The desert and its oases
Getting to the oases is straightforward these days: There are good roads and plenty of public transportation that costs next to nothing compared with Western price levels.
Egyptian oases correspond fairly with the Hollywood/Disney-like image of an oasis, where sand dunes suddenly turn into lush palm groves with a fresh-water pond in the middle. Some of the oases have blurred borders, where the gardens and settlements in the outskirts are poor and ugly. Other oasis begin almost suddenly after you climb down into the bowl where water is naturally pumped up from the ground, and agriculture is possible.
And that is very much the true reason for the existence of Egypt's oases. Water is pressed up from underground water reservoirs, water which can be distributed through canals to allow extensive agriculture. In modern times, gazoline driven pumps are used for reservoirs without sufficient pressure.
Until a few decades ago, before the roads were built, the oases were quite isolated from the rest of the world. Most of the inhabitants never left the oasis through their entire lives. Culture, lifestylese, clothes and even language could be unique from oasis to oasis. Much of this diversity is disappearing these days, but still there is plenty left to intrigue visitors. Tourism has had a positive impact on the oases; the inhabitants have been taught that they possess something unique, so valuable that people from the other side of the world come to discover it.
So which are the best oases to visit, for anyone with limited time?. Here is my ranking, just remember that every oasis has its own attractions, so many other travellers would make a very different ranking.
Dakhla is the best to visit because it offers the best preserved architecture of all of Egypts' oases. In some villages, people still live almost like the way their ancestors did. Also there is a selection of fine oasis gardens, and a pharaonic temple makes you realize how deep the history of the oases really is.
Siwa ranks high because of charm, beautiful oasis gardens, bathing possibilities and pharaonic temples too. What Siwa lacks is well-preserved traditional quarters. The Shali (attractive enough!) is too ruined to give a true image of old times.
Fayoum ranks high because of the fabulous oasis gardens, the surreal lake and the many pharaonic monuments. The drawback, is that it really doesn't feel like an oasis, travelling from the Nile or Cairo, you will not pass through any desert.
Farafra offers fewer sights than the other oases, it is still highly recommended because of charm and great bathing possibilities. The gardens are nice and there are some remaining traditional houses too.
Paris is its name, although some render it Baris. Few venture out here, but Paris is interesting. There are some traditional quarters, inhabited both by goats and humans, and fine gardens.
Kharga is as oases go far from the best. The modern city owes almost nothing to the past, and the gardens are a bit difficult to access. Yet, Kharga has its attractions, with more historical monuments than any of the other oases.
Qara is the smallest of all inhabited oases, and also the least touched by modern times.
Bahariya offers the least attractive village of all the oases, and the oasis gardens are not among the fines. But hotels are good, it is easy to reach from Cairo (you will pass through much desert) and it is the best starting point for the Black and White deserts.
Discovering the desert is a bit more difficult, most people only have this experience travelling between the oases. And then the area between Bahariya and Farafra is the most popular, as it boasts the Black and White Deserts.
If you are into true excursions into the desert, the easiest and cheapest will be the crossing between Bahariya and Siwa. Or to travel up to Qara Oasis.
And if you are one of the many who were fascinated by the movie The English Patient, Gilf Kebir should be your destination. This is only visited by organized 4WD trips, and you order the trip from back home. Use your favourite search engine to find offers from or near your own country.