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. For many at the end of a Nile trip, Aswan is a laid-back, warm place that is good for lingering for a few days. The best part to visit is still along the Nile and on the islands.
Travel tips for visiting Aswan
The souqs are more relaxed and less pushy than in other towns in Egypt, 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. During the Old Kingdom, a few travellers ventured further up the Nile in quest of gold, slaves and the occasional pygmy, leaving records of their missions inscribed on the rocks among the islands, but most expeditions were to Elephantine, the island in the middle of the river at the foot of the cataract.
Yebu, the island's main town, was the Old Kingdom border town, and as the Nile was believed to spring up from under the First Cataract, it was also an important religious centre. The excellent winter climate and beautiful setting of Aswan were well known in the classical world and were described by several writers. They mentioned the temples, gardens and vineyards of Elephantine, which were supposed to produce grapes all year round.
Best things to do in Aswan
From sunset cocktails to measuring the rise and fall of the Nile with the Nilometer, these are the best things to do in Aswan.
#1 Watch the sunset at the Old Cataract Hotel
Modern hotels have replaced the grand old ladies of the past in Aswan, although the magnificent Old Cataract Hotel opposite Elephantine Island survives. In fact it was closed from 2008 to 2011 for a complete restoration and is now the Sofitel Legend Old Cataract Hotel.
Built for European travellers in 1899 by travel entrepreneur Thomas Cook, who had also gone on the company’s pioneering Nile cruises, the hotel was so popular that overflow guests were housed in tents until a 1900 enlargement doubled the number of rooms.
Illustrious early guests included the Duke of Connaught, Tsar Nicholas II, the Aga Khan, Winston Churchill, Howard Carter, and of course, Agatha Christie, who set portions of her novel Death on the Nile at the hotel (the 1978 film was shot there). A drink on the terrace at sunset, or afternoon tea, is still a must as the views over the islands on the Nile are unsurpassed.
#2 Browse Sharia el Souk, Aswan’s souq
Parallel to the Nile is the long stretch of Aswan’s souq (Sharia el Souk), which still retains a hint of Africa. The little shops sell cotton, karkadeh (hibiscus flowers for infusion, the local drink here), Nubian baskets, dates, ebony cane and crocheted skull caps. The best time to visit is when the heat of the day has died down, late afternoon, or in the morning.
Softly spoken Nubians while away their time in front of coffee shops, and women carry home the day’s shopping on their heads, wearing their traditional thin black dresses with flounces trailing behind. Not so long ago, when they reached their villages by walking across the Nubian sand dunes, these flounces brushed away their footprints in the sand.
#3 Visit the beautiful tombs of Fatimid Cemetery
As in so many places in Egypt, Aswan has a multitude of burial grounds from different eras of Egyptian history. Hemmed in between the Nubian Museum and Unfinished Obelisk, for example, is a vast cemetery, known as the Fatimid Cemetery, with beautiful domed tombs dating from the 7th to the 12th century AD.
In 2014 it was reopened to the public after an eight-year renovation that included setting up a visitor’s path with signboards explaining the history of some of the 30 tombs – the caretaker will show visitors the most interesting ones for a tip.
The earliest bears the name of a deceased person who was buried in AD 686, shortly after the Arab Conquest to Egypt, while the last bears the name of someone buried towards the end of the 12th century, a few years before the fall of the Fatimid Caliphate.
#4 Gawp at the Unfinished Obelisk
On the other side of the road, across from the cemetery, is one of Aswan’s many quarries where the Unfinished Obelisk can still be seen, found exactly where it was semi-carved from the solid bedrock.
The 42-metre-long (137ft) obelisk would have been the single heaviest piece of stone in ancient Egypt had the workers not discovered a crack while hewing it out of the rock. The stone had no reusable value to the stonemasons of the day, and it was totally abandoned, possibly during the reign of Queen Hapshepsut and the 18th Dynasty.
#5 Wander around the pleasant 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 Track the Nilometer
From the Old Kingdom onwards, a strict watch was kept on the rise and fall of the Nile, measured by the Nilometer, which was one of the important functions of the resident governor of Elephantine.
Up until the 19th century, when Western technology started to revolutionise the management of water, frequent and regular readings were taken from the Nilometer at the southern end of Elephantine Island.
Those responsible for the cultivation of crops and the maintenance of embankments and canals would thus know in advance what to expect, while other administrators could calculate tax assessments.
According to an interesting text at Edfu, if the Nile rose 24 cubits at Elephantine, it would provide sufficient water to irrigate the land satisfactorily. If it did not, disaster would surely ensue. Just such a failure, which lasted for seven years. It is recorded on a block of granite a short way upstream.
#7 Seek the truth at the Temples of Khnum
Archaeological remains of the Temples of Khnum on the southern end of Elephantine are sketchy, but there is evidence that Tuthmosis III, Amenhotep II, Ramesses III, Alexander IV (the son of Alexander the Great), Augustus Caesar and Trajan all had a hand either in their construction or maintenance.
Parts of the temples were still standing when the French expedition arrived in 179, but were demolished about 20 years later by Muhammad Ali’s son Ibrahim (at this time viceroy of Upper Egypt) who subsequently used the temple’s fine white stone to build himself a palace.
#8 Listen to the “Voice of the Nile” at the Temple of Satet
The nearby Temple of Satet was built by Queen Hatshepsut for the goddess of fertility and inundation. Beneath the ruins is a shaft leading to a natural whirl hole, the noise of which was revered as the “Voice of the Nile”. Aramaic papyri found in the settlement record the presence of a large Jewish colony on the island.
#9 Sail to Aswan Botanical Garden by felucca
The nicest way to see the sights on the west bank is to take a felucca, although faster motorboats are available, too. The feluccas usually stop at the Aswan Botanical Garden on Kitchener’s Island, also known as El Nabatat Island.
In return for his military achievements in Sudan, Consul-General Kitchener was presented with this island in 1898, for which he collected exotic plants and seeds from across the world and laid out the gardens.
It has 25 different varieties of palm trees, and the main central pathway paved with pink granite is shadowed by two long rows of particularly impressive royal palms. Many visitors to Aswan are not aware that Kitchener’s Island even exists, simply because it is hidden from view from the east bank by the much larger Elephantine Island.
#10 Climb the cliffs to see The Tombs of the Nobles
The governors of Elephantine and other high-ranking officials had their tombs cut out of the cliffs on the west bank of the Nile at a spot called Qubbat al-Hawa in Arabic, or “Dome of the Winds”, which can clearly be seen from the Corniche on the east bank.
The Tombs of the Nobles of the Old and Middle Kingdoms depict interesting scenes of daily life, and the views over Aswan and the Nile alone are worth the steep climb.
#11 Seek out the ruins of Deir Anba-Samaan
The ruins of Deir Anba-Samaan are nestled in sand dunes high on the hill opposite Elephantine Island. Once built on two levels of mud brick, this 7th-century monastery was first dedicated to the local saint, Anba Hedra; it was rebuilt in the 10th century and rededicated to St Simeon.
The monastery once provided for about 300 monks, who used it as a base for forays into Nubia in the hope of converting the Nubians to Christianity. From where the feluccas and motorboats stop on the west bank, the road up to the monastery is a fairly steep 30-minute walk.
Alternatively, camel handlers wait on the river bank and offer a (hard-negotiated) 20-minute camel ride up, which can be very enjoyable while taking in the tremendous views towards the desert and back down on to the river.
#12 See the pink Aga Khan Mausoleum
Aga Khan III, Sir Sultan Muhammed Shah, the grandfather of Kerim Aga Khan and distinguished leader of the Isma’ili sect of Islam for many years, loved Aswan for its pleasant therapeutic, timeless tranquillity and had his domed mausoleum built high up on the bluffs overlooking the river. He was buried in the Aga Khan Mausoleum in 1957.
The pink limestone building is a close relative of those of his ancestors, the Fatimids, whose followers’ mausoleums are on the east bank. In 2000, his wife Begum Om Habibeh Aga Khan was also buried here. She is remembered for her daily ritual of placing a red rose upon her husband’s tomb while she was in Egypt; when she was away, she arranged for the ritual to be carried out by the gardener. The tomb itself is closed to the public but the site commands wonderful views over Aswan. The couple’s white villa can be seen just below the tomb.
#13 Check out a Nubian village on Sehel Island
Further south, just north of the Aswan Dam, is Sehel Island, home to a Nubian village. On the island’s southern tip, on top of a cliff, are more than 200 inscriptions from 18th and 19th Dynasty nobles and traders who passed here on their way to Nubia and wanted to make their mark.
One inscription is much older, however, dating from the 3rd Dynasty. It is called Famine Stela, and is an inscription of 42 columns of hieroglyphs that tells of a seven-year period of drought and famine, thought to be engraved during the Ptolemaic Kingdom (332–30 BC).
It’s located right at the top of the pile of granite boulders where the other inscriptions are, so expect a bit of a scramble up. The way to get here is by motorboat or felucca. On the way there is a great beach on the west bank opposite Saluga Island.
Best areas to stay
A popular destination for Nile cruises, most visitors will stay aboard their boat. But there are a handful of decent places to stay in Aswan, including some long-term rentals. Here's where to stay.
The majority of the best hotels are located along Kornish El Nile, on the river's edge with a smattering of cheaper options in the town itself.
There are scores of cheap hotels on Elephantine Island, mainly bunched up to the southwest.
Browse the best hotels in Aswan.
Best restaurants and bars
There are a variety of restaurants in Aswan, offering everything from traditional Egyptian cuisine to international dishes, and the culinary scene is growing.
Around Aswan Train Station
There is a cluster of Egyptian restaurants and a couple of international chains towards the north of the city, around Aswan Train Station.
Kornish Al Nile
With banging views of the Nile, Kornish Al Nile has a handful of good restaurants as well as fast food places.
There is a smattering of tourist-focused food places on Elephantine Island, mainly towards the north.
How to get around
The best way to get around Aswan is by using a combination of different transportation modes, depending on your needs and preferences.
For short distances, walking is the most convenient option, allowing you to explore the city's attractions at your own pace.
Taxis are readily available and affordable and offer a convenient way to travel around the city. They're also handy if you want to book a tour of the major sights in a day. Agree on the fare beforehand.
Darting along Aswan's major roads, microbuses are cheap and reliable.
There are two public ferries that go to Elephantine Island, plus a third that to the Tombs of the Nobles from nearby the train station.
How many days do you need in Aswan?
To see the main attractions of Aswan, you'll need to stay for 2-3 days. On day one, visit the Philae Temple, one of the most impressive temples in Egypt, which is located on an island in the Nile River. Afterward, explore the Nubian Museum to learn about the history and culture of the Nubian people.
On day two, take a boat tour to visit the Abu Simbel temples, which are located about 3.5 hours from Aswan. These temples are a UNESCO World Heritage site and are known for their stunning architecture and historical significance. Day three visit the Unfinished Obelisk, a huge stone obelisk that was never completed, and nearby Elephantine Island to explore the local markets and bazaars.
Looking for inspiration for your trip? Talk to our Egypt travel experts.
Best time of year to visit Aswan
The optimal time to visit Aswan, Egypt, is during the winter season from November to February when temperatures are more moderate and favorable for outdoor activities. The daytime temperature averages around 25°C (77°F), while the nights are cooler.
The summer months from May to September can be very hot, with temperatures often exceeding 45°C (113°F). This intense heat can make it challenging to explore outdoor attractions during the day. However, if you don't mind the heat, this is the low season, and you may enjoy fewer crowds and lower prices.
It's important to note that Ramadan, the Muslim holy month of fasting, is observed in Aswan and throughout Egypt. During this time, many restaurants and cafes may be closed during the day, and some activities may be limited.
Find out more about the best time to visit Egypt.
How to get here
Aswan is well-served domestically, but the best way to get here is by train. Foreigners are prohibited to travel between cities by microbus.
Aswan Airport is served by domestic flights from Cairo and a handful of other cities. It's around 15km southwest of the town itself. Take a taxi to the centre.
Most travellers will arrive in Aswan by train. The line runs from Cairo via Luxor with the overnight Watania Sleeping Train a daily option too.
Most Nile cruises will start in Aswan, including felucca trips.
Find out the best ways to get to Egypt.