Most people only come to St. Catherine to visit the monastery and/or climb Mount Moses (aka Mount Sinai). If you have time though, I highly recommend you stay longer. The surrounding area is one of the most impressive in the world. There is a reason it’s such an important area for Christians, Muslims, and Jews alike. It can’t be described, you have to feel it.
By the way: Saint Catherine is not really a city but an area in Sinai. As of 2004, it is a National Protectorate and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The “town of St. Catherine” is called Al-Milga, a small Bedouin settlement a few kilometers from the famous monastery.
With this article, I want to give you an introduction to St. Catherine. I will talk about safety, list a couple of things to do (including but not only tips for visiting the monastery and hiking Mt. Moses), tell you about a few other hikes, where to stay and where and what to eat, the best time to visit as well as what things you should pack for St. Catherine.
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Is Saint Catherine in Sinai Safe To Visit?
In short: YES.
Most people think that St. Catherine, and Sinai in general, is a dangerous place because the media doesn’t distinguish between North and South Sinai. All tourist destinations are located in the south of Sinai and are not more dangerous than most other parts of the world. In the very northern part of Sinai, there are unrests from time to time, but you wouldn’t even be allowed to enter that area.
Don’t be scared or put off by the many checkpoints all over Sinai. The government is trying to make Sinai as safe as can be, and while military and guns seem intimidating at first, you have nothing to worry about. Just keep your passport handy at all times.
Also, the Bedouins in Saint Catherine are securing the area by themselves, so don’t be surprised if locals stop you to ask a few questions about where you’re staying and so on. They’re adding an extra layer of security and vetting people themselves to make sure they don’t miss any suspicious activity.
As soon as you arrive, you will feel the special energy in St. Catherine and the Sinai desert in general. It is absolutely magical. You immediately start to feel a sense of calmness and peace. The media portrays Sinai as a dangerous place, but I can assure you that there are few places in the world where you feel as peaceful as here, certainly no other region in the Middle East can compare. All the different religions actually live together in peace here, even though Egypt is predominantly a Muslim country.
I’m pretty sure you will feel right at home and perfectly safe and sound, at least the big majority of people do. I came as a tourist and am still here 3 years later, just like many other expats, and I feel safer here than in any city in Germany or Europe, where I come from. Please, don’t let the media scare you from coming to Sinai and St. Catherine.
I posted Instagram stories live on my account the whole time I was in St. Catherine. If you want to have a look you can find it under my highlights “Sinai Desert”.
St. Catherine Monastery
The Greek Orthodox monastery is actually called “The Holy Monastery of the God-trodden Mount Sinai” and located at the very place where God appeared to Moses in the Burning Bush, beneath the Mount of the Decalogue.
This iconic monastery, dating back to the 6th century, is one of the oldest in the world, established by the Eastern Roman emperor Justinian the Great. I will not go into more detail about the history of the monastery as it’s been described countless times. This is the official website of the Sinai Monastery that covers everything you should know.
St. Catherine Monastery Entrance Fees
There is no entrance fee for the monastery, it is completely free. If you want to visit the museum with all its artifacts, however, it costs 80 LE for foreigners, 40 LE for Russian & Roman Orthodox, and 10 LE for Egyptians.
Note: It’s not allowed to take photos!
St. Catherine Monastery Opening Hours
As a rule, the Holy Monastery is closed on Sundays, as well as during the important feast days of the Greek Orthodox Church. All the other days, the Holy Monastery is open between 9 am and 11:30 noon, except for Fridays, when opening hours are from 10:45 am to 11:30 am. Opening Hours of the book shop: 07:30 am – 12:00 noon; 05:30 – 07:00 pm
Holidays in 2019:
INSIDER TIP: To escape the worst crowds, try to visit during the last half hour of opening time, usually around 11 am. Most of the tour groups go directly to the Church of the Transfiguration, so it would be wise for you (if you happen to enter at the same time as a big group) to start your tour with a visit to the Sacred Sacristy.
What To Wear To Visit St. Catherine Monastery
To enter the monastery, you will need to have your upper arms and knees covered. Shorts, short skirts, and sleeveless tops are not accepted, neither for males nor for females. This clothing rule is not only recommended out of respect but strictly enforced, so cover up if you want to get inside.
Best Hikes in St. Catherine
The High Mountain Region is home to the Jabaleya Bedouin and located around the town of St. Catherine. The town itself lies at around 1600 meters from sea level, and many of the mountains around it are above 2000 meters. Mt. Katherine with its 2642 high peak is the tallest. The larger area is little known to most Westerners and a unique, captivating paradise for nature lovers and hikers.
Here is a map of the points of interest, mostly summits and valleys. To read the map, you should know that Gebel means mountain (also Gabal or Jabal), and Wadi means valley.
Mount Sinai (a.k.a. Mount Moses) – Jebel Musa
Mount Moses is the most famous of all of the mountains in Sinai, and I’m sure you’ve heard about its significance [if not, Google is your friend ;)]. I will not go into detail about the history etc. but give some practical advice instead. I’m using the words Mount Moses and Mount Sinai interchangeably here, they’re the same. The locals call it Jebel Musa.
Organized tours (mostly from Dahab and Sharm El-Sheik) climb Mount Sinai in the pre-dawn hours to view the sunrise from the summit, so did I. It gets really crowded up there! Climbing late in the afternoon to see the sunset is a much quieter, more tranquil experience, has two downsides though.
In summer, it can be pretty hot for such an intense hike in the sun, and you’ll be descending in the dark, which can be a bit tricky because it’s rocky terrain.
If you’re not coming as part of a group, you can simply go to the monastery and hire a guide from the entrance. This way you can go as fast or as slow as you want. Especially for photographers, older people or anyone with “special needs”, this is the best option.
Very Important: One thing I really want to ask everyone doing this adventure, from the bottom of my heart: Tip your Bedouin guide very generously!!! They only get a fixed price of 250 LE (May 2019: about 12€) for a whole night of extreme physical work and responsibility for you. The government sets the price, and since most people book a fully organized tour from Dahab or Sharm, they don’t even know how much the guides earn.
It’s an absolutely ridiculous amount of money for this type of work and for the cost of living in Egypt, which is rising and rising after the devaluation of the currency. So, please, support the local community and tip them as much as you can.
They’re also incredibly kind people and as soon as they see you struggling just a tiny bit, they offer to carry your backpack or give you their jacket if you’re cold. They’ll do whatever they can to make the hike as easy as possible for you.
This tip is part of my detailed guide to climbing Mount Sinai. If you plan on doing the hike, I highly recommend you read it. There’s a lot of things I wish I had known before that will be super helpful for you to plan your Mount Sinai hike!
More amazing hikes around St. Catherine:
There are countless opportunities for incredible hikes in this protected area. It always depends on the time of year and your physical condition. I recommend talking to your Bedouin guide. Tell them what sort of hikes you like to do, how fit you are, what you’d like to see and let them recommend a trip. Here are two other beautiful hiking destinations:
Mount St. Catherine
Gebel Katharina (Remember? Gebel means mountain!) is the highest mountain in Egypt at 2642 meters. There’s a small Orthodox chapel on the summit. Mount Moses lies below, and the views onto it and the whole high mountain area are stunning. The most common routes to the peak are from either Wadi el Arbain or from Wadi Shagg. You will have to do about one hour of walking to the monastery of the 40 martyrs and then do a 4-hour climb to the summit.
This is quite an easy hike easily reached from town. It’s about 3 km each way and the difference in altitude you have to overcome is just about 60 meters. You pass beautiful gardens and an ancient monastery in Wadi Talla, which connects higher and lower wadis.
After these 3 kilometers, you reach a perfect spot to relax, have some tea and Bedouin food. The water at this spring is incredibly cold and refreshing, absolutely perfect for an extended break.
These are some more well-known hiking spots around St. Catherine, but I haven’t done them personally so I can’t share more information and photos, unfortunately. Ask the locals for advice 🙂
- Wadi Jebal
- Wadi Arbe’in
- Bab Donya
- Wadi Feiran
- Gabal Abass
- Gabal El-Ahmar
If you’re really up for a challenge, you can hike the Sinai Trail. This is Egypt’s first ever long-distance hiking trail and it was founded in 2014. It’s a 220 km long route that takes 12 days to complete and involves three Bedouin tribes.
Things To Do In Saint Catherine
Visit Dr. Ahmed Saleh
Without a doubt, you absolutely have to visit Dr. Ahmed when you’re in St. Catherine. He is respected traditional herbalist and healer, well known all over Egypt. Not only is his knowledge about all Sinai-local herbs extensive and impressive, but he has a unique capability of diagnosing you and immediately spotting “what’s wrong with you”.
I was absolutely blown away, within a minute of only looking at me, he knew very intimate things that nobody else knew. Not just physical problems I had, but about what’s going on in my mind. His diagnose was that my hormones are out of balance and that this causes most of my issues, physical and mental. He prescribed a tea for 40 days and asked me to check in with him and let him know how I feel after 10 days, which I did. I was more balanced and calm already. For all of this, he only charged me 100 LE (5€).
When I went back to Germany for a visit home, I immediately had all my hormone levels tested to see if he was right. And he was completely right. My thyroid is not functioning properly and my cortisol (stress) hormones are so bad it’s close to a burnout and I absolutely have to do something about it. I had no idea, and I’m so grateful I went to see him and found this out!
Do some souvenir shopping
Shopping in St. Catherine doesn’t mean malls and expensive consumer goods, I think you’ve figured out that much already. Capitalism couldn’t be farther away from this magical place, so your shopping here will consist of locally grown plants and foods.
Dr. Ahmed Saleh has a lot of great tea and herb mixes which are not only an amazing “souvenir” for yourself but also to bring for your friends and family. I mean, who can say they got traditional herbs specifically for their health issues from the holy region of St. Catherine?
For traditional and stunning local handicrafts, visit FanSina. Ms. Selema Gabaly, a Bedouin woman from St. Catherine, has trained more than 400 women to craft beautiful embroidered products based on traditional Jabaleya designs. The company is now an important source of income for Bedouin families all over South Sinai. It’s a unique and important engine of women’s economic empowerment in tribal society.
Other things you can buy in amazing, organic quality are almonds, honey, and olive oil. From the monastery, you can buy some rocks, e.g. with fossils on them.
Instead of hiking, you can always take a camel. Especially a camel safari that lasts a few days is an incredible experience. The “ships of the desert” are fascinating animals and you can’t really leave Egypt before you’ve done that. I’m usually against using animals for human pleasure or entertainment, but the camels are treated fine here, not like at the pyramids or other tourist attractions.
With almost zero light pollution, the night skies in the desert are nothing short of mindblowing. You don’t even have to climb any of the summits, the stars you see from town are already plenty.
Have Bedouin dinner in the desert
Bedouin food is simple but tasty, especially when it’s cooked on a fire in the desert surroundings. It usually consists of salad, rice, potatoes or veggies, tahina or baba ganoush, and chicken or fish. The traditional Bedouin bread could easily be the tastiest bread in the whole world.
Pet the stray animals.
Sinai wouldn’t be the same without its cats and dogs. They’re friendly and won’t hurt you. Quite the opposite actually, they love to cuddle!
Enjoy not caring about make-up, clothes, the latest trends, Instagram and anything that seems so important in your everyday life. Put on some harem pants and embrace your dirty feet, re-connect with nature and give your busy brain a chance to relax.
Talk to the Bedouins.
Everyone in St. Catherine (and Sinai in general) is incredibly welcoming and nice. It’s worth getting to know them and their stories. Many of them struggle with problems we never even thought about, yet they are always smiling.
Go Trad Climbing in the High Mountains
South Sinai and the area of St. Catherine offers crack climbing at its best, the possibilities are endless. There are more than 200m routes and unclimbed lines almost everywhere you look.
It’s not just a great area for trad climbing but also for bouldering, with stunning blocs and loads of highballs in a unique desert setting.
Learn some Arabic
The friendly Bedouins will teach you a bit if you show interest. Many of them have very little “traditional schooling” experience, yet they speak several languages and are incredibly wise.
Have Bedouin Tea
You’ll have Bedouin Tea every day and with everyone anyways. No chance you’ll get around it. Share it over a campfire and exchange stories. The beautiful thing here is, you won’t feel like a tourist, but like a welcomed guest.
Have a shisha
Wind down from a day of hiking, exploring and sun by smoking a delicious shisha. There will always be people to hang out with and share.
You will be hungry from all the adventures you get to experience in St. Catherine, so why not go to Ziko’s restaurant and try as many traditional Egyptian foods as you can! He has lots of them on his menu, and he cooks them authentically! His falafels are to die for!
Yes, that’s right! One of the best things you can do in Sinai is ABSOLUTELY NOTHING! It’s the perfect place to forget about work, home, stress and problems.
Best Time To Visit St. Catherine
Sinai is a hot desert climate zone, with very little rain and warm to hot temperatures throughout the year. Higher regions such as St. Catherine (1600 meters) receive 4-10x more precipitation than the rest of Sinai.
Winter in St. Catherine
Winter can be really cold, often below 0 ºC and you might even see snow. How crazy is that, going to a desert and seeing snow? Definitely a once-in-a-lifetime experience and an incredible photo opportunity! On high peaks, such as Mount Sinai, you will face extreme cold and snow is the norm. Come prepared! During the day though, the sun usually keeps you warm, even in winter.
Spring & Autumn in St. Catherine
For me personally, spring and autumn are the best times to visit Sinai. It’s not too hot and not too cold. Spring is a fascinating time in the desert, as all the trees, plants and flowers in the desert start to blossom and turn it into a green scenery you would never expect to see in a place like this.
Summer in St. Catherine
Thanks to the high altitude, it doesn’t get much warmer than 30°C in summer, which makes Saint Catherine a perfect escape from the hot beach towns such as Dahab and Sharm El-Sheikh, or even Cairo. You will need a jacket or warm sweater at night when you hike up the mountains as it can also get pretty windy up there. Trees and fruits had time to grow and you get to taste some fresh delicacies. It’s also hot enough to dip your toes or even swim in water springs.
Where To Stay in St. Catherine – Hotels & Camps
As I mentioned before, I highly recommend staying in St. Catherine for a few nights instead of only doing a tour to visit the monastery or hike Mount Moses. To experience the serene beauty of the mountains after the tourist hustle has disappeared, you have the option to either stay at the monastery itself or in Al-Milga, the “town of St. Catherine” a couple of kilometers from the monastery itself.
St. Catherine Monastery Guest House
There is a Guest House just below the monastery that offers single or double occupancy rooms, with a few rooms for higher occupancy. All rooms have private facilities. You cannot book a room through any of the major hotel booking sites but here are some reviews and photos. The telephone number of the Guest House for reservations is +20 69 3470 353.
Masoudi Lodge is where I stayed at and where I’ll go from now on when I visit St. Catherine. I like the location, it’s a bit elevated and the surroundings are beautiful. The rooms are simple but have everything you need, including hot water. You will spend most of your time outside anyway, and they have plenty of nice sitting areas, in the shade as well as under the sun, plus a fireplace. You can park your car in a spot protected from the sun as well. As always in Egypt, the staff is really friendly and speaks several languages.
Rooms are 250 LE per night. They have a private bathroom en-suite and two beds, either single or double. Free WiFi.
This is the most known camp in St. Catherine. I haven’t stayed here, so I can’t say much about it, but I guess it’s similar to Masoudi Lodge.
Sheikh Mousa Bedouin Camp
A traditional Bedouin-style guesthouse just like the ones mentioned before. It has room for 64 people and space for camping.
Daniela Village St. Catherine
This is a bit more upscale, a two-star hotel. They have 74 air-conditioned double rooms with en-suite bathrooms which they call bungalows.
Morgenland is a more expensive, 3-star hotel 5 kilometers before the town. It has its own huge private pool, restaurant, bar and souvenir shop. The views from the 230 double rooms are amazing, and you’ll have your own fridge and sometimes a bath-tub. If you need comfort and are willing to sacrifice the more authentic, local experience, this place is for you.
Where To Eat in Saint Catherine – Restaurants
There are basically only two restaurants in St. Catherine (well, actually it’s Al-Milga, the town close to St. Catherine). Everyone recommended us to go to Cleopatra, they said it’s cleaner and tastes well.
We tried, and honestly, I didn’t like the food, my friends thought it was okay. You basically get a set, typical Egyptian menu – rice, bread, tahina, and salad. My vegetarian addition was potatoes cooked in tomatoes, also very traditional, and my friends had chicken. There might be another meat option, but that’s about it.
When we discovered Ziko’s restaurant opposite of the mosque, we were much more delighted. Admittedly, it’s not the cleanest place, very local, but none of us got sick whatsoever. Mr. Ziko is like the Egyptian version of an old Italian grandpa in love with cooking and life in general, an absolute delight, and he makes the place what it is.
He has a huge menu and offers everything from traditional Egyptian food (check out my guide on traditional Egyptian food here) to international dishes like pancakes and of course fresh juices. It’s incredibly cheap and he’s a really good chef!
Packing List For St. Catherine
- Thermo clothes and hiking boots
- Torch for hiking at night
- Sunscreen (even in winter), sunglasses, hat or scarf
- Reusable water bottle (the spring water is drinkable)
- Sleeping bag and mat (if you want to sleep outside under the stars or do some yoga)
- Camera (countless stunning photo opportunities
- A good book for a chill day (I read on Kindle to save space)
How To Get To St. Catherine
Getting From Dahab To St. Catherine
There are no buses going from Dahab to Catherine. You could get a taxi (prices are changing every few weeks to months so I can’t give you an exact amount), which takes around two hours. Or you can join one of the many organized tours that go to St. Catherine to do the Mt. Moses sunrise hike. This is a cheaper option, but they all leave late in the evening.
Getting From Sharm El-Sheikh To Mount Sinai / St. Catherine
The same that goes for Dahab applies to leaving from Sharm El-Sheikh as well. You either take a taxi or join one of the group trips. The trip from Sharm is 230 km long and closer to 3 hours. Since Sharm is bigger than Dahab, you might find a group that goes for the sunset hike so you could go earlier in the day. Ask around. If you want to book the tour ahead of time, you could join this Mount Sinai tour and simply stay in St. Catherine after your group leaves.
Getting From Nuweiba To St. Catherine
There’s only one East Delta bus per day that goes directly from Nuweibaa to Saint Catherine. It leaves at 6:00 pm and arrives around 7:30 pm. You depart from the East Delta Bus Station near the port of Nuweiba. Alternatively, you can always take a taxi for the 120km from Nuweiba to Saint Catherine.
Getting From Cairo To St. Catherine
In order to get from Cairo to Catherine, you can either fly to Sharm or go by bus. There are two East Delta buses that run daily. They leave from El-Torgoman and Almazah Station.
You can book your ticket at the station (I recommend you go a day early to buy it, or at least a few hours, especially during weekends and holiday seasons), or on their website.
Tickets can be booked from both stations or online through this website. Tickets cost around 100-150 LE one-way. I recommend you bring a sweater on the bus as they usually crank up the AC big-time. Also, you will stop at many checkpoints and be asked to leave the bus and show your luggage at Suez Canal. It’s a pretty exhausting trip, but you’ll be in the best place you could be to relax after – Sinai restores energy and mood immediately 🙂
From El-Torgoman the buses leave at 9:30 am and 11:30 am from 1 El-Adaweya, Boulaq Num.3, Boulaq. The same busses get to Almazah (ميدان الماظة، Almazah, Heliopolis) around 10:15 am and 12:15 pm.
Your expected arrival is around 7:30 pm, but don’t trust that for a second. You’re in Egypt. Take it as it comes and relax. Patience is the number one lesson you will learn in this country 😉 There’s a lot of reasons to love Egypt though!
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By the way, Sinai is completely different from Wadi Rum and Petra in Jordan. Though the landscapes are similar, the Bedouins are not the same at all. I’ve written about my experience as a solo female traveler in Petra here, and if you ever plan to visit it’s a must-read because it can get quite dangerous. Rest assured though that nothing like this is happening in Sinai, far from it.