Highlights of Aswan: A Pleasant Surprise In Southern Egypt

Aswan, Egypt. Its a small city in Southern Egypt, home to the High Aswan Dam, an unfinished obelisk, the Philae Temple, and the Old Cataract Hotel (of Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile fame). Its also a really gorgeous city set along the Nile River and the gateway to Abu Simbel. The locals were friendly and, notably (and somewhat surprisingly), it felt more progressive than the other cities that we visited in Egypt. For all of these reasons, I loved Aswan, and I would love to go back and spend more time.


Pretty flowers everywhere in Aswan.

We visited Aswan at the end of a 5-night Nile River cruise earlier this year. I knew nothing – at all – about Aswan prior to visiting and would have certainly skipped Aswan absent our cruise itinerary. However, I am so glad we stopped, as it was the prettiest city that we visited in Egypt! I kept saying that it reminded me of a Greek island. And it really did!


Could be Greece.

We stayed on our cruise ship in Aswan (it docked there for two nights), but there are lots of accommodation in Aswan, including Western-style hotels and the famous Old Cataract Hotel (currently owned by Sofitel). We walked around Aswan a bit, including through its market, and we felt safe the entire time. There is also a large university in Aswan, so there are a lot of young people in town. We liked this, as we found most young Egyptians in Aswan to speak great English and be interested in talking to us about their lives in Aswan.


Dan and I in front of our cruise boat.

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Hotel and mall across from our cruise ship.

In terms of sites in Aswan, you can really see the highlights in a half-day if you pack it in. I would, however, spend at least two days in Aswan, longer if you want to visit Abu Simbel, to see the sites at a leisurely pace and enjoy the city. The most important and best site, in my opinion, in Aswan is the Philae Temple, which is set on an island in the reservoir of the Aswan Low Dam (note, this is not its original location). To visit the Philae Temple, you have to take a five-ish minute tourist boat to the island (which boats are not up to the highest standards). On the island, you can explore the temple and there is a little cafe and some vendors selling tourist trinkets. These vendors are also out in full force where you catch the boat.


Dan Dan on the tourist boat.


Philae Temple.


Me at the Philae Temple.


Cafe on the island.

After the Philae Temple, a stop at the Aswan High Dam is quite popular. The Aswan High Dam was built in the 1960s with a lot of help from the Soviet Union to combat flooding of the Nile River. A visit to the dam generally consists of a quick bus stop and a viewing of the dam. It was interesting to see some more modern history in Egypt.


Welcome to the Aswan High Dam.

A stop at the Unfinished Obelisk is also a popular stop on the tourist circuit, which I found a bit boring… The Unfinished Obelisk is basically a large rock in a quarry that has been partially carved into an obelisk. The Unfinished Obelisk was being made for Hatshepsut, but never finished. I wouldn’t plan to spend more than 20 minutes here and where walking shoes. There are some stairs that could be a bit difficult to navigate.


The Unfinished Obelisk.

In addition to these sites, Aswan is home to a fun souk (aka market), which I found to be less touristy and more manageable than those in Luxor and Cairo. Our lovely guide, Asharf, from Emo Tours Egypt (highly recommend the company and the guide!) took us on a tour of Aswan Souk where we picked up a few souvenirs for home. If you plan to visit, know that you should bargain for everything, take cash, and the market is the most lively at night (when the temperature cools down a bit).


Apples in the souk!


Delicious looking bread.


Lots of clothing.


With gorgeous details.

Its also quite popular in Aswan to take a boat ride on a traditional felucca boat. We skipped this activity since we had been on a boat for five days and we saw the Anthony Bourdain Egypt episode, but it did look fun!


Felucca boats on the Nile.


Another at sunset.

In terms of food, I sadly did not explore too much beyond my pre-paid cruise meals. However, I was able to hit the McDonalds overlooking the Nile River. The chicken sandwich was awesome, but the fries could have used more salt.


Couldn’t help myself.¬†


A familiar menu in a foreign language.

I also visited a mall (from the picture above) across the street from where the cruise ships dock, where we enjoyed some shisha and a delicious juice and Turkish coffee.


Turkish coffee.


Dan with shisha and Turkish coffee.


Local juice – the straws were awesome.

We also spent our last afternoon lunching at the Old Cataract Hotel’s The Terrace Restaurant. The food was average but the views of the Nile were phenomenal.


Club sandwich at The Terrace.


Old Cataract Hotel views.

In terms of getting to Aswan, the easiest route is to fly via EgyptAir from Cairo or Aswan. ¬†There are buses and a train, but tickets aren’t always sold to tourists. As mentioned in my Abu Simbel post. Aswan is also the gateway to Abu Simbel and a great place to base for a day trip to Abu Simbel!


Emo Tours Egypt: The tour company that we used to book our Nile River cruise, which included a tour of Aswan. Use the code SAVETHISWAY to save 10% off all tours. You can book just a tour of Aswan. We also used this company for our day trip to Abu Simbel.

Old Cataract Hotel: Sofitel’s website for the Old Cataract Hotel. Reservations not necessary for The Terrance. However, non-guests are charged a 300 Egyptian Pound entrance fee, which can be used against food and beverage at the hotel.


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