The Nile is the world’s longest river (6695km), originating in the highland lakes of Uganda and Ethiopia, which give rise to the White and Blue Niles. At Khartoum in Sudan these join into a single river which flows northwards via a series of cataracts (rocky obstacles and waterfalls) through the Nubian Desert, before forming Egypt’s Nile Valley and Delta, through which it travels 1545km to the Mediterranean Sea. The river’s northward flow, coupled with a prevailing wind towards the south, made it a natural highway for centuries.
The Nile River, world’s longest river
As the source of life, the Nile influenced much of ancient Egyptian society and mythology. Creation myths of a primal mound emerging from the waters of chaos reflect how villages huddled on mounds till the flood subsided and they could plant their crops.
The need for large-scale irrigation works in the Valley and the consequent mobilization of labour consolidated local, regional and ultimately centralized authority – in effect, the state.
Both the Valley and its Delta were divided into nomes or provinces, each with a nomarch or governor, and one or more local deities. As power ebbed and flowed between regions and dynasties, certain of the deities assumed national significance and absorbed the attributes of lesser gods in a perpetual process of religious mergers and takeovers.
Archeologists reckon that it was famine – caused by overworking of the land, as well as lack of flood waters – that caused the collapse of the Old and Middle Kingdoms, and subsequent anarchy. But each time some new dynasty arose to reunite the land and re-establish the old order.
No wonder it’s full of some of the world’s best and biggest temples.
Best things to do along the Nile
From a cruise along the Nile to Luxor Temple, here are the best things to do along the Nile River.
#1 Explore Luxor Temple
Luxor, 675 km (420 miles) south of Cairo, is the most important and most spectacular site in all of Egypt. Al Uqsur (the Palaces) is the Arabic name for ancient Thebes, the splendid capital city of the New Kingdom (1570–1070 BC) rulers, whose glory still glowed in the memories of classical writers a thousand years after its decline.
Here, the booty of foreign wars, tribute and taxes poured into the coffers of the pharaohs of the 18th and 19th dynasties, each of whom surpassed his predecessor in the construction of gorgeous temples and tombs, creating a concentration of monuments that rivals that of any imperial city before.
This fine temple at Luxor was developed over many centuries. Its massive Hypostyle Hall is the largest hall of any temple in the world, and its columns are carved with scenes of the pharaohs who built it.
#2 Visit the Valley of the Kings
The Valley of the Kings is a historic and archeological wonder located on the west bank of the Nile river in Luxor. It served as the final resting place of numerous pharaohs and powerful nobles during the New Kingdom period of ancient Egypt, roughly spanning from the 16th to the 11th century BCE.
With its rich cultural and historical significance, the Valley of the Kings is recognized as one of the most important and impressive archaeological sites in the world, drawing visitors from all corners of the globe. There are 63 principal tombs, and undoubtedly more to be discovered. In most of the tombs, long, elaborately decorated corridors lead down through a series of chambers and false doors to the burial vault.
The entrance passage is painted with texts and illustrations from mortuary literature and the Book of the Dead. Only a few of the tombs are open to the public at one time, as a rotation system has been introduced to The entrance to the valley is from the visitors centre (6am–4pm in winter, until 5pm in summer; the standard ticket is valid for three tombs, and extra tickets are required for Tutankhamun).
In the air-conditioned hall, guides explain the history behind the Valley of the Kings, while visitors can see a model of the site, use the computers to find out more protect the tomb walls from further deterioration caused by flashlights and respiration
#3 Be wowed by Karnak Temple
The temple complex of Amun-Ra at Karnak was one of the most important religious and intellectual centres for more than 13 centuries 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. This fine temple at Luxor was developed over many centuries. Its massive Hypostyle Hall is the largest hall of any temple in the world, and its columns are carved with scenes of the pharaohs who built it.
#4 Relax in Aswan
Ivory, ebony, rose and gold are the defining colours of Aswan (215 km/135 miles south of Luxor). Here, a wild jumble of glistening igneous rocks, strewn across the Nile, creates narrows between the highlands of the Eastern Desert and the sandy wastes of the Sahara.
The barrier to navigation is known as the First Cataract; it was once where the civilised world stopped. Aswan, for many at the end of a Nile trip, 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.
#5 Wander around Elephantine Island
Opposite Aswan, in the middle of the Nile, is Elephantine Island, the original defensive “border town” between Egypt and the Nubian lands to the south.
It is much more built up than it used to be, but it remains pleasant, with several Nubian villages and their gardens, and on the southern tip, the remains of ancient Yebu – which means elephant and was probably derived from the shape of the smooth grey boulders that surround the island, looking like elephants in the water.
#6 Cruise the Nile between Aswan and Luxor
The 215km (135 miles) between Aswan and Luxor is one of the loveliest stretches of the Nile, and the best and most popular way of seeing it is from the deck of a cruise boat, with stops at the various sights along the way.
The strip of fertile agricultural land on either side of the river becomes ever narrower, until it more or less gives way to the desert closer to Aswan. The towns are still relatively small and picturesque: fishermen beating the water to scare the fish into a net, water buffalos wallowing in the mud, palm groves, farmers tilling the land with the same tools you see depicted in the tomb carvings.
Most of the splendid monuments, temples and tombs date from the Graeco-Roman period, but there are a few much older sites, including the remains of one of the oldest temples in Egypt, at al-Kab.
Best places to stay along the Nile
The Nile River is the lifeblood of Egypt, so when it comes to choosing the best area to stay along the Nile, there are a few key options to consider.
Luxor is a popular destination, particularly for those interested in exploring the Valley of the Kings and the Karnak Temple Complex. The city offers a range of accommodations, from budget-friendly guest houses to luxury resorts. There are hotels on both sides of the river here.
Aswan offers a range of accommodations, from traditional Nubian guesthouses to modern hotels.
Nile River cruises
Nile River cruises are a unique way to explore the river and its many historic sites. These cruises typically travel between Luxor and Aswan, stopping at key attractions along the way, but passengers sleep aboard.
Things to know before visiting the Nile
Choosing a Nile itinerary can be a challenging task, but here are some tips to help you make the right choice.
Choose the right cruise for you
Nile cruises come in a range of styles, from budget-friendly to luxury. Cruise typically last from three to seven nights, and the length of the cruise will determine the number of sites you will be able to visit.
Research the sights you want to see
The Nile is home to some of the most famous historical sites in the world, such as the temples of Abu Simbel, Karnak, and Luxor. Visit some on your cruise and others independently. It's up to you to decide which, but basing yourself in a hotel in Luxor usually works best.
Consider visiting during the winter
The weather can have a significant impact on your Nile cruise experience, so consider the time of year you plan to travel. The best time to visit is during the winter months (November to February), when temperatures are cooler and there are fewer crowds.
How to get here
With two international airports, plus trains, buses, and boats, getting to the Nile River in Egypt is relatively easy. Here’s how to do it.
If you're already in Egypt, taking a train to the Nile River is a great option. The Egyptian National Railways operate trains that run along the Nile River between Cairo and Luxor. You can also take a train to Aswan, which is located at the southern end of the Nile River.
The easiest way to get to the Nile River is by flying into Cairo International Airport or Luxor International Airport, depending on which part of the river you want to visit. From there, you can take a taxi, bus, or private car to your destination.
There are several bus companies that operate between Cairo and Luxor, Aswan, and other cities along the Nile River. The buses are usually air-conditioned and comfortable, making them a great option for budget travellers.
If you want to experience the Nile River up close, taking a boat is a great option. There are several types of boats available, from traditional feluccas to luxury riverboats. You can book a boat tour in Cairo, Luxor, or Aswan.
Find out the best ways to get to Egypt.
What is the best time to visit?
The spring months of March to May and the autumn months of September to October can also be a good time to visit Egypt for a Nile River cruise. During these months, the weather is mild, and the crowds are fewer than during the peak season.
It's important to note that the Nile River water level fluctuates throughout the year and is at its highest between July and October, which can affect the navigation of some river cruises.
Find out more about the best time to visit Egypt.