Go deep into southern Egypt and get to know Nubian culture with this list of things to do in Aswan, Egypt.
Close to the border with Sudan in southern Egypt, the city of Aswan doesn’t get quite as many visitors as Luxor or Cairo — but it’s just as interesting and well worth the long journey there. Coming from Cairo, you’ll welcome the slower pace and calmer vibes. Low-key Aswan offers the chance to catch your breathe after the nerve-fraying, car-horn-tooting bedlam of Cairo.
It’s hard to find a more majestic setting than this: Backdropped by giant sand dunes where camels roam, Aswan is built on the banks of the Nile River, alongside tiny islands dotted with Nubian villages and lush gardens. While Aswan has grown quite a lot since my first trip to Egypt, it retains a sleepy, small town feel and a laidback charm.
Table of Contents
- Best Things to Do in Aswan, Egypt
- 1.Take a Day Trip to Abu Simbel
- 2. Stroll Along the Corniche
- 3. Visit the Nubia Museum
- 4. See the Unfinished Obelisk
- 5. Visit Temple of Philae by Boat
- 6. Have a Drink at Solaih Nubian Restaurant
- 7. See the Aswan High Dam
- 8. Have High Tea at the Sofitel Legend Old Cataract
- 9. Sail the Nile in a Felucca
- 10. Visit Elephantine Island
- What to Know about Nubian Villages in Aswan
- 11. Marvel at the Ruins of Temple Abu
- 12. Explore Aswan Botanical Gardens
- 13. Take a Camel to the Monastery of St Simeon
- 14. Visit the Tombs of the Nobles
- 15. See the Aga Khan Mausoleum
- Aswan Travel Guide
Best Things to Do in Aswan, Egypt
1.Take a Day Trip to Abu Simbel
Most people come to Aswan to visit the impressive Abu Simbel Temple — including myself. Aswan is the closest city to the famous UNESCO World Heritage site, but it’s still a 3-hour drive away. This is undoubtedly the top thing to do in Aswan.
Overlooking Lake Nasser, Abu Simbel is among the most famous and spectacular monuments in Egypt. But what makes it so interesting is its backstory: the complex was moved by the UNESCO in 1968 in its entirety to its present location, to save it from inundation after the building of the Aswan high dam.
- Opening hours: 6am-5pm from October to April & 6am-6pm
- Entrance: 255 EGP per adult/133 EGP per student
2. Stroll Along the Corniche
The town of Aswan is concentrated on the east bank of the Nile River, while the west bank features giant sand dunes topped with a handful of monuments and tiny Nubian villages.
One of Aswan’s great joys is simply strolling the east bank’s Corniche, watching traditional feluccas weave their way through the islands. Aswan’s real charm has always been its ambience rather than its sights. Make sure to factor in time for some aimless ambling along this Nile-side promenade.
3. Visit the Nubia Museum
Although the river will always be Aswan’s biggest draw, the east bank also has a cluster of sights. Located a 10-minute drive from the Corniche, the Nubia Museum is worth visiting to learn more about the Nubian culture unique to Aswan.
The Nubians are indigenous people of Southern Egypt and they have unique traditions that are distinctive to that of Egyptians. This museum gives an interesting peek into the Nubian culture by presenting the history of Nubia from prehistory to the present day. It’s also home to more than 3000 objects from archaeological sites that were threatened by the construction of the Aswan High Dam.
- Opening hours: 9am-1pm & 4-9pm winter, 6-10pm summer
- Entrance: 100 EGP per adult/50 EGP per student
4. See the Unfinished Obelisk
To admire the sheer ambition of ancient Egypt’s builders, check out the Unfinished Obelisk. The obelisk would have measured more than 40m high and weighed an estimated 1200 tonnes if completed, but the stonecutters discovered cracks in the granite and had to abandon the project. It still sits in situ, half chiseled out of the bedrock. A taxi ride from downtown Aswan to this site costs around 25 to 30 EGP.
- Opening hours: 8am-5pm
- Entrance: 60 EGP per adult/30 EGP per student
5. Visit Temple of Philae by Boat
Personally, this is my favorite thing to do in Aswan and I cannot recommend it enough. Philae Temple is the single best-preserved temple in all of Egypt, comparable with Karnak Temple in Luxor.
Located on an island, Philae seemingly floats on the water of the Nile. It’s only accessible by boat and you’ll need to haggle for the price but don’t pay more than 50 EGP for the boat trip. Alternatively, book a tour of Philae and combine it with a visit of a Nubian village.
- Opening hours: 7am-4pm Oct-May, to 5pm Jun-Sep
- Entrance: 100 EGP per adult/50 EGP per student
6. Have a Drink at Solaih Nubian Restaurant
Right across the water from Philae Temple, Solaih Nubian Restaurant is located on Bigeh Island, with awe-inspiring views of the the temple. Just get your motorboat driver to stop here for a short while before returning to shore and order a refreshing iced mint tea while you take in the view. It’s a gorgeous spot for sunset, if you don’t mind getting back in the dark.
Solaih is actually a part of Eco Nubia, a cool ecolodge with traditional mud houses on its very own island. Rooms are simple but the decor is rustic, yet stylish. By night, sit around the fire, enjoy some Nubian fare and watch the light and sound show at Philae Temple.
7. See the Aswan High Dam
Not too far from Philae Temple is the well-known Aswan High Dam that created the artificial Lake Nasser. Built between 1960 and 1970, the High Dam was – and still remains- a very controversial project today. Although the dam helps to supply electricity to the whole of Egypt and stop the annual Nile flood, it came with huge sacrifices.
Many Nubian villages were submerged, displacing inhabitants and forcing them to city life. Many important ancient temples had to be relocated — including Abu Simbel which was painstakingly moved in its entirety. It costs 30 EGP to enter, walk to the dam wall and peer over the edge of this great engineering feat.
- Opening hours: 9am-5pm
- Entrance: 30 EGP per adult/15 per child
8. Have High Tea at the Sofitel Legend Old Cataract
One of the best hotels in Aswan is the Sofitel Old Cataract Hotel, a heritage hotel housed in a magnificent colonial building. An iconic landmark of Aswan, the historic hotel is worth a visit even if you’re not staying here.
The walls of the lobby are adorned with the photos of former guests like Lady Diana, Winston Churchill and Agatha Christie, who also used the hotel as a setting for her novel Death on the Nile.
Sip on a cup of tea on its panoramic terrace and enjoy views of the Nile while you soak in the atmosphere. Remember to book a table as it gets full especially in peak travel season.
9. Sail the Nile in a Felucca
If you’re only going to board a felucca on the Nile once, it better be in Aswan. Floating on the world-famous Nile in a traditional sailboat is one of Egypt’s iconic experiences. Most people take a 1-hour ride at sunset, but a half day weaving around the palm-studded islands is the way to go.
There’s so much to see in this part of the Nile that you can easily weave many sightseeing spots into a felucca ride. (Continue reading for what to see on a felucca journey.) A 1-hour ride costs around 80 EGP ($5), while a full-day felucca journey will set you back around 500 EGP ($30).
10. Visit Elephantine Island
One of the most popular spots to visit on a felucca ride is the Elephantine Island (Gharb Aswan) on the west bank. You can also take a public ferry, which leaves next to the KFC on the Aswan quay and costs just 5 EGP.
The island is a great spot to experience traditional Nubian village life. Elephantine Island’s two neighboring villages of Siou and Koti are a maze of wriggling lanes lined with squat mudbrick houses. The Nubians traditionally live in houses painted in bright, vivid colors, which are an interesting sight.
While on Elephantine Island, don’t miss Animalia, a little museum brimming with Nubian artifacts and home to a lovely terrace that makes for a great place for a tea pit stop after exploring.
11. Marvel at the Ruins of Temple Abu
At the southern tip of Elephantine Island are the Ruins of Temple Abu, which was once the center of ancient Aswan. Wander through the jumble of small temples and buildings that showcase Aswan’s importance as a Nubian trading post.
The largest structure here is the partially reconstructed Temple of Khnum. Built in honor of the god of inundation during the Old Kingdom, it was used for more than 1500 years before being extensively rebuilt in Ptolemaic times.
- Opening hours: 8am-5pm
- Entrance: 35 EGP per adult/15 EGP per student
12. Explore Aswan Botanical Gardens
Next to Elephantine Island is Kitchener’s Island, home to Aswan Botanical Garden. The island was given to Lord Horatio Kitchener in the 1890s when he was commander of the Egyptian army.
A major plant lover, Kitchener turned the entire island into the stunning Aswan Botanical Gardens, importing plants from the Far East, India and parts of Africa. Now covering 6.8 hectares, the gardens are filled with birds as well as hundreds of species of flora.
- Opening hours: 8am-6pm
- Entrance: 30 EGP
13. Take a Camel to the Monastery of St Simeon
If you continue sailing along the Nile River, you’ll get to the 7th-century Monastery of St Simeon on the west bank. Disembark at the river bank and saddle up on a camel to see the monastery up close.
Surrounded by sturdy fortress walls, monastery was first dedicated to the local saint Anba Hedra. It was rebuilt in the 10th century and dedicated to St Simeon. From here the monks travelled into Nubia, in the hope of converting the Nubians to Christianity.
- Opening hours: 8am-4pm
- Entrance: 40 EGP per adult/20 EGP per student
14. Visit the Tombs of the Nobles
Few people visit this ancient site, but if you like going off the beaten path, you’ll enjoy the Tombs of the Nobles, perched on the top of the sand dunes overlooking the Nile. The views of the entire Nile valley from here are spectacular.
These are mainly tombs of Egyptian princes dating back to the Old Kingdom. In the tombs, you’ll find colorful paintings and hieroglyphics. Excavations are also still being made by archaeologists these days, so many of the tombs are closed due to maintenance work. The most prominent tomb is Qubbet el-Hawa, also known as ‘the wind dome’.
- Opening hours: 8am-4pm
- Entrance: 60 EGP per adult/30 EGP per student
15. See the Aga Khan Mausoleum
Also on the west bank is the Aga Khan Mausoleum, which stands imposingly on the top of a hill overlooking the Nile. The Aga Khan was the 48th Imam of the Shiite Ismaili Muslims, a sect that was mostly developed in India.
After his death in 1957, his wife ordered a pink limestone mausoleum to be built not far from his villa, in the style of Fatimid tombs. The mausoleum is closed to the public, but you can admire it from the outside. You’ll need to take the felucca to the west bank and climb up the slopes to reach the mausoleum.
Aswan Travel Guide
Current Egypt Travel Restrictions 2021
Since 1 September 2020, all travelers must present a negative RT-PCR test certificate on arrival (taken no more than 72 hours before departure). Make sure your PCR test certificate is written in English or Arabic and be stamped by an accredited laboratory. No quarantine or mandated testing is needed.
Travel insurance is also mandatory to travel Egypt. Safety Wing is the most popular travel insurance company for COVID19-coverage. I use their Nomad Insurance plan, which covers COVID-19 as any other illness as long as it was not contracted before your coverage start date. Refer to my travel insurance guide for more details.
For those who need a PCR test in Egypt to fly home, it’s important to take the test from the official labs or hospitals (otherwise they won’t be accepted). Prime Speed Medicals are the most trusted labs. The PCR test has a standard cost of 1,680 Egyptian Pounds (US$100) for foreigners.
How to Get to Aswan
The easiest way to get to Aswan is by plane. EgyptAir has cheap domestic flights. The flight from Cairo to Aswan usually takes 1.5 hours and costs around $100 each way. If you prefer slow travel, catch the night train from Cairo and watch the backcountry of Egypt through whisk by (costs the same as the flight).
From Luxor, you can easily catch a train to Aswan. The journey takes 3 hours 15 minutes, and there are regular departures throughout the day. Prices range from 57 to 120 EGP depending on class. Check train schedule and fare here.
Where to Stay in Aswan
Downtown Aswan stands along the east bank of the Nile, and you can easily find a budget hotel with views of the Nile for under $40/night. Many attractions and restaurants are within walking distance from there.
Budget: Kato Dool Nubian Resort
Located on one of the islands in the Nile, this colorful and quirky Nubian lodge is full of character and great for young, budget travelers. Check rates here.
Mid Range: Citymax Hotel Aswan
I stayed at this mid range hotel, that has modern and clean rooms overlooking the Nile. Great location within walking distance from the center. Check rates here.
Luxury: Sofitel Legend Old Cataract
The most luxurious hotel in Aswan is an iconic landmark worth splurging on (pictured). In fact, even if you don’t stay here, you should visit at least for afternoon tea. This hotel breathes history like no other in Egypt. Check rates here.
Where to Eat in Aswan
Unfortunately there aren’t a lot of great food options in Aswan, as compared to Luxor. Restaurants are either pricey, or not easily accessible from downtown Aswan. Cheap food options usually serve pizzas and crepes. Here are the rare few restaurants worth trying in Aswan:
One of the best affordable restaurants in downtown Aswan, Makani has earned a great reputation for itself with good food and reasonable prices. Plus the views of the Nile are pretty impressive. Read reviews.
Located on Elephantine Island, this colorful restaurant has an eclectic decor and an equally awesome menu. You’ll need to take a motorboat there from the jetty. Read reviews.
Solaih Nubian Restaurant
Located on Bigeh Island, this restaurant has the best views of the the Philae Temple and some interesting traditional Nubian food. The outdoor terrace has such relaxing vibes, you’ll want to hang out here for awhile after lunch. Read reviews here.
Enjoy high tea at the outdoor terrace of Sofitel Old Cataract, one of the best hotels in Aswan. The view is glorious and the high tea is pricey but much raved about. Great selection of sandwiches, cheeses, pastries and smoked duck and chicken. Note that there’s a minimum spending is 300 EGP for non-hotel guests. Read reviews here.
Further Reading on Egypt
That’s a wrap! I hope you’ve found this list of things to do in Aswan to be useful. If you’re interested in reading more on Egypt, check out these articles I’ve written on the country as well as neighboring countries:
Let me know if you have any questions below. I’d be more than happy to help!
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