Luxor, the historic city of Thebes, lies in southern Egypt and is called Upper Egypt by the ancient Egyptians because it lies closer to the source of the Nile River. Luxor is, apart from the Pyramids of Giza outside of Cairo, the heart of the Egyptian tourism industry, with incredible amounts of history found — quite literally just a hundred or so years ago — within a handful of miles from the city center. Luxor is also the place where you tend to fly in to catch a boat for the ever-popular Nile cruises.
When I first looked at Luxor as the setting-off point for my Nile cruise, I was utterly amazed by just how many important archeological sites are on both sides of the river, if more so on the West Bank, where you 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 being 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 head on day trips across the Nile to see the archeological sites. I spent several days there, taking it easy, as it can be very hot indeed, and the valleys are a forbidding place when it’s hot. Here I have collected my favorite things to experience in Luxor, Egypt.
1. Exploring Luxor Temple
Luxor Temple was, after the pyramids and the Sphinx, the first ancient Egyptian temple I saw. Sitting right by the Nile, it was beautifully lit up at night and I spotted 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 right opposite the old souk, the temple, constructed over 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, it is, in my mind, not the most impressive, but what is utterly outstanding and stunning is its Avenue of the Sphinxes: 1.5 miles of avenue connecting Luxor Temple with Karnak Temple, flanked by what was thought to have been around 1,350 statues of sphinxes. Further on, you’ll see rams, all sitting at attention. Today, not all have been found and the restoration is still ongoing, but standing there, looking down the avenue, is one of the most exhilarating experiences in Luxor.
2. Lightshow At Karnak Temple
Standing at the end of the Avenue of Sphinxes is Karnak Temples, famous for being the backdrop for one of the scenes in the James Bond film The Spy Who Loved Me. You know, the temple with the enormously tall columns, set during a light show at night? That one. The temple is wonderful, a huge complex, and one fun way of experiencing it, with a bit of film nostalgia thrown in, is during the nighttime light show. You get to go on a guided walk, hearing about the history of the temple and its various pharaohs. End the walk sitting by the lake, with perfect reflections of the temple on the water, listening to music and stories of the past with Luxor glittering in the background.
3. Ballooning At Sunrise
Getting up at 4 a.m. is not my favorite thing, I’ll tell you that much, but for a sunrise balloon flight on the other side of the Nile, there is no other option. Being picked up at the hotel, taking a small ferry across the Nile, and then arriving at a field where 20-odd hot air balloons are in various states of inflation is still quite magical. But taking off, with the sun rising on the East Bank, the green field of the Nile below you, and colorful balloons all around you is more than magical. Watching the countless temples, tombs, and valleys below, the Nile with its sharp demarcation between green fields and bleak, sandy desert, the villages waking up, and people riding their donkeys is simply wonderful. For an hour, we flew, not straying far, but there was so much to see. We landed right next to a dig site, scattering archeologists who were not happy, but obviously quite accustomed to the morning spectacle.
4. Valley Of The Kings
This is what we all come to Luxor for: tombs of pharaohs that are so incredibly and beautifully decorated, and preserved yet are thousands of years old. I cannot even begin to describe to you what wonders you will see. Navigating at times very steep stairs down into stifling hot tombs is worth it, and I have seen little old ladies taking on the task and yet loving every minute. Take it slowly if you have rickety knees or wobbly feet, and you will be rewarded. Richly. There are more than 60 tombs in this stark valley with no vegetation, but only a few are open to the public. Of those, each and every one is worth seeing, and three are included in your normal entry tickets. Pay extra to see the tombs of Ramses V & VI (KV9), Seti I (KV17), and not forgetting Tutankhamun (KV62). Do not miss these, and if pushed for time, forget the others, and just pay extra and see these. You will not regret it.
5. Valley Of The Queens And The Mortuary Temple Of Hatshepsut
The Valley of the Queens is the counterpart of the Valley of the Kings, with some 90-odd tombs on the site. However, only a few are worthwhile stopping off for, with the tomb of Nefertari, wife of Ramses II, the most notable. A word of advice — try, if you can, to view these before you head to the Valley of the Kings, because after all the splendor there, these are not half as glamorous. But still worth your while.
Next to the Valley of the Queens stands the imposing Temple of Hatshepsut, one of the very few, and best-known female pharaohs. She is revered for being one of the most successful pharaohs, ruled for over 15 years, and was known to be quite the builder of temples and cities.
6. The Tombs Of The Nobles
Near the Colossi of Memnon, which sits by the side of the road, and makes for a perfect selfie-spot on the way to the Valley of the Kings. You will see countless holes in the ground, in the hillside, everywhere. These are the Tombs of the Nobles, tombs of people with influence, in ancient Egypt, but not royal. More than 415 have been found, and more are being unearthed continuously. If you just visit one, make it the Tomb of Ramose and then stop off at the small artisan study and shop outside. Here, two craftsmen fashion sculptures and pictures in the old traditional way, and their skill is magnificent to watch. Their work makes for worthwhile souvenirs, too.
7. The Village Of The Artisans, Deir-El-Medina
This site is often overlooked on tours that concentrate on the tombs and temples of the pharaohs, yet this village is where all the artisans lived, those craftsmen who decorated the magnificent tombs. Here are the remains of the village, from where they climbed across the mountain ridge into the Valley of the Kings, together with some open tombs of 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 archeologists who discovered the treasures on the West Bank stayed in their day. It is a little shabby around the edges but eminently charming, and the garden is simply to die for. The large pool is heaven-sent after a day looking at tombs in dusty valleys.
9. Eat At Sofra
For some authentic Egyptian food away from your hotel or cruise ship, head straight to Sofra Restaurant. Just off the bustling 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 lies this lovely restaurant where you can sit on the open terrace on the upper floor and sample local dishes without having to try and eat as you navigate the traffic. Clean, nicely decorated, and with friendly waiters who can suggest dishes to you in halting English, this is a great place to sit after a long day’s sightseeing. Try the Khiyar Bil Zabadi, the local version of Tzatziki, the hummus, and the Salata Baladi for starters. If you are not averse to trying local specialties, try the pigeon, or the rabbit for mains, all washed down with fresh melon or pomegranate juice.
Pro Tip: The most important piece of advice I can give is to spend a few days in Luxor. So many people fly in, catch their cruise ship, and head off after a quick look at the Valley of the Kings, but there is much to keep you occupied. So please, stay awhile.
The Egyptian archeological sites have always been a huge attraction for visitors: