The Nile Cruise is a time honoured way to explore Egypt. During the nineteenth and early twentieth-century travelers, a Nile cruise was the highlight of their Egypt adventure. As travel writer Douglas Sladen remarked in 1910, “To me, the Nile was a source of never-ending interest and delight; the shining thread which linked Egypt from end to end; the highway to dark Sudan; the street of ancient Egyptian temples; the country road from which you see all the quaint procedure of Egyptian agriculture; a chapter in the history of the humours of Egypt” (387). Sladen’s emotionally wrought speech reveals the exotic charm of the journey for him and his contemporaries. Incidentally, those were the days of real adventure; Indiana Jones kind, when the normal god fearing Europeans and Americans would not step into this country wrought with one of a kind mysterious. Only the true travelers and adventurers came here (apart from the government officials) and they took relished every single second of their thrilling riverine journey.

felucca seen during a Nile cruise

A felucca on the Nile

The olden days of weeks-long Nile cruise

Until the 1870s, the tourists could travel along the Nile in a dahabiya, which was a large houseboat with cross-sails. According to Donald Reid, in 1858 “a forty-day round trip from Cairo to Luxor cost about £110; a fifty-day trip to Aswan and back, about £150” (85). This however changed soon when in the nineteenth century Thomas Cook Ltd. brought in speedy steamers and organizational skills to change the three-month-long Nile cruise to a twenty-day sightseeing expedition. As Reid notes, “Steamers had cut the time required for Upper Egyptian tours by one-half to two-thirds, freed tourism from the vagaries of the wind, and produced the precise schedules the industrial age demanded” (85). By 1900, the railway made its presence in Upper Egypt and presented a faster, cheaper alternative to the steamer. The good old dahabiyas got pushed back in the foreground and were reserved only for the wealthiest of leisure travelers.

embark nile cruise from aswan

Philae Temple in Aswan

Vintage Thomas Cook Nile cruise luxuries

Based on the comparison of maps, itineraries, and travel notes mentioned in Sir John Gardner Wilkinson’s 1847 Hand-book for travellers in Egypt and Cook’s 1897 Notes for Travellers, we can see how the travel routes and practices in Egypt changed between 1847 and 1897. While in 1847, travelers had to make their own arrangements to cruise the Nile on a dahabiya by1897, Thomas Cook lured travelers with the promise that “Dragomans and other necessary servants and food supplies are carefully selected and provided” (14). The duration of the journey also changed along with many different itineraries that included several land routes combined with a leisurely cruise. This standard continues till today and a modern-day Nile Cruise includes the key points of Aswan, Kom Ombo, Edfu, Esna, and Luxor. The cruise either ends or begins at Luxor or Aswan and a train transfer is usually included in the price. The Nile cruise barges’ condition and comfort also vary according to the price and from the excellent Sofitel barge to reedy party boats, nowadays, travelers of all budgets can experience the joy of a Nile cruise.

Belly dancing onboard a Nile cruise

Belly dancing onboard a Nile cruise

Why you should do a Nile cruise in Egypt?

If there is something that has not changed about this iconic experience, it is the sheer unpredictability of it. Once you start sailing down the world’s longest river, nothing remains the same anymore and you experience beautiful, expected sights of rural river life to a chain of unforgettable tombs and temples. The days on the Nile cruise are best spent on the deck where you can swim, sunbathe, socialize, or simply enjoy the views. These are unexpected, beautiful, and fun. There is a different charm in experiencing Egypt from the river. One minute you might be admiring the beautiful blue river reflecting the golden hues of the sandy mountains, fishermen gathering up their nets at sunset, and green agricultural land creating a lush fertile shore. The next second, your reverie is broken by cheeky Egyptian teenagers on speedboats who pull up against your cruise ship and start peddling scarves, cheap souvenirs, and fake papyrus. Cheeky banter follows along with lots of bargain and at the sight of another cruise ship, they disappear as fast they had arrived.

A tranquil Nile sunset

A journey where the Nile cruise is just the beginning

Sunsets are always lovely on a Nile cruise and evening programs include dinner, dance, and entertainment shows like belly dancing and tanoura performances. All meals are served on board and some ships also have souvenir shops, jewellers, and spas on board. There are not many experiences that are as enchanting, action-packed, and brief as a Nile cruise, and the ones who have done it will understand why it is worth coming to Egypt for the cruise alone. However, the cruise is just one part of the adventure, and from the stunning golden temple of Philae to the magnificently decorated tombs of the Valley of the Kings, here are the five key stops on a Nile Cruise between Aswan and Luxor. P.S – They are all within a short driving distance between Aswan and Luxor and the drive through rural Egypt is a lot of fun.

Nile cruise deck

Nile cruise deck

  1. Karnak Temple – Since most cruises begin at Luxor, this is going to be probably the second city you will visit in Egypt after Cairo and no Luxor visit is complete without going to the Karnak Temple. A magnificent complex of temples, pillars, obelisks, and larger than life statues, Karnak is one of the unforgettable sights of Egypt. d what a place to start. It is believed that Karnak has some beautiful examples of symbolism. The 134 columns in the hypostyle hall represent palm trees, while the floor represents the River Nile. The pylons symbolize mountains and the ceiling are believed to represent Egypt’s starry night skies.
  2. Luxor Temple – You cannot be in Luxor and not visit the Luxor temple. It is the elegant tawny temple that has stunning enormous statues of seated figures of Ramses II, beautiful engravings, and has evidence of ancient Egyptian gods, remains of frescoes, belonging to the Roman Imperial cult, Abu El Haggag mosque, and remains of a Coptic Christians church.
  3. Valley of the Kings, Valley of the Queens, and Valley of the Nobles – These are three sprawling necropoleis that are filled choc-a-bloc with stunningly painted tombs. The most beautiful chambers belong to Ramses IX, Ramses II, and Merenptah in the Valley of the Kings. Don’t forget to check out the Nefertari’s Tomb in case it is open. Visit the Valley of the Nobles if you have an extra day on your hand.
  4. Temple of Edfu – A friend of mine had recently summed up Edfu as ” the people are hospitable, the sunsets immaculate, the memories everlasting”. Edfu is all of that and more. This massive temple complex in Edfu is dedicated to Horus, the Falcon God. Falcons were worshipped because they were not carrions and hence were considered noble. It is one of the best-preserved temples in Egypt and has many chambers, ante-chambers, and walls full of hieroglyphic.
  5. Kom Ombo – Kom Ombo is dedicated to two Pharaonic deities and the western half of it glorifies Sobek, the crocodile god of fertility. In ancient Egypt, Sobek was worshiped for fertility and protection against the real crocodiles that infested the Nile river. The eastern half of the temple is dedicated to Horus the Elder, one of the oldest gods in the Egyptian pantheon. A creator god similar to our very own Brahma, Horus can be recognized by his falcon’s head. The temple is home to a quirky Crocodile Museum that has some 300-odd crocodile mummies discovered on-site.

The above listing is for the following itinerary.

Day 1: Board ship in Luxor.

Day 2: Sail to Edfu, visit the temple, sail towards Kom Ombo.

Day 3: Sail to Kom Ombo, visit the temple, sail to Aswan, disembark at Aswan.

You can also do a reverse and start in Aswan as I did. Make sure to keep a day or two for Aswan and at least two days for Luxor.

Wall Relief at Temple of Horus and Sobek in Kom Ombo, Egypt

Wall Relief at Temple of Horus and Sobek in Kom Ombo, Egypt

A handy Nile Cruise guide

Nile cruises are usually medium-sized ships that move by solar motors and have about 40 cabin, big dining restaurants, swimming pool, gym, and other facilities. The route is between Luxor and Aswan and the entire package includes visiting East Bank and West Bank in Luxor, temples at Kom Ombo, Edfu, and Esna beside Philae temple and High Dam in Aswan. This journey takes three or four days. There are longer cruises (six or seven days) that sail north from Luxor to Dendera and Abydos before continuing towards swan.

The best time for a Nile cruise

The high season for the Nile cruises starts in November and goes until February. The temperature range from 30 degrees Celsius in the daytime to about 20 degrees Celsius at night. However, it is the peak tourism season in Egypt and the prices and the crowd sky-rocket. The low season is from June to August months when the temperature exceeds 40 degrees Celsius. However, prices will be low and there will be practically no crowd. March is the best time for a Nile cruise.

The exquisitely engraved walls of Edfu

How to reach your Nile cruise starting point?

Nile Cruises Start from Luxor: You can reach Luxor by bus, train, or flight from Cairo. There are buses from Hurghada to Luxor. Taxis are also available. It is possible to fly into Luxor from Sharm El Sheikh.

Nile Cruises Start from Aswan: Aswan is an overnight train journey from Cairo. Buses and domestic flights are available from Cairo. Gobus or Webus are recommended bus services in Egypt.

Entertainment on the Nile cruise

The entertainment on the Nile cruise depends upon your budget with the more expensive ones hosting a formal managers’ cocktail party on the first day. In the evenings, there are dinner, dance shows, traditional music, tanoura performance, and belly dancing.

Eating and Drinking on the Nile cruise

There are two types of Nile Cruise Packages.

  • Full Board Basis –  Most of the Nile cruises work on a full board basis. All meals are included and are presented in an open buffet style. These meals are served at fixed times. Tea and coffee are also available and alcohol is served at the bar on a chargeable basis.
  • All-Inclusive Basis – Though rare, some Nile cruises operate on a full board basis and includes full board and all beverages such as mineral water, soft drink, hot drink, coffee, tea, juice, local alcohol, etc.

    The seated statues at Luxor Temple

Timing, What to Wear etc

  • Check-In, Check-Out – The usual check-in time is at 11:00 AM before onboard lunch. The check-out time is at 8:00 after onboard breakfast. For those leaving by afternoon flights, it is possible to leave your luggage on the ship and take some tours.
  • Swimsuits are allowed on a Nile cruise. Casual dressing is acceptable for breakfast and lunch. Dinners are usually more formal and guests are expected to dress up. Loose, comfortable, clothing is recommended for day tours. It is advisable to dress modestly since Egypt is an Islamic country.

A typical 5 days Luxor Aswan Nile cruise itinerary

Day 1: Meet and assist at Luxor airport or railway station, transfer and embark your Nile cruise before lunch, enjoy day tours to East Bank (Karnak Temple and Luxor Temple). – Overnight in Luxor.
Day 2: Tours to West Bank — Valley of the Kings & Temple of Queen Hatshepsut. Overnight in Edfu.
Day 3: Tours to Horus Temple in Edfu and the Temple in Kom Ombo. – Overnight in Aswan.
Day 4: Tours to the High Dam, Philae Temple & Unfinished Obelisk in Aswan. Overnight in Aswan.
Day 5: Disembarkation after breakfast. Transfer to Aswan airport or railway station.

A typical 4 days Aswan Luxor Nile cruise itinerary

Day 1: Meet and assist at Aswan airport or railway station, transfer and embark your Nile cruise before lunch,  day tours to the High Dam, Philae Temple & Unfinished Obelisk in Aswan. – Overnight in Aswan.
Day 2: Day tour to the Temple in Kom Ombo. – Overnight in Edfu.
Day 3: Day tours to Horus Temple in Edfu, the East Bank (Karnak Temple & Luxor Temple). – Overnight in Luxor.
Day 4: Day tours to the West Bank – Valley of the Kings & Temple of Queen Hatshepsut. Transfer to Luxor airport or railway station.

Karnak Temple pillars

Note that these ships do not sail at night and be prepared to walk through many of them before reaching your boat. At Aswan and Luxor, they are parked side by side thus making the way to your boat means passing through many other ships. Bargaining is expected at onboard souvenir shops. Tipping is expected and appreciated. Check out this Aswan guide for a detailed “things to do in Aswan” tips. To know more about Nile cruises and how to grab a cheap one, read this in-depth travel guide.

A man working on alabaster tile at Luxor

Mohammed, my Nile cruise guide and a thorough gentleman

The stunning interior of Esna temple

Inside Nefertari’s tomb in Valley of the Queens

Ceiling frescoes at Valley of the Kings

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