Nile cruise in Egypt is one of the most interesting cruises in the world that you can take! You will have a chance to visit temples that are thousands of years old, see life as it is in the inner part of the country, and do all off that on board of a comfortable ship.
We got especially lucky, as we had a chance to travel together with our Egyptian friends, who not only were amazing company, but also took care of all the practicalities! We traveled as a group of 12 – myself and Jekabs, Mohammad with his family and Ahmed with his, so we also had a group of children – two older daughters, two tweens and a 4 year old boy and a nanny.
Even if you are not planning on a cruise between Luxor and Aswan, information below will be useful for travelers staying in Hurghada, Sharm el Sheikh, Marsa Alam and other cities in Egypt and who want to book a tour to the temples. Tour can be booked here.
Practical tips on booking your Luxor to Aswan cruise
Where to reserve the Nile cruise
The ship you book is one of the most important aspects of the trips that can make it or break it! I would recommend to go for a better option, if you can afford it, as you will still spend a significant amount of time on the boat. You don’t need to go on any special cruise booking site, just use regular Booking.com or Get Your Guide 2 day cruise or 4 days cruise (and many other options on the site). We were travelling at the most expensive time of the year, Christmas, so 4 night booking on Sonesta Princess cost us 1600 USD, for the two of us as a couple, sharing the room.
What was included in the price? Regular cabin on the ship, meals 3x a day, entrance to all of the temples with a guide and various activities on the ship. However, we got incredibly, incredibly lucky when our ship was taken off service just days before our tour, and Mohammad did the unbelievable – he secured an upgrade for us, and we had a chance to explore the area on board of the luxury Dahabiya Amirat, an exclusive, private-like ship that normally costs at least 3 times as much! On top of it all, we also got very good price for the tour overall, as he used his local connections. Already when mentioning Sonesta Princess to my other Egyptian friends, I heard “wow, it will be amazing”, then Dahabiya Amirat was just out of this world! Apart from the 12 of us, there was just one more passenger, a German tourist, with his guide, and we were served by a team of 22 people. Fun fact – Robert De Niro has been a guest on this ship! We had enormous cabins that had bathrooms with tubs, TV, and it looked better than many of the hotel rooms I have stayed in! Suite rooms had a balcony.
The meals: The food was absolutely extraordinary, freshly cooked for every meal by a team of cooks, a special Christmas dinner and even presents for Christmas! For breakfast we had fresh fruit, eggs, sausages, fresh juice. Lunch always had several options of salad, soup, main courses and desserts. A lovely afternoon tea with cookies was served later, and then a lush dinner below the deck. All the other meals were served on the deck. Every time we came back from a tour, we were also greeted with wet towels to freshen up and home made lemonade.
Note: drinks other than for breakfast & welcome lemonade are not included in the typical meal service, we solved that by stopping at a shop before boarding the ship and stocked up on water , soft drinks and tea.
Best time for a cruising the Nile: the most popular season is winter – December, January, February. In other seasons Luxor and Aswan can get unbearably hot during the day.
What to pack: you will need a jacket in winter! We ate breakfast covered head to toe every day, and then it get warm really quickly, so we would be walking around in short sleeves during the day, as temperatures would go over 25C. You will need sunscreen, sunglasses, a hat. Around 3pm it gets colder, and during the night it can drop to 9-14C. We didn’t wear any hats or gloves, but our Egyptian friends did. You can spend time on the deck during the day sunbathing or even using Jacuzzi, but we didn’t do that. We didn’t see any bugs, so no bug spray was needed. I do tend to get motion sickness, but not on this ship, here I was perfectly fine, and I didn’t need any medication. Bring medication that you may need, while the food on board is delicious and perfectly safe to eat, if you snack on the street you may get a different outcome. Bring some board games, as well as a good book for those cruising times. For mobile internet I used a local Vodafone sim card.
What surprised me: in many cafes in Aswan the bathrooms are only suitable for men, and you will have to walk to another cafe, directed by the waiters, to use the bathroom, if you are a woman.
Some prices in this article are quoted in euros, some in dollars. At the time of the trip, the exchange rate was 1 EUR=1.10 USD
Airplane tickets: we flew from Riga to Cairo with Turkish Airlines, 545 eur per person, bought the tickets about a month before the trip, so for Christmas period this is a good price. Luggage and food was included in the ticket. You can also fly directly to Luxor and fly away from Aswan.
Train: if you arrive to Cairo, you need to get to Luxor, where the cruise departs from, and then get back to Cairo from Aswan. We took a train from Ramses train station in Cairo, and sleeper train ticket costs us 80 dollars per person each way. Our friends got the tickets from a local tour agency, as there is a very active resale market and tickets disappear quickly. You can also purchase tickets from the international agencies like this one, but these will cost you a bit more.
We had a two person compartment, dinner and breakfast included (no drinks included other than breakfast tea). The compartment has a sink, the bathroom is common for the entire carriage. You get bed sheets, and the attendant will prepare your bed for you (you press a button on the wall to call them). There are electricity outlets in the train, but those don’t always work, so have a plan B. There is also a restaurant car on the train, but be warned – it is a smoking one. Our ride to Luxor was about 10h (they will wake you up an hour before the breakfast), and back from Aswan around 13h. We got Spanish train in one direction and a Western Germany one in the other. The German one was much better – it was rattling much less, and as the ride was longer as well, we got really good quality of sleep, despite the compartment being a bit smaller. On the way there on the Spanish train I did not sleep too well, as I kept waking up from all the noises and frequent stops.
Local sim card: we bought a local Vodafone sim card with 10 GB of data for 12 eur at the airport, you show your passport and they prepare everything for you, the booth was at the luggage area.
Visa: we used visa-on-arrival at the airport, paying 25 dollars per person, you get a sticker in the passport.
Hotels in Luxor and Aswan: before taking your cruise around lunch time, it is a good idea to do the hot air balloon tour in Luxor! So we stayed one night in Hilton Luxor, where breakfast is just spectacular! After finishing our cruise, we stayed in Aswan to visit the Abu Simbel temples. Here we stayed in Pyramisa Isis hotel, which I would not recommend. Cataract hotel here is famous for it’s high class, so better stay there.
Hotels in Cairo: If you are landing in Cairo, it is of course a good idea to explore Cairo as well! If you only plan to see the pyramids, you can stay in Giza, at the famous Marriott Mena House hotel with the view to the pyramids. I would recommend staying in Cairo, as you can also see the sights there and going to pyramids from Cairo will cost you few dollars by Uber. On the way there we stayed at the Intercontinental Semiramis, on the way back – Intercontinental City Stars.
Trip to Abu Simbel: if you are in the area, definitely visit this complex of two temples! It is a 4h drive by car from Aswan, same back, through the desert. Even if you will spend just an hour or two at the temple, it is very well worth it. There is also an airport nearby, so you can fly there. Tours start at about 50 euros per person, and can be booked here (also from other cities as Marsa Alam, Cairo, Luxor, Hurghada).
Hot air balloons in Luxor: it cost 70 dollars per person, from Sinbad tours. It is absolute must do, the views are incredible! They will pick you up at the hotel, take you to the location (with a small breakfast on the way, and you can also ask for box breakfast from the hotel), and then after you land, they will take you back. You can reserve a tour here as well as other tours in Egypt.
Uber: to and from Cairo, as well in Cairo we used Uber to move around, much cheaper than a cab! Unfortunately, not available in Aswan or Luxor, so you might need to pay the tourist price here. If you use Uber in Cairo, use code alinaa1865ui and get a discount for your first ride!
Entrance to sightseeing places: everything that is not included in the cruise program, you will need to pay entrance, which for foreigners is about 10 to 14 euros. You can also purchase sound & light show tickets for evening at the temple, for example for Karnak, here.
Day 1 – Luxor – Valley of the Queens, Colossi of Memnon, Karnak Temples & light show, Luxor Temple
Arriving to Luxor and Valley of the Queens
We arrived at Luxor quite tired after the train ride – it was a noisy ride, and we did stay quite long time at the restaurant carriage talking and catching up with our friends – so we didn’t sleep too much. We arrived at the hotel much too early to check in at around 7:30 am, so we left our bags and immediately headed out to do some sightseeing. For all of the first day we used the same mini bus we got at the train station. You don’t want to book a bus on the spot, you can also reserve guided tours in advance.
Initially our first day in Luxor was supposed to be very calm & easy, but as we had the change of the boat, we had to squeeze some of the sightseeing places to the first day, so already at 9 am we were at the Valley of the Queens. Most of the entrance tickets in Egypt are around 10 to 14 euros for foreigners, locals pay as little as 2 euros. Here at the entrance we needed to decide if we would like to see the Tomb of Nefertari. Already on the way to the Valley of the Queens, I was reading online about this place, as I had heard about Nefertiti before, but not Nefertari. Turns out, she was one of the most famous queens of them all, the wife of pharaoh Ramses II, and she died in 1255 BCE. Her tomb is considered to be one of the most beautiful ones in the entire valley, but also the entrance fee is absolutely preposterous – 78 eur! I think at nearly 8 euros per minute (as they only let you in for 10 minutes) this is the most expensive place that I have ever been to.
The place really is spectacular, the tomb is sometimes called the Sistine Chapel of Ancient Egypt, and is one of the best preserved ones in the valley, but it has also undergone significant renovations. The paintings have natural color, so bacteria and humidity have done damage. Especially stunning are the details – thousands of stars in the tomb, and depiction of the queen herself – her eyebrows, the shape of her eyes and blush. She was considered to be an exceptionally beautiful woman, called the beautiful companion, the lady grace, and the sweetness of love. Ramses II called her the one for whom the sun shines.
The tomb is beautiful, but it is very difficult to enjoy it – here we see for the first time the local form of harassing hospitality. Even if you didn’t ask for it, you will be shown supposedly the best views and angles (which you can easily spot yourself if the guards would just leave you alone!), tell you stories of the place that sometimes differ completely from what you can find in official sources, and then, of course, demand payment. Baksheesh. The bribe. The tip. We later see this form of extortion in all of the touristy places – bathrooms, temples, any corner that has better views than the other, random guys will attempt to sneak in your view to get taken picture of, as well as offer to take pictures where you are not allowed, and even demand extra pay for places where you already have purchases the special 17 eur photography permit (and that was easily in 4-5 temples alone!). If all our Egyptian friends visited the bathroom for free, then we got harassed even in places that seemingly had no people- suddenly a guy would appear behind me, yelling money, money, money. I saw another visitor hand him a few notes, and the guy demanded more. The visitor said he didn’t have any more cash, to which the guy demanded to give him the pen visible from his shirt’s pocket! Welcome to Egypt. These interactions reminded me of something I once read in the unofficial guide of Cuba, where tourist is the dollar tree, and noone would pass that tree without having shaken off every single last leaf. We are the dollar tree here. All prices are quoted to tourists at least double, and without any attempt to bargain for less, when we would leave, as sometimes can be seen elsewhere. We had several attempts to sell us a can of Red Bull for 5 euros. Being part of the group, even regular taxis booked by our friends demanded much higher prices. In the end, they were told that we are married to their (actual) spouses and that we are part of the family. Then they finally stood down.
It is interesting to see how various forms of baksheesh are demanded from the men mostly, and also how local women will never be accidentally touched by such touts. We were foreigners, it did not apply to us, and we got grabbed and harassed any time we stepped 2 steps away from our friends.
Seeing other tombs was less impressive than Nefertari tomb, and soon we headed back to the minibus. Of course, here again was a group of touts, and everything we heard throughout the entire trip, could be summarized into one of the sentences below:
- Hey, is that your queen next to you? (addressed to my husband)
- You look like Egyptians (we don’t, and this was addressed to any person walking by)
- My friend! Po-russki? Polski (trying to guess which of the Slavic nations we were from, of course, noone would ever guess we are from Latvia)
- The very direct “how can I free you from your money?”
- And our Egyptians got “hey, I remember you from school!” (our Egyptians did not study here, and obviously had nothing in common with the touts)
All of these were attempts to strike a conversation, to correct them, to answer the question. We didn’t answer anything, or just said “shukran, la” which means “thank you, no”. Don’t look in their eyes. And don’t look at the merchandise. If you are wearing sunglasses, you will be harassed less.
Colossi of Memnon
After the tombs in the valley we stopped at the Colossi of Memnon, built 1350 BCE. We started to get accustomed to seeing temples and statues older than 3000 years at every side of the road. Monuments built in the past 2000 years started to feel too new and not as interesting.
Colossi is all that remains from a once magnificent temple. Soon after it was built, around 1200 BCE, a strong earthquake shattered the temple. Another earthquake 27 BCE just about ruined everything else remaining, but Romans tried to repair the monument. Interestingly, the first earthquake opened massive cracks in the land and many of the sculptures fell in, and now have been discovered in nearly pristine state. After the second earthquake, one of the colossi was cracked and in February and March, around sunrise time, a sound could be heard coming from it. This is how the legend of the signing colossi was born. The colossi was believed to have oracle powers and it was great luck to hear it sing. The myth traveled far outside the region, and even several Roman emperors had attended the place! It is not entirely understood how the sound originated, but it is believed that dew evaporating from the porous stone might be the reason. After the renovation of colossi, the sound stopped.
The Most Important Sightseeing places in Luxor – Karnak Temples and Luxor Temple
The next stop for us was the Karnak temple complex, and it was one of the highlights of the entire trip! It is the second largest complex of temples in the world after Angkor Wat, and the second most visited place in Egypt after the pyramids of Giza. It is interesting that around 30 pharaohs built it, adding new structures and demolishing the old ones, and they begun building it over 4000 years ago, and continued to improve it for about 2000 years. The most impressive area of the temple is the Hypostle hall with 134 columns, which used to be colored (a few still have remnants of original paint at the top). We later watch videos online about how the temple used to look like at its prime – incredible what modern technology lets you experience!
Next we headed to Luxor temple, and here it was surprising to see how Alexander the Great was added to the god depictions on the walls, when he conquered Egypt. A few walls have remnants of Christian heritage, when this was turned into a church. The area of the temple was almost fully buried by silt when Nile flooded and soon part of the walls were used by a mosque sitting quite much higher than the general temple level. Nowadays several dams have been built on the Nile, so silt no longer moves this far. The land around still is considered to be one of the most fertile ones in the world, but now artificial fertilizer is used.
We come back to Karnak in the evening again – to experience the light show, and learn about the history of the place. It is fascinating to hear about festivals celebrated here, the hidden obelisk of Hatshepsut, and the most powerful female pharaoh. After the light show we head for dinner at a lovely restaurant called Sofra – it serves very good food!
Day 2 – Hot air balloons, Valley of the Kings, Temple of Hatshepsut, and boarding the cruise ship
Hot Air Balloon in Luxor
Our next morning starts very early as we head to the hot air balloon tour, and all of us are experiencing this ride for the first time! We learn everything about the safety measures, and soon see that we are especially lucky – our balloon basket fits only 16 people, in comparison most other balloons have 32 people capacity! The duration of the ride is from 30 minutes to 1 h, depending on the weather conditions you get.
Dozens of balloons rise up nearly at the same time, and we are worried – will we see the sunrise? We did. Everyone does! The views were out of this world, and it is a chance to see the area around and understand the scale of the ancient city better, as well as appreciate how green the belt around Nile is, and how deserted is the rest of the country. The other balloons land there, in the desert, but we land on the green area below, in the field, the so called “soft landing”, being stopped by the lush green sugarcane fields – this area produces most of the sugarcane in the country!
The Valley of Kings
After the balloons it is time to see one of the most famous places in Egypt, the Valley of Kings where pharaohs were buried for over 500 years, you can also book this tour from other cities in Egypt, such as Hurghada. Nearly all of the tombs were robbed, but luckily the Tutankhamun tomb was discovered nowadays and the contents of this tomb have been especially important for the scientists. At the moment 63 tombs have been identified, but most likely, more will be discovered, as Thutmose II and Ramses VIII tombs have not been found still. Right now 18 tombs are open to tourists, but not all at once can be visited – your ticket lets you go in 3 tombs per visit, and Tutankhamun tomb is extra.
From everything that we see here, I am mostly impressed by the depiction of the goddess Nwt, the stunning drawings on the ceilings, how she eats sun in the evening, it travels through her belly, and then she gives birth to it in the morning. From my previous visit to Cairo, I remember well one of the sarcophagi at the Egyptian museum that has a depiction of her on the lid. She was the protector of the dead, as they entered the afterlife.
The Temple of Hatshepsut
Our next stop is the stunning temple of Hatshepsut, dedicated to the most well known female pharaoh. Before and after here there have been other female rules, but she was the most powerful and most well known one. She started as a wife and sister of Thutmose II, but then took over the seat from her stepson Thutmose III. This later resulted in scraping off her name and depiction from the temples. Interestingly, she used to appear in public dressed as a man and with a fake beard, and in temples she is depicted both as a man and a woman.
Cruising on the Nile- cruise ship Dahabiya Amirat
Finally it is time to board our ship to cruise the Nile! I feel a bit nervous – will I get motion sickness? But Dahabiya Amirat exceeds all of our expectations! We have stellar cabins, each has a window, a separate bathroom with a tub and while not plenty of space, is still spacious enough (I have stayed in much, much smaller rooms in New York City!) I am especially happy about the bathroom, as I was not expecting much, but here they have thought of everything – hairdryer, soft towels, and our days on decks are spent leisurely enjoying the views. The boat doesn’t even use it’s engines for us to have a quieter ride, and we are towed by another boat! We use the sails only on one occasion when it really gets windy.
Eating spectacular food at a beautifully served table, drinking evening tea and watching sunset, palms, fishermen and kids at the banks of the river, our special Christmas dinner and the Nubian show. Later we laugh that our next trip should just be a boat ride, without all the temples, to truly enjoy the time!
Day 3 – Temple of Edfu, Nubian show and Egyptian shisha
The Temple of Edfu
On the next day, our first stop after getting on board is for the Temple of Edfu, one of the best preserved Egyptian temples in the region. It is relatively younger, finished 57 BCE, and depicts life during the period of Hellenism. Our guide claims that the recipe for obtaining essence for perfume is described here on the walls, and since the French were the first to see it, they got it for themselves and that’s why they dominate perfume market to this day!
I notice the little scratches on the walls – turns out, there used to be gold plates, which later were stolen. The ceiling of the temple is black – people used to lit fires, as well as air pollution turns it dark.
Nubian Show on Board of the Sailboat
In the evening we see the Nubian show, a performance by a group of men, where we get a chance to see them dance, hear them sing and play musical instruments, as well as have a chance to dance with them, the evening passes quickly! Then we dock in Kom Ombo, and join our friends to see one of the shisha places. The evening is quiet, no other boats have docked, and the place stays open just for us!
Day 4 – Kom Ombo and Philae temples, The High Dam, Nubian Village
Temple of Kom Ombo
On the next day we are at the Kom Ombo temple, and it looks quite different than the other temples we have seen. This temple is for crocodile god Sobek and falcon god Horus, unique, as is a shared temple, symmetric, and used to function as a clinic, as there are depictions of surgical instruments on the walls. Unfortunately, blocks from this temple have been used to build sugarcane factory, so a lot of it has been destroyed.
Temple of Philae
When we dock in Aswan, our destination of the cruise, our first stop is the Philae temple. It is unique because of the building of a dam it was flooded, including some of the drawings and carvings in the walls. With the involvement of UNESCO, it was decided to move the temple in 1960, first, building a dam around it, and then drying it for two years, and then cutting it in 40 000 pieces and moving to the island nearby, where it is still to this day.
At this point we had seen quite a few temples already, so one of my strongest memories of the temple is about a man who feeds the cats here. We spend half of the time allocated to exploring the temple, with him. Unfortunately, there isn’t too much time allocated to explore the places, and we do sometimes feel a bit rushed, but that probably is always the case with the cruises.
Safety in Egypt and the Dams of Nile
When we are leaving the island, we see how other tourists from the big cruise groups travel – each group has a security guard with an automatic gun. “Is it safe?” is one of the most common questions I hear from my Latvian friends. Since the revolution in 2011, the number of tourists in the region has decreased significantly, and while it is going up, it is not at the former level, and is sometimes cited as a reason for issues in renovating the historic objects – there just isn’t enough money.
When we ask our Egyptians about safety, we hear that it is absolutely safe and also very cheap right now. However, you should refer to guidance of your own country’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs or other institutions to make your decision on travelling or not.
There are many security checkpoints, when we traveled. Armed guards checking driver’s licences – at the entrance to the hotels, on the dam. With a European passport you will not get any questions.
The dam is another sensitive topic. Because of the dams on the river Nile, more than 20 historically important temples have been flooded. However, our guide tells us that at the moment of building of the High Dam, it provided for more than 100% of energy needed for the country. It also permits to control the water flow of the river. Right now, it is a very, very sensitive topic, because Ethiopia is building a new dam which will impact Egypt and Sudan. The government of Egypt believes the reservoir will be filled up too quickly, in only 6 years, and they offer to do it during 10. Historically, the rights to the water in the Nile belong to Egypt and Sudan, but now Ethiopia objects to the decades old agreement and says that 65% of its inhabitants don’t have access to electricity. But Nile being the artery of Egypt, where only 7% of the land is inhabited, it is also an important topic for Egyptians.
We see the Egyptian high dam, and hear stories of crocodiles on the other side of the dam growing 6 m tall in the pristine waters. Unfortunately, on the side of the dam we cruised, the water is not that clean – we see a lot of garbage floating around, however, otherwise the water is quite clear.
Nubian Village, Henna drawings and Crocodiles
With the building of the dam, another issue arose. Nubian tribes that inhabited the banks of the river had to be moved, and they were not happy with the new lands they got. We visit the new Nubian villages, and here most of the income for the people is from tourism. You can go an have a cup of tea here, get a henna tattoo and take a picture with the crocodile . Nubians breed crocodiles and turtles for these purposes, they are the only ones allowed to engage with these animals due to their special status. We kindly decline to take pictures with the animals.
Henna is also not an easy topic – many guidebooks talk about dangers of black henna, how it can cause severe allergic reactions that can result in death. So we also politely decline these, but see a lot of fun when others are getting them.
Later we walk in the small village and see shisha places, the market where next to colorful spices you can also buy bright blue laundry soap, and numerous hand (or not so hand) made souvenirs. It is fun for a few hours, but if you are not into buying souvenirs, there isn’t much else to do.
The second Nubian village feels less touristic and more for regular people. But it does startle us, when we see a store fridge with three sets of locks – chain, pole and a massive separate lock. Must be an issue.
Day 5 – The Temple of Abu Simbel
Abu Simbel Temples
It is time for our last tour during the trip. A 4 hour private car drive to the desert, to the very border with Sudan (just 40 km away), to see the famous temple. Mirages in the desert, the wonders of the water canals given as a present by Emirati sheikh, and the ghost towns that are built for Nubians but they refuse to move there. It is a long ride that starts early, and for us, more on the tall side, it isn’t a very comfortable ride. We have our breakfast bags from the boat, and have a lovely meal at a cafe in the desert, and manage to snap some beautiful pictures!
Abu Simbel is a set of two temples that every Egyptian person asked me about, when they heard that I am going to Egypt, as it is that famous and that beautiful! Same as Philae temple, these were moved to a new location, and it was one of the most massive engineering projects in the 60-ties, costing over 40 million dollars back then (300 million in today’s dollars). Now the temples of Ramses II and Nefertari are 65 m higher than they used to be, and this has impacted a special feature of the temple.
Two days a year direct sunlight reaches the depths of the temple and shines on three out of the four sculptures there. It never shines on the fourth one, as it is the god of the darkness. Now it shines one day later than it used to, and the festivities to celebrate this happens on 22nd of February, so if you have a chance to visit then – it is a good, but crowded time! Some believed it used to be to coronation day of the king, some say it is the beginning of spring. But it is also believed that the original date 3 thousand years ago might have been different.
These two temples are especially well preserved in my memories, and that is also thanks to the guide, who tells us where to see what in the temple – Ramses II giving a lotos flower to Nefertari, the colossi of Ramses in different ages, and how a broken colossi was agreed not to be put back to preserve the original state of the temple. No guiding is allowed inside of the temple, so we sit outside and listen to her stories there, and then head inside and try to find the drawings for ourselves. Out of the entire trip, this is my favorite temple, along the Karnak temples.
Day 6 – botanical gardens, the market and the many boats
The Final day – in Conclusion
Our last day in Aswan is spent walking in the botanical gardens (to and from which we take different types of boats) and the Aswan markets, looking at the cars on the streets, like from a 70-ties film, and drinking cold hibiscus drinks, eating the very hard dates and listening to the noises around us. It is time to board the train to Cairo in the evening and we keep thinking about everything we have seen. Various temples. Heard legends and learned so much about the history, and also realized how little we know still! It feels like we have a bit of homework to do, read books on the topic, watch movies, and most importantly, cherish the memories of the time spent together on the boat. Because it was magnificent!
Visiting Abu Dhabi in spring