What are the things to see in Aswan? From the Nubian Museum to the Great Dam, from the magnificent Temples of Abu Simbel and Philae to the islands on the placid waters of the Nile, from the mega relaxed atmosphere to the romantic spice market, here are the things not to miss in Aswan that will make you fall in love with this destination so much how much they made me fall in love.
Aswan it is a calm and warm city, full of amazing things to see and do.
When I come back from a trip, with a thousand emotions in turmoil, it is always very difficult to think about what my favorite destinations have been in a country.
Egypt is an amazing country, full of history, traditions and culture but the winner's palm definitely goes to Aswan. Come on absolutely mesmerizing temples of Abu Simbel and Philae, to leisurely boat trips to the Elephantine and Kitchener Islands, Aswan is filled with historical riches, peaceful Nubian villages, and stunning Nile views.
What to see in Aswan
If you travel in DIY Egypt or with a tour, however you get to Aswan sooner or later, it is one of the crucial points of each Nile cruise: here what to see in Aswan, which you just can't miss.
1 - Spice market
Virtually every evening, while Massi slept in the hotel with the air conditioning, I, as a good "spice hunter", took the boat, crossed the Nile and went for a ride to Sharia al-Souq, or in the Aswan market, to fill my pockets with cinnamon, saffron, karkade, cloves, bergamot, pepper and nutmeg.
Located in the town center, a stone's throw from the train station and the bank of the Nile, the Aswan market it is a shopping paradise: the stalls are full of spices, traditional galebeyas (long robes) and fabrics, silverware and souvenirs of all kinds are wasted in a rainbow of colors and scents.
It is a fun place to explore and in general the vendors are more lovable and less aggressive than in other markets such as for example Khan el Khalili to Cairo.
Pay attention to perfumes (Aswan is famous for perfumes) and Nubian embroidery of the peoples of Upper Egypt. And if like me you are addicted to karkade, you will be spoiled for choice among the huge buckets crammed with dark red hibiscus petals that you can buy by weight to recreate the drink at home (or as a gift).
The BEST HOTEL in Aswan
I loved the Nubian Holiday House during my stay in Aswan.
It is located on the other side of the Nile, easily accessible by boat, within one delightful Nubian home, but don't worry: from there you can reach everything very easily and the area is quiet, far from mass tourism.
The hotel has an amazing terrace overlooking the Nile and the cultivated fields, free wifi, and friendly staff.
The owner, Habibi, organized all the tours we wanted for us (Nubian village, Abu Simbel and others) at a great price and among them, the 3 day felucca cruise!
2 - Nubian Museum
Definitely the best museum in Aswan, the Museo Nubiano it's a highlight recommended by Egypt's Lonely Planet and I can't help but agree!
If you are interested in the culture and history of Kingdom of Kush (ancient Nubia) this museum is really a must, as well as being one of the best museums in Egypt.
The museum documents and showcases the riches of a culture that was completely wiped out with the construction of the Aswan Dam and was curated in partnership with UNESCO as a reminder of what happened to communities after the creation of Lake Nasser , which flooded much of the original valley.
Also on display are many stunning black and white photos of the incredible project put in place to save the Temples of Philae and Abu Simbel from the rising waters of the dam (along with extensive photographs of other monuments that are now lost forever beneath the waters. of the lake).
In addition to fully explaining the history of Nubia and its people, the ethnographic section displays beautiful Nubian handicrafts and folk art.
Don't miss the mud-brick mausoleums of the Fatimid cemetery, just behind the museum. The cemetery keepers are happy to take visitors on a tour and can point you to the most interesting mausoleums. Don't forget to leave them a small tip.
Where it is: Assuan, Sheyakhah Oula.
3 - Elephantine Island
The largest island in the Nile near Aswan, theElephantine island, although scarred and marred by the construction of large hotels, it is a delightful place to stroll and to soak up the quiet and dusty streets of the traditional villages of Home e Siou with houses painted in bright colors.
The Nubian people who live here - an ethnic group that populates North Sudan and southern Egypt - are truly among the kindest and most hospitable people in the world and you won't be able to go far without being invited to have tea sitting together under a big shady tree!
Children play in the streets, men congregate on the sidewalks smoking sheesha, women chat together on doors, and whole flocks of sheep make their way between them.
At its southern end are the Aswan Museum (currently not open) and the Rovine di Abu, the oldest settlement in Aswan, which contains the ancient Khnum Kingdom Temple and Temple of Satet.
On the eastern embankment near the ruins and down a flight of stairs is the famous nilometro, one of the most famous attractions in Aswan because it is still a fascinating example of the highly sophisticated skills of a civilization that existed here over 3.000 years ago.
The ancient Egyptians measured the level of the river, when it lowered and when it rose and which allowed them to estimate the height of the annual flood and thus to predict the success of the harvest.
For one of the best views of the Nile and Elephantine Island, have a cup of tea on the rooftop terrace of the Old Cataract Hotel, a historic luxury hotel where Agatha Christie is said to have written part of her world-famous Murder on the Nile
Overall, Elephantine Island offers an in-depth insight into local life and will only cost you 2 LE (Egyptian Pounds) for the boat from Aswan Pier (they will try to ask you for more but that is the right price).
4 - Kitchener Botanical Garden
Right next to Aswan, in the Nile River, is theKitchener Island, House of Botanical Garden.
Now officially known as Aswan Botanical Garden, this island was once owned by Lord Kitchener who transformed it into a verdant garden of exotic plants from Asia and Africa.
The island was given to Lord Kitchener as a reward for his services in the Sudan Campaign (1896-1898). Soon after, Kitchener quickly transformed the small island into a paradise of exotic trees and plants in carefully manicured gardens with multiple walkways. When the island passed into the hands of the Egyptian government, it was used as a research station.
The gardens on the island are very popular with locals for picnics or just strolling around in a peaceful and beautiful setting. You can reach the island by felucca or speedboat from the Aswan jetty.
5 - the unfinished Obelisk
Aswan was the place where many of the monuments that have come down to us today of ancient Egypt were made and many of the relics you will see north of Luxor were extracted from the granite quarries found here.
You can actually go and see some of these huge quarries and one of those of particular interest, is the northern quarry where theUnfinished obelisk.
A piece of stone 41 meters long and four meters wide that was probably abandoned due to a crack in the rock (doh!) And now lies abandoned in the same quarry it was left in thousands of years ago.
It is estimated that, if completed, the obelisk would have weighed 1.168 tons and would have been the largest ever built. On the surrounding rocky walls, it is also possible to see the numerous traces of the work of the ancient stonemasons.
Visiting this attraction is definitely one of the best things to do in Aswan because it gives you an idea of how much work was done by this ancient civilization, of course, before the development of modern tools!
You can easily walk to the area where the obelisk is located, Northern Quarry, from the city center of Aswan. It is just east of the Fatimid cemetery and the Nubian Museum.
Where it is: Northern Quarry, Al-Haddadeen Street
6 - Great Aswan Dam
A short drive up to the big say it is definitely one of the best things to do in Aswan, if only for the view from up there.
The Great Dam and its counterpart, the Nasser reservoir, was a project that was much debated and controversial and still is today.
While the dam provides electricity to the whole country, many Nubian villages in this area were lost.
Culturally, it destroyed many traditional Nubian villages and temples, while many temples and artifacts had to be relocated. The aforementioned Abu Simbel Temple was one of many.
From an environmental point of view, the dam stopped the annual flood of the Nile, which on the one hand provided fertile ground for downstream farmers but on the other hand entailed the need for fertilizers (previously the fields were fertilized by silt deposits brought in by the river) for crops and spending damaged the means of livelihood of farmers.
This controversy is intensified by the fact that the construction of the dam was financed through funding and thetechnical aid from the Soviet Union in the Cold War, when Nasser was trying to defend Arab nationalism in opposition to American influence in the region.
The Great Aswan Dam also has some staggering statistics. Its construction required 42,7 billion cubic meters of stone (17 times the volume of the Pyramid of Cheops) and a total length of 3,6 kilometers. It has a thickness of 980 meters at the base and 40 meters at the highest point. The average capacity of the dam reservoir (Lake Nasser) is 135 billion cubic meters with a maximum capacity of 157 billion cubic meters.
A four-lane highway runs through the top of the dam where there is a triumphal arch and an inscription commemorating the completion and cooperation between Egypt and the Soviet Union to build it.
I Aswan Dam tour they are often included in day trips to Abu Simbel, or you can easily hire a taxi to get there.
Where it is: Manteqet as Sad Al Aali, 17 km south of Assuan.
7 – Mausoleo at Aga Khan
This is definitely a little out of the way in Aswan and currently not easily visited, the Mausoleo at Aga Khan it stands out imposing and austere on the top of a hill overlooking the Nile; the view from up there must be truly exceptional, but unfortunately I had to limit myself to observing it during my boat ride up to the Nubian village.
The Mausoleum of Aga Khan, given its history is also one of the most romantic places of all of Lower Egypt.
Built as a tomb by the Aga Khan, 48th Imam of the Shiite Ismaili Muslims, according to the wishes of his wife Mata Salama, the mausoleum is easily recognizable for its understated elegance and use of pink granite and sandstone.
After Aga Khan's death, his surviving widow continued to leave a red rose on her white Carrara marble tomb. Living in the villa, he managed to do it every day, faithfully, until his death in 2000. Even today, as requested by Mata Salama, it seems that every day a red rose is placed on the sarcophagus.
8 - Nubian village
The natives of modern Egypt, the Nubians, traditionally live in cheerful, colorful houses. The floors are made of sand and not all rooms have a roof because it doesn't rain and therefore there is no need for protection. Aswan is one of the driest places in the world.
I Nubians are warm and hospitable, often inviting guests to their homes for a traditional cup of “Karkade”, or tea.
A couple of these villages are located near the Corniche on Elephantine Island.
Originally, the Nubians lived in the Nile valley south of Aswan. However, the artificial lake Nasser, created by the construction of the high dam, flooded many villages and many had to relocate. Another village, Gharb Aswan, is also located near the Tomb of the Nobles, very close to the hotel where we were (and that I recommended).
If you want you can book an excursion in picturesque Nubian village south of Aswan which can be reached with a short but beautiful felucca trip. You will be immediately invited to some house to drink tea, which will be charged as expensive as if you were at the Palace hotel.
In the houses there are also tanks in which crocodiles are kept: once there was this custom among the Nubians, but today, this thing is done only for tourism purposes. The tanks are small and inside you will surely find a large crocodile and one or two small ones and you will be offered to take the photo (for a fee). Please avoid.
Also avoid taking pictures of children who as soon as they see you will jump around you and chant "one dollar photo, one dollar photo".
Never give children money to take pictures.
9 - Temples of File (Philae)
Built during the Ptolemaic dynasty, i Temples of Philae they are located on an island in the middle of the Nile, so to reach them you will need to rent a boat or take part in a tour.
But precisely because it is located on an island, File is a very quiet post and when I visited it, there were few people around.
Dedicated to divinity Isis, the main temple has a troubled history: The temple was located on the island of Philae in Lake Nasser, but in 1971 it was transferred by UNESCO to nearby Agilkia island after the site was partially flooded by the construction of the Aswan Dam.
The Philae temples also have a Christian history behind them. In fact, the ruins of a Christian church have been found. However, Christians have also done some damage: it is possible to see the intense mutilation of most of the hieroglyphs on the left side of the temple (Christians believed that the left side, that is the heart, should be pure and not contain pagan images) .
Allow at least 45 minutes (minimum) to wander around this complex, admiring the intriguing architectural features of the new kingdom, the details of the temple and its colorful inscriptions, the beautifully illuminated hieroglyphs.
The entrance to the Philae temples is around 100 LE each way, but boaters can try to insist it is 120 LE each way - don't believe it for a second! Try to get there in the late afternoon so you can watch the sunset.
10 - Tombs of the nobles
Le tombs of the nobles, located on the opposite bank of the Nile from Aswan, are basically tombs of Egyptian princes dating back to the Old Kingdom, but there are some that also belong to the Middle Kingdom and the New Kingdom.
The paintings showing scenes of daily life are beautiful, although many of the tombs are closed due to maintenance work.
Qubbet el-Hawa, known as "the wind dome", is a small domed structure located on the top of the sand hill.
There is nothing to see in this tomb, but the hike is worthwhile in the sense that it offers excellent views of the entire Nile River Valley, Aswan and the nearby Nubian village.
The hike is also very sandy and the temperature, especially in summer, becomes almost unbearable, so be prepared to have sand in your shoes, and to squeeze out liters of water: try to go there early in the morning, or towards sunset.
In any case, from the base of the hill you will find those who propose the camel excursion and it can be a good choice if you do not feel like walking up there.
1 day tour from Aswan
11 - Abu Simbel
… And ok, we know, the best thing to do in Aswan is to take a tour to the wonderful Abu Simbel temple.
Read here the things to know about Abu Simbel and how to visit it!
Built by Ramses II, Abu Simbel is about 280 km from Aswan, but it is easily accessible with a tour that you can book directly on the internet, at the agency or through your hotel.
Tours normally start around 4am which means you will return to Aswan for lunch time.
During this, you will be able to see 2 of the most famous temples of Egypt.
The most famous are the 4 statues that welcome you outside the main temple and inside, other treasures await you!
The wonder only increases when you learn that the temples have been carefully moved from their original position on higher ground after the flood of Lake Nasser.
Whatever you do, make sure you arrive in Abu Simbel and bring your camera!