Travel Icon: The Nile

Any trip down the eponymously renowned river that flows through the heart of Egypt makes you feel like you're a world – and an age – away

7 mins

First light on the Nile. The dahabiyya slipped away from its berth, its engine making a low hum. The sky gradually brightened as the sun made its presence felt over the hills that line the Nile Valley. Birdsong from the groves of trees competed with the occasional bray of a donkey; in the reeds were glimpses of herons, gallinules and bitterns, while a couple of dozen egrets picked their way around a small irrigated field.

It was a soft, muted morning, the fishermen on small boats camouflaged against the bank. Now and then the slap of an oar on water could be heard, or a small splash as a net was thrown out.

On shore I could see the occasional evidence of life: a young boy, racing along purposefully on a donkey; a man, dressed in traditional galabeya (tunic), walking along with a cow and a dog; wood smoke rose from a small cluster of simple houses.

Despite having a beautiful wood-panelled cabin below deck, I'd chosen to sleep under a night sky which proved that counting stars is as effective at inducing sleep as counting sheep. As the morning started to warm up, I slipped out from under my duvet and carried it back down to my cabin.

Back on deck a breeze had stirred and orders were given to raise the sails. It could have been passing through any century in Egypt's history.

In context: a brief history

The Nile really is the lifeblood of Egypt. Without it there would be no pyramids, no great Egyptian culture. Tourists have been visiting the mighty river since before Christ was born. Julius Caesar and Cleopatra were two of the best known, spending nine months cruising its waters and visiting the sights (see above), accompanied by a retinue of 400 boats.

In the 19th century it became fashionable for aristocrats from Europe to visit. They would cruise on dahabiyyas – beautiful Arab sailing boats. Then Thomas Cook went a step further, bringing the masses by offering the first package holidays in 1869.

Today the Upper Nile is one of the world’s most-visited destinations. Rightly or wrongly, the Egyptian government is hoping to almost double tourist numbers to its country over the next  few years. Even now, if you visit the major sites at the popular times  of day you may be in for a nasty shock.

The good news is that the savvy traveller can still have a very different experience in this, the world’s largest and most spectacular outdoor museum.

How to do it

Paddle, steam or sail?

Independent travel by road is difficult due to the stringent security measures in place. However, if you just wish to stay in the main centres – Cairo, Luxor and Aswan – you can easily get between them by plane, train or on a vehicle in an armed convoy. Then use local transport, hire guides or book excursions.

However, the majority of visitors take a cruise between Aswan and Luxor, and this is where picking the right boat is essential: more than 250 vessels operate the route, plus feluccas (wooden sailing boats). The length of a cruise typically varies between three and seven nights. There are plenty of cheap ’n cheerful cruises available, but like so many things in life you get what you pay for. Many people are initially surprised to find that most of the boats are berthed several abreast, so the view through your porthole will probably be of the boat next door. This doesn’t apply to feluccas, dahabiyyas and some of the upmarket riverboats, which have private berths.

Feluccas offer real no-frills travel – no cabins, no toilet, no running water. You will sleep on deck or camp ashore. Most felucca trips start at Aswan and head downstream to Luxor. These trips are easy to arrange independently in Aswan, but always check rigorously what is included in the price. You may need your own bedding (and don’t forget that nights will be cold in winter), and definitely take your own sun block, loo roll and hand cleanser.
At the other end of the scale are the luxury boats – the Oberoi Zahra is one of the newest and perhaps the most opulent of all.

For the advantages of a felucca but with a lot more luxury, a dahabiyya (barge-like houseboat with sails) is highly recommended. While a few are the restored genuine article, new replicas are being built in the style of the 19th-century sailing vessels, but with all mod-cons such as ensuite facilities and air-conditioning.

Other character options include paddle steamers – one of the best known is the SS Misr, built in 1918 and owned by King Farouk. The MS Sudan was built in 1885 and was owned by King Fouad.


Horsing around

A horse-drawn calèche (or hantor) is perhaps the best way to get around Luxo, and a popular option to reach the Temple of Horus at Edfu. However, the condition of some of the horses can be upsetting. If using a calèche, pick one with healthy-looking horses (no whip marks or broken knees). Don’t let your driver gallop the horse on tarmac and don’t travel with more than four to a carriage. The Brooke Hospital for Animals provides free treatment for horses brought to the clinic. There are clinics in Cairo, Luxor, Edfu and Aswan, as well as other countries; visitors are welcome by appointment, as are donations.

Dress code

Egypt is a mainly Muslim country, so both men and women should dress modestly. In general you should dress smart/casual, especially when visiting mosques and churches where shorts and sleeveless shirts are not allowed. It is also a good idea for ladies to carry a scarf.

Shoes are much more comfortable than sandals as most sightseeing is done in hot, sandy places. Even though winter is sunny, it can be cool at times, so wear layers.

Insider's Cairo: the local perspective

Top guide Amr Elhelly helps you get the best out of Egypt’s capital

Allow yourself several days in Cairo to really enjoy it. Plenty of time to see all of these:

Pyramids & Sphinx

Head to Giza for around 10am when the weather is clearer and it is less crowded. Enter from the east side (left of the entrance) and don’t miss the solar boat.

Unless you are really interested in the architecture of the Great Pyramid, entering one of the side pyramids of the Queens will do just fine (there is not much inside any of the Giza pyramids!). Make sure you go to the funerary temple of the second pyramid – the view of the Sphinx (top left) is wonderful.

Egyptian Museum

It’s probably best to go at midday when everyone else is having lunch. Don’t miss the first-floor galleries showing both the animal mummies and Meketre’s wooden models of daily life, located beside King Tut. You can use your ticket all day long.

Jewish/Christian quarter

Aim to get there at 8am, then you will be the only one inside St Sergius church (left), where Jesus stayed for six months.

Islamic quarter

Prince Taz Palace is an amazing example of a medieval house and well worth seeing. Also, while in this part of Cairo go to the Ibn Tulun Mosque – the oldest mosque in Egypt and still in its original condition – and visit the 17th-century Gayer-Anderson House adjacent to it.


Visit at 8am or 1pm. Don’t miss the Tomb of Ptahhotep, which offers a wonderful chance to relive a day in the life of the ancient Egyptians. Also here is the Step Pyramid, one of the oldest stone buildings on the planet.

Khan al-Khalili

Enjoy haggling in Cairo’s main market (right) from 10am to midnight. For
a real Arabian Nights feel, walk the little alleyways and side streets at around 8.30am.

Hitting the highlights: without the crowds

1. Heading up and away...

Take a sunrise balloon trip from Luxor’s West Bank. If you’re lucky, and the wind is blowing in the right direction, you may get to hover over the Valley of the Kings, but this depends on the weather. Even if the balloon doesn’t take you  very far, to see everyday life from above is fascinating. Taking donkeys to the Valley of Kings can certainly be a memorable
(if rather uncomfortable) experience.

2. Edfu

The main attraction here is the Temple of Horus – the second-largest temple complex in Egypt and one of the best preserved, having spent centuries buried in sand. It stays open till 8pm, so visit after 6pm when the tour groups have gone back to their boats for dinner.

3. Abu Simbel

Rescued from the rising waters of Lake Nasser in the 1960s, Abu Simbel was relocated away from the river in a stupendous feat of engineering. Dating back to the 13th century BC, the Great Temple and the smaller Temple of Hathor are must-sees. They can be visited by air from Aswan or on a Lake Nasser cruise. There are a few hotels if you want to stay overnight.

4. Luxor

The former capital of Egypt is built on the site of ancient Thebes. The highlights include the Temples of Karnak and Luxor Temple in the city, and the Valley of the Kings, Valley of the Queens, Workmen’s Village and Tombs of the Nobles on the West Bank. However, the whole area is dotted with interesting sites. You could spend a week here and not see it all. The Temple of Seti at Qurna, for instance, is little visited, while the temple at Medinat Habu is described by leading guide Amr Elhelly as “a magnificent temple worth visiting more than any other in Luxor’s West Bank – go early.”

Karnak is best visited early in the morning; it opens at 6am, when you can have it nearly to yourself. Luxor temple is best visited in the early evening; be there 30 minutes before sunset then enjoy the temple as the lights come on – it stays open until 9pm.

5. Kom Ombo

Sitting pretty by the river, this temple is dedicated to the crocodile god, Sobek, and to the falcon-headed Haroeris. Lunchtime is the quietest time to visit. The nearby village of Daraw is known for its souq al-gamaal (camel market), held each morning but with the largest number of camels on a Tuesday.

6. Aswan

Travellers fall for the relaxed atmosphere, Nubian culture and beautiful setting of Egypt’s southernmost city. The temples of Philae, 10km south of town, were relocated onto Agilkia island, away from the rising waters of Lake Nasser. It is worth being there when it opens at 7am. Other attractions include felucca trips, Elephantine Island and the seventh-century Monastery of St Simeon. Oh, and don’t miss afternoon tea or a cocktail on the veranda of the historic Cataract Hotel.

Planning your trip

When to go: December and January are mild, and ideal for sightseeing, but it’s high season so prices are at their steepest. July and August are the low season, when the river and the sites are less crowded, and bargains can be had, but it is extremely hot – temperatures can reach 40ºC. March and April, and mid-September to mid-November are probably the most pleasant times to visit. Note that Esna Lock is closed twice a year for maintenance (June and December).

Getting there: The author’s most recent trip was with Bales Worldwide. A 12-day trip, including seven days cruising on a dahabiyya, and three days in Cairo, costs from £1,509.

British Airways and bmi both fly direct to Cairo. bmi also offers good regional connections including Edinburgh, Glasgow and Manchester. Fares start from around £281 and flight time is about five hours. XL flies from Gatwick direct to Luxor and Egypt Air flies from Heathrow direct to Luxor; fares start at about £280, and flight time is approximately five hours.

Health and safety: Egypt once had an unfortunate reputation for travellers’ diarrhoea. However, standards of hygiene have improved immensely and it is much less of a problem. Don’t drink the water, and do take common sense precautions, such as not putting your hand to your mouth after touching money (dirty notes are believed to be one of the main ways that germs are passed).

Crime against tourists is rare, petty theft being the only thing to be aware of. Terrorism has been a bigger concern over the past decade or so. Security throughout the Nile Valley has been increased since the massacre of tourists at the Temple of Hatshepsut in Luxor in 1997. However, you can only travel by road in the region if you are part of an armed convoy.

Hassle: Unfortunately many travellers’ abiding memory of Egypt is of being pestered by people trying to sell them something or demanding baksheesh (charity). Although this can be frustrating, do remember that poverty is rife, and not much of the money from your trip will filter down to ordinary people.

Put yourself in their shoes. Even people fortunate enough to have jobs will usually be badly paid. Tip generously for any services carried out, and try to treat any hassle with good humour.

Advice from the myWanderlust community

"The overnight sleeper train to Luxor/Aswan from Cairo is a good way to travel; you can opt for a sleeping seat, or a berth in a couchette." Squibber

"My absolute favourite was Aswan, and in particular Elephantine Island. I went over on my own, on the locals’ boat." Lyse

"I recommend the Tombs of the Nobles in Luxor – far less crowded than the Valley of the Kings. Buy the tickets from the ticket office, which is at the crossroads behind the Colossi of Memnon. You need to know which tombs you want to visit, as the tickets are split
into groups of two or three specific tombs." abel123

"Deir al-Medina is an interesting place to visit on the West Bank. This was the village of the workers who cut the tombs of the pharaohs; you can still see the layout of the little mud brick houses. The tombs of the workers just above the village are very bright and well preserved – they saved their best work for themselves." ALR

"Sailing from Aswan to Luxor on a felucca with a fantastic Nubian crew, who took us to their village the night before we sailed, was amazing. We slept on board or on the beach and cooked ona campfire. Forget the big boats – this is the only way to do it." Lady Bear

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