Aswan is one of our favourite getaways in Egypt. It fulfills your need for quintessentially-Egyptian scenery, impressive historical sites, Egyptian and Nubian culture, relaxation, and a long list of things to do and see. But best of all, it’s a much slower, easy-going place than Cairo and Luxor.
Whether you energetically fill every moment of your trip with activities or effortlessly cruise the Nile and meander through sleepy Nubian villages, it’s a rewarding experience. Being one of the hottest, sunniest and driest cities in the world, the best time to go is during the cooler months, particularly from November to March when it’s really pleasant.
One of the most idyllic scenes in Egypt is of Aswan’s Nile River dotted with little sail boats, greenery along the banks and beautiful old buildings in the backdrop. The Nile is wide, clean(er) here, stunning in the sunshine, and absolutely magical at sunset. The city can be divided into three precincts around it – the eastern side, the islands and the western side.
The eastern side of the Nile has the Corniche and its shops, hotels, the train station, and the modern extension of the city. The western side is mostly desert and natural features, as well as the tombs and some small settlements. The islands are the most picturesque part of Aswan, with lush parkland, colourful Nubian Villages, markets and historical sites. We recommend spending most of your time sailing along the Nile and touring the islands.
There’s a large population of Nubian people in Aswan, mostly resettled from their homes that were flooded by Lake Nasser when the High Dam was constructed (1960- 1970). Nubians are some of the friendliest and most hospitable people that you’ll have the pleasure of meeting. Many of them will invite you for a cup of tea in their modestly-built and colourfully-painted homes or happily show you handicrafts. The villages are spread across the islands and western side of the Nile, the most famous one being Gharb Sehel on the western bank.
Abu Simbel is the most famous site to visit. This magnificent temple is about 3 hours by car from the centre of town.
Transport around Aswan
The most relaxing option is travelling by felucca. The price generally ranges between 25-75 LE per hour. We highly recommend Mohammed, an extremely lovely young felucca sailor, who can also arrange boat accommodation for you: 0111 013 6941.
To travel to places like Philae Temple, the High Dam and then back to the Corniche, a taxi driver can take you around for between 100-200 LE.
Things to do within Aswan
Eastern side and southern Aswan
The lively Old Souq (market) is a popular destination for a wide range of crafts, trinkets, clothing and local produce (but we preferred the Nubian villages’ markets). The Corniche doesn’t offer anything too exciting or pleasant, however the southern part of the Corniche is where the Nubian Museum and the Old Cataract Hotel are located. It’s a good idea to visit the Nubian Museum for a history lesson before heading to the villages (50 LE entry; open 9am-1pm and 4pm-9pm).
The High Dam is a 20 minute drive south, on the tip of Lake Nasser (30LE entry). Research the facts and stories about the controversy and benefits of the dam before you go. Also visit the Lotus Tower on the way, where you can pay to go up the lift for spectacular views (30LE- 40LE for foreigners).
Philae Temple on Agilkia Island is a must-see, the beauty and ancient history of the temple, combined with the story of relocation and preservation efforts by UNESCO are fascinating. You can also see the ‘Sound and Light Show’ bouncing off its walls at night. The entrance fee is 50LE, and locals pay 10LE for a return boat ride to the island but foreigners are charged 50LE per person.
The main islands to visit in Aswan include Elephantine Island, Kitcheners Island and Seheyl Island.
Elephantine Island has a couple of beautiful and friendly Nubian Villages, which are interesting enough to simply wander through, but there’s also markets, camel rides, and tours that the Chief of the village runs (for a tip, of course). Be sure to have tea with the local shopkeepers or eat Nubian style lunches in one of the houses. Elephantine Island also has The Aswan Museum, however this has been “closed for renovation” for a number of years.
The entirety of Kitcheners Island is covered by the beautiful, densely vegetated Aswan Botanical Gardens (15 LE entry). It’s filled with hundreds of palm trees and other plant species, birds, walking paths and spaces for picnics.
Seheyl Island has lively Nubian villages, cafes and shops boasting beaded jewellery, handicrafts and spices. They’re a popular tourist destination but still very interesting and worth visiting. We had lunch in one of the guesthouses there, on the floor of a colourfully decorated room.
Visit the tombs and the Monastery of St Simeon on the western side, which you can reach by walking, car or camel.
The rock-hewn Tombs of the Nobles (Qubbet el-Hawa) are set into the northern hills of the western bank. Step inside to see the wall paintings showing scenes of everyday life, hieroglyphic biographies and inscriptions. They’re open to visitors from 8am to 4pm (30LE adult entry). From the hilltop you get stunning views over the Nile and the city.
The Monastery of St Simeon, which has survived since the 7th century AD, is a beautiful building set amongst the dunes. To get here, ride a camel or walk from the Tombs of the Nobles. It’s open from 8am-4pm and adult entry is 25LE.
Things to do outside Aswan
The magnificent Abu Simbel Temples are a must-see. These date back to 13th century BC and are among the most impressive monuments in the world. They are particularly beautiful at sunrise, so take the early-morning convoy to witness this and avoid the scorching heat. Due to the construction of the Aswan High Dam, UNESCO sponsored a massive relocation effort which dissembled and reconstructed the temples 60 meters from their original location.
Beware that this trip requires some organising, as it’s a 3 hour drive each way by police convoy, with only two set departure times which you need to reserve – 4am or 11am. There are other ways to get there, including direct flights in or reserved tour buses. The expedition is around 6 hours including travel, but it’s absolutely worth it. The entry fees are 100LE for an adult and 50LE for a child.
Other trips nearby Aswan include Luxor and Kom Ombo. If you have time, the best way is to go by cruise boats (basic and luxury) which travel between these places.
Food and eating out
Seven eating recommendations in Aswan:
•A delicious lunch or dinner in one of the Nubian villages. We recommend the guesthouses on Seheyl Island, where we gorged on a hearty vegetarian curry, a cheesy pasta dish, fresh salad, delicious Shamsi bread and soup (25-50LE per person)
•The Old Cataract Hotel’s 1902 Restaurant is the finest dining experience you’ll get in Aswan. It serves French cuisine with a slightly Middle Eastern twist (minimum of 250-300 LE per person)
•Al-Masry Restaurant, great Egyptian food on Sharia Al Matar just off the Corniche (8LE-30LE)
•Nubian House with great sunset views over the first cataract (15LE-22LE)
•The Terrace café and restaurant in the Old Cataract Hotel. It’s overpriced but has a nice view (200-300LE)
•Ad-Dukka restaurant on Elephantine Island which is known for its food but not its atmosphere (15-25LE)
•Nubian Beach, a fun place on the western bank serving Egyptian food (15LE-25LE)
There are so many accommodation options, including high-end, medium-range and budget hotels, hostels, boat accommodation (feluccas and luxury cruises), camping and Nubian guesthouses.
We stayed in Pyramisa Isis Corniche ($$) on the banks of the Nile (http://pyramisaegypt.com/pyramisa-isis-corniche/), which was 700LE/night. It has rooms in run-down little bungalows that are very basic but comfortable. The pool area has lovely views and sun lounges, and the restaurant serves great fish dishes and salads.
Other recommended accommodation includes:
•Old Cataract Hotel ($$$) at the southern end of Corniche
•Movenpick Resort ($$$) on the northern end of Elephantine Island
•Pyramisa Hotel ($$$) on Elephantine Island
•Philae Hotel ($$) just off the Corniche (extra friendly and helpful staff)
•Ekadolli Nubian Guesthouse Aswan ($) in Gharb Sahel Nubian village
•Bet el Kareem Guesthouse ($)in Gharb Sahel Nubian village
•Glory of Nubia Camping Island ($) and boat tours
•Boat Accommodation ($), organised through our recommended Felucca driver, Mohammed (0111 013 6941)
Getting to Aswan
You can reach Aswan by plane, day trains, overnight/sleeper trains, or car from Cairo and Luxor, as well as by felucca from Luxor. We recommend flying from Cairo, as it’s only a 1 hour flight and a 25-30 minute drive to the centre of town. Taxi drivers shouldn’t charge you more than 100LE to the Corniche.
Trains to Aswan operate every day. Travel time to Aswan is around 3 hours from Luxor and around 12-13 hours from Cairo. We took the overnight sleeper train (no. 87) from Aswan to Cairo and weren’t impressed. The compartment was clean but miniscule, there was no communal area to relax in and watch the scenery, there wasn’t enough power in the room to charge our laptop, and the food was horrendously bad, so it wasn’t worth the time or money (US$120 single or $US110 double compartment per person). Some of our other friends had better experiences on other overnight trains, so overall the reviews are mixed.