Aswan, Egypt: A Local’s City Guide
Aswan in southern Egypt is a unique mix of Ancient Egypt, rural village, urban city, Nubian heritage, river, desert and modern history. If it sounds like a strange mix, it is -- but it works. It’s kind of hard to explain unless you’ve been there (hopefully soon), but we’ll try our best.
But first, a quick history
Aswan used to be known as Swenett and later Syene in ancient Egypt, and because the ancient Egyptians oriented themselves around the Nile, which flows from the south to the north, the southern city of Swenett was considered where Egypt ‘began’ geographically. The reason the Egyptians chose Aswan’s spot in particular as a border for Egypt is because it’s just above the first Nile cataract -- a natural obstruction of sorts in the river due to shallow depths. Once past the first cataract where Aswan is, it’s smooth sailing straight down to the Mediterranean Sea.
Swenett was used as a military outpost to protect Egypt from the south, as well as a commercial trade center. The ancient land of Nubia was directly to the south of Aswan, extending from modern-day southern Egypt into northern Sudan. Nubia became part of Egypt during the New Kingdom, and Nubian heritage and culture is extremely important in Aswan until today.
Modern-day Aswan is a quirky mix of developed town (nowhere near as developed as Cairo though) and village life. The Nile looks just as clear, blue and wild as it probably did 3,000 years ago; Aswan is hands down where the Nile is at its most stunning in Egypt.
Because Aswan isn’t super developed, don’t expect a vast array of accommodation, restaurants and nightlife.
A local tip: credit cards aren’t widely used -- cash is the name of the game here. Transportation is a hodge-podge of negotiating with cab drivers and boatmen, but more about that below.
Also, if you’ve spent any time elsewhere in Egypt, you might be acquainted with ‘Egyptian time’, where things go a tad slower than normal. ‘Nubian time’ in Aswan is even more laid-back -- people take their sweet time and are very go-with-the-flow, so take that as you will lol. Accept it and adjust your expectations accordingly, and your trip (and blood pressure) will be much smoother.
Quick facts about Aswan
Aswan’s main industry is tourism, with thousands of both Egyptian and foreign tourists visiting per year to see the ancient Egyptian monuments, Nubian architecture and Nile at its most beautiful.
Aswan is one of the sunniest, driest cities in the world -- which leads to soaring temperatures, but the climate is also known for being a natural remedy for a variety of different lung diseases as well as rheumatism.
Egypt’s famous Nile cruises run between Aswan and the city of Luxor to its north. You can start the cruise from either of the two cities, so most people visit both Luxor and Aswan in the same trip.
Aswan is home to two dams, the Low Dam which was built in 1902, and the High Dam which was finished in 1970. These dams were built with the purpose of controlling seasonal Nile flooding, and the reservoir Lake Nasser was created behind the High Dam.
Best Time To Go
Like we said, Aswan is one of the sunniest, driest cities on earth, and it’s normal for several years to pass by without seeing any rainfall. It has the hottest summers in the country alongside Luxor (we’re talking an average of 40+ celsius/105+ fahrenheit), so while summer might be the cheapest season to go, it’s definitely not the most comfortable.
Winter is Aswan’s high season, with temperatures a warm 20 something celsius/70 something fahrenheit during the day, and a bit cooler at night. Late fall and early spring are also good times if you don’t mind a lot of sun.
You can read more reasons why Egypt is great in winter here.
How To Get There
Here are your options:
Flying. There are daily flights from Cairo to Aswan, around an hour and 20 minutes. You can arrange with your accommodation in Aswan to send you a car to pick you up from the airport, or you can take an overpriced taxi. Flying is by far the quickest way of getting to Aswan.
Train. You need to *really* have patience for this one. You can take a train from Cairo to Aswan, which is about a short (lol) 12 hour ride. There are sleeper compartments though for an added price, and we guess it’s an adventure of sorts? You can read the Business Insider’s detailed account of the Cairo-Aswan sleeper train ride here, which we personally enjoyed.
Cruise from Luxor. At the moment there are no cruises from Cairo down to Aswan, so if you want to sweep up to the city in style on the Nile, then your only option is to do it from Luxor.
By car. Unless you’re driving in from Luxor (3-4 hours) or Marsa Alam on the Red Sea (5 hours), don’t bother trying to make the drive unless you have a looooooot of time on your hands. Important note: for security reasons, non-Egyptians might not be allowed access to certain roads via car unless granted pre-approved security access (tour buses, etc.)
Where To Stay
As we said above, Aswan isn’t as developed accommodation-wise as Cairo or the Red Sea resort towns, but never fear, there are still options for all budgets:
A luxury hotel. There are only a couple of them in Aswan, and by far, the most iconic and well-known one is the Old Cataract Hotel (now the Sofitel Legend Old Cataract). This 5 star hotel has been an international hotspot since it opened over 120 years ago; you can read more about it and other historic hotels in Egypt here. We warn you though, it isn’t cheap!
A Nubian guesthouse is a really popular form of accommodation in Aswan. Usually found in the Gharb Soheil area of Aswan where the Nubian Village is, these basic but comfortable guesthouses on the Nile have simple and beautiful Nubian architecture and serve traditional Nubian and Egyptian food. They’re not luxurious in the slightest and are situated a bit of a distance from central Aswan which can be a tad annoying, but they’re definitely an experience you shouldn’t miss out on, even if for just a night.
A budget hotel. Aswan has a handful, and they’re kind of meh. If we were you, stick to either a luxury hotel like the Sofitel Legend Old Cataract or the Movenpick Aswan, or one of the Nubian guesthouses.
We compiled our seven favorite places here: 7 Best Places To Stay in Aswan, Egypt
Not going to lie, getting around Aswan can be a pain. There’s no easily accessible and reliable form of public transportation, taxis don’t have meters, and while there is Careem (the Egyptian version of Uber), you're not always guaranteed to find a ride. Plus, a lot of Aswan’s sites are dotted around different spots on the Nile, which needs a boat. So what to do, what to do? Here are your options:
Don’t bother your head about it and just let your hotel take care of it. No matter where you’re staying in Aswan or how much of a budget place it is, someone there (whether it be the reception desk, reservations manager, or just a random person who seems to be in charge) will be able to easily arrange cars, drivers and boats for you in a matter of minutes for a fixed rate. It’s common practice in Aswan and the hotels/guesthouses get a piece of the pie, so feel free to use the service without worrying that you’re being annoying. Just tell your hotel where you’d like to go (or your itinerary for the day) and they’ll arrange all transportation needed and will tell you how much it’ll cost prior to going so you don’t need to worry about haggling with anyone. Warning though: the Sofitel Old Cataract’s transportation prices are notoriously expensive, so just a heads up if you’re staying there.
Strike a deal with a local driver to be your main transportation for the duration of the trip. If you like doing things without a hotel as your middleman, you can arrange for your own transportation with any of the locals. Instead of figuring out how you’re going to get from Point A to Point B every time you want to go somewhere, you can arrange an on-call car and driver for the whole trip. This is as easy as flagging down a cab and asking for their day rates, or going to a restaurant, shop or cafe and asking any of the people working there if they can recommend a car and driver for you. Trust us, they’ll know a million. Compare whatever prices the locals give you with what the hotel gave you (they should be cheaper), and feel free to bargain, bargain, bargain. Also make sure to agree on a detailed daily itinerary and price, and pay at the end of the day (a tip at the end is always appreciated).
Taxis. The cabs in Aswan aren’t metered, so make sure you tell the driver where you’re going and agree on the fare before you hop in -- and again, bargaining is the name of the game.
As for boats, the Temple of Philae has regular boat service from the Philae Marina, and there’s a regular ferry to Elephantine Island. More recreational boating -- a felucca for example, or taking a motorboat instead of a taxi -- is another negotiable affair between you and the boatmen whom you’ll find Nile-side throughout the city.
Things to Do in Aswan
There’s all different kinds of activities and sights in Aswan, and we broke them down here: 12 Most Interesting Things To See and Do in Aswan.
To summarize though:
Ancient Egyptian monuments: Philae Temple Complex, Abu Simbel, Temple of Kalabsha, Unfinished Obelisk
Nubian heritage & culture: Nubian Village and Nubian Museum
Nile islands: Elephantine Island, Kitchener’s Island
Day trip to Kom Ombo and Edfu
Nile activities: sailing, kayaking
Nile cruise to Luxor or Lake Nasser