Egypt has been called the gift of the Nile. Without the river, it could not exist as a fertile, populous country, let alone have sustained a great civilization 5,000 years ago. Its character and history have been shaped by the contrast between the fecund Nile Valley and its Delta, plus the arid wastes that surround them. To the Ancient Egyptians, this was the homeland or Kemet – the Black Land of dark alluvium, where life and civilization flourished as the benign gods intended – opposed to the desert that represented death and chaos, ruled by Seth, bringer of storms and catastrophes.
Travel tips for visiting the Nile ValleyKemet’s existence depended on an annual miracle of rebirth from aridity, as the Nile rose to spread its life-giving waters and fertilizing silt over the exhausted land during the season of inundation.
Once the flood had subsided, the fellaheen (peasants) simply planted crops in the mud, waited for an abundant harvest, and then relaxed over summer.
While empires rose and fell, this way of life persisted essentially unchanged for over 240 generations, until the Aswan High Dam put an end to the inundation in 1967 – a breathtaking period of continuity considering that Jesus lived only eighty generations ago.
Almost every Nile town is built upon layers of previous settlements – pharaonic, Ptolemaic, Roman and Coptic – whose ancient names, modified and Arabized, have often survived. After a century and a half of excavation by a dozen Western nations – and by the Egyptians since independence – the Valley’s ancient monuments constitute the greatest open-air museum in the world.
Revealed along its banks are several thousand tombs (over nine hundred in Luxor’s Theban Necropolis alone) and scores of temples: so many, in fact, that most visitors feel satiated by just a fraction of this legacy.
What to do in the Nile ValleyThe Nile Valley is a treasure trove of ancient wonders, stunning landscapes, and cultural experiences.
From exploring the pyramids and temples of ancient Egypt to sailing on the Nile River and visiting traditional markets, here are some of the best things to do in the Nile Valley.
#1 Explore Karnak, the most awe-inspiring monument in EgyptThe temple complex of Amun-Ra at Karnak and its neighbouring buildings, 3km (1.75 miles) north of the centre of Luxor, constitute the most awe-inspiring of all the Egyptian monuments. Apart from the immense conglomeration of elements that makes up the temple itself, it also has a particularly complicated plan.
Unlike most other temples in Egypt, it was developed over many centuries on both an east–west axis, with six pylons, and on a north–south axis with four pylons. These 10 pylons, together with intervening courts, halls and enclosures, surround the nucleus of the sanctuary.
#2 Immerse yourself in the restored Luxor TempleLuxor Temple is relatively long (230 metres/780ft) and narrow, and lies in the centre of Luxor. Like Karnak Temple, to which it was connected by the 3km (1.75-mile) -long processional Avenue of Sphinxes, it was dedicated to the Theban Triad, but Amun of Luxor had a slightly different form and function, as a divinely fertile figure.
Of the 1,350 human-headed, lion-bodied sphinxes that once lined the Avenue of Sphinxes, 650 have recently been excavated and restored in a project that began in 2005 and was completed in 2017.
Excavations of the site started in 1885 when the houses were removed piece by piece, but the people of Luxor took a stand when it came to removing the mosque of Abu ’l-Haggag, built in 1077, so it was left in situ, hanging above a corner of the courtyard built by Ramesses II.
#3 Learn more at the Luxor MuseumLuxor Museum, north along the Corniche, houses a small but impressive collection found in the Luxor the young pharaoh Tuthmosis III and a fine wall painting of Amenophis III.
A further wing is devoted to the glory of Thebes during the New Kingdom and two royal mummies. Another gallery on the ground floor (near the exit) displays an important cache of statues that were discovered in 1989 excavations in Luxor Temple, under one of the courtyards near the Birth Room of Amenophis III.
The upper floor of the museum has interesting reliefs from Akhenaten’s temple in Karnak as well as spectacular heads of the same pharaoh in the typical Amarnah style and a variety of smaller objects found in Tutankhamun’s tomb, including shabti, models of servants that were intended to serve the pharaoh in the afterlife.
#4 Head to the mortuary temples in the mountainsideThe pharaohs of the 18th Dynasty broke with the pyramid tradition and began to hide their tombs deep in the mountainside, hoping to elude tomb robbers. On the edge of the valley, at some distance from their resting places, each pharaoh constructed his own mortuary temple.
The mortuary temples of Hatshepsut, Seti I, Ramesses II and Ramesses III still stand (those of other pharaohs have mostly collapsed). The two Colossi of Memnon, standing in the fields by the side of the road, are the most visible reminder of the Temple of Amenhotep III, the famous Memnon.
After the one on the right was hit by an earthquake in 27 BC, it made a gentle singing noise at dawn which the Greeks believed to be Memnon singing for his mother Eos. The Roman emperor Septimus Severus had it restored in AD 199, after which the singing stopped.
#5 Wander through the Valley of the KingsAfter being embalmed and mummified, the New Kingdom pharaohs were transported in solemn cortège to the Valley of the Kings, hidden in a secluded wadi in the Theban hills. They were buried in rock-cut tombs, bedecked with gold and jewels, and surrounded by treasures and replicas of all they would need in the afterlife.
As soon as a pharaoh ascended to the throne, he would begin to build his tomb, which was intended to preserve the royal mummy for eternity. However, many died before the lavish decoration of their tomb was finished, which now gives an interesting insight into the different stages of the whole process.
Although serious precautions were made to dissuade intruders, the treasures hidden inside were too much of an attraction to be left alone. By the end of the New Kingdom the priests reburied the mummies in secret caches in the surrounding mountains, which were not discovered.
#6 See the lesser-visited Tombs of the NoblesDivided into five groups, the Tombs of the Nobles are well worth seeing. Unlike royalty, who were buried with great solemnity, the priests, scribes and dignitaries of the court, whose tombs are scattered in the sandy foothills, departed this world surrounded with scenes of the joyous good living to which they had apparently been accustomed during their lifetime.
Thousands of private Tombs of the Nobles (Shaykh Abd al-Qurnah), dating from the 6th Dynasty to the Graeco-Roman period, with the majority from the New Kingdom period, were found, but only about 19 are open to the public at present.
Most consist of three rooms with a forecourt, a covered columned hall and a smaller room with niches in which were placed statues of the deceased. Many of the nobles’ tombs are vividly painted with naturalistic scenes of agriculture, fishing, fowling, feasting and celebrating, thereby constituting a fascinating record of everyday life in ancient Egypt.
#7 Visit Esna, built over the ruins of a templeThe small rural town of Esna lies 50km (31 miles) south of Luxor and is built over the ruins of the Temple of Khnum. A tourist souq leads from the Nile to the entrance of the temple.
Only the Hypostyle Hall has been excavated and its foundation level is 8 metres (27ft) below that of the street, an indication of the sand and debris that have piled up over the centuries since the temple was abandoned in the Roman period. Originally the temple would have been the same size as the temple in Edfu
The temple is dedicated to the creator god Khnum, the main god of Esna, and it was built over an older structure by Ptolemy VI. The Romans added the Hypostyle Hall, which has 24 columns with richly decorated floral capitals.
#8 See the complete Ptolemaic Temple of Horus at EdfuOn the west bank of the Nile, is the pleasant market town of Edfu. The Greeks called it Apollonopolis as the sun-god Horus-Apollo was worshipped here, for it was believed to be the spot where Horus won a major battle with the evil Seth to avenge his father Osiris.
The Ptolemaic Temple of Horus here is the most complete in Egypt and is in near-perfect condition, with its great pylon, exterior walls, courts, halls and sanctuary all in place.
#9 Stretch out on sandy Kom OmboSituated on a sandy bank where crocodiles once sunned themselves, 40km (25 miles) north of Aswan, the ancient city of Ombos owed its existence to its strategic position. On a promontory in a sweeping bend in the Nile, and to its role as an important stop on the caravan routes from Nubia to Egypt.
Gold, copper, camels and African elephants were all traded here. It became more important during Ptolemaic times, but its main rise to prominence came with the erection of the Temple of Kom Ombo in the 2nd century BC.
The temple is unique in that it has two identical entrances, two linked hypostyle halls and twin sanctuaries dedicated to two different gods: the falcon-headed god Haroeris, or Horus the Elder, and the crocodile god Sobek.
Older structures have been found on the site, but the main temple was built by Ptolemy VI Philometer, while the decoration was finished by Ptolemy XII Neos Dionysos (80–58 BC and 55–51 BC).
#10 Chill out in pretty AswanFor many at the end of a Nile trip, Aswan is a laid-back, warm place that is good for lingering for a few days. While the town has grown immensely in recent years – this is not just a tourist centre but the lively capital of the governorate and an important university town – the part to visit is still largely strewn along the Nile and on the islands.
The souqs are more relaxed and less pushy than in other Egyptian towns, and there is definitely a hint of Africa in the souvenirs for sale.
Taking a felucca around the islands, sniffing the scents of the botanical garden and listening to the Nubian children sing is the perfect way to watch the sun go down behind the desert on the other side. Further south are some beaches where it is safe to swim on a hot day.
Best places to stayWhen it comes to choosing the best places to stay near the Nile Valley, there are a few key options to consider.
CairoCairo is a popular choice, offering a wide range of accommodations and easy access to the Pyramids of Giza and other attractions. The city boasts numerous luxury hotels, as well as more affordable options.
AlexandriaAlexandria is another popular destination in the Nile Valley. The city offers a range of accommodations, from budget-friendly hostels to upscale hotels.
Western DesertThe oases of the Western Desert offer a unique and off-the-beaten-path option for travellers.
How to get around the Nile ValleyGetting around the Nile Valley is relatively easy and convenient, with several options available for travellers. Here are some of the most popular ways to get around:
By trainEgypt has an extensive railway network, and trains are an excellent option for traveling between major cities like Cairo, Luxor, and Aswan. They are usually affordable and offer comfortable seating and air conditioning. However, they don't really go beyond the Nile Valley.
By busBuses are another popular way to get around the Nile Valley, and they are often the cheapest option. There are several bus companies that operate in the region.
By taxiTaxis are readily available in most cities and towns in the Nile Valley, and they offer a convenient and affordable way to get around. Many are happy to be booked by the day or for longer trips. Agree a fare before setting off.
By boatA felucca is a traditional Egyptian sailboat that can be hired for a leisurely cruise on the Nile River. This is a great way to enjoy the scenery and take in the sights of the valley. Book in Aswan to go with the flow of the river.
How many days do you need in the Nile Valley?A typical Nile Valley itinerary can last from 5 to 10 days, allowing you to see the main sites along the way. If you want to explore the region more thoroughly and see additional attractions, you may want to plan for a longer trip.
A week or two would allow you to visit other significant cities in the region, such as Aswan, Luxor, and Cairo, and include a Nile River cruise as well.
If you're short on time, it's still possible to get a good sense of the Nile Valley in as little as three days. You could focus on seeing the Pyramids of Giza, the Sphinx, and the Egyptian Museum in Cairo or visit the temples and tombs in Luxor and the Valley of the Kings.
Looking for inspiration for your trip? Talk to our Egypt travel experts.
How to get hereGetting to the Nile Valley is straightforward as the region is well served by buses and trains. Luxor also has an airport if you’re short of time. Here’s how to get there.
By planeLuxor International Airport has direct flights from various European cities via EgyptAir, and is also served by Turkish Airlines and several charter companies.
For internal flights, EgyptAir and their subsidiary EgyptAir Express has the most regular network and flies daily from Cairo to Abu Simbel, Aswan, Borg El Arab (Alexandria), Hurghada, Luxor, Marsa Alam, Marsa Matruh and Sharm El Sheikh.
Nile Air also flies to similar domestic destinations.
By trainThe government-owned Egyptian National Railways serves the Nile Valley to Aswan. The most popular route for tourists is the twice-nightly air-conditioned sleeper train between Cairo and Luxor (journey time 10 hours) and Aswan (15 hours), which is operated by privately run Watania.
By busAir-conditioned buses link most parts of Egypt to Cairo and Alexandria. Beyond the Nile Valley, it’s often the only option.
Use the Upper Egypt Bus Company for Luxor and Aswan (although the train is a better alternative to these).
Find out the best ways to get to Egypt.