Aswan truly took my breath away. The view from my hotel balcony will probably always be my favorite. It was so picture-perfect Egyptian that it is difficult to imagine better.
The city is in the south of Egypt, ironically called Upper Egypt, on the Nile. It marks the border of the ancient region of Nubia, which stretches south from here to Khartoum in Sudan. Being within Nubia, an inter-country region, Aswan is very different from other cities in Egypt, and it has the added bonus of being located alongside an incredibly beautiful part of the Nile. It overlooks small granite islands, feluccas sailing by with their triangular sails, and an array of ships stopping in Aswan (as the city’s dams ensure there is no further travel up the Nile). It is a bustling city with 1.5 million residents, but it is serene at the same time, offering pretty much everything you could possibly want from Egypt — and then some.
Aswan has its own international airport, so you can easily fly in from the international airport in Cairo; but by far the best way to arrive is by boat, preferably on a Nile cruise ship coming down from Luxor. Being a popular tourist spot, the city offers an array of hotels and places to stay, but it retains its old-world charm. Normal life continues one street down from the riverside promenade that bustles with visitors and offers you everything from “real” antiquities to felucca rides.
Here are some of the reasons I became utterly enchanted by this city.
1. Stay At The Old Cataract Hotel
I might as well start with my favorite part, and that was the stay in a historic hotel with simply the best views of Aswan. The Old Cataract Hotel, officially known as the Sofitel Legend Old Cataract Aswan Hotel, has a pedigree that is hard to beat. Not only is the hotel itself gorgeous and the views simply without match, but it has also played host to royalty from around the globe and to people such as Agatha Christie, who arrived in Aswan on the same ship as I did, the SS Sudan. I am not exaggerating when I say that I could have stayed on my balcony drinking in the view of the cataract, the rocky shallows that give the hotel its name, forever. I was only dragged away occasionally because I “had to” look around some ancient temples and the city itself, but seriously, if you do nothing else in Aswan, either stay in the Old Cataract Hotel or go for a meal on the terrace to enjoy the unique view.
Editor’s Note: Looking for awe-inspiring vistas from your window? The Old Cataract Hotel made Ulrike’s list of favorite rooms with a view around the world.
2. Walk Along The Corniche
The Corniche is the promenade along the Nile. It is only steps away from the Old Cataract Hotel and offers a great opportunity to stroll for a mile or two watching the boats, enjoying the sunset, and picking up some street food. You do get approached by vendors and guides trying to sell you tours and felucca rides, but they do not hassle you too much and will take no for an answer. Don’t get overwhelmed by the urge to flee the solicitors enjoy the lovely walk all the way to the Government Park. The best way back is then to move inward a few blocks and walk back through the Aswan Souk, which stretches parallel to the Corniche.
3. Explore The Aswan Souk
Known locally as Sharia as-Souq, the old bazaar is a bustling part of town where you can buy pretty much anything you could possibly need, from freshly cooked warm dishes to sweet honey snacks, from stationary to tissues, cloth and clothes, souvenirs, toys, and car parts. There are also traditional Nubian outfits, Sudanese trinkets and jewelry, as well as fresh produce, nuts, spices, and perfumes. This is Aswan’s answer to a big mall, and it’s such fun to explore. Overall the people are really welcoming and interested in you, but do make sure that you hang onto your valuables, as it gets crowded and all you need is one pickpocket to ruin your entire vacation.
4. Take A Boat Ride
Aswan is a bustling city full of people and flush with cars. There will be a time when you need to escape, and when that happens, just hop onto a felucca. These small, traditional sailboats are the perfect calming antidote to the onslaught of Egyptian city life. With the recognizable triangular sails and no engine, the felucca’s captain will take you along the Nile, dipping in and out of the various small islands and pointing out sights along the way, such as the Aga Khan’s Tomb. If you time it right and opt for a sailing trip late afternoon, you can enjoy “golden hour,” which brings out the best of the stunning land- and riverscape, and you will be able to watch the sunset (usually between 5.30 and 6 p.m.) from the boat. It does not get much better than that.
5. Have A Peek At The Two Dams
Ever since ancient times, the Egyptian people have depended on the Nile for their existence. The Nile’s waters have long been harnessed all through the valley for agricultural purposes and the basic maintenance of life. The problem with the Nile has always been the annual flood. The summer rains in the highlands of Ethiopia cause the Nile’s tributaries to swell and raise the downstream waters to unmanageable and unpredictable levels. So in 1902, the first dam at Aswan was completed. Simply called the Aswan Dam, it was one of the largest structures in the world at the time, but it still struggled to keep up. In 1960, the construction of the Aswan High Dam began, creating Lake Nasser. Being one of the world’s largest artificial lakes, this resulted in the temples of Philae and Abu Simbel having to be relocated, stone by numbered stone. While the dams are not that impressive when compared to the other wonders of Egypt, they nevertheless played a huge role in Aswan’s history and a substantial part in creating its serene beauty.
6. See Philae
The Philae Temple was one of the casualties of the first dam. Located on an island within the expanse of water between the old and newer dams, the temple originally sat some 1,600 feet away. But some time after the second dam was built, the temple was moved, bit by bit, to Agilkia Island. A fascinating undertaking, and very worth it. The temple, in Nubia just south of Aswan, offers superb views of the colorful Nubian houses, the various islands, and across the water. It is reached by boat. The temple and its island are overrun with friendly temple cats, all revered and pampered by the staff.
7. The Egyptian Cotton
Very much part of Aswan is the much-prized Egyptian cotton. Despite the best cotton being grown in Lower Egypt, in the north near the Mediterranean coast, it is in Aswan you find the best and most genuine cotton shops. And, just like French wine, Russian caviar, and German engineering, when you hear “Egyptian cotton,” you know to expect quality and luxury. But just with everything else, there are plenty of fakes around, so do not buy your cotton sheets in the souk; go to government-certified stores, such as Darwish Cotton, and check for “long-staple Egyptian,” “long-staple pima,” or “Supima cotton” mentioned on the label. A thread count of around 700 and over is good quality. Not cheap, but nice to have as a souvenir which brings back memories of Aswan every time you go to bed.
From Aswan, you need to go a little bit further south, to Abu Simbel, another superb temple that was moved when the second dam was built. To get there, you can either fly from Aswan International Airport (but please keep a close eye on whether they change or cancel your flight there, which is what happened to me, without anybody telling me) or you can go by coach or car. The car-and-coach caravan leaves every morning under armed guard, as the stretch of road between Aswan and Abu Simbel is reportedly popular with bandits. You need to book ahead because every person in the caravan needs to be registered and accounted for by the day before. It all sounds much more dramatic than it is; the Egyptian police always take the utmost care of foreign visitors, and this is just a way to keep everybody safe, even if nothing happens.
There are so many stunning places in the world that I absolutely love, each for its own reason. I’ve written countless articles on cities full of color, for instance; they’re found in our colorful cities section. Beijing, on the other hand, was beautiful in the dead of winter.