Not as widely known as Cairo with the nearby Pyramids of Giza or Luxor with the Valley of the Kings, Aswan still has plenty to offer travelers-kids and adults alike. It moves at a slower pace than Cairo or Luxor, has fewer tourists, and many who visit it only spend a day before or after a cruise or in connection with a trip to Abu Simbel. But we decided to spend 3 nights in Aswan to allow us to relax, let kids nap, and soak up the atmosphere.
EgyptAir has regular flights from Cairo to Aswan and it only takes about 1.5 hours. By the time you’re at cruising altitude, it’s almost time to prepare for descent! We stayed at the Movenpick on Elephantine Island and arranged hotel pick up in a van, but there are tons of taxis at the airport that you could easily use. For more about the Movenpick, see my review here.
Here’s the quick overview of what we did, with more detailed information below that
Midday flight to Aswan from Cairo. If you want to condense it to 2 nights, do the early morning flight instead and add in items from Day 3.
Hotel check in and unpacking.
Walked through Elephantine Island and some Nubian Villages until we reached the far end and the archaeological site. Cool temples and a Nilometer. If not staying at Movenpick, take a boat across.
Abu Simbel day trip–early morning departure (we left at 7:30 am), 3-4 hour drive, 2 hours at Abu Simbel, lunch, and drive home. For more information, see my post on Abu Simbel.
Optional Add On–many people add a trip to the High Dam on the return from Abu Simbel
Temple of Philae
Lunch and Nap
Sunset Felucca Sail
We just relaxed at the hotel until our noon departure. You could add in any from Day 3 that you didn’t cover
Aswan used to be the largest trading center in the Nile Valley, connecting equatorial Africa and the Mediterranean Sea. Originally called Syene by the Greeks (from the Egyptian word swenet or “trade”), it started out on Elephantine Island in the middle of the Nile. This provided security for the city as it was easily defended and situated just downriver from the First Cataract.
Modern Aswan began in the 1880s as a base for British troops. Now it’s the third largest city in Egypt after Cairo and Alexandria. It houses a massive souk (market) and one of Egypt’s most famous hotels–the Old Cataract Hotel where Agatha Christie stayed. There is an interesting blend of Nubian, Islamic, and Pharaonic culture and sites.
Elephantine Island and the Archaeological Site
On our first day, we explored the archaeological site at the southern end of Elephantine Island. It’s original name was Ibu, which meant “elephant” and referenced the ivory trade. Walking from our hotel on the north end was a bit of an adventure! There’s a tiny path along a ledge leading to a rusty gate that separates the hotel from the local Nubian village. We wandered through the villages, looking for the most obvious paths and tracking progress on our phones. It was an interesting glimpse into local life, but definitely wear good shoes and be prepared for rough paths, narrow alleys, and no real signs.
Finally we popped out at the archaeological site and climbed through another hole in a fence to reach the ticket booth. It covers 2 square kilometers and is still being excavated, though the site was not active when we were there. Excavation started in 1969. Within the site, there is the Temple of Satet, the Temple of Khnun, remains of a town, island and Nile overlooks, and two Nilometers. A guide at the ticket booth showed us around.
Within the sites, you’ll see a lot of hieroglyphics and Pharaonic era drawings. The temple of Satet dates to the reigns of Hatshepsut (1479-1457 BC) and Thutmose III. It was also fun looking for the crosses that Christians later carved into the sites.
The Nilometer was cool to see as it differs from the Nilometer on Rhoda Island in Cairo. The Cairo Nilometer is a massive hole in the ground with a winding staircase that circles down to the base. On Elephantine Island, the Nilometer of the temple of Satet was a regular flight of stairs that went down to the Nile. It had marks on it that marked the rising of the Nile during the annual flood. Kids enjoyed going down the stairs to see the Nile up close.
If you’re not staying on Elephantine Island you can take a boat from the shore to the jetty right at the ticket booth. Our 4 year old walked the site without problems and I wore our almost 2 year old. There is a lot of uneven surfaces and steps that could be difficult for a toddler. Not stroller friendly, though you could park it at the ticket booth if you’re coming by boat and are using it for other sightseeing.
Temple of Philae
The Temple of Philae is top of the list for most people visiting Aswan. Interestingly, the temple used to be on the island of Philae but rising waters from High Dam construction completely submerged the temple. So between 1975 and 1980, as part of UNESCO’s Nubia Campaign, the island was surrounded with a barrier, dried out, and then each brick of the temples were moved to nearby Agilkia island which did not have the same flood risks. 45,000 blocks of rock were dismantled and transferred!!
Reaching the Temple of Philae requires a boat ride. Take a car or taxi to the “Marina Philae Temple“, buy your tickets at the ticket booth to the left side, then stroll down to the docks and get a boat. There’s not a set price and you’ll have to negotiate. The boat will take you to the island, wait for you, and bring you back. Pay on the return. My kids loved the boat ride, though we held tightly onto our toddler’s leash as sides were low.
Once at the temple, you’ll go up some stairs and explore the island. Along with the massive Temple of Isis, there are also temples to Arsenuphis, Imhotep, Augustus, and Hathor, plus Nilometers, chapels, colonnades, gates, and a courtyard. The signage is not great. Bring a good guide book or bring a guide with you.
The buildings are a blending of many cultures and beliefs. The cult of Isis diffused into the Roman empire and the Temple of Isis was built during the Ptolemaic period and others were built during the reign of other Roman emperors, including Augustus, Tiberius, and Hadrian. Philae was a worship center for Isis for 1000 years until the Byzantine emperor Justinian forced its closure in 534 AD.
At that point, Christian Copts moved in and chiseled away many of the reliefs and added their own crosses and symbols. The temple became a church. There is also a lot of graffiti from the 1800 and 1900s where people carved their names and the date.
On the return, browse the gift shops and get a drink if needed.
Most of Philae is stroller friendly-ish if you can carry your stroller on and off the boat and up short flights of steps. It’s also a pretty good spot for toddlers to run around.
Tips: While we didn’t do the Sound and Light Show, I’ve heard it’s quite good. Also, for the easiest departure, request that your taxi wait for you. There is not a taxi stand and the dock is not near a main road.
Our next stop was the Unfinished Obelisk near the Fatimid cemetery. After getting tickets, we watched a short film about the obelisk which I recommend. Then head up to the door the hiking loop through the quarry. It’s only about a 20 minute walk, but does involve lots of steps and climbing over rocks and I wore my toddler.
The granite quarries of Aswan were used during the Old Kingdom through the Roman era. One quarry holds the gigantic unfinished obelisk that cracked shortly before completely and was abandoned. Had it been completed, it would have been 42.5m (almost 140 ft) tall and about 1,200 tons!!
Workers used chisels and palm wood wedges to make the obelisks. The wedges were soaked and would expand, cracking the rock.
Not too far from the Unfinished Obelisk is the Nubia Museum. Beautifully landscaped and designed, it sits on a small hill near Feryal Gardens and the Old Cataract Hotel. Opened in 1997, it has extensive grounds with archaeological items and native plants and a large display of artifacts inside.
The museum inside has a massive statue of Ramses II, saved from the temple of Gerf Hussein that is currently under water from the dam’s flooding. You wind through the museum starting with information about Nubia, then the Old, Middle, and New Kingdoms. There are also sections on Christian and Islamic Nubia and an area with scenes of daily life portrayed.
It is a beautiful museum and very well done. We didn’t get to spend as much time in it as I’d have liked as DS started to melt down. There are bathrooms and most of it is stroller friendly, though you’ll encounter some stairs.
Feluccas are easy to hail from many areas along the banks. We got one right from our hotel to sail around Elephantine Island. Unfortunately for us, the wind was almost nonexistent and the sail took a very long time! They had to pull out paddle-type things to move us along. It was beautiful sailing at sunset and something I highly suggest. Bring your own food on board.
If you’ve never been on a felucca, they are very basic sailboats with no bathrooms and low sides. Our toddler wears a leash while on them to keep him onboard.
Transportation–There is no Uber in Aswan. You’ll need to hail a taxi or arrange transportation with your hotel or travel agent. You can easily get a taxi at the airport, but I did not see them waiting outside all of the tourist sites. We got a taxi near our hotel on Day 3 and then hired him for the whole morning as he was a friendly with good driving skills. If you’re happy to walk, then you can easily walk between many of the sites, though the Temple of Philae and the High Dam are too far away.
Climate–Aswan tends to be 18 degrees F warmer than Cairo, so even the winters are warmer. We were there in Dec and wished we had brought our swimsuits for the hotel pool in the afternoon. This also means summer is very hot!
Guide Book–I love the Egypt Pocket Guide series. Small and compact, they cover specific cities or sites. The Aswan one is quite comprehensive. It has 48 pages and over 170 photographs, drawings, and maps. You can also find guides on Luxor, Abu Simbel, Valley of the Kings, Islamic Cairo, the Pyramids, Alexandria, etc. You’ll find them at many bookstores in Egypt, including AUC ones and the CSA giftshop in Maadi. They are not as easily found online.