Sure, it deserves many more hours – but here’s exactly how to do it if you’re stretched for time
Too cheap to pay for two tickets at the Egyptian Museum to see the royal mummies? At Luxor Museum you’ll get access to two mummies – one potentially of Ramesses II, though it’s never been verified – with your entrance ticket. It’s a good idea to visit this museum as one of the first things you do in Luxor to get a solid grounding of background knowledge on the history of the area. Also, top tip: visit in the morning, as it’s more expensive in the afternoon.
The most significant temple complex in Luxor, both in size and historical importance, we don’t need to wax poetic about the virtues of Karnak. The huge complex is basically a set of ruins now, but houses throngs of decaying temples, statues, chapels, pylons and plenty of other buildings which were once probably the grandest structures in the country.
The site was continuously built on for thousands of years, through the Middle Kingdom to the New Kingdom and into the Ptolemaic period. It was the crowning glory of the ancient city of Thebes, itself one of the oldest cities in the world. More importantly, it’s an incredible testament to the building prowess of the ancient Egyptians, as it has stood for thousands of years despite earthquakes, multiple invasions and the flooding of The Nile.
And if all that’s not enough for you, it’s been the backdrop of vital scenes in Transformers, Lara Croft, James Bond, and The Mummy Returns, you know, if incredible epochs of history don’t spin your wheels enough.
Just about every second person on the street will be asking if you want a boat ride, and probably against all your better judgement, here’s why you should say yes. Felucca are beautiful, ancient sail boats and a stellar way to see out the afternoon on the Nile. Head out at sunset for calm waters and a dusky view.
Again, it pays to be cautious here. Ask your guide for a reputable outlet first. You’ll probably be sat down for a demonstration, and allowed to have a go at the process, which is actually quite fun – even if it’s all a bit of a gag.
You’ll then be taken inside, offered drinks, and told to look around the shop and choose some things you’re interested in. Then: it’s haggling time. It’s easy to be swayed by the free coffee and interactive aspect of the whole scenario, but absolutely do not agree to the price they give you in the first instance.
Our guy offered us a candle holder for 800 EGP, and we walked away with it for 150. This is probably still overpriced, but bear in mind here how hard the tourism industry is making lives for these people. An extra couple hundred pounds won’t break your bank.
We gave this a miss as you can see most of it from the street, between the iron gates – like the plebs we are.
Do you need to hire a guide? No, but it’s certainly a bonus. We hired a guide for the day for the West Bank, but not the East.
It may require a 4am wake-up call and a police convoy only to travel five minutes from your hotel (if, like us, you stay on the West Bank), but it’s the best 4am wake-up call you’ll ever have.
At about 6am, you’ll be soaring across the Valley of the Kings, overlooking some of the most significant historical sites in the world on one side, as the sun rises over the Nile on the other side. The dramatic sunrise turns the mountains a glorious shade of pink, and it’s just about the most breathtaking (I use that word sparingly, purely because it plain isn’t true when most people use it) sight you’ll see.
After about 45 minutes you’ll be plonked in a sparse field (beware of the listless children who follow the balloons until they land and beg for money as soon as the basket touches the gravel), handed a certificate of completion and be driven back to your lodgings. Sindbad Balloons is a fantastic company, seamlessly organised and will call your hotel the morning before to ensure they know when you need to be out of your rooms.
We organised a guide through our hotel, who offered up the incredible Mohammed to take us to three sites of our choice in a maximum of five hours (not including a quick stop at the Colossi of Memnon as that’s literally on the side of the road on the way to the other sites), for USD30, including a driver. All you need to pay are your entrance fees, and a tip for both the driver and the guide at the end.
– The Valley of the Kings
This is where the who’s-who of the ancient Egyptian world found their final resting places, even though most of the mummies and the loot were either later stolen or moved to Deir al-Bahri, in an attempt to save them from aforementioned looters. Perhaps the most famous of all the tombs here is that of Tutankhamun, although there are murmurs of Queen Nefertiti’s being among the tombs that have yet to be discovered.
Nonethless, entering these tombs is truly spectacular, and a moment that will really hit home what an incredible place you’re in. The price of the ticket gets you in to three tombs, and you’ll pay extra for the really big ones. For instance, Queen Nefertiti’s tomb was an extra 1000 EGP.
This monolithic structure is one that presides over the city, and instantly recognisable from your earlier balloon ride. Also, Queen Hatshepsut was a particularly bad ass woman.
The fifth Pharaoh of the Eighteenth Dynasty, she was a stand-out ruler for probably the most obvious of all reasons: she was a woman. But that never bothered Queen Hatshepsut – instead, she went around wearing fake beards, men’s clothes and generally being considered ‘king’, like the true boss she was.
If you’re a bit overcome with death, dying and funerary arrangements, this temple may have you feeling more at peace with the living (however, it is essentially still a mortuary temple).
It will also likely be one of the less tourist-infested places you’ll visit. It’s the best-preserved temple of Theban times, and includes the remains of Ramesses III’s palace, which was connected to the left of the complex.
The nitty gritty on Luxor
Taxi. But know how to haggle, because unlike Cairo, there are no metres here. Expect to pay about 70 EGP – probably more than an Egyptian will be charged, but as one cabbie rightly cried at us ‘It means nothing to you, but it means a lot to us’.
If you’re on a budget, ignore the guys yelling at you about motorboats across the river and take the public ferry. They leave from the dock outside Luxor Temple and cost a whopping 1 EGP. For the uninitiated, that’s basically a fraction of a cent.
Walk, or take a horse and cart. Realistically, the main sites of the East Bank are relatively close together (if you consider three kilometres an easy walk), so it’s a 6-kilometre round trip if you are feeling active.
Otherwise, expect to pay anywhere from 50 EGP to 80 EGP to take in a couple of sites and have your horse man wait outside for you. Most are rather desperate and out of work, and will probably offer to take you between two sites for 5 EGP, and some will offer to take you places for free (usually this involves a stop by someone they know with a boat, or a shop).
Luxor is full of big chain hotels, and none that stand out or seem particularly like they have a soul. So for that reason, you absolutely should forgo the drab ‘5-star’ digs and head for somewhere with heart.
To put it plainly, you absolutely cannot miss Nile Valley Hotel on the West Bank. For just a short ferry ride across the river, you’ll experience a quieter, more serene take on Luxor, with caring and warm staff who will absolutely make your stay.
The hotel could be described as ‘basic’ lodgings, but could also be described as quirky and colourful. The rooftop restaurant is airy and has fantastic views out over the Nile – and is just about the best place in the country to start your day as you tuck into the hearty breakfast spread provided with your room. If you can, you NEED to book the new ‘penthouse suite’ on the top floor, above the restaurant. We say this with inverted commas, because it’s very much a 3-star penthouse – and by that we mean the cosiest we’ve ever experienced. The room is full of pastel colours, quilts and haphazard furniture, it has an enclosed balcony/ sitting area, and is just about our favourite room of all time. The team here is absolutely delightful too, and if you get the chance, make sure you ask receptionist-cum-tour-guide Mohammed to take you around the sites.
Sure, it’s a cop-out, as we’re sure there are a million street vendors that serve up delish falafel from their carts and this guy has probably moved on by now, but he’s definitely worth seeking out.