Aswan is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen. This small, riverside town is the only access point to the temples of Abu Simbel, home to not one, but two important dams, and it served as the inspiration for Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile. While the name may be unfamiliar to those who have never traveled to Egypt, you’re about to find out why it needs to make its way to the top of your “must go” list.
Also helpful: How to Pack for Two Weeks in Egypt in a Carry-on
Visit the Temple of Philae
Would you believe you can take the Love Boat to the Temple of Love in Aswan? It’s true! Okay, so it’s a motorboat, and it’s the Temple of Philae.
This temple dates back to 300 B.C., and it was built for Isis, the goddess of love. She was married to Osiris, the god of fertility. Osiris was killed by his own brother and cut up into dozens of pieces. Isis found pieces of him all over Egypt and brought them back here, to the place where this temple was built. Well, all his pieces but one very important piece. The piece that makes him the god of fertility.
Isis had to make that piece herself, so she could become pregnant with their child, Horus. You’ll recognize him all over Egypt; he’s the man the the head of a falcon. Anyway, Philae is said to be the burial place of Osiris. Also, it was already half-underwater by the time UNESCO was able to rescue it from Lake Nasser, created by the Aswan High Dam. Like Abu Simbel (below), it was important enough to save and was moved to higher ground.
Dine at Benben
This was such a cool place to have lunch! Because we were already at the Temple of Philae, it was just a short motorboat ride to this new, exclusive, secluded hotel and restaurant called Benben. It is only accessible by boat, making it a peaceful place to enjoy epic views of Lake Nasser while dining on Nile fish. Be sure to get the date pie, since Aswan is known for its dates!
Keep eating: The Best Foods You Have to Try in Egypt
Tour the Nubian Museum
Why is there a Nubian Museum in Aswan? Because Aswan is in Nubia! It’s a region that overlaps southern Egypt and northern Sudan. It was important for the ancient Egyptians to rule over Nubia in the past because it was so rich in gold. After all, “Nubia” means “Land of Gold.” Fun fact: Nubia is also referred to as the Land of Kush in the Bible.
This award-winning museum is laid out very well, in chronological order, starting from pre-dynastic Egypt–as in, pre-ancient, ancient Egypt. Ramses II was the Pharaoh who conquered Nubia, which is part of why Abu Simbel is located where it is. His favorite wife, Nefertari, was also Nubian. The museum follows the region’s history from the Pyramid Age, Greek Rule, Roman rule, Christian times, Islamic conquest, all the way to present-day Nubia.
Read on: What to Know Before You Visit Egypt
Check Out the Unfinished Obelisk
Life lesson: Your mistake could one day become a tourist attraction.
Queen Hatshepsut ordered this obelisk, which, if finished, would have been the largest in ancient Egyptian history. The problem? It got cracked. So, the artisans making it cut their losses and moved on. Why does it matter? Because this unfinished obelisk shows researchers how other obelisks were made. We have evidence of the ancient Egyptian techniques for working with stone, all thanks to a great big mistake!
Visit the Nile Museum
It seemed small at first, but then this museum seemed to keep going and going. It’s kid-friendly, with life-size models of animals of the Nile, past and present, but also interesting for adults. There are models of both Aswan dams and information about them, but also interesting is the history of the Nile. In ancient Egypt, Habi was the god of the Nile, and it was considered a sin to pollute the water.
My favorite part, though? That would be the aquarium upstairs. That’s where you’ll find some Nile perch, catfish, and a Tersa: A meat-eating turtle!
Keep reading: Why Egypt Elite is the Best Tour Company in Egypt
Travel by Felucca Boat
Feluccas can be found up and down the Nile, including in Luxor and Cairo, but Aswan is the best place to take your sail. Why? For one, the water is clearest and cleanest here because of the dams. For another, I have it on good authority that Nubians are the best Felucca captains! Sailing like this was a beautiful way to see the sites, but it’s quite slow. Keep that in mind when deciding between motor boat or felucca for transportation!
Keep reading: What to Know Before You Visit Aswan
Visit Kitchener’s Island and Aswan Botanical Garden
Egypt isn’t all desert, you know! Also called El Nabatat, Kitchener’s Island is home to 749 plants from all over the world. Every plant is labeled with its name and original location. It’s a nice place for a walk, but fair warning, you’ll be approached by people selling things toward the beginning of the Botanical Garden. Just keep walking! You can get here by motor boat or felucca, depending on how much time you have.
Explore Elephantine Island
You know the cool thing about Egypt? They’re always finding new things. They’re also often piecing those things together. The Temple of Satet, who was the personification of the River Nile, dates back to 3200 B.C. (you read that right)! But for years, people used the stones from the temple to build their own homes on the island. That has made the restoration project long and difficult. The smooth blocks in the photo below are filling in for the pieces that are missing!
While you’re there, head to the east bank of the island and check out one of two Nilometers on the island. It was used for thousands of years to measure the Nile floods and the river’s clarity. Now that the Aswan High Dam keeps the floods at bay, you can walk down the massive measuring tube and see it for yourself!
Even more here: Everything a Traveler Needs to Know about the Nile
Travel to Abu Simbel
One of the most impressive sights you’ll see south of the pyramids is Abu Simbel. (Another is Karnak temple, so don’t miss my post about what to see in Luxor!) The temples for Ramses II and his favorite wife, Nefertari, were rescued from the bottom of what would become Lake Nasser after the Aswan High Dam was built in the 1960s. They were literally cut, multi-ton block by multi-ton block, and moved to higher ground.
Aswan is the gateway for either driving or flying to see them. Several 40-minute flights go daily, and even the direct flights from Cairo still have to stop in Aswan first! (“Direct” is not the same as “nonstop.”) Looking to save some money? You can also hire a driver, but keep in mind that it’s four hours… Each way!
More here: Your Ultimate Guide to Visiting Abu Simbel
Cruise the Nile
Nile cruises always either begin or end in Aswan. It was one of the most relaxing things I’ve ever done, and it was such a unique way to see some sites! We chose to take a traditional dahabiya boat, instead of a larger cruise ship, because, of course, I love the historic option. It’s also more luxurious and much quieter than a cruise ship.
I definitely recommend a dahabiya, but either way, I hope you’ll take a cruise to or from Aswan to see it the way ancient Egyptians would have done!
More info here: What It’s Like Cruising on a Traditional Egyptian Dahabiya Boat
Stay at the Sofitel Legend Old Cataract Hotel
This is the best hotel in the world. The best treatment of guests, the best rooms, the best views, the best food, the best staff, the best of everything. I’ve stayed in “nice” hotels all over the world, but the Old Cataract Hotel makes all the rest pale in comparison. I may have been ruined on hotels forever. Whatever else you do in Egypt, be sure to spend at least a couple of nights here.
Why did we make it a priority to stay here? Aside from the fact that my husband likes luxury hotels (and I’m ever-grateful!), Agatha Christie stayed here for an entire year. The suite where she stayed is a stop on the hotel tour, original furniture and epic view included. Why is that a big deal? During that stay, she wrote one of her most famous murder mysteries: Death on the Nile!
All the details: Staying at the Old Cataract Hotel, Aswan, Egypt
Want more? Check out my dedicated Egypt Page!
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