If we’re going to be honest, Luxor as a city needs no introduction. Formerly the Ancient Egyptian capital Thebes, modern-day Luxor is now one of the oldest (if not THE oldest) inhabited cities in the world. Home to a lion’s share of still-standing Ancient Egyptian temples and tombs, you haven’t really gotten a taste of Ancient Egypt until you’ve visited Luxor.
A lot of people when visiting Luxor tend to do and see things the traditional way - via tour groups and cruise guides, with set agendas where you don’t really have to think or decide on what you want to see. And while that’s one way of doing it, some people like to explore and follow their own personal, flexible itineraries. So if you’re someone who’s visiting Luxor and want to discover this ancient city on your own, here are ten things you should most definitely see and do while there.
Local tip: Because we pride ourselves on our honesty, we want to prepare you for a lot of annoying money-demanding by different personnel at the tourist hotspots. They’ll offer to take your picture, give you special access, or other little ‘favors’ and then demand a tip afterwards. The best way to handle it is just to give a firm but polite ‘no, thank you’ to anyone who offers you anything, no matter how small.
Local tip #2: Cash is king around here, so make sure you have Egyptian pounds on you throughout – most sites don’t accept credit cards or cash in other currencies.
Local tip #3: It almost goes without saying that Luxor during any time of year besides winter is hoooooot, so make sure you take that into consideration – because almost everything there you’ll be doing is outside.
So grab a hat and some sunscreen and happy exploring!
1. Karnak Temple
The temple complex of Karnak is the largest religious building ever built, and was constructed over a span of 2,000 years (it’s around 4,000 years old in total!). Construction started in the Old Kingdom and was continuously added to until the Ptolemaic era, with approximately 30 different pharaohs contributing. It’s the second most visited site in Egypt after the Pyramids of Giza.
Keep in mind that Karnak is massive. Some people enjoy having a guide there to explain backstories, but others prefer to explore at their own pace - there’s no way a guide could explain everything in Karnak in a few hours. The temple complex is also home to the Open Air Karnak Museum (for more important museums in Egypt, head here.) If you’re heading to the Luxor Temple (below) after Karnak, make sure to walk down the Avenue of the Sphinxes which has connected the two temples for thousands of years. This 3 km pedestrian path is newly opened to the public, and some of the 1350 original human-headed sphinxes still line the avenue until today.
Local tip: Karnak closes at sunset, but they’re open super early - 6 am! Worth considering if you’re visiting during one of the hotter months. At night they have a Sound & Light Show there, and it looks beautiful lit up, but if you want our honest opinion, we’re not huge fans of our local Sound & Light Shows. They’re kind of stuck in the ‘80s and just a tad bit cringe :D
2. Valley of the Kings
Where did they bury pharaohs after they stopped burying them in pyramids? That would be in the famous Valley of the Kings. For a period of 500 years in the New Kingdom (1550 BC - 1069 BC), pharaohs were buried in rock-cut tombs in the Theban Hills, hidden from plain view. 62 tombs have been excavated to present day, with King Tut’s tomb being the most famous (but ironically, not the most impressive).
Local tip: not all the tombs are open to the public, and some are on rotation. The general ticket allows you into three tombs, but you don’t get to choose which ones. You can also buy an extra ticket for the “special tombs”. By far the most impressive is Seti I’s tomb, but it’s also by far the most expensive. King Tut might be the most famous in name, but his tomb is slightly underwhelming in our humble opinion.
Local tip #2: Guides aren’t allowed with you into the tombs, so try to read up a little before you visit to make it even more fascinating.
3. Luxor Temple
Constructed around 1400 BC (more than 3,400 years ago), Luxor Temple differs from most other ancient Egyptian temples due to the fact that it wasn’t built for worship of a particular god or pharaoh. It was mainly used as a place where pharaohs were coronated and crowned, sometimes even conceptually (for example, Alexander the Great claimed he was crowned there but no evidence suggests he was ever there).
During medieval times, the Muslim community built on the Luxor Temple site, and until now a functional mosque remains part of the temple complex (you can read more about Egypt’s most beautiful mosques here).
Local tip: Luxor Temple is open until 10 pm, so a great time to go is before sunset so you can see everything clearly, and then experience the temple all lit up at night when it gets dark. Keep in mind however that this shrewd tip is not a secret one, and sunset and nighttime is sometimes when the temple is at its most crowded. Hey, you win some, you lose some.
4. Temple of Hatshepsut at Deir el Bahri
Known primarily for the mortuary temple of the female pharaoh Hatshepsut of the New Kingdom, Deir el Bahri was originally chosen as the location for the mortuary temple of the pharaoh who founded the Middle Kingdom, Mentuhotep II. Hatshepsut’s temple though is the star of the show, even after a lot of it was defaced by her salty stepson in an attempt to erase her from history. He obviously, you know, failed.
The massive terraced monument is surrounded by a steep cliff, and it was in this cliff that archaeologists found a cache of royal mummies, moved in antiquity from the Valley of the Kings. Many of these recovered mummies are now at rest in the National Museum of Egyptian Civilization in Cairo, where you can go see them in the Royal Mummy Gallery.
Local tip: there’s a little electric tram at the entrance that will take you up to the temple if you don’t feel like walking in the sun - once at the temple itself, there’s not much shade.
5. Hot Air Balloon over Luxor
Talk about a bucket list item!
Riding a hot air balloon anywhere in the world is exciting in and of itself, but riding one in Luxor is even more spectacular for the following reasons: a) you’ll see the temples, monuments and of course the Nile from above - talk about a bird’s eye view of Ancient Egypt! And b) riding a hot air balloon in Luxor is significantly cheaper than elsewhere, with prices as low as around $50!
A quick Google search will pull up dozens of hot air balloon trip providers in Luxor and you can see which ones you like the best in terms of reviews and prices. Honestly though, the trips are pretty much the same no matter which provider you go with - you’ll be picked up from your accommodation very early in the morning when it’s still dark out; hot air balloons depart right before sunrise, so you see the sun coming up over the ancient city. Each trip is about 45 minutes to an hour and a half, averaging an hour, depending on weather conditions. If the weather is not cleared for flight, then your trip will be refunded. Pretty straightforward!
6. Valley of the Queens
Nearby to the Valley of the Kings is the Valley of the Queens, where the wives of the pharaohs were buried during the same period. The main valley has 91 tombs discovered to date, and they’re generally smaller than the tombs in the Valley of the Kings. Honestly, if you’ve already been to the Valley of the Kings (as you should), then the main reason to visit Valley of the Queens is to see the tomb of Nefertari, the Great Royal Wife of Ramses II. Her tomb is debated to be the most spectacular not only in Valley of the Queens, but Valley of the Kings as well!
Unfortunately whoever sets the ticket prices agrees with us that Nefertari’s tomb is the most superior, hence the high ticket price (on top of the standard Valley of the Queens entrance ticket, which allows you access to three other tombs). Another small annoyance is that you only get to spend 10 minutes in this tomb, so try to make the most of it.
Local tip: the ticket office only accepts cash and in Egyptian pounds, and there’s no ATM nearby. So if you’re planning to visit Nefertari’s tomb, make sure you have enough on you!
7. Medinet Habu
While the Temple of Ramses III at Medinet Habu doesn’t get as much airtime as Karnak Temple and Luxor Temple, it’s most definitely worth seeing. While smaller, this temple has some of the most vividly colored art and deeply-engraved hieroglyphics of all the temples - and another upside, it’s usually much less crowded than the more famous temples!
Ramses III is widely considered the last truly powerful pharaoh of the New Kingdom, and his mortuary temple dominates the archaeological site of Medinet Habu. The temple is especially known for the depictions of Ramses III defeating the ‘Sea Peoples’, invaders of Ancient Egypt whose origins are unknown.
Local tip: because of the doable size of the temple and all the interesting painting and hieroglyphics, this is a good temple to have a guide with you to explain the backstories. Like most sites in Luxor, you’ll find several guides there offering their services for an agreed-upon fee.
8. Deir el Medina (Valley of the Artisans)
This lesser-known (and thus less crowded!) necropolis is often overlooked in favor of its more famous neighbors, the Valleys of the Kings and Queens, but you’d be doing yourself a huge disservice by not visiting Deir el Medina while in Luxor.
Also known as the Valley of the Artisans, it’s home to the tombs of the artists, builders and craftsmen who worked on the tombs in the Valleys of the Kings and Queens. It’s a good look into the daily lives of regular Egyptians who lived thousands of years ago – they weren’t all pharaohs after all!
Some of the tombs in Deir el Medina (like Sennedjem and Pashedu) are some of the most best-preserved and colorful tombs in all of Luxor.
9. Felucca on the Nile
The Nile is just as important a part of Ancient Thebes (and modern Luxor) as any temple or tomb – it was their lifeline thousands of years ago, and remains Egypt’s lifeline now. And not to get too existential on you, but there probably wouldn’t even be an Ancient Egyptian civilization if not for the Nile, so hop aboard a felucca (small Nile sailboat) and sail the same calm waters that countless others sailed down for millennia.
A felucca ride is always pleasant, whether in Cairo, Luxor or Aswan, and all distinctly different in regards to what you’ll see, but all a great way to experience the city you’re in away from the crowds and chaos.
10. Luxor Museum
Had enough sun, sand and massive temples where you’re not quite sure what you’re looking at? Well, take a break and head for the Luxor Museum, which will be sure to delight due to both its a) clear signage and explanations of the displays, and b) air conditioning!
While the museum isn’t as structurally big nor has as extensive a collection as the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities in Cairo (aka the Cairo Museum), the pieces on display in the Luxor Museum are of great quality. Plus the museum is open until 10 pm every night, so it’s something to do in the quiet Luxor evenings to make the most of your limited time.
Local tip: to be fair though, if you’ve been to both the Cairo Museum and the National Museum of Civilization (also in Cairo) where the Royal Mummies are, then you can probably skip the Luxor Museum. Unless you just want to be where that AC is :D