for miles; that is definitely not the case. Asians and Europeans (and Russians, in particular) have long made this their go-to beach escape and while I love my fellow apple pie-eating Americans, I’ve always enjoyed mingling with travelers from other corners of the world. There’s just something about chatting up and learning from travelers whose nationality automatically gives them a different life experience and, perhaps, perspective. They also tend to know about (and give tips on) other destinations that are more easily accessible from Europe and, thus, less visited by Americans.
My first trip to the Sinai Peninsula was in 2016. I planned to visit a friend in Cairo after a trip to neighboring Jordan so I decided to use the land crossing between Jordan and Israel, then catch a cab to the border with Egypt. It’s only about a 25-minute drive from the Jordanian border to the Egyptian border but you still have to pay for an Israeli visa and undergo the county’s world-famous immigration interrogation.
Last month, I returned to Egypt to research a new guidebook and a group tour I plan to launch next year. Most of my trip was focused around the Red Sea and I wound up spending nearly a week in Sinai’s largest city, Sharm El-Sheikh. Before visiting Sharm, as it’s affectionately known, I expected to hate it. I had heard about the massive number of Russians flocking there for all-inclusive resorts with kiddie playgrounds and beach Zumba (not my style) and the droves of late teens and early-twenties Euro kids flying down for the weekend raves (really not my style). Sharm sounded like a year-long spring break, which, honestly, it kind of is. Considering it’s only a 4.5-hour flight from London (and 2.5 hours from Istanbul), it’s fair to say that Sharm El-Sheikh is sort of like a Cancun for Europeans.
To my surprise, I actually loved Sharm and extended my visit by several days. The beaches were beautiful (and uncrowded), the people were friendly, the food was fantastic, and the scuba diving was phenomenal. Granted, the fur fashion show in the desert definitely wasn’t for me (I strongly suspect it’s aimed at Russians), but I loved absolutely everything else about the city. There are great parties, bars, beaches, and water-based activities, but there’s also easy access to charming smaller towns and significant archeological sites.
It’s worth paying a few extra bucks to stay on the beach (and there’s waterfront hotels at all different price points) and just about every hotel can help arrange activities if you don’t feel like strolling down the boardwalk to chat directly with tour operators. Jet skiing, paddle boarding, yacht trips, and glass bottom boat rides tend to be the most popular activities but you can also arrange Bedouin experiences and ATV rides in the desert or spend a day at the golf course.
About a 2.5-hour desert drive from Sharm is the Sacred Monastery of the God-Trodden Mount Sinai, commonly known as St. Catherine’s Monastery. It was built in 565 A.D. to house monks that had been living in the Sinai Peninsula since the fourth century. Saint Catherine of Alexandria was martyred in the early fourth century A.D. and her body was discovered by monks on nearby Mount Saint Catherine in the ninth century A.D., where it is believed to have been deposited by angels after her martyrdom.
The monastery encompasses multiple structures, including numerous churches, monk accommodations, a 12th century mosque, a library with rare books and thousands of manuscripts, and the Church of the Burning Bush, where God is believed to have spoken to the prophet Moses. I wasn’t too keen on navigating desert roads and checkpoints on my own so I joined an organized group tour to Mount Sinai and Saint Catherine’s Monastery. While I opted for a daytrip, many visitors spend a couple days up there (and you can even overnight in the monastery), so you can climb Mount Sinai early in the morning and watch the sunrise. Unfortunately, most of the monastery was closed due to COVID so my favorite part of the trip was actually passing Bedouin villages throughout the desert and having the opportunity to purchase teas, spices, and herbs directly from local Bedouins.
By far, I spent the majority of my time in Sharm scuba diving. The Red Sea is rich with turtles, rays, shipwrecks, enormous fish, and colorful and healthy coral. I did half a dozen dives with the Swiss company SUBEX, which is famous for its extraordinarily experienced dive instructors and their focus on safety. I have a good 60 dives under my belt but I’m still a very cautious diver so I appreciate that the company caps groups at four divers, whereas other companies go out with twice as many people. On more than one occasion, my dive guide had to stop and help a struggling diver in another group or point out huge hidden rock fish because instructors in the large groups were too busy corralling their group to notice some of the sea life.
Some of Sharm’s most stunning underwater sites can only be accessed with a proper scuba diving certification (such as swimming up-close to old oil tanker barrels on the bottom of the sea), a tremendous amount of coral and sea life can be witnessed from above by snorkeling. The most famous dive and snorkel sites are Tiran and Ras Mohamed National Park (where you can overnight at Bedouin-style glamping), but Sharm El-Sheikh also has vivid and vibrant coral along much of the coastline, making for especially easy access. The best shore dive/snorkel spot in town is off El Fanar, a small beach with a collection of restaurants and cafes (think swings, salsa music, and heavily-pillowed waterfront lounges) that turn into karaoke bars, hookah hideaways, and concert venues at night.
A quick note about the food in Sharm: While the ultra-luxurious hotels will have very good food (the Movenpick has the best Indian restaurant in town), the budget and mid-range hotels have fairly bland, repetitive food that tends toward the Continental and Western-style fair that Russian and European tourists apparently enjoy. The main boardwalk through Sharm’s Na’ama Bay area is lined with lovely hotels (some being quite affordable) and adorable restaurants overlooking the water but most of them aren’t that good. For great food, head to the Old Market area downtown, which also has a spectacular mosque and decent souvenir shopping. The best food can be found at affordable restaurants that locals frequent, like Abu Ali (falafel, baba ganoush, hummus, etc.) and Fares (seafood).
During my first visit to Sinai, I spent most time in Dahab, a seaside city with a relaxed, Bohemian vibe so I was thrilled to return last month. If Sinai is Europe’s Yucatan-like escape (which it basically is, as the Dutch, Brits, Spanish, and Germans flock here in droves for beaches, swimming, scuba diving, and wild parties), Dahab would be Tulum. Sure, it’s gotten a lot more popular over the years, but it still has a sort of flowy, hippie, yoga vibe and it’s a whole lot cheaper than Tulum.
Since Dahab is only an hour from Sharm, you could easily base yourself in one and catch a cab or the Go Bus to the other for a daytrip. If you have the time, both cities are worth a few days on their own. Dahab has one of the top-rated dive sites in the world, the Blue Hole, and, like Sharm, you can also go paddle boarding, kayaking, and snorkeling but, unlike Sharm, you can walk everywhere. You’ll also find the usual mix of Egyptian eateries and souvenir shops in town, along with some unexpected spots like the vegan chic bistro, The Vegan Lab, and the Mexican restaurant, Jackie’s, which doubles as a salsa dancing disco at night.
About 80 percent of tourists in Sinai come from Russia or Ukraine so tourism has dropped precipitously since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Foreign insurance providers refused to issue insurance to Russian airlines (meaning planes would be seized if they left Russia), so even if Russians and Ukrainians wish to visit, there’s far fewer airplanes to take them there. For the past few months, beaches and hotels have been relatively empty so now is an especially good time to take advantage of small crowds while also supporting a tourism industry that was already struggling to bounce back after COVID.
Even when Russian tourism does bounce back—and it will, hopefully soon—you can still find much smaller crowds (and much more bearable weather) in Sinai in the winter. My first visit here was in winter and while it sometimes was too chilly to swim, the seaside restaurants were still charming, the beach was perfect for relaxing, and the scuba diving was superb.
Every time I visit Egypt—or anywhere in the Middle East, really—I’m asked if I have felt safe and yes, I have. Given the level of violence in the U.S. in recent years (and weeks), I’m not convinced that Egypt is more dangerous than my own country. What is immediately clear, however, is that Egypt has enacted far more security measures to keep people safe in their country. Local taxis in Sharm have large numbers on them so that if anyone (traveler or local) has a problem in the taxi, they just report it to the tourist police, who are able to check surveillance videos to determine the taxi (and driver) in question.
Hotels have metal detectors and security staff posted at their entrances and all vehicles traveling between cities are stopped at numerous checkpoints. Drivers must show identification, tour company information is recorded, and some checkpoints even require the entire vehicle to pass through a large scanner. Do these security measures slow down the journey? Slightly, but not much, and frankly, they are one of the reasons I’ve felt extremely safe during several trips through the region.
Sharm El-Sheikh is actually known as the “City of Peace” due to its abundance of peace-focused conferences and the ease with which the area keeps the peace during these large international gatherings. In 2008, the city hosted over 150 world leaders at a peace talk, it began hosting the annual World Youth Conference in 2017, and this November, the city will host the World Climate Summit. In order to maintain order and security during these high-profile events, security forces in and around Sharm El-Sheikh have the ability to pause all flights and closely monitor, control, or completely close off all road checkpoints in the region.
Whether you’re looking for sandy beaches, world-class scuba diving, or all-night parties that are far more budget-friendly than anything you’ll find in Miami or Los Angeles, the Sinai Peninsula has it in droves. The Egyptian pound is also suffering right now so U.S. dollars will stretch pretty far (I was able to splurge on several hotel upgrades without breaking the bank) but it’s extremely important to tip very generously during your trip. Tourism workers are relying on tips now more than ever and if we can afford to fly all the way to Egypt, we can afford to give a few extra bucks to everyone who helps make our vacation special.
Would I recommend flying halfway across the world just to go to Sinai? No, I wouldn’t. Sure, it’s a delightful destination but if you just want fun, sun, and surf, you can go to Mexico a whole lot easier. However, given there’s daily direct flights to Sharm El-Sheikh out of Cairo (and connections on to Luxor and Aswan), it’s a great way to round out a longer trip to Egypt.