Hot air ballooning over Luxor, Egypt
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Once known as Thebes, Luxor served as the base for Egypt's ruling class for thousands of years, and its temples and tombs are among the wonders of the ancient world. Almost all Nile River cruises embark from the Luxor cornice, a pedestrian pathway on the river's East Bank, and you'll likely spend at least two days exploring ruins in the surrounding area.
The city itself is concentrated on the east side of the Nile, where you'll also find the Temple of Karnak -- the world's largest ancient religious site -- as well as Luxor Temple and the bulk of Luxor's museums, hotels and restaurants. The West Bank is home to some of Egypt's most famous tombs, including the necropolis within the Valley of the Kings and the Valley of the Queens, and memorials like the Colossi of Memnon.
If the temples become tiring, take a break to check out some of Luxor's more "modern" attractions (modern being relative when your city dates back past 2,134 B.C.). Of these, the Old Winter Palace -- now a hotel run by Sofitel -- provides afternoon tea, a refreshing break from the city's hot desert climate. And, of course, many tourists can't leave Luxor without taking an early morning balloon ride over the ruins; even if you're not the one aloft, their colorful fabric makes for wonderful pictures against the typically bright blue sky.
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Other Nile River Cruise Ports:
Alexandria • Cairo (Port Said) • Luxor • Safaga
It's hard to leave Luxor without that special souvenir. Visitors will encounter a wide number of street vendors and roadside stalls. Popular items include carvings of gods, pharaohs and queens; glass scent bottles; papyrus sheets with hieroglyphic writing; replicas of popular archaeological artifacts; Coptic textiles; jewelry, copper dinnerware and spices. For a personalized papyrus, visit the Papyrus Institute.
Egyptian Arabic is the commonly spoken language, but English is also widely spoken. Those directly involved with tourists, including vendors in the market, speak many European languages -- and even some Japanese.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
The currency in Egypt is the Egyptian pound (LE). Visit www.XE.com for current rates. U.S. dollars and other hard currencies are generally accepted, and you can change money at the visa offices in the airport arrival hall. There are ATM machines inside upmarket hotel lobbies, including the Sofitel Karnak, the Lotus and the El Luxor. Keep small change handy for minor purchases and for tipping, which is a way of life in the Middle East. Paper money gets very tattered and torn, especially the smaller notes, and may be refused by vendors.
Where You're Docked
Port areas along the Nile River are small and typically feature little more than stalls selling the usual souvenirs. Luxor's port is not much more than a mooring spot. Most boats dock in central Luxor, along the lower corniche (the main boulevard along the Nile) or out of town in the Boghadi Zone by the bridge. Ships will commonly will moor side by side, though some upmarket cruise lines have private docks.
Ocean cruise liners that offer excursions to Luxor tie up farther out at Safaga Port, which is situated on the coast of the Red Sea.
Tourist facilities at Luxor's port are few and far between. Also, it is not unusual to see heavily armed security personnel at the port. Time spent at each port is generally filled with planned excursions, and you can find the facilities you need onboard or in nearby hotels.
In Safaga, travelers will find great diving, windsurfing and a range of hotels. Safaga's town center is about 1.5 miles from the port and has a few shops for general items, as well as a bank.
By Taxi: If you want to travel separately from the planned excursions (for which you'll generally catch a pre-booked coach), it's best to take a taxi to the sights. They have no meters, but drivers should offer you a fixed current rate to reach your destination.
By Ferry: You can go between the East and West banks by road, but taking a ferry is easier, quicker and cheaper; the national ferry runs all day and night, leaving from the pier opposite Luxor Temple. Make sure you get a return ticket.
Watch Out For
Caleches, known locally as hantours, are the horse-drawn carriages you will see dotted along most Luxor streets. Drivers and touts will pester you, offering you rides -- and they can be quite pushy. Some of these horses look rather uncared for, so it might be best to avoid them. (The mistreatment of horses in Luxor and other Nile cities is an ongoing problem.) Also, be aware that many of the drivers are keen to make an extra buck, so be sure to agree a price first, and clarify exactly where you want to go. If the tour is getting longer than you want, ask to be dropped off, and get a taxi back to your ship.
Valley of the Kings: This World Heritage site contains at least 65 tombs, decorated with hieroglyphics and elaborately painted walls and ceilings. The tombs no longer contain the gold treasures that made their discovery so eventful in archaeological history, but the necropolis is still a sacred place well worth a visit. A ticket buys you admission to three tombs (not all are open), plus there's an extra charge to view the grave of Tutankhamun (the famed King Tut) and King Ramses VI. Choose the latter; while the boy king has greater name recognition, most of the artifacts are stored at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. The tomb of Ramses VI, on the other hand, holds a stunning depiction of the Egyptian Book of Day and Book of Night on its ceiling. Other tombs to try include those of Ramses I for the vivid colors, Ramses III for its long corridor of hieroglyphics and stars on the ceiling, and Ramses IX because of the cool snake hieroglyphics. (Sadly, you can't capture what you see; photos are forbidden.) There's little shade outside the tombs, so dress appropriately for the heat, and bring plenty of water.
Karnak Temple: Located outside Luxor, Karnak Temple is the largest place of worship in the world. It took 1,300 years to build this 42-acre temple, and you can see the one-upmanship among a succession of pharaohs as you wander through it. The bigger and more elaborate the temple, the more religious and thus more popular the king. The farther you step into a temple, the further back you travel in time. Look out for the statue of one of sun god Ra's incarnations -- a scarab beetle -- which symbolizes eternal life. Supposedly, if you walk around this bug three times, you're granted health, wealth and many children.
Luxor Temple: Conveniently located on the Nile's East Bank, Luxor Temple is best known for its avenue of Sphinxes that line the road to Karnak, which makes for great photo ops. Above the upper part of the temple is a sacred mosque, built before the sand was swept away. On the outer walls, you can faintly make out a painting of the last supper, in among the hieroglyphics, from a time when Christians were banned by the Romans from building churches. It's easy to spot Min, the god of fertility; he stands proudly displaying his, ahem, equipment. Interestingly, the carving is darkened in a certain area, where women hoping to become pregnant have eagerly stroked it.
Hatshepsut Temple: Egypt's ruling class experienced more than its share of power plays. One of the more famous coups came from Queen Hatshepsut, who took on the pharaoh duties after her husband Thutmose II passed away and had herself depicted in traditional male garb in temples and public places. Her temple near the Valley of the Kings is considered the most classical of the ancient civilization, with elegant pillars akin to those you'd see in Greece.
Felucca Ride: The old-fashioned, single-sail boats that ply the Nile make a lovely outing, particularly around sunset. Many river cruise operators include a felucca ride as one of their excursions, but if yours doesn't, you can book a trip on your own at the cornice. Expect to encounter a wall of touts and a lot of haggling; before you board, make sure you know the exact price (per person or per group) in the correct currency and how long you will actually be on the water.
Been There, Done That
Colossi of Memnon: These monster stone statues, rising about 60 feet high, once marked the entrance of the temple of Amenhotep III and date back to 1350 BC. While the temple itself has been destroyed, the sheer size and weight of the statues harken back to a time when the complex, near the Valley of Kings, was the largest and most opulent in the region. At one time, the statues were believed to "sing," although no reliable documentation exists in modern history.
Balloon Ride: Some river cruises offer early morning balloon rides, where you can check out the temples and desert vistas from a birds-eye view. If you decide to do this independently, be extremely careful of your provider: in February 2013, a hot air balloon crashed, and 19 of 21 passengers died. Although flights were temporarily banned, they resumed in April 2013.
Temple of Dendera: Located several hours from Luxor, the 2,200-year-old Temple of Dendera is all about Hathor, the cow goddess of motherhood. Apparently, if someone says you have cow's eyes it's a compliment, and despite her bovine features, Hathor is regarded as very beautiful. Admire the faded scenes colored using ochre, lapis and egg white, the most vivid of which pictures Nut, the goddess of water, swallowing the sun. Time has ravaged the temple, and you can see where embittered Christians later destroyed the statues and defaced the walls.
An Egyptian meal often begins with pita bread and a selection of delicious appetizers, such as baba ganoush or taboule. Main courses might include meat or poultry and be accompanied by yogurt or gibna bayda, a creamy feta-like cheese. As with any popular tourist area in Egypt, it's never hard to find Western food in Luxor. Alcohol is generally not consumed by Egyptians, but imported wine and beer can be found in most hotels and some restaurants. Locally produced alcohol is less expensive, but some varieties, especially the wine, can be an acquired taste.
Hotel Dining: Many of the hotels have fantastic restaurants. The Sheraton has four to choose from, including La Mamma, which offers pizza and has a beautiful outdoor setting. The Old Winter Palace also offers two well-regarded restaurants.
Local Fare: Sofra is an atmospheric restaurant in Luxor's old town, featuring some of the best food in Egypt. Sit out on the roof terrace for great views, and order a meze feast. No alcohol is served. (90 Mohamed Farid Street)
On a Budget: The Lantern Restaurant is British-owned and offers tasty and reliable English and Egyptian food.
High-End: Sofitel Winter on Corniche el Nile Street. Built in 1886, this Sofitel chain hotel is the place to stay in Luxor. It's centrally located, features good service and is steeped in history. It was on the bulletin board in its lobby that Howard Carter first announced his discovery of King Tut's tomb. The hotel's terrace is an ideal place to watch the sun go down over the Nile.
Boutique: Suave Hotel al-Moudira is the West Bank's luxury choice.
Close to Amenities: Hotel Iberotel is situated in the center of Luxor, facing the Nile. There is a nearby ferry service to the West Bank.
Great Value: El Phardous Home is a peaceful, clean and inexpensive hotel on the West Bank.
Staying in Touch
Some of the high-end hotels offer Internet cafes, but they can be pricey. Others, such as the Sofitel Winter Palace, offer guests free Wi-Fi, but, if you're out and about, it's easy enough to find an Internet cafe. There are several on the lower corniche and near the Winter Palace on Nile Street and Youssef Hassan Street.
Most river cruises include several days of touring and sightseeing in Luxor before the ship begins its drift south to Aswan. You'll likely see many of the "musts," including the Temple of Dendera, Luxor Temple, Hatshepsut Temple and the Valley of the Kings with an Egyptologist guide. For an extra fee, you can catch a sound and light show at Karnak Temple (although it carries a significant cheese factor).
For cruise passengers docked in Safaga, it's about a 3.5-hour trip each way to Luxor, making it a very long day. A standard tour visits Luxor Temple, Karnak Temple and the Valley of the Kings and includes a buffet lunch at a downtown Luxor hotel and usually a stop at a gold shop and papyrus art factory. Day tours leave around 6:15 a.m. (so your bus can join the 7 a.m. convoy) and don't return until around 9 p.m.
For More Information
On the Web: Egypt Tourism
Cruise Critic Message Boards: Africa and the Middle East
IndependentTraveler.com: Africa and the Middle East Travel Guide
Photos courtesy of Shutterstock.com and:
Elzbieta Sekowska (main)
Donya Nedomam (Man on Nile)
WitR (Hatshepsut Temple)
--by Chris Gray Faust, Destinations Editor