The monuments of Upper Egypt are breathtaking. The great temples of Luxor and Karnak and the funerary complexes of the west bank form the largest agglomeration of ancient buildings in the world. During the 19th century, as more and more archaeological discoveries were being made and the mystery of hieroglyphics unravelled, wintering in Egypt became fashionable for the well-to-do. They would hire a private houseboat, complete with crew and cook, at the port of Cairo, and sail upstream, stopping here and there to explore the ruins and visit local dignitaries.
Travel tips for visiting Upper Egypt
Luxor (ancient Thebes) was the high point on their journey, a concentration of magnificent temples and tombs, with comfortable hotels that offered the chance to get off the boat and relax in the superb winter climate.
It is still possible to spend a fulfilling week or two in Luxor, relaxing by the Nile, visiting the temples on the east bank and making forays over to the west bank to see the ancient necropolis of Thebes.
But for a truly memorable visit, make time to travel south of Luxor to Aswan, along a 215km (135-mile) stretch of river that is both picturesque and rich in ancient sites; Esna, Edfu and Kom Ombo all offer spectacular Ptolemaic temples, and Aswan, the regional capital and an important university town, has one of the most beautiful settings in Egypt.
With fewer monuments, it is the ideal place to end your trip, shopping in the hassle-free souq or circling its many islands by felucca. The best time to make the journey down south is in the cooler months between October and April. Most of the luxury cruise boats run three-, five-, or eight-day trips starting from Luxor or Aswan.
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What to do in Upper Egypt
Upper Egypt is a treasure trove of cultural experiences and ancient wonders. Here’s what to do.
#1 Marvel at Karnak
Karnak is the most impressive monument in Egypt, consisting of the Amun-Ra temple complex and neighboring buildings located in Luxor.
The temple is unique because it was constructed over several centuries on both east-west and north-south axes, featuring six and four pylons respectively.
In addition to its massive size, the complex has a complex layout, with intervening halls, courts, and enclosures surrounding the sanctuary's nucleus.
Karnak's grandeur is breathtaking, and it is undoubtedly one of the most impressive structures in the world. Visitors can explore the temple's many features, including the Great Hypostyle Hall with its 134 massive columns, each standing 23 meters high.
The temple's various chambers, including the Temple of Khonsu and the Temple of Ptah, are also worth exploring. Karnak's grandeur and complexity are a testament to the ingenuity and skill of the ancient Egyptians, and a visit to the site is an unforgettable experience.
#2 Immerse yourself in Luxor Temple
Immerse yourself in Luxor Temple, situated in the heart of Luxor and connected to Karnak Temple by a 1.75-mile processional Avenue of Sphinxes.
Dedicated to the Theban Triad, the temple is 230 meters long and slender. Amun of Luxor, a divinely fertile figure, had a slightly different form and function than the Amun worshipped at Karnak.
The Avenue of Sphinxes, which once had 1,350 human-headed, lion-bodied statues, has been partially restored. Since 2005, 650 of them have been excavated and restored, with the project completed in 2017.
The excavation of Luxor Temple began in 1885, with the removal of houses. However, when it came to the mosque of Abu'l-Haggag, built-in 1077, the people of Luxor opposed its removal, so it was left in situ, hanging above a corner of the courtyard constructed by Ramesses II.
#3 Geek out at Luxor Museum
Located north along the Corniche, Luxor Museum is home to an impressive collection of ancient artefacts. Among the highlights are a small but noteworthy exhibit featuring the young pharaoh Tuthmosis III, as well as a stunning wall painting of Amenophis III.
Another wing is dedicated to Thebes during the New Kingdom and includes two royal mummies. On the ground floor near the exit, visitors can explore an important cache of statues unearthed in 1989 during excavations at Luxor Temple.
Meanwhile, the upper floor boasts a fascinating selection of reliefs from Akhenaten’s temple in Karnak, including magnificent heads of the pharaoh in the Amarnah style.
Also on display are various smaller objects discovered in Tutankhamun’s tomb, such as shabti and models of servants meant to serve the pharaoh in the afterlife.
#4 Head to the mountainside mortuary temples
During the 18th Dynasty, the pharaohs decided to conceal their tombs in the mountainside, deviating from the pyramid tradition in order to deter tomb robbers.
Each pharaoh also constructed their own mortuary temple at a distance from their burial site. While most of the mortuary temples have collapsed, the temples of Hatshepsut, Seti I, Ramesses II and Ramesses III still stand today.
Additionally, the two Colossi of Memnon serve as a visible reminder of the Temple of Amenhotep III. One of the colossi was hit by an earthquake in 27 BC and began making a singing noise at dawn, which the Greeks believed to be Memnon singing for his mother Eos. The Roman emperor Septimus Severus had the statue restored in AD 199, and the singing stopped.
#5 Explore the Valley of the Kings
In order to prevent tomb robbers, pharaohs during the 18th Dynasty opted to hide their tombs in the mountains rather than build pyramids. They also constructed mortuary temples away from the burial site.
Most of these temples have since crumbled, but the temples of Hatshepsut, Seti I, Ramesses II and Ramesses III still exist. Additionally, the two Colossi of Memnon serve as a reminder of the Temple of Amenhotep III.
#6 Seek out the Tombs of the Nobles
The Tombs of the Nobles, divided into five groups, offer a unique and worthwhile experience. Unlike the grandeur of royal tombs, these final resting places of priests, scribes, and dignitaries depict scenes of the joyous good life that they lived.
Thousands of tombs were found dating from the 6th Dynasty to the Graeco-Roman period, with only about 19 open to the public. Most consist of three rooms, with vivid paintings depicting naturalistic scenes of everyday life, such as agriculture, fishing, fowling, feasting, and celebrating.
These paintings offer a fascinating glimpse into ancient Egyptian culture. The tombs are located in the sandy foothills, providing a scenic and peaceful environment to explore. A visit to the Tombs of the Nobles provides a unique opportunity to learn about the lives and customs of the people of ancient Egypt.
#7 Be charmed by Esna
Esna is a charming rural town located about 50km (31 miles) south of Luxor. This town is unique because it was constructed on top of the ruins of the Temple of Khnum. The temple's entrance is accessible through a tourist souq that leads from the Nile.
Unfortunately, only the Hypostyle Hall has been uncovered, with its foundation level situated 8 meters (27ft) beneath the street. This discovery shows how sand and debris have accumulated over the years since the temple was deserted during the Roman era. In its prime, the temple would have been as large as the one in Edfu.
Dedicated to Khnum, the main god of Esna, the temple was initially built over an older structure by Ptolemy VI. The Romans later added the Hypostyle Hall, which features 24 columns decorated with floral capitals that are richly detailed.
#8 Uncover Edfu, the most well-preserved temple in Egypt
Edfu, a charming market town located on the west bank of the Nile, was known as Apollonopolis by the Greeks due to the worship of Horus-Apollo, the sun-god.
According to legend, Horus defeated Seth to avenge his father Osiris at this spot. The Ptolemaic Temple of Horus in Edfu is the most well-preserved temple in Egypt, with its grand entrance, exterior walls, courtyards, halls, and sanctum all remaining intact.
It is a testament to the excellence of ancient Egyptian architecture and engineering that this temple has endured for centuries in almost perfect condition.
#9 Head to Kom Ombo
Ombos, an ancient city located on a sandy bank where crocodiles used to bask, owes its existence to its strategic position on the Nile and its role as a crucial stop on the caravan routes from Nubia to Egypt, where gold, copper, camels, and African elephants were traded.
Though it gained significance during Ptolemaic times, its rise to prominence happened with the construction of the Temple of Kom Ombo in the 2nd century BC.
This temple is unique because it has two identical entrances, two linked hypostyle halls, and twin sanctuaries dedicated to two different gods: Haroeris or Horus the Elder, a falcon-headed god, and Sobek, the crocodile god.
Although older structures were discovered on the site, the main temple was built by Ptolemy VI Philometer and decorated by Ptolemy XII Neos Dionysos (80-58 BC and 55-51 BC).
#10 Unwind at Aswan
Aswan, situated at the end of the Nile, is a serene and welcoming destination that many travellers enjoy visiting for a few days. Though the town has expanded significantly in recent years and has become a lively hub for both tourists and locals alike, the area to explore is still primarily located along the Nile and on the islands.
Visitors can take a relaxing felucca ride around the islands, visit the botanical gardens to enjoy the fragrant blooms, and listen to the sweet voices of Nubian children singing as they watch the sun dip below the desert horizon.
To the south, there are also some lovely beaches where it is safe to swim on a hot day. Aswan offers a peaceful retreat for those looking to unwind and soak up the unique blend of cultures found in this enchanting city.
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Best places to stay in Upper Egypt
Since most tourists opt to stay on their cruise boats, there has been a lack of investment in hotels in Upper Egypt, but the situation is gradually improving.
Aswan provides a diverse range of lodging options that cater to all kinds of budgets.
Although Abu Simbel doesn't attract many overnight guests, a few establishments cater to package tours and provide a serene environment for those seeking ultimate tranquillity.
Edfu is an effortless day trip from both Luxor and Aswan, so its lodging options are meagre.
Browse the best hotels in Upper Egypt.
How to get around
Travelling in Upper Egypt is a hassle-free and convenient experience, as there are numerous transportation options for visitors. The following are some of the most frequently used methods for getting around.
Egypt's railway network is extensive and provides an excellent mode of transportation between major cities such as Cairo, Luxor, and Aswan.
Buses are a popular and cost-effective mode of transportation in Upper Egypt, with several bus companies operating in the region.
Taxis are readily available in most cities and towns in Upper Egypt, and offer a convenient and affordable way to get around.
Many drivers are willing to be booked for the day or for longer trips, but it's important to agree on a fare before embarking on the journey.
The Nile River flows through Upper Egypt, and there are several companies that offer river cruises and felucca rides on the Nile. These boat trips provide an excellent way to explore the historical and cultural sites of Upper Egypt, such as Luxor and Aswan.
How many days do you need in Upper Egypt?
A minimum of five to seven days would be recommended to explore the highlights of Upper Egypt. This is enough time to visit Luxor, Aswan, Abu Simbel, and the Valley of the Kings.
You’ll also have time to visit several temples and tombs, take a Nile River cruise, and participate in other activities like hot air balloon rides over the Valley of the Kings.
If you want to explore the region in depth, you can easily spend two weeks or more in Upper Egypt.
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What is the best time to visit?
The best time to visit Upper Egypt is during the winter months, from November to February. During this time, the temperatures are cooler and more pleasant, making it easier to explore the ancient ruins and temples without being overwhelmed by the heat.
In contrast, the summer months from May to September can be very hot and uncomfortable, with temperatures often exceeding 40°C (104°F). However, if you don't mind the heat, this can be a good time to visit as there are fewer crowds and lower prices for accommodations and tours.
Overall, the winter season is the best time to visit Upper Egypt, especially if you want to enjoy the sights comfortably without being affected by the heat.
Find out more about the best time to visit Egypt.
How to get here
Getting to Upper Egypt is fairly simple thanks to the availability of buses and trains that serve the region well. If time is of the essence, you can also fly into Luxor.
Numerous bus companies run between Luxor and Aswan. These are cheap and frequent.
Microbuses connect all the major cities in Upper Egypt, including Luxor and Aswan.
Train join Luxor and Aswan. You can also get a train to Cario. It's sensible to book ahead of time.
Most visitors will travel via felucca (sail boat) or a dahabiyya (houseboat) on a River Nile cruise.
Find out the best ways to get to Egypt.