The Nile river was the lifeblood for the Ancient Egyptians. It provided an oasis in a barren climate that enabled them to cultivate crops and transport building materials, among other things. This is why all of the major Ancient Egyptian cities and important sites were built along the Nile river.
This makes taking a cruise down the Nile one of the best ways to see Ancient Egypt. Most tour companies will offer a Nile cruise as part of their Egypt package, and in my opinion this is a great way to see the sites of Ancient Egypt.
If you are planning a trip to Egypt, you are going to be most likely flying into the capital city of Cairo. The Great Pyramids of Giza, the Sphinx, and the Egyptian Museum are the Ancient Egyptian highlights of the Cairo area, and the neighboring Dahshur, Memphis, and Saqqara have some incredible early Ancient Egyptian pyramids and sites to see. But a bulk of the magical temples and tombs from Ancient Egypt are located on the Nile river, outside of Cairo.
In order to see these sites such as the Valley of the Kings, Karnak Temple, and Abu Simbel, one must either fly to Luxor or Aswan and get a private driver to take you along the river for days, or opt for flying to one of those towns and beginning a Nile cruise that will take you to all the sites.
Should You Take a Nile Cruise?
Apart from Cairo, Luxor is the mecca of Ancient Egyptian sites. You will absolutely want to make your way there, whether you fly there and back to Cairo, or opt to take a cruise to or from there. You can also fly to Aswan, or have a private driver or tour company drive you to the sites, but from a safety and luxury standpoint, a cruise is the way to go.
Seeing the towns along the Nile river while you cruise down in comfort is also a major perk. Compared to other cruise prices, getting a Nile cruise can also be relatively inexpensive if packaged with an Egypt tour. It gives you a nice home base for a few days and allows you a sense of safety that you might not always feel if you were staying on the mainland and driving from town to town. I'm not a huge fan of "cruise ships", but I’d highly recommend taking a Nile cruise as it will allow you to see all the main sites in one comprehensive trip.
How Long is a Nile Cruise?
My Nile cruise had us staying 3 nights on the cruise ship, with a 4th additional night in a hotel in Luxor. This could have also been on the cruise ship but I imagine we transferred to a hotel - which was very nice - for budgetary reasons.
You don’t need more than 4 days / 3 nights to cruise from Aswan to Luxor. One of these nights will be docked in Aswan, and one will be docked in Luxor. This will be enough time to see all the major sites - granted your days will be long and jam packed with destinations.
The Cruise Ship Experience
If you are looking for a massive Caribbean cruise ship with water slides and casinos, this is not it. But given the circumstances, the Nile river cruise ships are legit in their own way. My cruise ship was beautifully tacky, feeling like it was untouched from the 80s. There was a grand staircase in the lobby as you enter, with two floors of rooms. The second floor also had a large dining area where we ate all our meals. The third floor had a jewelry shop, souvenir shop, and a meeting area with a bar that was used for nightly events thrown by our tour company.
On the roof of the cruise ship was a large open air viewing deck with loads of seats. There were also two small pools and a bar. Not too shabby for an Egyptian cruise. Massages were also offered onboard. The food was... not great. The beer was good. The staff on our cruise ship was super friendly and fun.
All the cruise ships I saw were very similar with the same amount of levels and a rooftop deck. In fact, when we pulled up to popular sites like Efdu and Kom Ombo, all the cruise boats would park side by side and open their doors, creating an open pathway between all the cruise ships for travelers to exit onto land. So you would possibly walk through the lobby of a few cruise ships before getting off on the mainland. Never seen anything like that before, but it was kind of a fun, communal experience.
What Route to Take
There are two traditional routes you can take: From Aswan northward to Luxor, or from Luxor southward to Aswan. I started my Nile cruise in Aswan and would highly suggest following this route for a few reasons.
After spending some time in the bustling, chaotic city of Cairo, Aswan can feel like an oasis with its laid back vibe. This is a great place to relax and prepare yourself for all the major sites you are about to see. Being closer to the border of Sudan, the Nubian culture also feels different from Cairo and northern Egypt, which is a nice change of pace.
Another reason I suggest this route is that you end the cruise in Luxor and go out with a bang, as opposed to an anticlimactic ending in Aswan. It feels like you are building your way up to finish at the magical ancient capital of Egypt.
What Sights (and Sites) to See
The serene vibe of Aswan offers a chance to relax while riding a felucca boat around the Nile. Located in Ancient Nubia, an unforgettable experience is getting the opportunity to visit a Nubian Village where you can see how the locals live. The Aswan High Dam, as well as an unfinished obelisk, are other noteworthy attractions in Aswan.
Near Aswan is the island of Philae, with the well preserved Temple of Isis. Spend the morning, or afternoon, exploring the temple ruins built under Greco-Roman rule in the Ptolemaic period. The Philae temple complex was taken apart and moved to nearby Agilkia island by UNESCO as part of an effort to save it from the flooding created by the Aswan High Dam.
One of the most iconic temples in Egypt, Abu Simbel is a must if you are visiting Egypt. But it takes a bit of work to get there. It is a 3 hour drive through the desert from Aswan. We woke up at 2am to make the journey. Our tour bus was part of a caravan of buses with a police escort and we arrived just after sunrise. The four giant 67-foot statues of Ramses II are carved from a mountainside to give a memorable, imposing entrance into the temple.
Your first stop along the river after Aswan will be at Kom Ombo Temple. Another Greco-Roman built temple, Kom Ombo is dedicated to the crocodile god Sobek and the falcon god Horus. Next to the temple is a Crocodile Mummy Museum with dozens of ancient mummified crocodiles.
One of the most impressive temples in all of Egypt, Edfu Temple was built in the Ptolemaic Period by Greco-Roman rulers. The temple took 180 years to complete and is dedicated to the falcon god Horus. The temple was rediscovered in the 19th century as it was buried under centuries of sand. For this reason it is extremely well preserved with tons of legible hieroglyphs.
Luxor is home to most of Ancient Egypt’s top sites. You can easily spend 2 days here if you cram your schedule. 3-4 days will give you more flexibility and allow you to see some of the less frequented sites like Dier El Medina, the Ramesseum, and Medinet Habu Temple.
The top sites in Luxor are the massive Karnak Temple, Luxor Temple, Hatshepsut’s Temple, Colossi of Memnon, and the famous Valley of the Kings - where you can enter the empty tombs of Egyptian Pharaohs dating back 3500 years ago including King Tut’s tomb with his mummy.
Two of the Most Unforgettable Things to do in Egypt are in Luxor, including Visiting Queen Nefertari’s flawless tomb inside the Valley of the Queens, and riding in a hot air balloon at sunrise over Luxor. For a more info on Luxor, check out the Best Things to do in Luxor.
After arriving in Luxor, your Nile cruise will end and you will fly back to Cairo.
Seeing Egypt the same way many of the ancient Egyptians explored their own empire - down the Nile - is such a thrilling experience. If you are taking a trip to Egypt, you will absolutely want to see the gems of Luxor, as well as other destinations like Aswan, Edfu, and Abu Simbel. The best way to see all of these in the same trip is by taking a cruise along the Nile.
For more details on what to see in Egypt, check out the Ultimate Egypt Itinerary.