Luxor was once Egypt’s capital and boasts countless ancient relicts that are a striking testimony to Egyptian civilization at its height and will sometimes make you shudder despite the heat
Some people call Luxor the “world’s greatest open-air museum”; I understood why when I visited.
Today’s Luxor sits on the site of the ancient city of Thebes, which used to be Egypt’s capital during its period of greatest splendor. Back in the day, pharaohs and Roman emperors would showcase their prosperity here in the form of fine sculptures, architecture, and other works of art and treasures celebrating history and religion.
Built inland of the eastern shore of the majestic Nile River, the desert climate makes it one of the hottest and driest cities in the world (less than 1 mm of average annual precipitation). This climate also helped to preserve many of countless ancient relicts that one can still see today in and around Luxor.
In addition to seeing all of these great antiquities, one can also learn much about Egypt’s former empire as Luxor has been a site that has attracted many great scientists and archeologists over the years.
#1 of top things to see in Luxor: Karnak Temple Complex
One of the top things to see in Luxor are the ancient temples. My favorite is the Karnak Temple Complex. Located in the modern city of Luxor, one finds a vast and fascinating array of decayed temples, pylons, obelisks, sphinxes, chapels, and other structures here.
After the Angkor Wat in Cambodia’s Angkor Temple Complex, Karnak is the second largest ancient religious site in the world, and therefore it’s no surprise that construction spans almost 2,000 years before the birth of Christ (though most buildings are from the 16th -11th century BC).
Approximately 30 pharaohs contributed to the Karnak Temple Complex, giving this temple a size and diversity not seen elsewhere.
Of the four main parts, only one is open to the general public. This Precinct of Amun-Ra is the biggest one and dazzled me with its Great Hypostyle Hall (5,000 m² / 50,000 ft²). It’s covered with 134 massive columns arranged in rows. The columns range from 10 m / 33 ft to 21 m / 69 ft tall, with a maximum diameter of more than 3 m / 10 ft!
These columns are covered in friezes. And while along the bottom of the columns the friezes, which still beautiful, are weathered with age, on the top of the columns, which are protected by the massive architraves, the colors are still brilliant. The architraves themselves are a wonder to behold as they must weigh at least 70 tons and nobody knows how the Egyptian builders got them up on top of the columns.
#2 of top things to see in Luxor: Luxor Temple
After visiting Karnak, you can walk to the Luxor temple and imagine the hundreds of sphinxes once lined the long triumphal boulevard that runs between these two great historic sites.
Luxor was created 500 years after the beginning of Karnak. As it was less popular than Karnak, it was neglected and soon and filled up with centuries of rubble. At one point, people actually started building on top of it. However, in 1884, scientists became aware of its importance and began excavating and uncovering its beautiful statues and friezes.
Tow amazing obelisks once flanked the entrance to Luxor temple. One is still here, however the other stands many miles away in Paris’ Place de la Concorde, where it arrived in the first half of the 19th century as a gift for France.
These obelisks were actually not the same height, but clever craftsmen shaped them in a way that created the illusion that they were the same size. It would be amazing to see them side by side to get a sense of this, but would take some doing given their current locations.
#3 of top things to see in Luxor: Colossi of Memnon
After visiting the two temples, I decided to crossed the Nile by ferry to visit the Thebes of the dead on Luxor’s West Bank.
For almost 15 centuries, all of this city’s funerary temples and tombs were built on the west bank of the river, whereas the people lived on the other side. I guess they liked to have the river stand between life and death.
One of these structures was Amenhotep III’s memorial temple, which in its day was the largest and most opulent temple complex in Egypt. It was (and still is) guarded by two massive stone statues called the Colossi of Memnon. These impressive 18 m / 60 ft giants have been standing here for more than 3,400 years.
The temple itself has not survived as well. Located in the Nile’s floodplain, much of its foundation has been washed away over the years, and many rulers have reused parts of the memorial temple to build other monuments.
About 2,100 years ago, an earthquake shattered the northern colossus, which caused it to collapse. The Romans later tried to reconstruct it, but the sandstone they used was different and not as good, and you can clearly see the difference between the original stone stone blocks the Egyptians used and the Roman’s shoddy patch job.
In spite of the fact that the Amenhotep III’s memorial temple is in disrepair, it is still a fascinating place to visit.
#4 of top things to see in Luxor: Valley of the Queens
Just up the road from the colossi, you can visit the Valley of the Queens. It lays protected in between the mountains and is home to at least 75 tombs.
These tombs belong to queens and other members of the royal families, including princesses and princes. Only a few of the tombs are open to the public. These are generally a little bit more neglected and not as vast and impressive as the ones in the Valley of the Kings. However, they are just as beautifully adorned, and as most tourist flock to the Valley of the kings, you can have a much more intimate and private experience here.
If you are lucky, the tomb of Nefertari might be open. This is supposed to be the finest tomb in all of Egypt. Sadly, it was closed while I was there; maybe next time.
#5 of top things to see in Luxor: Workmen’s Village of Deir el-Medina
The Workmen’s village, which lies in a natural amphitheater, was home and burial place to the craftsmen and artists working on the nearby monuments. It’s within easy walking distance of the Valley of the Queens to the west, the Valley of the Kings to the north, and the funerary temples to the east and southeast.
Some say that it likes in this secluded area to preserve the secret and sensitive nature of the work done in the tombs.
The village remains consists mostly of low walls and some ancient irrigation pipes. Along the edge of the village is a very small Ptolemaic-era temple.
Amazingly, some of them are nearly as lavishly decorated as the once they built for their pharaohs.
#6 of top things to see in Luxor: Tombs of the Nobles
The Tombs of the Nobles are a remarkable, but very little visited attraction on Luxor’s west bank; which makes it a great place to escape the crowds — especially on cruise ship days.
More than 400 tombs of the ancient Egyptian upper class can be found in the hills here, though only a couple can be visited. Unlike some of the other tomb sites, there is no ticket that allows you access to all of tombs. Instead, you have to buy tickets by tomb. Sometimes just for one, sometimes for a few specific ones.
The Tombs of the Nobles are decorated with beautifully detailed scenes of their daily lives, which provides a fantastic pictorial history lesson.
#7 of top things to see in Luxor: Hatshepsut Temple
Heading north towards the mountains, I reached Hatshepsut’s mortuary temple at Deir el-Bahri.
Hatshepsut ruled around 1,500 BC and was one of Egypt’s few female pharaohs. She was also one of the most successful, ruling longer and more prosperous than many others.
Officially she reigned jointly with Thutmose III, but until Hatshepsut’s death 22 years later, her husband remained in an amicable, secondary role, heading her powerful army.
Hatshepsut commissioned hundreds of construction projects throughout her regency, but her mortuary temple is her masterpiece and therefore one of the top things to do in Luxor.
The building is an example of perfect symmetry and boasts countless columns above a series of steps flanked by terraces that once were decorated with lush gardens. I’m sure that added great color to the sandstone structure, which sits protected by the mountain cliff in the back, overlooking the fertile Nile valley below.
#8 of top things to see in Luxor: Valley of the Kings
If it’s not a too hot day, you can hike across the Theban Hills from Hatshepsut’s temple to the Valley of the Kings.
Just make sure you already have a ticket, otherwise they won’t let you inside the tombs and you’ll have to walk all the way back.
The ticket will give you access to three of the open tombs of your choice, except Tutankhamun’s, Ay’s or Ramses VI’s.
Entirely separate from their corresponding temples, the tombs of the pharaohs (and a few powerful nobles as well as wives and children) were dug into these mountains (sometime between the 16th to the 11th century BC) in order to keep them safe from violation and robbers — which in the end didn’t turn out to be successful.
So far, 63 tombs were found (the last as recently as 2005) and they range in size from simple pits to complex tombs with dozens of chambers. Most of them are closed to the public, but 18 are opened on a rotating basis to give them a break from the carbon dioxide, humidity and wear and tear produced by the many visitors, which affects the reliefs and pigments of the wall paintings.
The Valley of the Kings is actually made up of two valleys: the western and the eastern one. Of the open tombs, 17 are located in the East Valley which is is flanked by an impressive hill range on three sides, and dominated by the pyramid-shaped peak of Al-Qurn. Only one tomb is in the Western Valley (Ay). If you would like to experience the solitude and isolation once characteristic for this burial place, include Ay in your trip.
It’s only during the last couple of centuries that scientists have excavated and studied the Valley of the Kings, however, tourism was already popular here during Roman Times.
It’s hard to say which are the best tombs to visit in the Valley of the Kings. As they open on a rotating basis, I might not have even seen the best one, so you’ll just have to take your chances.
In my opinion, the most famous tomb — the one of the minor king Tutankhamun — is not worth the extra money. It was the best preserved and still largely intact when found in 1922, although tomb robbers had entered it (like most of the burial places in the valley). Its chambers were crammed with jewelry, statues, musical instruments, weapons, furniture and food — but these were all moved and most can now be admired in the Cairo Museum. Likely the only thing worth seeing here is the boy-sized mummy and the sarcophagus, if you’re into that kind of thing.
My advice is to visit tombs of different dynasties and those harder to reach. This means, focus on the ones that are furthest away from the entrance (most tourists hate walking in the heat for too long), or that require some walking and climbing stairs before you reach the burial chamber. This way you’ll have the smallest crowds.
There is also an impressive and very helpful 3D model located in the visitor center that was a big help when I tried to decide which tombs to visit. Or you research the background information about each tomb on the Theban Mapping Project website before you go.
I loved the tombs of Thuthmose III (KV34), and Ramses III (KV11). They both offer unique decorations. Thutmose III is at the far end of the valley, which keeps it almost empty, which is a plus. However, Ramses III, although central and more crowded, is huge and amazing. I recommend going during lunch as the crowds drop significantly.
Most tombs follow the same layout: entrance, corridor, burial chamber (sometimes a couple). The most amazing aspect of these tombs for me was the colorful murals or friezes that depict scenes from Egyptian mythology and cryptic religious texts and images from the book of the dead. These are meant to guide the deceased through the afterlife and were sometimes painted with such brilliant color that I thought this was just done yesterday and not thousands of years ago.
Most of tombs don’t contain mummies anymore, as these were moved a long time ago to mass burial places in order to save them from tomb robbers. However, some remain, and you might get a sudden chill when you stumble upon a real mummy inside one of the burial chambers.
#9 of top things to see in Luxor: Nile River
I didn’t have enough time during my visit to take a longer boat trip down the Nile. But the short ferry ride I took left me wanting more.
This is an amazing and historic waterway filled with tiny local boats and larger cruise ships. Locals cultivate their bright green fields along the banks which were in stark contrast to the yellowish desert background.
Allegedly, the Nile turns red every year during inundation when filled with silt, which would be quite a sight as well, (another reason to go back).
Another amazing site along the banks of this river is the former Winter Palace Hotel where Howard Carter, the discoverer of Tutankhamun’s tomb, once stayed and roamed the gardens. I could vividly imagine Agatha Christie writing her novel Death on the Nile during her stay here in the 1930s.
#10 of top things to see in Luxor: the positive side
A word of warning is advisable when traveling around in Luxor: Egyptians love to ask for Baksheesh, which is a small amount of money given as alms, though some people would rather call it bribe. And they will fight hard for it, very hard.
Here is a short list of common rip off schemes I experienced during the little time I spent exploring the top things to do in Luxor:
- Somebody will walk in your photo and ask you to pay for their amazing modeling
- Somebody gives you a gift, and a few steps later he asks you to give them a gift (aka money) in return
- Somebody offers to take a picture of you and then charges for it or reports you to the authorities if it wasn’t taken in a place where photos are allowed
- Somebody waves you over in a cultural site, shows you something (usually not any more special what you have already seen) and then charges you money for the precious one minute he “guided” you
Though this can be very annoying and sometimes almost overstretched my patience, don’t let this ruin your trip. I actually had to admire their creativity and they kept making me smile and shake my head in disbelief with each new scam they tried to pull.
It’s really no surprise that the UNESCO declared Thebes and its Necropolis a World Heritage Site. And if you want to see all of the top things to do in Luxor, you should take your time. The desert heat will slow you down anyway. Even though pretty much all 10 sites above can be walked, I would only attempt this in the slightly cooler winter months.
Combine Luxor with a stay at the Red Sea, which offers incredible diving and snorkeling, and you’ll have the perfect balance of activity and cultural enlightenment on your next trip to Egypt!
Do you have a favorite sight in Luxor that we haven’t listed in our top ten of the things to see in Luxor? Let us know in the comments!