Luxor is an Upper Egyptian town whose name in Arabic means “The Castles”. The Ancient Egyptians called it “Waset” meaning “City of the Scepter”. To the Greeks and Romans it was Thebes - “The City of a Thousand Gates”.
It’s probably one of the world’s largest archeological sites. It’s difficult to think of anywhere that provides such an enormous range of experiences. Egypt has been called “The Temple of the World”, and in ancient times Luxor was one of its capitals. And it does not end there—it has a vibrant pagan, Christian and Islamic culture, whose reverberations are still felt in the modern city.
Egypt is a large country with so much to see you can easily rush from one experience to another and never really allow yourself enough time to really take it all in.
Think also about the timing of your visit. In Arabic the fifth month of the year is known as Kamsin, also the name of a very hot wind that begins to blow from May onwards. The best times to visit are in the Egyptian winter—from about November to April. Having said that, there are some fascinating festivals in those hot summer months.
You only need one guide book: Kent Week’s The Treasures of Luxor & The Valley of the Kings—get copies in the local Gaddis Bookshop (near New Winter Palace Hotel) or lots of other places. There are some gaps but more than enough to keep you busy for weeks (excuse the pun), perhaps a lifetime. Many people return to Luxor year after year—it has so much to offer locally. It’s also the gateway to many other locations like the Red Sea, desert oases, etc.
Many people come to Egypt on a package, and either stay in the grand tourist hotels or perhaps on the Red Sea resorts. But then you are definitely in a tourist bubble. There is a routine of: get up before dawn, get on an air-conditioned tourist bus to be driven to Luxor on the circuit of quick views of the sites, set meals in restaurants, stops at tourist bazaars, etc. Some locals complain that foreigners can stay in Sharm el Sheikh or Hurghada and travel into Luxor and its surroundings in an insulated package for less than it costs a local to rent a flat in Luxor! And it can cause resentment.
It is more fun to stay in Luxor and go a bit native. There are the big hotels with their River Nile views, but you could also branch out to stay in a smaller scale, often locally-owned guest house or hotel. There is very little difference in price, but the experience is much richer.
For the Luxor, inner-city experience, stay at Mara House, just behind Luxor main railway station. All the main attractions are a short taxi or if you must, a “calesh” ride away, and the prices are reasonable and fixed. Mara offers advice on the different kinds of taxi metered or fixed price.
Instead of the taxi, try the 15 minute walk to Luxor temple—any time of day. Actually it’s pretty safe here and even women walk around at night—safer than some parts of London for example, considered to be one of the world’s safest cities. Your biggest worry will be the cars coming at you on the wrong side of the road!
Walk to Ali Baba’s restaurant, overlooking Luxor temple—it must be the best place in the world to have a beer and some food. Or better still, because you are staying locally, buy an evening ticket and visit the temple for a couple of hours before closing time, then go to Ali Baba’s. Or go to a lecture on current archeological work, then go for a late supper. It’s very lively here at night.
Sooner or later you’re going to find the local ferry, which shuttles its way across the Nile to the west bank village of Jazeera. It so very cheap although it runs less frequent after 11 p.m. You can also pay a little extra and share a motor launch.
About a mile west of the modern city of Luxor, and clearly visible day and night, is the world-famous Theban Necropolis. The limestone cliffs rise to form a sacred mountain (The Qurn), the so called “land of the dead”. Just beyond the cultivated strip, in the beginning of the desert, is the largest archeological site in the world. It is here that the people of Ancient Egypt (kings and commoners) buried their dead in illustrious tombs and came to pay homage to their ancestors in many memorial shrines and temples.
So how to get there? Let’s assume you haven’t sorted a taxi ride from one of the “touts” on the ferry. Not such a bad option—you have plenty of time to chat and can make a good deal. If it's your first time you might want to contract a taxi there, especially if going on the slightly longer ride to Valley of the Kings. But when you get used to it, one way is usually best—straight up the road to the ticket office at Habu.
When you know the ropes, you can take a bus, although it's tricky and you usually end up with a “special taxi” that is still very cheap. Coming back is easier—you can flag down a local minibus carrying school kids or whatever. Should be a white minibus with others in it. Worst case scenario you can walk although unlikely you’d get far before someone offers you a lift.
Typical trip: special minibus to ticket office at Habu (very nice temple there which can keep you busy most of the day.) Otherwise walk the road going south toward Hatsheptsut temple and later flag down a minibus back to Jazeera and the ferry.
Another fun transport option is the bicycle. Rent them at Jazeera in little cafes just up from the ferry. You won’t get too far as they have no gears, but it's really good fun.
Qurna (pronounced Gurna) is the name of the ribbon of villages that clusters around the eastern flank of the Theban necropolis. It takes its name from the pyramid-shaped mountain that dominates the scenery: al Gurn or "the Horn."
Since 2005 there was an ongoing program of demolitions and relocation of these ancient, colorful communities in name of “theme park tourism” and “scientific archeology. Since the revolution, this controversial project has been put on hold, but many of these fascinating communities are still under threat.
There have been villages on the Necropolis since the beginning of time. You can visit the remains of one, built for the ancient Egyptian craftsmen and women at Dayr el Madina. The locals, known as the Qurnawis, still make a living crafting replicas for sale, offering hospitality to tourists, and acting as tour or mountain guides. They have a controversial reputation and people on the East Bank will often warn you against them. Most of this can be put down to a local rivalry.
It is become increasingly easy to stay on the West Bank. Small hotels and rentals abound near Jazeera, and a growing number are appearing in Qurna and New Qurna. The advantages are the proximity to the Necropolis—literally a stone’s throw away—stunning views, and great walking.
Qurna is a more rural, quiet setting. It also has a lively folk culture such as “Belly dancing” (Beladi), which originates from the martial arts system still practiced by local men. You can still see tough quarterstaff fighters, accompanied by frantic drummers, squaring up in the busy open air markets (though you probably couldn't roll up in a tour bus).
To go more "native", wear the Jellabiya—the traditional Arab oversized shirt. You can buy Jellabiyas ready-made or have a local tailor make one, which will take a few days. It’s not like they won’t know you’re a foreigner, but somehow it's better to be wearing the right clothes. For example it's been proven that camels relax more when everyone looks the part.
If you are reasonably mobile you can enjoy a great variety of walks over the Theban Hills, or further afield. It doesn’t require any special equipment other than comfortable boots or walking shoes, maybe a stick, water bottle, and compass. The most comfortable time is the Egyptian winter, although watch the weather as there can be violent rain and dust storms. At this time of year a gentle breeze makes the walking very pleasant, the so-called “Gentle Breath of the North.”
The paths are fairly obvious. If unsure, you could find a local guide to go with you for a modest fee. If going on one of the longer, more difficult routes, a guide is definitely needed. There are no detailed maps although a screenshot from Google Earth helps.
Start with the walk from Temple of Hatshepsut (north) to Dayr al Madina (south), either direction, although Kent Weeks thinks it's best from north to south. There are some variations and the beginning of the path is fairly ambiguous, but it soon resolves itself into a clear track. You can find the beginning from just outside the carpark of either attraction, and therefore do not need to buy a ticket, although Dayr al Madina does have its own interesting routes up to the ridge path.
Hatsheptsut has some interesting short walks and many people walk up to the Islamic shrine of Sheikh Abd al Qurna from here, dropping down to visit the upper tomb of Vizier Senenmut. Ideally, both of these sites should be accessed from the Tomb of the Nobles, but it needs special arrangement to do so. Stunning views are to be had from this path, almost as good as the views from the well-known balloon flights.
The ancient craftsmen took these same paths to get to work each morning. Not surprisingly, there is a path that leads off further west over the top of the ridge and drops down into the Valley of the Kings, coming out right by the closed tomb of Sety I. If you are reasonably fit, you could walk both ways and save yourself the taxi ride!
I sat in the piazza outside Luxor Temple taking in the sun and waiting for my friend to show up. Someone on a nearby seat said: “I like the way you smile at people." I know that as a tourist it's easy to suffer from urban paranoia, convinced that everyone wants to rip you off, or worse that you are in some way superior. I’ve been there and blown up at someone, got it all wrong, and really regretted that afterwards.
Yes, be cautious. Lots of people are friendly but they also want some of your business. Some say this is the hassle capital of Egypt. I think that is an exaggeration.
Try to smile now and again. Learn a few words of Arabic such as "hello" (ahlan) or "peace to you" (Salam Alekum), "please" (minfadlak or minfadlik to a women) or "thank you" (shukran). Let go of your colonial baggage or erroneous feelings of superiority.
I’ve read that some visitors feels that being able to hear the “call to prayer” five times a day from their hotel room is somehow a bad thing, but I’d say get used to it, learn to enjoy it. After all why come to a foreign country if not for these little cultural differences? The 5 a.m. call is often the most harmonious.
Eat the local food. It's really good and often better than the stuff we eat back home. Get used to drinking Egyptian Chai, or having Falafel for breakfast. One thing you can enjoy here is a nice bottle of beer or wine. Whiskey too but it's more of a treat. Don’t forget the duty free for yourself or a present for special local friends.
Chances are you will need some local money: the Egyptian pound and locally called the LE. Also bring bring some US dollars. Change some in the little booths just before passport control at the airport, buy your visa at the same time and beat the queue. You'll also get better rates. Bring clean, unripped notes or you won't be able to change them.
You can also change money at various banks. The Bruxelle exchange in al Mahata, just a few minutes from Luxor Temple, has good rates.
There are ATMs but they are becoming erratic perhaps from government intervention. Lots of places will take plastic, but there again with the downturn, some are letting their accounts lapse to save on the monthly fees.
It’s best not to have too many large denomination notes—LE5 & LE10 are handy. LE1 coins are useful for the local ferry, and it's a reasonable donation for the many beggars you will encounter; LE1 buys a large flat bread.
What is really mean is to tip people in your home currency, especially coins. Take the trouble to get some local money - LE5 & LE10 to tip properly. Work it out, it's not very much. Things are cheaper here but not that much.
There are at least two kinds of taxi: the black & white metered, the unmetered white and some in between. Best to avoid the black and white ones. You’ll have to negotiate the price before you take off, factoring in whether you need them to wait or come back for you. No taxi in the world ever says: "it’s just over there, you don’t need a taxi." So consider whether your really need one by looking at the map.
There are a lot of interesting places in Luxor are just off the corniche so you can walk most places. Luxor Temple is right in the center of town. So try shank’s pony (your legs). Traders and touts may ask you to stop for tea. And others will claim to be your long lost friend so it's best to know where you are going.
But in the end it’s not so bad if you do drink some tea and look at the knickknacks. Although if you ask the price then you are have unintentionally started negotiating without really meaning to, and it can get quite frantic. The more you say you can’t afford such and such a price, the more you try to walk away, the harder you are bargaining.
Drink lots of bottled water, nothing wrong with the stuff in the taps, but it may be too chemical for some. Bottled water is available everywhere. Every now and then, a stomach bug plagues Western tourists who visit. It's probably passed by touching dirty handrails or bank notes. Carry a little bottle antibacterial handwash and get in the habit of dousing your hands frequently. Before you eat, clean your hands. Chances are you have touched a bank note to buy it!
If you feel yourself getting sick then take some Antinal. It's only available in Egypt but seems to do the trick if you take early enough.
The patron deity of the city is Amun-Min. You will see images of this wonderful god on countless temples. He/she is the mysterious sun god, always aroused. The combination of warm, sensual climate and very friendly, sometimes over-friendly encounters on the street can lead to something else—for both men and women.
There is "sex tourism" here for men and women. And there are also lots of locals looking to date tourists either for fun, money, or often for a long-term relationship or marriage. Have your eyes wide open and be aware that some of the men (it's always men) you meet may have had multiple partners. Have fun but be aware of the down side. Practice safe sex.
Spend some quality time in Luxor. Some guide books say you need at least four days to see everything. I’d say that and a heap more than that. It’s also a safe, convenient base from which to strike out further afield such as Abydos, Dendera, Aswan, Kom Ombos, all via the fast and wonderful desert road.
Luxor is a fascinating and generally safe place to visit, with much below the surface to surprise and delight. Do check with your government’s advice for foreign travelers before you leave.
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Photo Credits: View from Luxor corniche across the Nile to the Theban Necropolis courtesy of Ombos (Mogg Morgan)/Flickr; Check Man, Cross Man and Jump Man © ioannis kounadeas - Fotolia.com