Here’s how you can discover the best of ancient Egypt, from temples to tombs.
Tourism began to rebound in Egypt in a serious way in 2017, and by early 2019, the country’s tourist sights were buzzing once again with visitors (though the numbers have not yet hit their pre-2010 heights). But as more people are drawn to the country once again, they also discover that the key to a successful visit to Egypt really hinges on finding the right tour. You can do Egypt on your own (making arrangements is fairly straightforward), but you absolutely need to have a knowledgeable guide to get the most out of your visit. Egyptian religion is mind-bendingly complex, and the country’s history is long and complicated. Still, the best and most popular sights in the country are to be found right along the Nile, between Cairo and the southern tip of Lake Nasser. If you plan your time well, as on a Friendly Planet Egyptian highlights itinerary, you can see the top sights in 10 days, including travel time and a short Nile cruise. These are the highlights everyone should try to see.
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Abu Simbel Temples
WHERE: Abu Simbel, on the shore of Lake Nasser, about 140 miles southwest of Aswan
These temples were built by Pharaoh Ramesses II and dedicated to Amun, Ra-Horakhty (a manifestation of Ra as Horus … yes, it’s complicated), and Ptah (the god of wisdom, usually depicted as a man with green skin holding an ankh-topped staff). Ramesses ordered one temple for himself and another for his queen, Nefertari; they sit side-by-side on the border between Lower and Upper Nubia and were completed around 1244 BC. Known for their colossal statues of Ramesses overlooking the Nile (now Lake Nasser), the temples are a highlight on many trips to Egypt, though they are usually an optional excursion due to the cost of flights. Both temples have beautiful iconography that has endured for more than two thousand years. Ironically, all of this might have been lost in the mid-1960s, when the construction of the Aswan High Dam (and the resulting Lake Nasser) threatened to inundate the temple. An international cadre of experts dismantled the temples, brought them up a cliff, and reconstructed them a safe distance from the shore. Several Nubian temples were saved this way, but Abu Simbel is perhaps the most famous.
INSIDER TIP: You really have only two choices to visit Abu Simbel if you are on a tight schedule, and both take almost a full day. You can fly on an early-morning flight from Aswan, or you can drive. The former is faster but expensive, the latter much slower (the trip takes at least two hours by car) but cheaper. If you have more time, you can drive and spend the night in one of the hotels in Abu Simbel, or board a ship to do a cruise on Lake Nasser.
Aswan High Dam
WHERE: Just south of Aswan
The Egyptian government fiercely protects its second most important asset (after the Suez Canal), the primary source of the country’s drinking water. Built as a successor for the Old Dam, the Aswan High Dam‘s construction was ordered by Nasser in 1960. It was designed and financed by the Soviet Union and created Lake Nasser, the world’s largest manmade lake. Tours stop atop the dam for the view, which you have to concede is magnificent; it’s also a particularly impressive structure.
INSIDER TIPThere are no actual tours of the dam’s interior, so tours stop on top and will offer you a chance to walk around for a few minutes; unless you’re into the view (or dams), it may not hold much interest.
Hatshepsut ordered construction of a massive obelisk (the largest ever carved), but the granite cracked while it was being carved, so the obelisk sits unfinished and was never freed and raised. You might wonder why this has become such a tourist attraction. The main lesson to be learned here is how the ancient Egyptians managed to build such large monoliths without any iron tools. And a stop affords the opportunity to see an ancient granite quarry that fed monuments all over Egypt. After this final obelisk, the quarry itself was likely abandoned, having outlived its usefulness.
INSIDER TIPTo see the actual unfinished obelisk, you’ll need to do a bit of climbing. If it’s too hot, you might skip this one. There’s a short film in the visitor center that will give you a bit more background about the quarry and a pretty good selection of gift kiosks (albeit with aggressive vendors) as you exit.
Just south of Aswan, on the northern end of Lake Nasser, Philae Temple is devoted to Isis and was in use by Isis-worshippers until the 6th century AD, when Emperor Constantine outlawed the practice. The oldest parts of the temple date to the 25th Dynasty of the New Kingdom in approximately 690 BC, but subsequent rulers added sections for the next 400 years, up until Emperor Hadrian erected his self-named arch. It’s worth returning at night to see the Sound and Light show, which leads you through the temple. You’ll have to take a boat to get to the temple; if you have a guide, he or she will negotiate your fare, but if you’re on your own, then you’ll have to negotiate your own way over through the chaos of the boat harbor.
INSIDER TIPPhilae was saved from inundation by Lake Nasser, though it wasn’t moved until the 1970s since it was only submerged during parts of the year until the lake reached its full depth. You can still see the original island from where the temple was moved, though it is mostly submerged in the lake.
A Felucca Ride on the Nile
You can’t go to Egypt without sailing on the Nile, even if it’s for no more than an hour or two. Once in Aswan, it’s easy to find a Nubian crew offering tourists rides on a felucca, a traditional Nile sailing boat. Some of these trips include a lunch or dinner stop on Elephantine Island, where there are still traditional Nubian villages to visit, or Kitchener Island’s botanical garden. But it’s just pleasant to go up or down the river, especially at sunset when the temperatures aren’t quite so stifling. You’ll no doubt be serenaded with some Nubian songs during your sailing trip.
INSIDER TIPDon’t be surprised when Nubian-made carvings or jewelry are brought out for sale, but while you might be able to find some locally carved animals, most of the jewelry uses beads and “camel bone” that are made in China. But the necklaces and jewelry are at least assembled by local Nubian women.
Old Cataract Hotel
Agatha Christie wrote her novel Death on the Nile at a desk inside this hotel (you can see it in the library devoted to her). Even if you don’t want to afford the high nightly rates to stay in the older section of the hotel, anyone can stroll the grounds and have tea on the Nile-side terrace, a nice way to end an afternoon of sight-seeing. It oozes history in a good way, so if you can make your way in, it’s definitely worth the trouble.
If you aren’t into afternoon tea (for which you can make a reservation), you can always stop in and have a drink at the bar, but you have to be patient because non-guests are not exactly welcomed with open arms, and someone will have to be called to collect you at the security gate. There will be discussions and waits, not to mention a minimum.
Temple of Haroeris and Sobek at Kom Ombo
WHERE: Kom Ombo, between Luxor and Aswan
The Nile-side temple is devoted to the ever-popular Horus (here “Haroeris” or “Horus the Elder”) as well as the crocodile-headed Sobek, god of fertility and the Nile flood. It’s a rare dual temple that is symmetrical, with each side devoted to the worship of a different god. The oldest parts of the temple date to approximately 180 BC (the Ptolemaic Period) and are fairly well preserved, with parts having never been toppled. Because of that, you’ll see some painted ceilings and excellent carvings, including depictions of medical instruments (the oldest such depictions in Egypt). As was usually the case in temples, an actual animal corresponding to the god’s head was usually kept on site; here it was a crocodile, and the pit where the sacred animal was kept is still there. You’ll be able to see mummified crocodiles in the adjacent museum (sadly, though, photos of the crocs are not allowed). If you are hankering for a statue of Sobek, buy it here because he’s rare. The little gift shop in the museum usually has a couple of options.
INSIDER TIPWhile you can’t take a photo of the crocodiles in the Kom Ombo museum, you’ll find other crocodile mummies in the Egyptian Museum in the animal mummies room, and you can photograph those (assuming you buy a photo permit). There’s also a great statue of Sobek in the excellent Nubia Museum in Aswan.
Temple of Horus at Edfu
WHERE: Edfu, between Luxor and Aswan
Almost alone among the major Nile temples, the magnificent Temple of Horus sits in the middle of a busy city, relatively far from the river. In historical terms the Temple of Horus at Edfu is relatively “new,” having been built during the Ptolemaic Period, likely between 237 and 57 BC. It’s by far the best-preserved temple in all of Egypt and well worth your time, despite the fact that many of its carvings were disfigured during the years of Roman rule. Unlike many older temples, some of the ceilings have survived, and you can see both how the temple was constructed–and also see some of the well-preserved, colorful decorations. The entry towers still stand, as well as many of the walls.
INSIDER TIPAnimal lovers may have issues here. The horses that pull the carriagesleches in Edfu are not well cared for, but the drivers actively discourage visitors from taking motorized tuk-tuks (usually not allowing them into the parking area at the temple). You have two choices. Try to find a driver who cares for his horse, or insist on a tuk-tuk; if you choose the latter, you might have to walk a block or two to get into the temple complex, but those who care will be happier.
Mortuary Temple of Hatshepsut
WHERE: Deir el-Bahri, in the Theban Necropolis, on the west bank of the Nile near Luxor
Hatshepsut was only the second documented female ruler of Egypt, and during her 22-year reign, which began in 1478 BC, she styled herself as pharaoh, though she was actually regent to Thutmose III, the son of a secondary wife of her husband, Thutmose II. She was a great builder of both monuments and trade with sub-Saharan Africa. However, when she died, her successor attempted to obliterate her memory, destroying most images of her throughout the kingdom. Even her magnificently colonnaded mortuary temple (not her burial place, but the temple where she was worshipped as a pharaoh-god, was destroyed). She was actually buried in the Valley of the Kings.
Temple of Luxor
Smaller and more accessible than Karnak, the Temple of Luxor sits right in the middle of town, near the Winter Palace hotel. It is devoted to the three major Theban gods, Amun-Ra (the sun), Mut (Amun’s consort and the mother goddess), and Khonsu (the moon). Built between 1390 and 323 BC, it’s neither as grand nor as expansive as Karnak but shares much of the same building style. And it’s much more accessible. The Avenue of Sphinxes that once connected it with Karnak is still being unearthed and restored.
INSIDER TIPThe Temple of Luxor is busiest at sunset since it’s open later than Karnak, which has a Sound & Light show and, thus, always closes before dark.
Valley of the Kings
WHERE: Theban Necropolis, on the west bank of the Nile near Luxor
After the monumental pyramids of the Old Kingdom were desecrated and robbed (and after the capital was moved from Giza south to Thebes [(now Luxor])), the New Kingdom pharaohs (beginning with the 18th Dynasty in the 1400s BC) began to hide their tombs in the Theban hills west of the Nile. With few exceptions, most of these tombs were also robbed, but what the robbers left behind is still worth exploring and will give you the best chance of seeing the elaborate decorations of the era, which stand in stark contrast to the undecorated tombs of the Old Kingdom pharaohs (they were decorated on the outside, but alas those decorations are all lost to time). To date, 63 tombs have been identified and excavated in the Theban Necropolis, but not all are open to tourists. Regular admission to the Valley includes admission to just three tombs, so you have to choose. The tombs of Rameses IV and VI and Seti I are the most elaborately decorated, but you may wish to explore something less visited deeper into the Valley. If you’re willing to pay an extra price, you can visit the most famous of these tombs, that of Tutankhamen, not the most beautiful but one of the few completely intact tombs to have been excavated. In addition to the decorations on the walls, King Tut’s mummy is displayed in a glass case.
INSIDER TIPIf you have the time, money, and inclination, the Tomb of Nefertari in the nearby Valley of the Queens, is one of the most beautiful. Viking River Cruises includes a tour of this tomb on its tours, but few other tour companies do because of the high cost and limited availability of tickets.
Karnak Temple Complex
This temple near the banks of the Nile is the most extensive ancient religious site in all of Egypt and almost certainly worth a special trip. With sections dedicated to three different (and equally important) ancient gods, Karnak celebrates Amun-Ra (the primary deity of ancient Egypt, a combination of the Old Kingdom god Amun and the Sun god Ra), Mut (the mother goddess and consort of Amun), and Montu (a falcon-headed god of War and the patron of ancient Thebes). Construction likely began as early as 2055 BC and continued through the Ptolemaic period, perhaps as late as AD 100. The magnificent Hypostyle Hall contains 134 columns (if you’ve seen the movie Death on the Nile, a pivotal scene takes place here). There’s a towering obelisk (one of two still standing in the temple) that was erected by Hatshepsut, the now-famous female pharaoh of the 18th Dynasty, and quite enough other sights to occupy anyone for an hour or two of exploring. Outside the temple, an avenue of sphinxes once connected the Karnak and Luxor Temples along a 3-km route; several of the sphinxes have now been restored.
INSIDER TIPYou can’t do justice to Karnak without a guide. So even if you can’t stand guided tours, this is the one time when you should hire someone to show you the highlights and explain their significance.
Museum of Egyptian Antiquities
For over a hundred years, this Victorian-era museum on Tahrir Square has been a must-see sight in Cairo, housing the world’s greatest collection of Egyptian artifacts, albeit in uniformly uninspiring (and undocumented) fashion. Still, it’s the only place you can see the full collection of artifacts from King Tut’s tomb, the mummies of the great pharaohs that have been discovered to date (including Seti I and Ramesses II, albeit for an extra admission charge), and endless statues and artifacts, including a group of animal mummies. It definitely helps to have a guide since almost nothing is identified clearly in English. New is a display of the mummies of “Yuya and Thuya,” great-grandparents of King Tut. The bad news is that the museum is not air-conditioned and can be stiflingly hot. There are restrooms on the grounds outside the museum, but there’s also a set of relatively decent restrooms on the landing going up to the second floor.
INSIDER TIPA new “Grand Egyptian Museum” has been under construction since the early 2000s and is supposed to open in late 2020, so a few months before opening, all the remaining exhibits, including the Tut artifacts, will be moved. There will undoubtedly be a period of several months when no one will be able to view these important treasures. In the meantime, crates of artifacts awaiting shipment are stacked along the halls.
Pyramids of Giza
The only surviving wonder of the ancient world, the Pyramids were already 2,000 years old when Herodotus wrote about them in the 5th century BC, and they’ve endured another 2500 years since then. It’s impossible not to be impressed by the pyramids despite the annoying crowds and touts that seem to pour from every crack and crevice on the plateau. Even from a distance (when you can see them through the haze surrounding Cairo), they loom large, but their immensity won’t sink in until you are standing at the base of the Great Pyramid of Khufu, gazing up at stone limestone blocks that seem to shoot straight up into the sky. It’s the size of the individual blocks that’s really astounding. That, and the fact that all we see today is the underlying structure of the Great Pyramid and its two siblings; the vast majority of the smooth limestone casing stones were removed centuries ago (likely to build Cairo’s Citadel and the Mosque of Muhammad Ali, both of which still stand not so terribly far away).
A note about costs: Your admission to the Pyramid Plateau includes the Sphinx, which sits far below the pyramids but can be accessed by a steep road down the side of the plateau; honestly, it’s not as impressive, but it’s definitely worth a stop for a photo-op. For an extra fee, you can go inside the pyramids of Khufu or Khafre, and while photos are prohibited, it’s still an unforgettable experience as long as you aren’t claustrophobic. If you don’t want to pay, you can go inside one of the much smaller queen’s pyramids for free; since these pyramids were not decorated and were ransacked for their treasure millennia ago, they do all look much the same inside.
INSIDER TIPAvoid the touts offering their decrepit horses and tired camels for rides. You’ll have better opportunities if you wait until Aswan, where camels are just as numerous but better cared for.
The Citadel and Mosque of Muhammad Ali
The greatest Islamic sight in Cairo sits atop a high hill at the edge of the city, which housed the ruling palace of Egypt for over 700 years. Although the Muslims had conquered Egypt 500 years earlier, Salah al-Din saw the strategic value of the high hill on which the Citadel stands and began building a palace there in 1168; the present palace dates primarily to the 1300s, however. The granite used to build it may have come from the casings of the Great Pyramid itself. The large, beautiful, alabaster-clad mosque next to the palace was built by Muhammad Ali Pasha in the early 19th century.
INSIDER TIPNon-Muslims may visit most mosques in Egypt, but you’ll need to remove your shoes and carry them. So on the day you visit the Citadel, you may want to make sure you are wearing socks or have something to put on your feet.