When exploring Ancient Egypt, most people stick to an itinerary that includes Cairo & the Giza Pyramids before heading down to explore the sites along the Nile between Luxor and Aswan. But many people overlook some of the oldest, and most interesting ancient sites in all of Egypt: Dahshur, Memphis, & Saqqara.
Dahshur is home to the Bent and Red Pyramids, two of the earliest pyramids that King Sneferu built to set the blueprints for the Great Pyramids. Memphis was the first capital of Ancient Egypt in the Old Kingdom. And Saqqara is a treasure trove of ancient sites from the Old Kingdom, from elaborately designed mastabas to the first pyramid, Djoser’s Step Pyramid.
Located less than an hour from the capital city (depending on traffic), seeing these three locations makes for a great day trip from Cairo. Getting an early start will give you more time to explore at your own pace, but all three sites are close to each other and can easily be seen in one day.
My friend and I got a late start the day our flights landed (didn’t leave until 12pm noon) but we still managed to see all three sites before they started kicking us out of Saqqara around 4:30pm. I wouldn’t suggest leaving that late, as we had to rush a bit and could’ve used the extra time, but a full day seeing these sites is more than enough to have a memorable day trip in Egypt.
As most places in Egypt, I would highly suggest going with a guide or tour group. If you are on a group tour and they include these sites, that is ideal. My tour group did not include these sites, so when my friend and I arrived in Cairo early in the morning on our first day with nothing planned, we wanted to try and squeeze in these sites before our itinerary started the following day.
We booked a local guide through Airbnb Experiences and had a private tour of the sites, with a local guide and driver. It was an ideal experience and believe me, you don’t want to be driving in Cairo. We expressed that we wanted to see Dahshur, Memphis, and Saqqara, and the guide didn’t believe we had enough time since we got such a late start - but we made it happen.
These tours are not expensive so it is worth getting a guide and driver, as you want someone showing you these sites and learning the history, while also navigating through chaotic Cairo. Some of the roads and entrances to these sites were even a bit hairy, so we were glad we had local guides handling all of that for us so we could enjoy the experience.
As you drive into Dahshur, some of the best ancient ruins from Egypt’s Old Kingdom are on full display. Two giant pyramids jut out from the flat, sandy landscape in the distance. As you approach, you will start to see what looks like a (slightly) smaller version of the great pyramids, known as the Red Pyramid. Continue past that and arrive first to the earlier Bent Pyramid.
The Bent Pyramid was constructed by King Sneferu in 2600 BCE. It is believed that the steepness of the initial angle builders were creating for the pyramid was not sustainable, so the degree of the angle had to be adjusted to finish the pyramid. King Sneferu wanted another chance to create a flawless pyramid, so builders quickly finished the Bent Pyramid so they could move onto what is now known as the Red Pyramid.
The Red Pyramid is a thing of beauty, created in almost as perfect form as the Great Pyramids and serving as a blueprint for the ancient wonders. The construction of the pyramid began under King Sneferu in 2590 BCE. It is the third tallest pyramid, only behind the two Great Pyramids of Giza, standing 344 feet tall.
You can go inside both the Bent and the Red Pyramid. Our guide suggested we go inside the Red Pyramid as it has more interesting chambers and is less physically demanding. He said that if we went inside the Bent Pyramid, we would be sore for days and it would be a struggle to reach the bottom and come back up. As two pretty in shape men in our early 30s, my friend and I decided to take his advice and go inside the Red Pyramid, and both our legs were extremely sore for about 3 days after this quick venture into the pyramid.
Going inside the Red Pyramid was an incredible thrill that I highly recommend doing if you have the chance and are up for the challenge. It’s a steep incline down into what was believed to be King Sneferu’s burial chamber. You will be crouched down as you journey all the way down on a severe decline - and will do the same coming back up. Although a relatively short distance, it’s physically demanding and not for everyone - especially if you are claustrophobic.
Once inside, it was a very mysterious vibe as it was damp, quiet, and peaceful. We were the only people inside the entire tomb. It also smelled strongly of urine, which is from the bats that inhabit the tomb. There are no hieroglyphs or artwork on the walls anywhere, but going inside the Red Pyramid was one of the Most Unforgettable Things to do in Egypt.
Memphis was the first capital of Ancient Egypt and unified the kingdom between upper and lower Egypt. Some of the oldest ruins in Egypt are found here and around the Memphis area. Little is left today as the area is mostly comprised of an open air museum showcasing ancient statues.
The highlight is no doubt the colossal 30-foot limestone statue of Ramses II on display. The statue rests on its back in a little museum so visitors can get an up close and personal view. The statue was discovered in 1820 by Italian archeologist Giovanni Caviglia. It was found face down, which helped preserve the detail of the statue. A visit to Memphis should take about 30-45 minutes.
The ancient necropolis of Saqqara has some of the best ancient sites around Cairo, and archeologists are still unearthing new finds there every day. Saqqara served as the burial grounds for the royalty of the nearby Old Kingdom capital Memphis.
The stand out structure in Saqqara is the world’s earliest known stone building complex, Djoser’s Step Pyramid. Pre-dating both the Bent and Red Pyramids (and the Great Pyramids), King Djoser’s pyramid was believed to be built starting in 2670 BCE. You can go inside this pyramid as well, but it was under construction and not able to be entered when I was visiting.
Other Saqqara highlights include the funerary complex of Djoser and a plethora of ancient mastabas you can enter. The Mastaba of Mereruka is a stand out tomb to visit, with plenty of color and interesting hieroglyphs. If you are looking to visit one of the mastabas, I would suggest paying the extra fee and grabbing a ticket to go inside here. This is what our guide suggested and it did not disappoint. We entered another mastaba that was included with the entry ticket but it did not compare to what we saw in Mereruka’s mastaba.
If you are the least bit interested in the history of Ancient Egypt, definitely book yourself a day trip visit from Cairo to go explore Saqqara, Memphis, and the pyramids at Dahshur.