A hybrid city dubbed the "Capital of Memory" by Durrell, ALEXANDRIA (El-Iskandariya in Arabic) turns its back on the rest of Egypt and faces the Mediterranean, as if contemplating its glorious past. One of the great cities of antiquity, Alex slumbered for 1300 years until it was revived by Mohammed Ali and transformed by Europeans, who gave the city its present shape and made it synonymous with cosmopolitanism and decadence. This era came to an end in the 1950s with the mass flight of non-Egyptians and a short-lived dose of revolutionary puritanism, but Alexandria's beaches, restaurants and breezy climate still attract hordes of Cairenes during the summer, while its jaded historical and literary mystique remains appealing to foreigners.
Alex encourages nostalgia trips and random exploration, if only because the "sights" are limited and chance incidents often more revealing. Don't be afraid of following your nose and deviating from the usual itineraries, which could be completed in a day or so if you focus on the city's monumental highlights. The Roman Theatre and Villa of Birds at Kom el-Dikka and the spooky Catacombs of Kom es-Shoqafa are musts, as is the city's magnificent new library and Alexandria National Museum, exhibiting statues and other artefacts dredged from ancient cities on the seabed. If you also want to savour the ambience and literary mystique of the former European and "native" quarters, allow two or three days.