Egypt is way more than just the national museum and the Great Pyramids of Giza. Sure, Cairo is filled with hidden gems, but you can never truly know the culture of a country from experiencing just one city, regardless of how big or busy it is. Right on the banks of the Nile River, Aswan is a relaxed and friendly town that's the perfect mix of tranquility and history. The best way to explore and see Aswan’s charm is by hopping on a felucca ride in the Nile. This boat ride will give you a view of the whole ancient city from the water highway, ith all its islands scattered around the clear blue waters. Picturesque island views, colourful buildings, photogenic sunsets, sand dunes, and eventually a monument that’s thousands of years old casually resting on the banks of the river. Here are some historical spots for the full Aswan experience and some island hopping.
This is a day trip from the city that you shouldn’t skip, and it's definitely worth the 300 km ride. The temple, built by Ramses II, was saved from potential destruction through a whole UNESCO rescue project, making it to the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites – and, most recently, to National Geographic's list of best destinations for 2020. It’s a majestic place, and proof of how genius ancient Egyptians were in architecture, spirituality, and engineering. The temple now sits on the banks of Lake Nasser, and is visited by thousands of tourists every year.
Abu Simbel is made up of two twin temples -- the larger one dedicated to the king, and another relatively smaller one dedicated to Queen Nefertari. King Ramses II had more than forty wives, but Queen Nefertari was the only one that got a whole temple built for her. If you’re lucky enough, or if you’re flexible with your dates, you should plan your trip to witness the sun alignment that occurs at the temple twice a year – a magical experience that happens once on February 22nd, King Ramses II’s birthday, and October 22nd, his coronation day. The rising sun shines through a narrow opening to illuminate the sculpted face of the king in a sunrise that’s witnessed by thousands of people who flock to the temple just for this experience.
LOCATION: Abu Simbel on Google Maps
HOW TO GET THERE:
- Minibus: Most people visit Abu Simbel by tour, with a minibus that drives the 300 km distance from the city to the temples. The tour usually includes entry fees and a tour of both temples with a guide, which is probably the best way to do it. Prices start at 150 EGP and could reach up to 2,000 EGP depending on what the experience looks like; negotiate your way through it and ask around for the best-priced tours.
- Plane: If you’re short on time, or not a fan of a four-hour road trip all the way there and back, there’s a flight from Aswan to Abu Simbel. It's a short, comfortable trip that covers the distance in 45 minutes, in case you want to make it on time to catch the sunrise and you’re not a fan of 2 AM wake-up calls. Egyptair and Air Cairo operate over 20 flights per week for this route, but it depends on the season and demand. Prices start at 3,000 EGP – a relatively small fortune, but the price of comfort.
- Private car: This is another on-land option, and a more comfortable one. Since minibusses tend to do rounds picking up clients from multiple hotels, a private car give you some extra time. It's a bit more pricey, but you could always share it with a group so it’s not a bad deal.
- Cruise ship: Now, if you’ve got time on your hands, and you don’t mind a little detour along the way, you could make a whole trip out of it and stay on a 4-5 day cruise through Lake Nasser that’ll eventually get you from Aswan to Abu Simbel – the most relaxing way to travel the distance. You’ll get a good view of the temple from the lake, they way Ramses II intended it to be seen. Prices start at $500 (8,000 EGP) but it’ll give you a chance to view all the other monuments that sit on the lake with multiple stops and the best views.
This temple was initially built to be the centre of the cult worshipping Isis - goddess of healing- during the Ptolemaic Dynasty, but the walls now hold inscriptions by all the pilgrims that flocked the island. It survived through the Pharaonic era, through to the Greek, Roman, and Byzantine periods, with each ruler adding more to the value of the temple. This sacred site is always dazzling for the thousands of tourists that visit it every year, and it still preserves its spot as one of the most important monument sites in Egypt. Its amazing location makes the experience even better. After being saved from drowning post the Aswan High Dam, the temple, which is classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, was transferred block by block from the original place of Philae Island to Agilika Island, which is 12 km away from Aswan. Thankfully, the process went well and the temple remains well-preserved, and is now sitting on its own island on the shores of the Nile. Wandering around the complex, surrounded by the blues of the Nile and marveling at all the colourful inscriptions on the walls is a must-have experience in Aswan. The temple has so many parts to see, from the entranceway to the main courtyard, the inner Temple, the House of Isis, and the gateway of Hadrian -- your eyes will have a feast. At night, the temple holds sound and light shows.
LOCATION: Philae Temple on Google Maps
HOW TO GET THERE:
- Nile Taxi/Felucca: The trip to the temple is an experience all on its own. Since the temple lies on an island in the Nile, you have to get on a boat to get there. You can take the boat from an area called Shellal, just south of the Aswan Dam, and you could either get there by taxi or an organized trip through your hotel. Usually, tours of the Philae temple include a tour of the Aswan High Dam as well, and can be arranged by most hotels in the area -- including a guide as well. An organized trip will spare you the hassle of negotiating prices with the boatmen, but if you’re planning to be a free bird, make sure to settle on a price between 120 and 150 EGP. Make sure to enjoy sailing there, and enjoy the ride in the Nile while the temple comes into view. The boat will drop you off near the Kiosk of Nectanebo - the oldest part of the temple - and you’ll walk till you find the giant pylon by the entrance -- don’t worry, you won’t miss it.
via Lonely Planet
Whether you’re interested in the history or the Kingdom of Kush (ancient Nubia), this museum will be a sweet surprise. The museum documents the culture of the Nubian people, which was more or less washed away after the Aswan Dam was built -- flooding most of their original homes in the valley. The museum features artifacts from ancient Nubia, a collection of original photos of the UNESCO grand project of moving Philae Temple and Abu Simble, and photographs of monuments that are now lost under the waters of the lake. The artifacts in the museum include a statue of Ramses II, a statue of Amenras, the head of the Shpatka, and the black granite head of Tahraqa. If you’re looking for more than just monuments and artifacts, the museum also has stories and thorough explanations of the history and the culture of Nubia, stories of its people and a special section displaying the gorgeous handicrafts of the Nubians. The whole museum is a beautiful experience, and a reminder of what was once lost beneath the lake. Take a walk around, enjoy the huge halls and displays that’ll take you from 4500 BC, and up to our present day. Right behind the Nubian Museum there’s the Fatimid cemetery. Take a tour between the mud-brick mausoleums -- the keepers will be more than happy to show you around as long as you don’t forget to tip.
LOCATION: Nubian Museum on Google Maps
HOW TO GET THERE:
- The Nubian Museum is right in the heart of Aswan. If you’re not up for a walk in the heat, you could stop a taxi to get there.
via Lonely Planet
Just as the name implies, this is a giant obelisk etched into stone. For some reason, it was never completely carved out and just abandoned there. The curiosity of always thinking “how did those ancient Egyptians do it?” may be partially satisfied by seeing a work in progress. The famous Unfinished Obelisk is a 41-meter-long and 4-meter-wide chunk of stone, abandoned and never finished due to a crack in the rocks. If it has been completed, it was estimated to have weighed 1,168 tons and would have been the largest Obelisk ever built. On the rocks, you can see traces of the work of ancient Egyptian stone cutters.
LOCATION: Unfinished Obelisk on Google Maps.
HOW TO GET THERE:
- The Unfinished Obelisk lies in the Northern Quarry area of Aswan.You could easily reach it by foot from Aswan’s downtown, just east of the Nubian Museum and Fatimid cemetery.
- If you’re looking to save a bit of energy, you could always stop a taxi that’ll get you there.
TOMBS OF THE NOBLES
via Fine Art
Lying on the Eastern bank of the Nile River, close to the Nubian Village, are the tombs of Egyptian Princes, dating back to the days of the Old Kingdom. These series of rock tombs were the place where governors, priests, keepers of the gates, and other dignitaries of ancient Elephantine Island were buried during the Old and Middle Kingdoms. More than 400 tombs of nobles from the 6th dynasty of the Graeco-Roman period, the nobles decorated their tombs with detailed scenes of their daily lives, in hopes of letting the good life continue after death. The tombs, known as the Tombs of the Nobles, are still being excavated up to this day, with the most significant finds in 2014 and 2017. For now, six decorated tombs are open to the public, and you could reach the area through a series of steep staircases.
The area is more than just tombs, inside there are marvelous painting showing scenes of everyday life. You could hike up to the top for a sweet view of Aswan, the entire Nile Valley, and the nearby Nubian villages. Pro-tip: try to time your hike towards sunset, or during early morning for a better view -- and a kinder weather. And for the full Egyptian experience, camel rides in this area are hugely popular. At the end of the day, when the unforgiving heat passes, enjoy a sunset camel ride on the west bank from the Tombs of the Nobles to the Monastery of Saint Simeon.
LOCATION: Tombs of the Nobles on Google Maps.
How to get there:
- This is one of the most popular stops on a felucca ride in the Nile, which is a must-have experience in Aswan.
- If you’re looking to stay on-land, this site lies on the high cliffs opposite Aswan, just north of Kitchener’s Island. You could either go with an organized tour, you could stop a taxi -- and don’t forget to settle on a price.
EDFU'S TEMPLE OF HORUS
via Lonely Planet
This is one of the best-preserved ancient monuments in Egypt, dating back to the Ptolemaic. However, the temple follows the scale, ornamentation, and architecture of the Pharaonic architecture. Dedicated to Horus, the son of Isis and Osiris, who was often depicted with the head of a falcon, this temple was preserved by the sand of the desert, withstanding all those years with the roof still intact. The Temple of Horus is also known as Edfu Temple, and the entryway is guarded by two granite statues of Horus as a falcon. On the eastern wall of the temple, you can see the remains of the Nilometer, which was used to measure the levels of the Nile river, helping to predict the harvest timing.
LOCATION: Edfu's Temple of Horus on Google Maps.
HOW TO GET THERE:
This is a bit of a road trip, since the temple lies some 112 km north of Aswan, and 110 km south of Luxor -- but so worth it.
- Cruise: nearly all cruise ships traveling the Nile River between Luxor and Aswan make a stop in Edfu
- Train: A budget-friendly way, you could arrive in Edfu by taking a one-hour train from Luxor, or a one-and-a-half-hour train from Aswan. There are multiple trains operating throughout the day to Edfu train station. From the station, you could catch a taxi into town.
- Private car: You could hire a driver for the day, but since it’ll be a bit costly, you could combine Edfu with visits to other temples in the area.
via Egyptian Geographic
Saved by the rescue project held out by the UNESCO, this group of temples has been moved to the banks of Lake Nasser. Kalabsha Temple is considered to be one of the best-preserved temples that had been moved, also the youngest dating back from the time of Roman Emperor Augustus. The temple was started in the late Ptolemaic era, and completed during the reign of Augustus somewhere between 30 BC and AD 14. Initially, the temple was dedicated to the Nubian god Merwel – or Mandulis in Greek – and was later on used as a church during the Byzantine era. The walls have inscriptions showing pharaohs and emperors in front of gods and goddesses. After you enjoy a walk inside the temple, you could climb the stairs for a superb view of Lake Nasser and the high dam. A passage between the temple and its encircling walls will lead to an ancient well-preserved Nilometer.
LOCATION: Kalabsha Temple on Google Maps.
HOW TO GET THERE:
Pro Tip: Combine it with a trip visit to Philae for a historical day trip.
- The temple lies on the west bank of Lake Nasser just south of the High Dam. Taxis to the Kalabsha temple can easily be arranged.
- You could also reach it with a motorboat, or if you’re lucky enough and the water levels are low, you even could walk across the site.
KOM OMBO TEMPLE
via Planet ware
Approaching the temple from the Nile River, the columns of Kombo Ombo stand above the river banks in a dramatic view — in one of Aswan’s iconic spots. Back in the day, this temple was dedicated to the gods of Sobek and Haroeris, the Gods of the River, as a reminder of the importance of this region in Ancient Egypt, being right by the Nile. Take a walk through the historical sites of Kom Ombo temple to take in the scenes of the pharaonic propaganda. The entrance to the inner temple is lined with 10 columns that are beautifully decorated and embellished with fine murals. Nearby the Kom Ombo Temple, there’s also the Temple of Hathor and Kom Ombo’s Crocodile Museum.
LOCATION: Kom Ombo Temple on Google Maps.
HOW TO GET THERE:
The Kom Ombo temple lies 47 kilometers north of Aswan and 168 kilometers south of Luxor.
- Cruise ship: If you’re traveling the two cities on a cruise ship, this temple is almost always included in the itinerary.
- Felucca: There are Felucca sailing trips that could be arranged in Aswan to tour this area full of things to see. And a stop in Kom Ombo could be included.
- Train: you can take a local train from Aswan or Luxor to Kom Ombo railway station.
- Private cars: for a steeper price, you could arrange to rent a car and a driver for the whole day. You could make it a whole day with multiple stop, combining Edfu’s temple of Horus and Kom Ombo Temple for a whole day to make the most out of it.