The dynastic civilisation of Ancient Egypt was founded on the shores of the river Nile, and in 1869 Thomas Cook, the creator of the package holiday, pioneered the first Nile river cruise. To this day a cruise down the Nile is still the best way to explore Egypt, with the Pyramids of Giza, the Sphinx, Luxor's Valley of the Kings and the Deir El Bahri all found on, or near, its fabled banks. Cruisers can clamber through narrow tunnels and dark passages into temples lined with hieroglyphics and explore eerie tombs in the Valley of the Kings, and cruising through jade waters you’ll spot wildlife like tiger fish, hippos and the toothy Nile crocodile.
Why cruise Nile
Over 400 river ships ply this route, so there are many cruise companies to choose from. An average Nile route lasts between three and seven days and sails between Luxor and Aswan, but many expedition lines offer longer adventures of up to two weeks and include stops in Cairo. Riviera Travel, Emerald Waterways, CroisiEurope and Avalon Waterways all sail on the Nile, and Viking and Uniworld both had new luxurious Nile ships launch this year. Sanctuary Retreats also offers uber-luxury sailings on its fabled waters.
Countries of the Nile River
An ancient powerhouse civilisation turned centre of the Arab world – Egypt is a country with an unrivalled history and culture. From its illustrious history of pharaohs and pyramids, gods and mythology, to its modern-day metropolises of buzzing markets, high-rises and street art galleries – Egypt is a totally unique country, and, being on the banks of the Nile, a fantastic cruise destination.
Ports of the Nile River
In the Arab world’s greatest city, a cacophony of car horns, calls to prayer and the babble of 10 million voices gives way to the peace and grandeur of the last remaining wonder of the ancient world. Cairo is known for its colourful Khan el-Khalili bazaar, Mosque of Muhammed Ali, modern Cairo Tower (with viewing platform) and mummy-filled Egyptian Museum – along with a trendy street art and culinary scene. Journey outside and you’ll soon come to the great pyramids of Giza, appearing like a mirage out of the sands. Gaze in awe at these mighty 4,000-year-old tombs, and the famous Great Sphinx, and you’ll soon see why Egyptians call their capital ‘Mother of the World’.
The Giza Pyramid Complex
The Pyramids of Giza are the last remaining wonder of the Ancient world. Standing alone in desert just outside of Cairo, the complex includes the Great Pyramid of Giza, the Pyramid of Kharfe, the Pyramid of Menkuaru and the Great Sphinx of Giza. Nearly 5,000 years ago Giza served as the burial grounds for the Egyptian royals and today is a fascinating open-air museum complex complete with the Khufu Ship (an ancient ship used to transport to the afterlife found buried nearby), camels and a nightly sound and light show. The Grand Egyptian Museum – described as the largest archaeological museum in the world – is also just two kilometres away.
Sitting on the fabled banks of the Nile, Luxor is the highlight of any Nile River cruise, often referred to as the world’s greatest open-air museum. Dating back to 1932 BCE, in its heyday Luxor was the site of ancient Thebes – the capital of Egypt during the 16th-11th centuries BC. The modern city takes up the eastern bank of the Nile (with the Valley of the Kings to the west) protected by the imposing Luxor Temple and Karnak Temple complexes fringed by palm trees. The mummification museum, Temple of Seti I, Temples of the Nobles, and the Luxor Museum are also must-see attractions.
Valley of the Kings
While Luxor pulls with its bustling markets, archaeological delights and Luxor and Karnak temples, most visitors come to the city to see the opposite bank. On the ancient west bank of the city lies the Valley of the Kings, and also Valley of the Queens, Egypt’s best-known site after the Pyramids of Giza. The sprawling necropolis was in use for 500 years from the 16th to 11th century BC and has 63 tombs many of which with vivid wall paintings. Howard Carter discovered the tomb of Tutankhamun here in 1922, and the king’s cursed tomb is a popular tourist attraction. Other highlights include the Temple of Deir el-Bahari – dedicated to the power of Queen Hatshepsut.
Aswan is a beautiful and historical stop on Nile River cruises, where you can watch feluccas breezing down the Nile and stroll the palm-fringed shoreline before exploring its significant archaeological sites and ruined temples. As a bustling market city, it’s worth visiting the colourful Shaia as-Souq bazaar for Egyptian and African goods, before venturing to the Aswan High Dam and nearby Philae temple complex on Agilkia Island. The complex dates back to the 7th-century BC and includes the columned Temple of Isis – the last temple built in the classical Egyptian style. Further down the river you’ll find Elephantine Island with the Third Dynasty’s Temple of Khnum.
A fantastic day trip from Aswan is Abu Simbel, a village in the Egyptian part of Nubia near the border with Sudan. Abu Simbel is world famous for being the site of the Abu Simbel Temples – The Great Temple of Ramesses II and the Small Temple of Hathor and Nefertari. Four colossal statues of Ramesses guard the entrance to the main temple with smaller carvings around his feet of his children, mother Muttay and wife Nefertari. The temple itself is made up of consecutive halls with further statues and wall carvings. Abu Simbel wasn’t the original site of the two temples, which were relocated in 1968 due to the creation of Lake Nasser.
Sitting on the west bank of the Nile between Esna and Aswan, Edfu is a city dating back to the antiquity. The city is the site of the famous Ptolemaic Temple of Horus and a surrounding ancient settlement, built on a rise about the valley to protect it from floods – and as a result is completely preserved. Passing under its imposing façade of inscriptions and pillars, travellers can wander through large, echoey chambers and ponder the marvels and mysteries of ancient Egypt. The temple has a visitor centre and lighting to allow for night visits. Modern Edfu also lures with its buzzing centre and colourful trade of sugar, pottery, grain, cotton and dates.
South of Luxor on the west bank of the Nile, Esna is a charming city best known for the Temple of Khnum. The modern city occupies the site of the ancient city of Latopolis in Upper Egypt, where the temple was built by the 18th-Dynasty pharaoh Tuthmosis III in honour of the ram-headed god Khnum. The temple is built of red sandstone and features six grand pillars with lotus-leaf capitals and hieroglyphic inscription. Don’t neglect the town itself, which has a waterfront lined with 19th-century houses with elaborate wooden lattice screens (known as mashrabiyya) and selection of lively markets.
Best things to do
Visit the Grand Egyptian Museum
This brand-new museum will be one of greatest in the world, housing the largest collection of Tutankhamun and pharaonic artefacts like the boy king’s famous gold mask. The museum is set to open in 2021.
Explore Ancient Egypt
It goes without saying, but make sure to disembark the ship at every port you can and get your full dose of temples, archaeological sites, pyramids and necropolises. There’s nowhere in the world like it.
Get up early
Be prepared for scorching hot days, even hotter when you’re wandering sandy shores in search of temples and outdoor monuments. Make sure to get up early and do sightseeing when it’s cooler – something most cruise lines will push for.
Along with ancient temples and monuments, many of the cities that pepper the Nile have buzzing markets and specialise in trade. Shop for dates and pottery in Esna and alabaster vases and Egyptian cotton in Luxor.
Ride a camel
A once-in-a-lifetime experienced you can tick off on a Nile River cruise is riding a camel – be it near the pyramids or in one of the many stops along the river.
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The city of Luxor is the gateway to countless historic monuments