Updated: Nov 4, 2022
There are literally hundreds of incredible Ancient Egyptian sites dating back thousands and thousands of years peppered all over modern day Egypt, and it’s almost impossible to see them all in one trip.
But which are the most important and the most impressive? Well, we created a bucket list of just that: the twenty most jaw-dropping Ancient Egyptian sites that exist today. So whether you’re a traveller trying to see as much as you can in one trip, or a local who’s slowly but surely seeing ticking off site by site, this list will help lead you in the right direction.
1. The Pyramids of Giza & Sphinx
Well, this is a no-brainer. Also known as the Giza necropolis, this desert plateau on the outskirts of Cairo is home to the three Pyramids of Giza (Khufu, Khafre and Menkaure), their associated pyramid complexes, the Great Sphinx, a workers’ village and several cemeteries. The Pyramids of Giza were built in the 4th Dynasty of the Old Kingdom, and the pyramids of Khufu (the Great Pyramid) and Khafre are the two largest pyramids in Egypt (Khufu’s pyramid is also the last remaining ancient wonder of the world!).
2. Karnak Temple
The temple complex of Karnak is the largest religious building ever built, and was constructed over a span of 2,000 years. Construction started in the Old Kingdom and was continuously added to up until the Ptolemaic era, with approximately 30 different pharaohs contributing. It’s the second most visited site in Egypt after the Pyramids of Giza.
It’s also home to the Open Air Karnak Museum -- for more important museums in Egypt, head here.
3. Step Pyramid of Saqqara & Saqqara Necropolis
The necropolis at Saqqara is home to the famous Step Pyramid of Djoser, the oldest pyramid in Egypt. It’s also where you’ll find the mastaba tombs of government officials and palace workers, as well as the pyramids of Unas and Teti, the only two pyramids in Egypt with Pyramid Texts inscribedin their inner walls.
The Step Pyramid is thought of as the initial prototype for the later smooth-sided pyramids; the architect was Djoser’s vizier Imhotep, thought of now as the founding father of Egyptian pyramids, and the design is six mastabas of decreasing size atop one another. Mastabas were how pharaohs and other Egyptian royalty and VIPs were buried before the invention of the pyramids -- mastabas were rectangular, flat-roofed tombs.
4. Valley of the Kings
In the former ancient Egyptian capital of Thebes (now modern-day Luxor in Upper Egypt), is the infamous 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). Note: not all the tombs are open to the public, and some are on rotation.
5. 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.
6. Abu Simbel
Abu Simbel is comprised of two massive rock temples, about 3 hours from Aswan. The twin temples were constructed in the 19th Dynasty of the New Kingdom as an everlasting monument to Ramses II and his Great Royal Wife Nefertari. The massive temples were relocated from their original spot in an international effort to save the ancient monuments from Nile flooding, and are one of Egypt’s 7 UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
7. 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, and the massive terraced monument is surrounded by a steep cliff. It was in this cliff that archaeologists found a cache of royal mummies, moved in antiquity from the Valley of the Kings.
8. 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).
9. Philae Temple
The temple complex at Philae in Aswan was primarily built during Ptolemaic times, and finished during the Roman conquest. It’s known for being the last place where hieroglyphs were written, and the last place where the Ancient Egyptian religion was practiced. Christianity became present in Philae starting the 4th century, where it first was practiced alongside the Ancient Egyptian religion and then solely. Today you can see both the original Ancient Egyptian temples and the temples that were converted into churches.
10. Bent Pyramid and Red Pyramid
Not very far from the Giza and Saqqara pyramids you’ll find the necropolis of Dahshur, home to the Red Pyramid and the Bent Pyramid, both built by the pharaoh Sneferu. The Red Pyramid, received its moniker due to its reddish hue, although it wasn’t always red. The entire pyramid used to be encased in white limestone, which you can still see at the base.
The Bent Pyramid was built right before the Red Pyramid. Archaeologists believe that the Bent Pyramid represents a transitional form between the step pyramid and smooth-sided pyramid. The ‘bent’ appearance is due to its base having a 54 degree inclination, but the top section having a narrower 43 degree angle. There are different theories as to why it was built this way: one was that as the builders reached the top, the top section started to show instability, so they narrowed the angle.
11. Deir el Medina
This 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.
12. Temple of Hathor at Dendera
Known for its still-startling blue more than 2,000 years later, the Temple of Hathor is the most impressive site at the temple complex at Dendera. Built in the Ptolemaic era, it shows Ancient Egyptian, Greek and Roman influences and has several shrines to different gods. It’s also known for the clear depictions of Cleopatra and her son Caeserion, fathered by Julius Caesar.
13. Medinet Habu
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 in Luxor. The temple is especially known for the depictions of Ramses III defeating the ‘Sea Peoples’, invaders of Ancient Egypt whose origins are unknown.
14. Edfu Temple
Built during the Ptolemaic times, the Temple of Horus at Edfu (or Edfu Temple) is one of the best preserved temples in all of Egypt. It’s also the largest temple dedicated to Horus. The wall inscriptions provided archeologists with important information about Ancient Egyptian religion and language during the Hellenistic/Ptolemaic era.
Memphis was the first capital of Egypt and was established by Mena (Menes), the first pharaoh and uniter of Upper and Lower Egypt. Memphis, besides being the capital, was known for being a holy center of worship for the god Ptah. The city started to decline during the New Kingdom and the rise of Thebes in the south.
Today what remains of Memphis is mainly ruins, but the great colossus of Ramses II is definitely worth seeing, as is the rest of the open-air museum.
16. Unfinished Obelisk
The Unfinished Obelisk is the largest obelisk built in Ancient Egypt, and if it had been completed it would’ve reached 42 meters (around 137 feet), which is one third larger than any other existing obelisk.
Commissioned by the female pharaoh Hatshepsut, it was carved out of bedrock in a stone quarry, but cracks appeared in the granite during its construction, leading to its abandonment.
You can still see it in its original quarry, giving interesting insight into the stone-working techniques of the Ancient Egyptians.
17. Colossi of Memnon
These are the remains of two massive stone statues of Pharaoh Amenhotep III that date back to the 18th Dynasty of the New Kingdom. They were originally guarding the gate of Amenhotep III’s mortuary temple, which at the time was the largest and most awe-inspiring temple in Egypt — the Ramesseum (below) and Medinet Habu paled in comparison, and even Karnak Temple was smaller.
Sadly years of flooding and earthquakes completely destroyed the temple, and later earthquakes also damaged the Colossi of Memnon, leaving them faceless.
The Ramessum is the mortuary temple of Ramses II (the same pharaoh who built Abu Simbel, and Seti I’s son). It was built with the intention of being a place of worship after Ramses II died, so his memory would be kept alive; this was of the utmost importance in the Ancient Egyptian religion.
19. Kom Ombo
Kom Ombo, about an hour’s drive from central Aswan, is an unusual double temple dating back to the Ptolemaic era. A ‘double’ temple means it has two sets of halls, sanctuaries and rooms dedicated to two different gods; in the case of Kom Ombo, the two gods were Sobek (the crocodile god) and Horus (the falcon god). Over 300 crocodile mummies were found at the site, and they’re now in the adjacent Crocodile Museum.
Kom Ombo also has engravings of what it is believed to be the first representation of medical tools and surgical instruments in the world.
20. Temple of Khnum at Esna
Khnum was the Ancient Egyptian ram-headed god who created the world on his potter’s wheel, and this temple to him was built during Ptolemaic times but added to by the Romans. Because it was such a deeply religious site, inscriptions on the temple walls instruct visitors that to enter they must have trimmed fingernails and toenails, wear linen, remove body hair, wash their hands with natron (a type of salt) and not have had sex for several days (makes modern-day places of worship seem like a walk in the park).
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