Elephantine Island

12 top tourist attractions in Aswan and easy day trips

Spread along the banks of the Nile, Aswan is a relaxed and friendly city that offers a peaceful getaway if you’ve just arrived from busier Luxor or Cairo. Once Egypt’s gateway to Africa, this is a perfect base for exploring the temples and monuments in the southern reaches of Upper Egypt and the distinctly different Nubian culture. The best way to discover Aswan’s charms is to hop aboard a felucca (traditional sailing boat) and view the city from the watery highway that once made Aswan an important trading post. The river here is speckled with islands with picturesque mud-brick Nubian villages and fringed by the colossal sand dunes of the West Bank. It’s all incredibly photogenic,

1 Elephantine Island

Elephantine Island
 

Peppered with palm tree plantations and rolling villages of colorful mudbrick houses, Elephantine Island is Aswan’s biggest highlight. At the southern end are Aswan Museum (currently not open) and the Ruins of Abu , Aswan’s oldest settlement, which contains the ancient kingdom Temple of Khnum and the Temple of Satet . On the eastern embankment near the ruins and down some stairs is Aswan’s Nilometer . Ancient Egyptians measured the Niles rise and fall with these stone-cut wells that allowed them to estimate the height of the annual flood and thus predict the success of their crops.

Read also: top tourist attractions in Luxor

Once you’ve finished exploring the ruins, head north to the island to wander the backstreets of the villages of Koti and Siou where the houses are painted with vibrantly colored designs. Sheep graze and chickens peck in the narrow alleyways, and farm to their gardens as they have done for centuries. You can catch a rowboat from the jetty on the west side of the island in Siou on Kitchener’s Island . Now officially known as Aswan Botanical Gardens (although no one calls it that) this island was once owned by Lord Kitchener who transformed it into a verdant garden of exotic plants from Asia and Africa.

There are frequent local ferries from the jetty in the center of Aswan to Elephantine, or you can also hire a felucca to take you around the island.

2 Nubia Museum

Sandstone statue of Ramses II David Stanley / photographed
Sandstone statue of Ramses II David Stanley / photographed
 

Aswan is rather fantastic Nubian Museum is one of the best in Egypt and a must for anyone interested in the history and culture of both ancient and modern Nubia. It documents the riches of a culture that was all but washed away with the construction of the Aswan Dam and creation of Lake Nasser . There is an excellent collection of artifacts from the kingdom of Kush (ancient Nubia) and plenty of beautiful black and white photos of UNESCO’s incredible project to save Philae Temple and Abu Simbel from the rising waters of the dam (along with extensive photos of the huge array of other monuments now lost forever under the waters of the lake).

The artifacts in the museum collection include a statue of Ramses II, a statue of Amenras, the head of the Shpatka, and the black granite head of Tahraqa. In addition to a thorough explanation of the history of Nubia and its inhabitants, the ethnographic section showcases beautiful Nubian handicrafts and folk art.

Don’t miss the grueling mudbrick mausoleums of Aswan’s Fatimid Cemetery , just behind the Nubian Museum . The wardens of the cemetery are happy to take a tour and show you the most interesting mausoleums. Don’t forget to give them a little tip.

Address: Abtal al-Tahrir Street

3 Philae Temple

Philae Temple
Philae Temple
 

The Sacred Temple of Isis (more commonly known as Philae Temple) is one of Uganda’s most enchanting monuments, both for the exquisite artistry of its reliefs and for the beautiful symmetry of its architecture, which made it a favorite subject of the Victorian painters . Like Abu Simbel, the temple was saved from the rising waters of Lake Nasser by UNESCO’s rescue project and moved lock-stock-and-barrel from its original home on Philae Island to nearby (higher) Agilika Island where it sits today.

The Temple of Isis, a center for the ancient cult of Isis, is the largest part of the Philae complex, but the island is also home to the Temple of Hathor , Trajan’s Kiosk , and several other buildings from the Roman and Byzantine period. You can easily reach the temples from Aswan by taxi, although most people arrive here as part of an Abu Simbel day trip.

Location: Lake Nasser area, 12 km south of Aswan

4 Unfinished Obelisk

Unfinished Obelisk
Unfinished Obelisk
 

Aswan Northern Quarry is home to the famous Unfinished Obelisk – a 41m long and 4m wide chunk of stone that was probably abandoned due to a crack in the rock. It is estimated that the obelisk, if completed, would have weighed 1,168 tons and would have been the largest ever built. On the surrounding rock walls you can also see the many traces of the work of ancient stonemasons. The blocks here would have been loosened from the rock by drilling holes along a prescribed line, pushing wedges into them, and then soaking the wedges with water to loosen the block.

You can easily walk to the northern quarry area from downtown Aswan. It is just east of the Fatimid Cemetery and Nubian Museum.

Location: North Quarry, Al-Haddadeen Street

5 More High Dam

More High Dam
More High Dam
 

Aswan High Dam is Egypt’s most acclaimed yet controversial construction project. Begun in 1960 and taking 11 years to complete, the dam was President Nasser’s pet project and greatest achievement and was accomplished through funding and engineering assistance from the Soviet Union. The Hoge Dam has some staggering statistics. The building received 42.7 billion cubic meters of stone (17 times the volume of the Pyramid of Cheops) with a total length of 3.6 kilometers. It is 980 meters thick at the base and 40 meters at the top. The average capacity of the dam’s reservoir (Lake Nasser) is 135 billion cubic meters with a maximum capacity of 157 billion cubic meters.

The dam brought fantastic benefits to the country, enabling sustainable electricity throughout the country and increasing the amount of arable land in Egypt. However, it also ended the annual flooding of the Nile, which has fertilized farmer’s fields with its rich silt deposits, and the creation of Lake Nasser (the world’s largest man-made lake) has wiped out much of Upper Egypt’s vast heritage when the waters rose.

A four-lane highway runs across the top of the dam where there is a triumphal arch and an inscription commemorating its completion and the collaboration between Egypt and the Soviet Union to build it. Trips to the Aswan High Dam are often included in day trips to Abu Simbel, or you can simply hire a taxi to get here.

Location: 17 km south of Aswan

6 Monastery of St. Simeon

Monastery of St. Simeon
Monastery of St. Simeon
 

The gloriously photogenic Monastery of St. Simeon sits among the sand dunes on the West Bank of the Nile. Founded in the 7th century and finally abandoned in the 13th century due to water shortages, it is one of the largest and best-preserved Coptic monasteries in Egypt.

Within the cloister’s courtyard, an aisle Basilica occupies the southern side of the cloister. On the east side of the wide central nave, once covered by two domed roofs, is the large apse with three rectangular niches under semi-domes. In the central niche are the remains of a fresco on which Christ is placed between angels. To the north and west of the church are several outbuildings and small caves, while the east side consists of living quarters. Upstairs are some more well-preserved vaulted living quarters, including the monks’ cells, with brick beds and Coptic and Arabic inscriptions on the walls.

Standing on the fortified walls of the monastery, overlooking the undulating dunes, gives an idea of ​​the isolation that the monks who lived here must have experienced. Today you can hire a boat or felucca to take you to the monastery jetty and then take a walk or a camel ride (30 minutes) in the sand to get here.

Location: West Bank

7 Tombs of the Nobles

Tombs of the Nobles
Tombs of the Nobles
 

Carved out of the cliffs of the West Bank, this series of petroglyphs were the places where governors, priests and other great bogs of Elephantine Island were buried during the Old and Middle Kingdoms. They are accessed via a set of steep steps to the left of the Gharb Aswan jetty.

The first tombs you enter are Tombs 25 & 26 where the 6th dynasty governors Mekhu and Sabni were buried. The artistry in both is somewhat simple and roughly worked out. The path to the right is Tomb 31 , belonging to Prince Sarenput II, a contemporary of King Amenemhet II of the 12th Dynasty. This is one of the largest and best preserved tombs in the necropolis. Beyond the burial chamber is a small corridor with three niches on either side. Look to the left of the first niche to see a figure of the dead man and his son with excellently preserved colours.

Tomb 34 (The Tomb of Harhuf) contains inscriptions that record successful trading expeditions in Nubia. A staircase from here leads to the Tomb of Setka (First Intermediate Period), which has badly damaged wall paintings that still have amazingly vibrant colors and are one of the few surviving examples of the decorative arts of this period.

Location: West Bank

8 Meatballs

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The meat

This group of temples have all been rescued from a watery closure by the UNESCO rescue project and now sit on the shores of Lake Nasser. Kalabsha Temple is the best preserved of the three temples here and also the youngest, dating back to the time of the Roman Emperor Augustus. The most imposing monument in Nubia after the Temple of Abu Simbel, it was built on the site of an earlier temple founded by Amenhotep II and re-erected during the Ptolemaic dynasty. The decoration was never completed and the reliefs that exist are crudely executed. During the Byzantine era, the temple was converted into a church.

Just to the northwest is the Temple of Beit el-Wali (“House of the Holy Man”) built by Ramesses II and comprising a vestibule, transverse chamber and sanctuary. There are vibrant historical reliefs throughout the interior depicting many of Ramses II’s battles and triumphs, including the king’s triumphal procession over the Kushites and his wars with the Syrians and Libyans.

small Kertassi Temple is just to the north and has two Hathor columns at the entrance and four other columns with detailed floral capitals.

Taxis to Kalabsha can be easily hired in Aswan and a trip here is best combined with a visit to Philae.

Location: 20 km south of Aswan

9 Mausoleum van Aga Khan

Mausoleum van Aga Khan
Mausoleum van Aga Khan
 

Presidentially prominent atop the West Bank cliff, the Mausoleum of Aga Khan was built to hold the tomb of Sir Sultan Muhammad Shah (1877-1957), leader of the Shi’a Islam Nizari Ismaili sect. He is especially remembered for his various charitable endeavors, establishing educational and medical institutions throughout Africa and Asia, and for the influential role he played in discussions of the partition of India. Although born in Karachi (then part of India under British colonial rule), the Aga Khan often swam with his family in Aswan and thus had a deep connection to this part of Egypt. You can’t visit the real mausoleum, but you can certainly see it sitting high above the bank of the Nile.

Location: West Bank

10 Old Cataract Hotel

Old Cataract Hotel
Old Cataract Hotel
 

The ornate facade and lush gardens surrounding this old-timer hotel are one of Aswan’s main riverside attractions and can’t be missed if you take a sightseeing sailing tour of Aswan aboard a felucca. The hotel’s biggest claim to fame is that Agatha Christie wrote part of Death on the Nile while staying here, and also featured the hotel in the movie based on the novel. If you want to do an “Agatha” but don’t have the money to stay here, the hotel terrace is the perfect place to have high tea in town.further is about as close as you will get to the grand dame herself.

Address: Abtal el-Tahrir Street

11 Western Quarry (Gebal Simaan)

For archaeological fiends, Aswan’s Western Quarry makes an interesting journey. It was from here that many of ancient Egypt’s most recognizable statues began their lives; chiseled out of the hill of Aswan granite. Archaeologists think that Luxor is the mammoth Colossi of Memnon come from this quarry. Today you can still see the traces where huge blocks of stones were dragged to the river for their journey down the Nile to destroy the temples of the pharaohs. There are no roads here, so if you’re up for a camel adventure, a visit here is plenty of fun too. Camel drivers can be hired from the Gharb Aswan jetty and the trip takes about 30 minutes.

Location: West Bank

12 Souq area

Souq area
Souq area
 

Slap in the heart of downtown Aswan, Sharia al-Souq is a souvenir hunter’s dream. The stalls brimming with traditional spices and perfumes galebeyas (long robes) and scarves in rainbow hues, basketry and silverware. It’s a fun place to browse and – for the most part – free from the vendor hustle you get in other parts of Egypt. Look out for Nubian jewelry and handicrafts, which show the distinctly different culture of the people of Upper Egypt. And if you’ve become addicted to the refreshing local karkadai drink, keep your eyes peeled for buckets of the dark red dried karkadai(hibiscus) petals that you can buy by weight to recreate the drink at home.

Location: Sharia al-Souq

Where to Stay in Aswan for Sightseeing

We recommend these great hotels in Aswan along the Nile:

  • Sofitel Legend Old Cataract Aswan: 5-star luxury, Nile views, opposite Elephantine Island, old-world charm, gorgeous pool.
  • Philae Hotel: mid-range pricing, overlooking the Nile, convenient location, apartments with kitchens.
  • LTI – Pyramisa Isis Island Resort & Spa: affordable resort, private island, tropical gardens, large pools, free ferry transfer.
  • Happi Hotel: budget rates, convenient location, helpful staff, comfortable rooms.

Day trips from Aswan

Abu Simbel

Abu Simbel
Abu Simbel
 

If you have time for just one day trip from Aswan, opt for a visit to Abu Simbel. Built by Ramses II, and saved from destruction by a remarkable UNESCO rescue project in the 1970s, Abu Simbel is a triumph not only of ancient architecture, but also of modern engineering. The temple’s gigantic scale surpasses anything else in Egypt and has to be seen to be believed.

Location: Lake Nasser area, 280 km south of Aswan

Wadi al-Subua

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Wadi al-Subua

Wadi al-Subua’s main tourist attraction is the sizeable Temple of Ramesses II , which contains some excellent statuary and a fine fusion of ancient Egyptian reliefs and later Byzantine Christian paintings (the temple was used as a church during the early Christian period). Nearby there are two other temples worth visiting if you have come all the way. At the Temple of Dakka , you can climb to the top of the gateway for a breathtaking view of the desert, while at the Temple of Maharaqa you can also clamber up the flake stairs to the roof.

Location: Lake Nasser area, 170 km south of Aswan

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