From Cairo and Giza (covered in Part 1) you will want to head up the Nile to heart of Ancient Egypt. In antiquity, Egypt was divided into two regions, Upper and Lower Egypt. While Lower Egypt would become the heart of Roman and Islamic Egypt, Upper Egypt boasts the world’s most intensive concentration of ancient Pharaonic monuments. These include temples, tombs, and palaces dating from the from the beginning of the Middle Kingdom (c.2050 BC) to the Roman conquest.
To get from Cairo to Upper Egypt you have a few options. You can opt for a leisurely Nile cruise, take the overnight train, or fly. Each, of course, has positives and negatives. The most expensive option is a Nile cruise. These are very popular, take the guess work out of traveling, and can be quite luxurious but take, however, 5 to 7 days on average. Cruises are a great way to relax while seeing lots of lesser-known cities and temples, but if you are short on travel days, a cruise might leave you with little time to see Abu Simbel, Aswan, and Luxor. There are some shorter, more affordable cruises within Upper Egypt. Another piece of advice, if you cannot afford one of the high-end Nile cruises, I would suggest skipping this and use your budget to fly or take the train to other cities. Like I mentioned in Part One, you want to book 5-star in Egypt.
The cheapest option is the train, which goes from Cairo to Luxor and Aswan and takes place overnight, saving you time and one night of accommodation. The downside is the trains are old and noisy and the food is subpar, not unlike overnight Amtrak trains in the US. Overnight trains are operated by Ernst, on behalf of Egyptian National Railways. Be sure to book the correct type of ticket, you want the Deluxe Sleeper Train. Personally, I liked the train and slept like a baby, but my travel companions were less impressed. Fortunately, flying is only slightly more expensive.
If I were to do this trip again, I probably would have elected to fly. Although, if you are tight on time, the train is very efficient. I would also highly recommend flying if you want to see Abu Simbel. This incredible site is very far south. We hired a private car to take us from the Aswan train station to Abu Simbel and back to Aswan on the day when we arrived by train. It was an incredibly long and tiring journey, following an overnight train ride, but very worth it. Again, if I were to do this over, I would have flown directly from Cairo to Aswan and then arranged a car to and from Abu Simbel.
The main cities and sites of Upper Egypt that you do not want to miss are Abu Simbel, Aswan, Luxor, and the Valley of the Kings. As we were short on time, we visited Abu Simbel and Aswan quickly the day we arrived and then headed to Luxor where we were based for three nights.
The temple of Abu Simbel captures the grandeur and monumental scale of Egyptian architecture at the height of the empire under Ramses II (c.1279–13 BC). This twin-temple complex, carved directly into the mountainside, took twenty years to complete and sat at the entrance of the empire’s southern border.
To intimidate the Nubians, Ramses commissioned four gigantic statues of himself at the opening of the Great Temple. The temple was so precisely built that on Ramses’s birthday and anniversary of his coronation the sun would align to illuminate the temple and statues.
Even more impressive than the construction and history of this ancient set of temples is the story of how they were saved. By the early 19th century, the complex was almost completely covered by sand. Then in the 1960s, the construction of the Aswan High Dam threatened to flood the site completely. UNESCO declared it a world heritage site and the entire complex was disassembled, moved, and reassembled piece by piece. When you look at this site today, you would never know this was not its original location.
From Abu Simbel, we hopped back in our hired car (highly recommend working with xxx) and headed to Aswan where we enjoyed dinner at the Sofitel Legend Old Cataract Aswan before boarding our train to Luxor. When planning this trip, I tried everything to find one extra night to stay in Aswan, but in the end, we just didn’t have the time. If you have the time, I highly recommend adding in one night in Aswan.
In ancient times, Aswan was a military garrison that sat at the southern edge of Egypt and was a strategic trading post with the Nubians. Today, it is a vibrant tourist town where you can visit the Ruins of Abu, the Nubia Museum, the city’s vibrant bazar, and take a delightful boat tour around Elephantine Island on a historic felucca.
Like us, most tourists spend the bulk of their time in Upper Egypt in the city of Luxor. And this is for good reason, Luxor was the capital of Ancient Egypt during the New Kingdom and is often referred to as the world’s greatest open-air museum. In Luxor you can visit the Valley of the Kings, the temples of Karnak, Luxor, Queen Hatshepsut, and Medinet Habu complex.
The first thing you will notice about Luxor is how different
it is from Cairo. It feels very much like a tourist town with a lot more
investment in the attractions. It is also much quieter and smaller. Since there
are so many incredible sites to see in Luxor, we hired a tour guide for one of
our days (through XX). We found this really helpful in contextualizing all of
these massive sites, especially the Valley of the Kings. With tours in
countries like Egypt, however, always prepare to be taken shopping at your
guide’s favorite establishments (or places where they receive a kickback).
Despite repeatedly saying we didn’t want to shop, we ended up at several places
that sold alabaster and other crafts. This is cultural and to be expected, be
assertive, but polite, and let your tour guide know when you are ready to
Another cultural difference to prepare yourself for in tourist towns like Aswan and Luxor is haggling. Nothing will have a price posted and nearly everything is negotiable. I know this makes a lot of people (especially Americans) uncomfortable but try to have some fun with it. One taxi driver outside our hotel in Luxor dreaded seeing me because the hotel told us what to pay for certain distances and I would not back down. He eventually grew to respect my stubbornness. Always haggle BEFORE getting in the cab and be prepared to walk away. But, at the end of the day if haggling stresses you out too much, just be sure to ask about pricing before you do anything, so there are no surprises.
We stayed three nights in Luxor. Originally, I wanted to stay in the Sofitel Winter Palace Luxor, another historic hotel. Our plans were derailed, however, when we learned a lavish ceremony for the grand opening of Luxor’s “Avenue of the Sphinxes” was taking place while we were there, and every dignitary and even the Egyptian President were staying at that hotel, making it very much sold out and off-limits. So, we stayed in the perfectly adequate Steigenberger Resort ACHTI. The location was great, the price was excellent, and the food was good. Although it did not have the same luxury as the Mena House or St. Regis.
As a photo enthusiast, I was THRILLED to learn that many of the temples in Luxor open very early as the sun is rising. Take advantage of this! Not only will you get incredible shots with very few people, but you can also experience the precision of ancient Egyptian astronomy as many temples and monuments were designed to interact with solar alignments.
After an incredible couple of days in Luxor we flew back to Cairo for one more night in the St. Regis before departing!