Luxor, the historic city of Thebes, is located in southern Egypt and is called Upper Egypt by the ancient Egyptians because it is closer to the source of the Nile. Apart from the pyramids of Giza outside Cairo, Luxor is the heart of the Egyptian tourism industry, with incredible amounts of history found – literally just a hundred years ago – within a handful of miles from the city center. Luxor is also the place where you usually fly in to catch a boat for the always popular Nile cruises.
When I first looked at Luxor as a starting point for my cruise on the Nile, I was completely amazed at how many important archeological sites there are on both sides of the river, if more on the West Bank, where you will find the Valley of the Kings, among others. What a place this must have been not just 3,000 years ago but also in the 1920s when all these treasures were discovered. Even today, the excavations continue, with more and more important sites being discovered every day.
Luxor itself is an interesting city with the Luxor Temple, the traditional souk and the Nile promenade in the heart of the city, but it is mostly used as a base to go on day trips across the Nile to see the archeological sites. I spent several days there and took it easy as it can be very hot and the valleys are a forbidden place when it is hot. Here I have gathered my favorite things to experience in Luxor, Egypt.
1. Exploration of the Luxor Temple
After the Pyramids and the Sphinx, the Luxor Temple was the first ancient Egyptian temple I saw. It was sitting right on the Nile and was beautifully lit at night and I saw it from the taxi on the way to my hotel. Needless to say, this was the first stop for my explorations in and around the city the following day. Entering just opposite the ancient souk, the temple, built over the centuries by Amenhotep III, Ramses II, Tutankhamun, and other pharaohs, was once the largest and most significant religious center in ancient Egypt. Compared to others you will see along the Nile, in my opinion it is not the most impressive, but what is completely unique and breathtaking is its Avenue of the Sphinxes: 1.5 miles of avenue that connects the Luxor Temple with The Karnak Temple, flanked by what were believed to have been about 1,350 statues of sphinxes. Further ahead you will see rams all sitting on attention. Today, not everyone has been found and the restoration is still in progress, but standing there and looking down the avenue is one of the most exciting experiences in Luxor.
2. Light show at Karnak Temple
Standing at the end of Avenue of the Sphinxes is the Karnak Temples, famous for being the backdrop for one of the scenes in the James Bond movie The spy who loved me. You know, the temple with the enormously tall pillars, set during a light show at night? That one. The temple is wonderful, a huge complex, and a fun way to experience it, with a bit of movie nostalgia, is during the light show at night. You will go on a guided walk where you will hear about the history of the temple and its various pharaohs. Finish the trip by sitting by the lake with perfect reflections of the temple on the water, listening to music and stories from the past with Luxor glistening in the background.
3. Ballooning at sunrise
To get up at 4 is not my favorite thing, so much I have to tell you, but for a balloon flight at sunrise on the other side of the Nile, there is no other option. Getting picked up at the hotel, taking a small ferry across the Nile and then arriving at a field where 20 hot air balloons are in different states of inflation is still quite magical. But it’s more than magical to set off with the sun rising on the East Bank, the green field of the Nile below you and colorful balloons around you. Seeing the countless temples, tombs and valleys below, the Nile with its sharp demarcation between green fields and gloomy sand desert, the villages waking up and the people riding on their donkeys is simply wonderful. For an hour we flew without straying far, but there was so much to see. We landed right next to an excavation site and scattered archaeologists who were not happy, but apparently quite used to the morning sight.
4. The Valley of the Kings
That’s what we all come to Luxor for: tombs of pharaohs that are so incredible and beautifully decorated and preserved, yet thousands of years old. I can not even begin to describe to you what wonders you will see. Navigating at times very steep stairs down into suffocating hot graves is worth it and I have seen little old ladies take on the task and still love every minute. Take it slow if you have shaky knees or shaky feet and you will be rewarded. Rich. There are more than 60 graves in this rugged valley with no vegetation, but only a few are open to the public. Of those, each one is worth seeing, and three are included in your normal admission tickets. Pay extra to see the graves for Ramses V & VI (KV9), Seti I (KV17), and not to forget Tutankhamun (KV62). Do not miss these and if you are pressed for time then forget the others and just pay extra and see these. You will not regret it.
5. The Queen’s Valley and Hatshepsut’s mortuary temple
The Valley of the Queens is the counterpart to the Valley of the Kings, with about 90 tombs on the site. However, only a few are worth stopping for, with the tomb of Nefertari, Ramses II’s wife, the most notable. One piece of advice – try, if you can, to see them before you go to the Valley of the Kings, because after all the splendor there is, these are not half as glamorous. But still worth it.
Next to the Queens Valley stands the impressive Hatshepsut Temple, one of the very few and best known female pharaohs. She is honored to be one of the most successful pharaohs, ruled for over 15 years and was known to be one of the builders of temples and cities.
6. The graves of the nobles
Near the Memnon colossi, which are located next to the road and provide a perfect selfie spot on the way to the Valley of the Kings. You will see countless holes in the ground, in the mountainside, everywhere. These are the tombs of the nobles, tombs of influential people, in ancient Egypt, but not royals. More than 415 have been found, and more are being dug up on an ongoing basis. If you’re just visiting one, make it Ramose’s grave and then stop by the little artisan studio and shop outside. Here, two artisans make sculptures and paintings on ancient tradition, and their skill is magnificent to see. Their work also provides valuable souvenirs.
7. The Village Of The Artisans, Deir-El-Medina
This place is often overlooked on tours concentrating on the tombs and temples of the pharaohs, but this village is where all the artisans lived, the artisans who decorated the magnificent tombs. Here are the remains of the village, from where they climbed over the ridge into the Valley of the Kings, along with some open tombs by the artisans themselves.
8. Stay at the Sofitel Winter Palace Luxor
The Winter Palace is the historic hotel where all the dignitaries and, more importantly, where the archaeologists who discovered the treasures of the West Bank stayed in their time. It is a bit shabby around the edges, but eminently charming, and the garden is simply to die for. The large pool is heaven-sent after a day of looking at graves in dusty valleys.
9. Spis Hos Sofra
For some authentic Egyptian food away from your hotel or cruise ship, go straight to Sofra Restaurant. Just off the busy El-Mansheya Street, which at night is full of food stalls selling sweets, super-sized chapati breads, ready-to-eat dishes to take away and fresh juices. In a quiet side street is this lovely restaurant where you can sit on the open terrace on the top floor and try local dishes without having to try to eat while navigating the traffic. Clean, nicely decorated and with friendly waiters who can suggest dishes for you in stopping English, this is a great place to sit after a long day of sightseeing. Try Khiyar Bil Zabadi, the local version of Tzatziki, the hummus and Salad Baladi initially. If you are not against trying local specialties, try the pigeon or rabbit for main courses, all washed down with fresh melon or pomegranate juice.
Pro tip: The most important advice I can give is to spend a few days in Luxor. So many people fly in, catch their cruise ship and set off for a quick look at the Valley of the Kings, but there is a lot to keep you busy. So please be a little.
The Egyptian Archaeological sites have always been a major attraction for visitors: