The Sinai Peninsula, often shortened to Sinai (Arabic: سيناء sīnā' ; Hebrew: סיני) is the easternmost part of Egypt between the Mediterranean and the Gulfs of Suez and Aqaba, both forks of the Red Sea. The western coast and the northern coast outside of Arish are practically uninhabited, but several Bedouin settlements and tourist attractions dot the eastern coast.
Above ground is a harsh, forbidding and (in summer) brutally hot desert of parched rock. The reason most tourists come here are the vistas underwater: the Sinai coast offers some of the best diving in the world. The region is also important because of its places of importance in the Abrahamic religions.
- Most visits are to the tourist strip along the east coast of Sinai, fronting onto the Gulf of Aqaba.
- 1 Sharm el-Sheikh is the main city and arrival point, with an international airport. It's a big tourist centre and often feels more like a theme park than Egypt. There's good diving a few miles offshore, in the Straits of Tiran to the east and at Ras Mohammed to the south. The city is in three sections: the historic port around Ras Um El Sid, the main development of Naama Bay, and the newer Nabq Bay north of the airport.
- 2 Dahab is a small mellow town, with shore diving including the famous Blue Hole. It's also a famous place for doing nothing, just watching the colours change over the sea and mountains.
- 3 Nuweiba is a port, with ferries taking pilgrims to Saudi Arabia, and tourists and trucks to Aqaba in Jordan. There's a straggle of beach camps and small (mostly unfinished) hotels along the highway.
- 4 Taba Heights is a purpose-built resort 20 km south of the border at Taba.
- 5 Taba is the border crossing to Eilat in Israel. The strip next to the border post is a duty-free zone with a couple of large resort hotels and a casino.
- Northwest of Sharm, 6 El Tur is the capital of South Sinai Governorate, and people used to have to come here for visa extensions. That can still be done, but since few tourists need visas and there are facilities at Sharm airport, there's little reason to visit. There are some scrappy remains of the Raithu Monastery, but otherwise the town's only claim to fame is as the place where the El-Tor strain of cholera was identified in 1905, in pilgrims returning from the Hajj.
- 7 Arish on the Mediterranean coast is actually a bigger city than Sharm, but it's off the map for Western visitors. In bygone times it was a resort; but it's close to Rafah on the border with Gaza, terrorist depredations and civil unrest have ruined the amenities, and western governments advise against all travel to this area.
- 1 Mount Sinai: several places are claimed as the Mount Sinai where Abrahamic scripture states that the prophet Moses received the Ten Commandments. It might as well be this one, near the Monastery of St. Catherine. However the area has been off-limits for tourists for several years.
- Ras Abu Galum about 12 km north of Dahab is a nature reserve.
- Coloured Canyon 15 km north of Nuweiba has vivid rock formations.
Traditionally a land of Bedouins, the Sinai has been part of Egypt since the 3rd millennium BCE, and is the only part of Egypt on the Asian continent. An arid land, it is famous for being the location of Mt. Sinai, where according to the Bible, Moses received the tablets of the 10 Commandments during the Jews' 40-year journey from Egypt to the Promised Land of Canaan. Saint Catherine's Monastery, built in the 6th century and still operating, commemorates this event.
In 1967, Israel invaded and took control over the entire peninsula. The Suez Canal, the east bank of which was controlled by Israel, was closed. In 1979 Israel and Egypt signed a peace treaty. Israel pulled out of Sinai in several stages, including the removal of its settlements which ended in 1982.
The tourist cities are built around previous Israeli settlements. While the original population are Bedouin, most of the staff and workers in this area come from Lower Egypt and especially the canal cities.
El Tur is the regional center of Southern Sinai, which includes Dahab, Nuweiba and Sharm. Al-Arish is the regional center of less visited Northern Sinai, close to Rafah and the border to the Gaza Strip.
While the Sinai can be very hot in the summertime, it can get quite cold in winter, especially in places with high elevations; for example, low temperatures on Mount Sinai average 2° Celsius in January and February.
As for all of Egypt, the spoken language of Sinai is Egyptian Arabic; the local Bedouin dialects can't be understood even by visiting Egyptians. But people in tourist areas are keen to speak whichever language will earn their next payment, so proficiency in English is widespread in the service sector. They've often also acquired Hebrew for the many Israeli vacationers, and Russian as these plus Ukrainians were the majority of Europeans during the 2010s slump.
Along the Sinai coastal resort strip, most visitors do not need a visa for trips up to 15 days. This strip extends from Sharm el-Sheikh through Dahab, Nuweiba, and Taba Heights to Taba on the border with Israel.
If you are staying longer, or travelling further, e.g. to Cairo or to inland Sinai, you need a visa. It is best to arrange this online, at least seven days in advance: see Egypt#Get_in. It may need to be multiple-entry if you intend a side trip out of Egypt, e.g. to Petra in Jordan. Otherwise you can get a visa on arrival at Sharm el-Sheikh airport or at Nuweiba sea port.
There are no visa facilities at the Taba land border. If you enter there without a visa and want to travel beyond the coastal strip, you will probably have to go to Sharm el-Sheikh airport for one. There are several checkpoints, so if you try to travel further into Egypt without a visa, you will soon be evicted from the bus.
Separate from the visa, those entering Egypt through Taba must pay ₪102 to exit Israel, and then LE400 to enter Egypt. There are exemptions within the duty-free border zone, see Taba for details of this and other border practicalities.
Sharm-el-Sheikh Airport (SSH IATA) is a major international airport with regular, year-round flights from Europe, UK, Russia and elsewhere. From 2015 to 2019 many flights were suspended following the terrorist downing of a plane shortly after take-off from Sharm. In 2020 these were resuming when travel was again blighted globally by coronavirus.
Ferries run regularly between Nuweiba and Taba Heights to Aqaba in Jordan, bypassing Israel and the tedious extra border arrangements. You need a visa to enter Jordan but can obtain this on arrival in Aqaba.
The ferry between Hurghada and Sharm el-Sheikh, axed in 2016, is expected to resume in 2020.
Whether you're going from the airport to your hotel, traveling from beach resort to beach resort, trekking up to St. Catherine's Monastery and Mount Sinai, or heading to Nuweiba to catch the ferry to Aqaba, Jordan, the trick to getting around in Sinai is to coordinate all ground transport through your hotel.
The east coast road is a good divided highway from Sharm el-Sheikh to Dahab. It's undivided but still in good condition north from Dahab up to the border at Taba, except a stretch around Nuweiba which in 2020 is being dualled and is rough. Traffic is light, but driven furiously.
If you're on any kind of reasonable budget, avoid at all costs the local taxis, whose prices are higher than Cairo taxis by a factor of around 10. However, it is possible to use the local taxis if you know the price in advance, and haggle a bit before going inside the car. LE10 should be considered the maximum payment for any taxi inside the cities (LE15 for Sharem).
St. Catherine to Dahab: Bedouin Bus runs a twice weekly bus service from St. Catherine to Dahab and back on Tuesday and Friday. Buses leave at 11AM from the parking next to the bakery (opposite the mosque) in St. Catherine and cost LE50 one way. The bus stops in Dahab at Hotel Jowhara (Mashraba street) and Marine Garden Camp (Lighthouse area) and returns to St. Catherine at 5PM from above mentioned stops.
By minibus to Nuweiba: Bedouin Bus runs a twice weekly bus service from St. Catherine to Nuweiba and back on Wednesday and Sunday. Buses leave at 8AM from the parking next to the bakery (opposite the mosque) in St. Catherine and cost LE50 one way. The bus stops at Nuweiba port and at the hospital in Nuweiba city and returns to St. Catherine at 2PM from the hospital and 2:30PM from Nuweiba port.
There are minibuses traveling to and from Cairo, which leave all day, as soon as they are full of passengers, from Sharm el-Sheikh and Dahab. In Sharm el-Sheikh, you can find these minibuses at the west end of the taxi parking lot in front of the strip mall in the center of town.
East Delta bus company: regular cheap full-sized coaches depart daily for points throughout the peninsula from bus stations in Sharm el-Sheikh and Dahab. Be sure to check schedules at the bus station, however, because the times are always changing and even hotels can get them wrong. In Sharm el-Sheikh, the East Delta bus station lies about 2 km outside of town on the road toward the airport and Dahab. Call the appropriate East Delta office ahead to check the timings & rates that concern you:
- Taba: 069 - 3530250
- Nuweiba: 069 - 3520371
- Dahab: 069 - 3641808
- Cairo: 02 - 23428589
- Desert landscapes: Sinai's mountains and desert are spectacular. Rugged mountains made up of different mineral layers, contrasting with golden sand and blue skies. Trees and lush oases provide a beautiful surprise. Recommended is Wadi Ulrada and the Coloured Canyon. But many more little gems including hot springs and pharonic ruins are also to be found.
- Sunrises and sunsets: Sun rises over the Saudi Arabian Mountains and the Red Sea are a beautiful sight. As are the sunsets from the Sinai Mountains over the Red Sea to Saudi Arabia - when the sea is calm on a clear day you will see the Red Sea become red!
- Mount Sinai has several beautiful shrines and ruins, including a synagogue, a mosque, a Greek Orthodox chapel, and the ancient Monastery of St. Catherine.
- Hikes and desert trips: there are many scenic trails in the mountains, but you need to be in an organised group, or at least have a local guide. All the resorts market day trips and overnight safaris. Best value will be through your hotel or dive centre, as they have the strongest motive to ensure you return happy.
- Underwater: The Red Sea has excellent snorkeling, freediving, and scuba diving for all levels of experience: it's a great place to learn. The reefs have colourful coral and marine life, while further out are shipwrecks such as Thistlegorm. All the resort towns have dive centres, which may be able to pick you up from outlying accommodation.
- Arab-style tea is a great pick-me-up any time of day.
- Alcohol is readily available along the coast strip. Beware crude Egyptian imitations of western brands of spirits, these are better used to treat fungal skin infections in goats.
- Sharm el-Sheikh is the main area for accommodation in all price brackets.
- Dahab has budget to mid-range places but nothing plush. North around Nuweiba are a string of budget beach camps.
- Taba Heights and Taba are aiming upmarket but have suffered from the prolonged travel slump in Sinai; you should get in for mid-range prices.
- No accommodation inland other than occasional safari overnight camps.
There are Salafist terrorist organizations that operate in the Sinai, so check on current conditions in any area you plan on visiting.
Also, be wary of the usual scams that a visitor might be subjected to in most places with high tourist traffic and a wide income disparity between tourists and locals. Taxis are a common source of complaints.
- Regular buses will take you to must-see Cairo and Giza. A further bus or train-ride brings you to raffish Alexandria.
- Hop on a ferry to Aqaba in Jordan to reach fabulous Petra.