With this post, I’d like to offer practical tips to help you organize a trip to visit the Nile region in the south of Egypt. I couldn’t find a title that contained everything I’m going to talk about, so I’ll give it a subtitle:
Practical advice for organizing a trip to discover the Nile, in the south-west region of Egypt:
travel agencies and guides, what to visit, Nile cruises, tips and annoying street vendors, where to book a hotel in Luxor and Aswan, and excellent Egyptian cuisine restaurants.
I’ll address the topics in this order as if we’re planning our holidays. Let’s start by deciding whether we want to consult an agency, or maybe just a private guide. Then we consider what we want to see and visit in this region of Egypt and do some budgeting. Finally, we choose where to sleep and where to eat. Let’s go!
Travel agency or on your own?
Despite what I have heard many times, most tourist areas in Egypt are safe, with very little crime. If you enjoy planning your own trips, you can certainly organize a visit to the Nile and southern Egypt by yourself. On the most common hotel booking websites, for example, you can find hundreds of options for accommodation of any standard. And once in Egypt, you can easily get around by taxi, whether it be a car, a carriage, a tuktuk or a boat!
Getting help from an agency, on the other hand, has some obvious advantages, such as providing you with guides and drivers. But it is also useful for other practical and non-practical issues. For example, when you reach tourist sites, the entrance tickets have almost always already been purchased, and this saves time and hassle. Furthermore, being local, the guides know how long it takes to get from A to B, or to visit something. In this way, planning your days efficiently becomes easier. Guides and drivers also often have excellent tips about where to eat well, at a low price, or where to buy specific products. After a couple of phone calls, a driver from Aswan found me the back room of an appliance store where local wines were sold. This wasn’t in my guidebook!
Local tourist agencies
International tourist agencies organize standard packages, usually quite short and difficult to modify as you please. I ruled them out almost immediately.
You can find plenty of Egyptian agencies online. I contacted several, asking for prices and itineraries. In the end, I chose two of them, one for a tour in northern Egypt, between Wadi Hitan and the White Desert, and one to explore the area of Aswan, Luxor and the Nile.
To visit the South of Egypt, I spoke to Yasmin from Ibis Egypt Tours. Ibis is a Cairo-based agency that sells both standard and tailor-made tours. You can ask for a quote for a standard package to get an idea of the budget. Then you can remove and add places according to your interests. Ibis prices are not for backpackers, but neither for luxury lovers. I’d say they are pretty average. There have been a few little last-minute errors and mix-ups, but I’ve been overall satisfied with the service.
When planning an itinerary with a local agency, always be careful and very precise with details. Make sure you know exactly what is included, the stops and the transfers of each day. Don’t be afraid to send dozens of emails, and ask for an approved final schedule. And take it with you during the trip.
I’m telling you this because almost all local agencies have an office somewhere in Egypt, but then they work throughout the country with guides, drivers or even small local agencies. When you meet their local counterpart, you need to make sure that, day by day, they have the correct itinerary. It often happens that they have not been informed that lunch is included, that they have to take you back to the hotel, or that the program includes visiting A, B, C, but also D, and so on. Doubts are almost always resolved within a few minutes on the phone with the agency or its counterpart. But you need to be careful and patient.
Tourist guide: better a person or a book?
I love organizing my trips and know well in advance what is interesting to visit. This is why I always buy a guidebook, that by the time I reach my destination, I have already read from cover to cover. There is a good chance, however, that a graduate Egyptologist with 30 years of experience knows more than my little book.
So the question is: is it worth hiring a guide (with or without an agency)?
Generally speaking (or perhaps it’s better to say for other destinations), I’d answer that it depends on your preferences, whether you better read or listen, for example. The books I buy are always full of historical and architectural information, and this is usually enough for me to visit a museum, a castle or a church. In Cairo, for example, my Lonely Planet was perfect.
But this part of Egypt, the Southern Nile, is unlike anything I have seen in my life. I’m talking about hieroglyphics. These monuments are completely covered in colourful hieroglyphs, every column, door, ceiling and piece of rock that fell to the ground 3500 years ago. It’s something that leaves you speechless. And if you are lucky enough to have a guide who reads the hieroglyphs and the scenes engraved on the walls, a world will open up to you.
For Luxor and its surroundings, if you speak English or German, I recommend Mahmoud. He’s a gentleman of a certain age who, unfortunately for us tourists, will sooner or later retire. If you don’t want an agency, but just a guide and a driver, he is your man. He knows everything you might ask about Ancient Egypt. And if he doesn’t know or doesn’t remember, he looks at the hieroglyphs, reads, and finds the answer. He truly loves his job. If you hire him to take you to a tourist site that he doesn’t visit often, he might enjoy it even more than you! He is kind, quiet, and very helpful. And walking around with him is like walking alongside a famous actor: everyone recognizes him and greets him as if he were a star!
Mahmoud, expert tourist guide in Luxor area
Whatsapp nr: +20 100 074 5860
What to see around the Nile in the South of Egypt
Describing all, or even just the main attractions of southern Egypt in one post is absolutely impossible. Among temples, tombs, museums and various monuments, I could write a book. I will therefore make you a simple list of places, and in some cases, I’ll forward you to more in-depth articles for further information.
Below I also leave you a nice bucket list of the highlights of the area! Click on the image to download it in a printable format (1400x2000px)!
The visit to Luxor can be divided into two major areas: East and West Bank, the eastern and western banks of River Nile. On the East Bank, you cannot miss Luxor Temple and Karnak Temple. The latter is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. On the West Bank, you’ll find the majestic Valley of the Kings, the Temple of Medinat Habu, the Valley of the Queens, the Mortuary Temple of Hatshepsut and the tombs of the nobles. If you have more time you could add the reconstruction of Tutankhamun’s tomb, the workers’ village, the Colossi of Memnon and finally, back on the East Bank, the archaeological museum of Luxor.
North of Luxor I recommend a day trip to visit Dendera and Abydos, two spectacular and almost tourist-free temples.
South of Luxor, following the Nile towards Aswan, you come across various temples. The most famous are those of Edfu and Kom Ombo.
In Aswan, you can visit the Unfinished Obelisk, the modern High Dam and, above all, the complex of the Temples of Philae, a UNESCO World Heritage Site sitting on a small island which can be reached by boat. In the surrounding area, it is also possible to visit some picturesque Nubian villages.
Finally, south of Aswan, you can’t miss the Abu Simbel temples, a very peculiar UNESCO World Heritage Site: a majestic international operation saved it from the rising waters of the artificial lake formed due to the construction of the new dam. The temples were literally moved higher up, piece by piece, because otherwise they would have been submerged. Crazy.
The Nile cruise
The Nile cruise between Luxor and Aswan is a great classic of tourism in Egypt. River Nile current runs from south to north, so boats sailing from Aswan to Luxor are a little faster than those in the opposite direction. There are dozens of options available online for you to check out. You will have an idea of how many boats serve on the Nile when you see the double and triple rows of ships docked close to the most interesting tourist sites!
There are mainly two types of boats to choose between: dahabiyas (the spelling may vary!) and more modern cruise ships. The first ones are historic boats typical of this region. They have about ten passenger cabins and a common area on the deck. The larger ships have 30-50 cabins, a restaurant, a swimming pool on the deck, bars, lounges and as much entertainment as you can fit into an overall small vessel. Keep in mind that the Nile has an average depth of 10 metres, so we are certainly not talking about cruises with 2000 passengers. I’m no cruise expert, but I booked on the Sonesta Moon Goddess and it has been one of the most luxurious experiences of my life!
The real question: is the Nile cruise a must if you visit the South of Egypt?
Sailing on the Nile certainly gives a different view compared with travelling by car. But depending on the seasons, it can be a very pricey experience. From a practical point of view, you can easily reach Aswan from Luxor by car. It’s a little more than 200 km and on the way you can stop to visit a couple of interesting temples. It’s faster, it costs less and the temples at “non-cruise” times are less crowded.
But if you are romantic, you can afford it or you simply enjoy a slower pace, then the cruise will be a very pleasant luxury! Take “Dead on the Nile” by Agatha Christie with you while sailing and read it on the deck of the ship while sipping a drink: you’ll feel like you’re back in the 1930s!
To have a slightly different view of the Nile, from Luxor to Lake Nasser you can rent a felucca, which is a small traditional sailing boat. You can rent one by the hour, for the whole day or even for several days, depending on what you want to visit.
On the same stretch of the Nile, the Nubian (a population living in northern Sudan and southern Egypt) villages overlooking the river are nowadays tourist attractions, with markets, restaurants and even some hotels. It’s hard to understand how “real” they are, but with all their colourful houses they are very cute and photogenic.
Luxor wakes up every morning to a sky full of hot air balloons. A tour lasts about an hour and from up high you can admire the Nile with the green fields and desert hills of the West Bank. all agencies offer more or less the same kind of experience at a similar price.
Aswan is famous for the alabaster quarries, known since the times of Ancient Egypt. Both in Aswan and in Luxor you can visit workshops where artisans transform this material into whatever object a tourist might wish to take home.
Budget to visit the Nile area in the south of Egypt: standard and unforeseen expenses
Egypt is a country where you can have lunch for less than a euro, relying on street food stalls, or at European prices in the most touristy restaurants. Hotels can cost 30 or 300 euros per night for a double room. The entrance ticket to an attraction might cost 3 euros, but a smart agency might charge you 25. A 3-4 day Nile cruise could cost 600 or 3000 euros, depending on the season and the boat. For these reasons, you can well imagine that giving you an “average budget” is absolutely impossible. It depends on how you like to travel, how much you organize yourself or delegate an agency or a guide, what you want to visit and obviously how many days you stay in Egypt.
What I could help you with, though, is to consider those extra expenses that might be difficult to foresee. Egyptian’s habits and customs are different from those of other places, like Europe. I’d like to tell you about a couple of topics that are important to know before leaving.
Egypt is a country that survives on tips. Do you want to go to the toilet? Tip whoever passes you napkins. Does a random person suggest a cute pose for a photo? Tip. Do they open the door for you? Tip. Do they snatch your suitcase from your hands and place it in the stick it in the trunk against your will? They will expect a tip, rather than an insult (true story).
The fact that you paid an agency, a guide, a driver or even just the entrance to an archaeological site, does not exempt you from constantly tipping all the time. From a European point of view, it is quite annoying, but unfortunately unavoidable.
To give you an idea of the amounts we are talking about, you could tip the driver one euro and the guide 5 euros per day, for a normal car (1-3 people). Americans give much more. Mediterraneans less so. In the end, it’s up to you to decide if they deserve it and how much to leave. But try to have local currency, and in any case, never tip in foreign coins, because they won’t be able to easily exchange them.
For small services, however, my suggestion is to keep 5 or 10 Egyptian pound notes (15-30 cents) at hand. It won’t always make them happy, but at least you’ll get them out of the way without dramatic scenes. Obviously, you also leave tips at restaurants (5-15%), cloakrooms, porters, mosques (a few Egyptian pounds), taxis (round up and/or 5%)…
I was a cruise newbie when I boarded one on the Nile. Something I didn’t expect is that during the Nile cruise, you are explicitly asked not to tip. This is because the entire amount of tips is deposited in an envelope at the reception at the end of the trip, just before disembarking. The crew will divide the entire collected amount among all employees unless a specific name is indicated. Online tips suggest to leave 5-10 euros per passenger per night.
Street vendors and bazaars
Buying souvenirs is a common practice for travellers. We don’t always plan a precise budget for these expenses, but we know they will be there. I am mentioning them for two reasons: prices in Egypt are almost never fixed and traders’ insistence can border on serious harassment. You have to be mentally prepared.
The aggressive insistence of some sellers
At the entrance to all the tourist sites, there are souvenir markets, street vendors and unfortunately also some children. They all call after you inviting you to enter their shops, offering a bit of everything. If you walk close by, they follow you, circle around you, block your path and finally yell at you when you manage to get away. Some people accept a no. Most give up when you’re in front of the next shopkeeper’s stall. But some just don’t give up. They become insistent, they continue, they interrupt you if you try to ignore them, and they even physically push or pull you. They are irritating and really annoying. I met the worst in all of Egypt right on the Nile, at the entrance to the temple of Kom Ombo. Getting angry accomplishes nothing except ruining the moment. Try to stay calm and keep repeating “no thank you” or “la shokran“. You can even use your own language, most of these vendors know the basics of a dozen languages!
The art of bargaining
When you want to buy something, you will probably have to bargain. No merchant expects you to accept the first price he tells you. Counteroffer with your price, argue, mediate and if you don’t reach an agreement, move on. If there is still room to lower the price, they will call you back to their stall. Otherwise, it means that he had really reached his limit. This, however, does not mean it is the limit for the next trader too. Try again.
There is no right price, but what you buy is rarely worth more than 30% of their first offer. I also bought at 20%. If you enjoy the bargaining experience, they often have fun with it too. I laughed at the first request from a vendor in Cairo’s Khan el-Khalili Bazaar. Then he told me that I was insulting him because I was offering him too little. And in the end, after accepting my first proposal, he complimented my husband because “your wife bargains hard!”. And in Egypt, this is apparently a sign of good character for a woman!
Where to sleep on the Nile in the South of Egypt
The Nile that flows in Egypt has low waters, but it can reach up to 7 kilometers wide. Booking a hotel on one side of the river or the other is a choice not to be underestimated, especially for those who do not abandon themselves completely in the hands of an agency. Bridges across the river are not frequent and this implies long car rides or frequent boat trips.
Where to sleep in Aswan
In the centre of Aswan, on the eastern bank of the Nile, there are mostly smaller, lower-priced hotels. Moving away from the city centre, however, you’ll find bigger ones and international brands. Many of them sit on the islands between the two banks, with their large complexes. Others are very characteristic (and extremely expensive) boutique hotels. There are also a couple of Nubian villages, for a slightly off-beat experience.
The centre of Aswan is chaotic, full of shops (not just tourist traps) and restaurants, but it’s also not very well preserved. The area where the cruises dock is packed with restaurants and very insistent street vendors. But it is also safer for an evening stroll next to the river.
Each of the large hotels outside the city centre, however, forms a sort of independent ecosystem, with restaurants, swimming pools, gardens, bars, riverside promenades and everything a tourist might need without walking more than 300 meters from their own room.
At the end of the day, choosing the location of the hotel really depends on your tastes.
Where to sleep in Luxor
As for Luxor, you have to choose between the West Bank and the East Bank. In the West Bank, you will be close to almost all the attractions, saving time for the ferry or the very long car drive detour. However, there are not many hotels and they tend to be small and family-run. Even the number and variety of restaurants is limited, but this doesn’t mean the food is bad.
The city itself sits on the East Bank, with all its traffic, shops, restaurants of all types and dozens of hotels of all categories, including large international ones.
Let’s say that the choice depends on what you prefer. Do you want to be comfortable, shop easily, and have the certainty of an in-room safe and air conditioning? Go to East Bank. If you don’t mind the spartan atmosphere, you prefer quiet and family-run hotels, then West Bank should be your pick.
Either way, if you’re getting bored and want to see something different, you can always take a ferry and spend the evening on the other side of the Nile.
I stayed in the West Bank and I loved it. It has a village, rural feeling, with just a couple of paved streets, a few small shops and a handful of bars and restaurants overlooking the river. What I loved the most was the silence and quietness, after a day surrounded by millions of other tourists and annoying souvenir sellers.
Where to eat in the South of Egypt: restaurants close to the River Nile
I truly loved Egyptian cuisine and I can’t but recommend it. Lots of rice and couscous, chicken and meat cooked in a thousand ways, very soft chickpea or aubergine hummus, and much more. I’m going to suggest to you some local restaurants that I have tried in Egypt, on both banks of the Nile.
Typical Egyptian cuisine restaurants
In Luxor, on the West Bank, try El Mesala. Enter the hotel with the same name and go up to the roof terrace. Apart from a spectacular view over the Nile, the food is freshly cooked (so you might have to wait a little). It’s also quite cheap, especially if you consider you’re in one of the most touristy areas of Egypt.
In Abu Simbel I tried a Nubian restaurant, the Kabara Nubian House, which is also a hotel. It’s decidedly a tourist place but of good quality (guides and drivers said). Surely quite expensive by Egyptian standards, though. It is located a few minutes from the famous temples, with a beautiful garden, a portico with many tables and some internal rooms. Fish dishes are rare in the rest of the country. But this Nubian restaurant prepare some excellent fish caught in the nearby Lake Nasser.
During a trip to Egypt, you cannot avoid trying falafel. The “correct” way to eat them is a falafel sandwich… This is street food, clearly, so if you don’t trust your stomach, maybe it would be better to avoid it. I’ve tried falafel a couple of times and they are delicious. I recommend a stall in Aswan called Baba. It’s a take-away small stall in the city centre and the menu is in Arabic only. The small basic sandwich costs 5 pounds (15 cents). You can add vegetables or ask for a larger one. I believe they also sell meat, but no drinks.
My last tip is the recently opened Flower of Life, which was originally simply a guest house. I felt like I was eating at my grandmother’s, except for the presence of a phenomenal moussaka! It has a few tables and you have to book in advance. If they don’t have customers they might not open the kitchen at all, let alone the front door! By the way, when I ate at Flower of Life, there wasn’t even a sign outside: make sure you note down where it is!