Prior to planning our trip to Egypt, I hardly knew anything about Abu Simbel. Yes, I had heard of it and I *kind of* knew what it looked like, but nothing more. At all. But, as soon as I dug into Abu Simbel, a visit was absolutely non-negotiable. Planning this “must do” activity turned out to be more work than anticipated, as its a flight from Cairo or Luxor or 6-hour round trip drive from Aswan! In any case, we worked it out and it was one of both Dan and my favorite activities in Egypt, rivaling even the pyramids!
WHAT IS ABU SIMBEL?
Abu Simbel is a small, touristy town in Southern Egypt (a/k/a Upper Egypt) in an area called Nubia, home of the Nubian people, which is also home to amazing twin rock temples built during the rein of Pharaoh Ramesses II. Abu Simbel is located about a 3.5 hour drive south of Aswan via highway or a 45 minute flight from Aswan (or an hour flight from Luxor).
The Twin Temples of Abu Simbel are quite famous and well regarded. The first temple – the Great Temple – was constructed for Ramessess II himself as a god, as well as the Egyptian gods of Aman, Ra-Horakhty, and Ptah. The second temple – the Small Temple – is dedicated to the Egyptian goddess Hathor and Ramesses II’s wife, Nefertari. While the Great Temple is more, well, great, the Small Temple is pretty great, too, and was only the second Egyptian temple dedicated to a woman.
The Abu Simbel temples were originally built in a slightly different location, in the middle of what is now Lake Nassar. They were relocated in the 1960s to their current location as a result of the construction of the Aswan High Damn, which would result in the Nile River raising and potentially ruining the Abu Simbel temples. The movement of the Abu Simbel temples was apparently quite the feat, supervised by UNESCO, and is still considered a huge archeological success. According to our guide, the Abu Simbel temples are currently located about 200 metres from their original location.
Abu Simbel is also home to the Nubians, a group of people indigenous to this area. While we did not have an opportunity to explore the Nubian culture, they traditionally live in really interesting domed houses and have a unique style of music. We did see three musicians perform one evening and they were quite good.
HOW TO GET TO ABU SIMBEL?
We, like many visitors, made the drive from Aswan to Abu Simbel and back in the same day – yes, 6.5 hour round trip! And by making the drive, our Emo Tours Egypt guide organized a private driver to take us there and back with him. The road is a pretty straight highway patrolled by police. As recently as 2018, you could only drive from Aswan to Abu Simbel with a police escort, due to safety concerns, leaving twice a day, but that was not the case when we visited in April 2019. Definitely check the most recent rules if you are not going with a tour company.
Our tour started with a 4:30 AM departure from Aswan with our trusty Emo Tours Egypt guide and our driver. We got on the highway pretty quickly and our driver and guide checked us in with the police at the beginning of the highway, showing them our passports and explaining that we were English (even though were from the US…). The ride was pretty uneventful. The highway was filled with many tour buses and tour minivans and a few private cars. We saw the sunrise, slept a decent amount, and stopped once or twice for a toilet and a coffee. There are a number of these road stops on the highway, but many of them are not that nice and offer minimal food and drink. Our hotel packed us a to-go breakfast, and that was quite helpful.
We arrived to the Abu Simbel temples right around 8 AM, explore and departed back to Aswan around 10:30 AM, having a similar drive back.
Alternatively, you can fly directly to Abu Simbel via Egypt Air from Aswan (45 minutes) or Luxor (1 hour). Based on my research, most flights leave early in the AM and return in the early afternoon, just enough time to visit the temples!
Joining a tour to Abu Simbel is very popular and recommended, as the tour company will organize your transportation and ensure that you arrive at the proper times! I would also note that buses apparently leave from the Aswan bus station to Abu Simbel, but the rumor is that they are not foreigner-friendly, if they will even sell you a ticket.
WHAT TO DO AT ABU SIMBEL?
The main site are the Abu Simbel Twin Temples, and they are set up in an easy to visit complex. Our guide purchased our tickets and a “photo ticket” so that we could take photos inside the temples. Once again, if you want to take pictures inside the temples, you need a photography ticket and you will get yelled at, or, worse, have your camera taken. You can buy both your entrance ticket and your photograph ticket at the main entrance.
We first visited the Great Temple, first taking pictures outside and then going inside. The inside was quite large and very impressive (yet REALLY hot and stuffy), being covered in colorful, well-preserved ancient Egyptian paintings. Keep an eye on time – there is a lot to see and we had to tear ourselves away to ensure that we had enough time for the Small Temple.
The Small Temple is a bit smaller, but similarly impressive! Like the Great Temple, the interior has excellently preserved paintings.
After visiting the temples, we took a few minutes to view Lake Nassar. In total, we spent about 2 hours at Abu Simbel and then drove right back to Aswan. After visiting the temples, there is a little market selling trinkets on route out of the Abu Simbel complex.
There are a few hotels and restaurants in the town of Abu Simbel if you decide to stay the night, which I would only recommend if you have some special interest in the area or a lot of time.
WHAT TO WEAR AND BRING TO ABU SIMBEL?
On the Sudan border, Abu Simbel is HOT! Like, 100 degrees F. Since it was so hot, I wore a short sleeve dress that came down to my knees. I also wore Jack Rodgers sandals. Dan wore shorts, a polo shirt and Toms. Even though my knees were not covered, I felt comfortable. There’s not much besides other tourists in this town.
I recommend brining water, sunscreen, your camera, and cash. I did not see any ATMs on site. There is a little restaurant selling water and some food just outside of Abu Simbel next to the parking lot.
WOULD I DO IT AGAIN?
For first time visitors to Egypt and those who have traveled to Egypt but not Abu Simbel, I absolutely recommend making time to visit Abu Simbel. Would I do it again, however, it would depend on my trip and whether I had extra time. On a 10-day or less trip, I would probably skip it in favor of places that we missed this time around. If I had longer though, I would definitely make the long trip to visit Abu Simbel again!
STEAL OUR TRIP
Emo Tours Egypt: The tour company that we used to book our tour of the pyramids. Use the code SAVETHISWAY to save 10% off all tours. The cost was $75 US/person for the tour, entrance, and round trip transportation to and from Aswan. We tipped our guide and driver extra at the end.
Egypt Air: The main airline that flies to Abu Simbel. We flew Egypt Air both from the US and within Egypt and the airline was fine.
ON A BUDGET
There are not a lot of budget friendly options for visiting Abu Simbel as of 2019. However, given that Egypt is inexpensive generally, Abu Simbel is a very worthy splurge!