Aswan, located in the southernmost part of Egypt, is a small city with a unique personality and a special charm that distinguishes it from the rest of the country, largely due to its connection with Nubian culture. In addition, its pace is slower than that of other Egyptian cities, especially those that are densely populated and located in the Nile Delta.
For all these reasons, it is well worth visiting Aswan and not just using it as a mere stopover to travel to Abu Simbel. Therefore, in this article, we will provide you with all the information you need to know about this city, including what to see in Aswan and its surroundings, how to get here, and other useful tips. And don’t forget that Egipto Exclusivo can assist you in planning a tailor-made experience with personalized services of the highest professionalism.
Aswan, also known as Asuán, is often referred to as the “Gateway to Africa,” which hints at its location and unique character. Situated at the southernmost point of Egypt, Aswan is located at the first cataract of the Nile, a section of the river that is too shallow and rocky for navigation.
As a result, Aswan has always been considered a frontier between Egypt and Nubia, which was once known as the Kingdom of Kush. It is the last stop in Upper Egypt, approximately 250 km from Luxor, the main city in this historic region.
Aswan’s desert climate, coupled with its southern location and narrow Nile valley surrounded by desert, makes life particularly challenging for its residents. Therefore, you will notice that life declines in the central hours of the day and reactivates as the evening approaches. Here are some climate values to guide you:
Given the intense heat and sun exposure you’ll experience in Aswan and Egypt in general, it’s important to follow some basic tips to combat them. Be sure to cover your head well with a cap or hat, protect your skin with high-factor sun creams, wear sunglasses, and always carry water to stay hydrated.
However, there’s a small exception to this rule: the microclimate that can be felt slightly on the islands of Aswan, which are formed in the wide channel of the Nile as it passes through the city. If you take a walk on foot through these islands or sail with a felucca among them, you’ll notice that there’s a certain presence of cooler air here. Combined with the shade of their sycamores, this provides tourists with a small respite.
As a frontier town, Aswan’s history has been marked by a struggle for control between Pharaonic Egypt to the north and the Nubian Kingdom of Kush to the south. While the former held more power, the Kushites took advantage of periods of Egyptian weakness to extend their dominion over Aswan and other parts of the Nile Valley. The 25th Dynasty (747-664 BC), which originated from Kush, had imposed its power in Aswan and practically all of Egypt.
The ancient name of Aswan was Swenet or Sunt, and it was considered the beginning of Egypt, where the country began territorially, as it was the location of the first Nile cataract that prevented boats from going beyond or coming back upstream.
Aswan’s geographical peculiarity allowed it to become a strategic point for trade, as it was a compulsory passage for caravans carrying perfumes, gold, ostrich feathers, slaves, and other goods from the south. Initially, they did so to supply the Pharaohs and their administration, but later also for the court of the Sultans and their bureaucratic apparatus. In fact, the current name of Aswan derives from the Coptic denomination: Souan, which translates to ‘trade.’ The 25th Dynasty (747-664 BC), which originated from Kush, had imposed its power in Aswan and practically all of Egypt.
In addition to its trade, the economy of Aswan was also based on its quarries, which produced some of the most valuable stone blocks in Egypt, including red, black, and gray granite. These blocks were transported throughout the country, to places such as Giza (where they were used in the construction of the pyramids’ funerary chambers), Heliopolis, and Alexandria (where Cleopatra’s Needles were erected). One notable example of this industry can be seen in an unfinished obelisk.
During the Greco-Roman period, Aswan continued to prosper, evidenced by the numerous temples in the area, including the Temple of Isis on Philae Island. The Ptolemaic dynasty and later the Roman emperors respected the local culture and assimilated it into their own.
Christianity, which had a profound impact on the Nubian population, also left its mark on the area. The 7th-century Monastery of St. Simeon is a testament to this. However, in the mid-8th century, Arab troops conquered Aswan and used it as a containment dam to control the Nubians to the south, who were fiercely defending Christianity. This began a period of religious coexistence that lasted for several centuries until Islam gradually became the dominant religion.
The emergence of Egyptology and Egyptomania in the 19th century brought Aswan back into the spotlight, making it a popular winter refuge for wealthy Europeans. This led to a certain “Westernization” of the city, with the construction of Victorian and French-style buildings and spaces, such as the Corniche and the famous Old Cataract Hotel.
For many, the name of Aswan is now synonymous with its great dam, which impounds the waters of the Nile in Lake Nasser and prevents the unpredictable effects of the river’s floods. The project began in the early 20th century with the construction of the Low Dam, but it soon proved inadequate for this function. Therefore, the High Dam was built, which was inaugurated in 1970. It represents a mega-project of modern engineering that changed the agricultural and vital rhythm of the entire country.
However, the construction of the dam also had other important collateral effects. For example, it necessitated the relocation of threatened historical and artistic heritage, caused environmental changes in the Nile Valley (and even in the delta), and, most significantly, led to the forced displacement of the Nubian population settled on the banks of the ancient riverbed, as their villages disappeared under the waters.
Many of the Nubian people displaced by the construction of the High Dam now reside in Aswan, particularly on Elephantine Island, which has become a tourist attraction in its own right. This has led to a significant increase in economic activity, especially with the development of luxury cruises that dock in Aswan, as well as the expansion of Aswan airport and the construction of new hotels with amenities such as outdoor pools and Nile views.
As the importance of preserving the historical and artistic heritage has grown, it has also served to support tourist activity. Many of Aswan’s main tourist attractions, which we will discuss below, were declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1979 under the classification of “Nubian Monuments from Abu Simbel to Philae.”
Aswan has always been a popular destination for international travelers, and in recent years, it has only grown in popularity with classic and new tourist attractions. Below, we will briefly review some of the main places to visit and things to do in Aswan if you plan on spending several days in this fascinating southern Egyptian city.
As expected, Aswan’s tourism offers proposals related to Ancient Egypt, though they are not as numerous as those in other cities and are spread out in different locations, as we will see in the following sections. Nonetheless, this shouldn’t discourage you from organizing an interesting route with a focus on the legacy of the Pharaonic era.
One of the most unique places to visit is the unfinished obelisk of Aswan. This is the name given to a huge block of stone that remains in its original location because it was never fully extracted from the rock. It is about 42 meters long and is believed to have been worked on during the New Kingdom (18th Dynasty, 15th century BC) to be placed in Karnak (current Luxor) and form a pair with the one that was already there at that time, that of Tutmosis III, which now stands in the square of San Giovanni in Rome.
However, it was never definitively extracted: three of its sides are already cut, but one remains attached to the rock, probably because some defect was detected in it. If it had been completed, it would have become the largest obelisk ever raised, although judging by the daily visits it receives, its fame is also great in its current lying position.
In any case, this obelisk and the entire enclosure in which it rests provide valuable information about the work techniques of the ancient and famous quarries of Aswan. And it highlights the difficulty of building these monoliths that are as beautiful as they were coveted by foreign powers.
Very close to the unfinished obelisk of Aswan is one of the most interesting places of the Islamic period: the Fatimid cemetery. This is a large medieval necropolis of almost 30 hectares with small but original mausoleums topped with a variety of domes, which date back to the 9th century and are full of symbolism, serving as a reference to the sky. The most important ones belong to local saints and are still highly revered by the inhabitants of Aswan. At the time, it was located outside the medieval walled town, but was later engulfed by the modern population after its expansion.
The modernization of Aswan has brought about some fascinating locations to visit. The Corniche is a beautiful pedestrian promenade along the Nile that was constructed in the late 19th century. Not only does it provide a picturesque walking route, but it also serves as a suitable space for boat mooring.
Another must-see spot in Aswan is the Old Cataract Hotel. Once open to curious tourists, this grand hotel now belongs to a well-known hotel chain and is exclusively reserved for hotel guests. It has welcomed notable figures such as Winston Churchill, Jimmy Carter, and especially Agatha Christie, who wrote a good part of her novel Death on the Nile here, in which the hotel also has a significant presence. Booking a stay or dinner here will allow you to experience the grandeur and elegance that made it a favorite among travelers.
However, one of the most popular places among travelers, backpackers, and tourists alike is the Aswan souk. It is a thriving marketplace that has inherited the tradition of trading precious raw materials from ancient times, which used to come in caravans of elephants from the south. While the market no longer trades in such luxuries, it remains a vibrant hub of colors, aromas, and flavors, and is an excellent place to purchase local crafts and clothing.
On the other hand, Aswan also boasts a number of modern religious temples. One such example is the Masjed Altabyah Mosque, known for its two spectacular minarets that dominate the city skyline. The mosque is surrounded by lush gardens that add a touch of greenery to the area. Christian religious temples are also prominent, reflecting the continued significance of Christianity among the people of Aswan, particularly those of Nubian descent. The Coptic Orthodox Cathedral, for instance, dedicated to the archangel Saint Michael, is an immaculately white structure with two towering bell-towers that also catch the eye due to their height.
As one wanders around Aswan, the influence of Nubian culture is palpable, particularly on Elephantine Island, as we will explore in the next section. But the city also features numerous houses adorned in the traditional Nubian style, as well as establishments such as cafes and restaurants, some of which offer delightful terraces overlooking the river.
While many of the attractions in Aswan are on the eastern bank of the Nile, there are also several islands in the river that are worth exploring. To experience a small breath of freshness and discover the personality of these unique places, consider hiring a felucca, the traditional wooden sailboat, which can be arranged through services like Egipto Exclusivo. Alternatively, you can board a ferry that departs from the Corniche at fixed times.
Here are some of the main islands to visit in Aswan, along with their respective monuments or tourist attractions.
Elephantine Island is the largest and most important of all the islands in Aswan, and it is also the one that attracts the most tourists. It has historically welcomed large Nubian communities settled in small villages, providing an excellent example of the unique culture that was on the brink of disappearing due to the construction of the Aswan High Dam. Walking through the alleys between houses made of adobe and painted in striking colors (oranges, yellows, blues, etc.) is a great way to experience the singularity of this village. Currently, there are various types of accommodations in the form of guesthouses, which can offer an interesting experience to get closer to this culture. However, there are also modern hotels with the amenities of a small resort.
The Greeks gave the island its name “Elephantine,” as they imagined a herd of elephants bathing in the waters of the Nile among the granite rocks at the southern end of the island. Today, the animals on display in Animalia are more explicit, as they are stuffed, but they serve as a way to tell the story of the lost fauna and ecosystem that emerged after the creation of Lake Nasser.
On Elephantine Island, visitors can also find some of the most significant pharaonic vestiges in Aswan. The Nilometer, an ancient structure used to measure the Nile’s flood volume, is one of the most renowned sites on the Egyptian Nile. Visitors can access the underground chamber via a stone staircase, where they can still see the numbers used for the measurements. The Nilometer’s importance lay in its location, as it was the first and best-equipped to understand the river’s behavior that year. Flooding was not observed simultaneously throughout the country, but with a week’s difference between Aswan and Cairo. In addition, the volume of the flood was greater in this stretch, making the Nilometer and the nearby one in Kom Ombo essential.
Also situated in the south of Elephantine Island are other essential pharaonic vestiges:
In addition to these temples, visitors to Elephantine Island can also explore the Aswan Museum, which we will describe below.
Named after a British consul who was its main promoter, this island is home to a large botanical garden that will delight lovers of exotic plants, flowers, and horticulture in general. Its pedestrian walkway is also a favorite spot for birdwatching enthusiasts, who can enjoy sighting migratory birds in the area.
Located about 4 km south of the center of Aswan, Sehel Island is a peaceful retreat from the urban center and can be easily reached by felucca. The island features another picturesque Nubian village and a fascinating rock with a Ptolemaic-era hieroglyphic engraving known as the Famine Stele. The stele’s thirty-two columns depict the story of Pharaoh Zoser’s (Old Kingdom, Dynasty III) concern for the famine generated by a failed Nile flood, which took place about 2,500 years before the inscription.
Aswan boasts several museums that prominently feature Nubian culture, but also cover other cultural and historical aspects of the city. Three of note include the Aswan Museum, the Nubian Museum, and the Nile Museum.
The Aswan Museum’s collection covers the ancient history of Aswan, from the predynastic period to the Greco-Roman period. Although many Nubian pieces were moved to the Nubian Museum, the Aswan Museum still has plenty to offer, including sarcophagi, mummies, weapons, ceramics, statuettes, everyday utensils, and more. The museum was recently renovated and is located on Elephantine Island in the villa that served as home to Sir William Willcocks, architect of the Lower Dam in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
The Nubian Museum is probably the best place to learn about Nubian culture, which has a strong presence in Aswan. The museum is located near the Fatimid cemetery and features beautiful and spacious exhibits that not only showcase ancient pieces, but also recreate typical Nubian environments. Some of the most valuable objects on display are those recovered from archaeological sites that belonged to the Kingdom of Kush. The museum was created as a result of an agreement with UNESCO to remember what was lost with the construction of Lake Nasser.
The Nile Museum is located on the outskirts of Aswan, about 6 km south of the city, in the vicinity of the Lower Dam. This three-story exhibition center focuses on the Nile River as the main protagonist, showcasing diverse aspects such as the associated fauna and flora, the irrigation techniques exploited by different civilizations, and the navigation systems used along its course. The museum also covers cultural issues that extend beyond Egypt, encompassing the other 10 countries through which the river flows, thus serving as a bridge between them.
While the current city of Aswan is located on the eastern bank of the Nile, the western bank is home to several interesting tourist attractions. The unique landscape of white sand dunes dotted with local trees, mainly palms and sycamores, enhances the appeal of these attractions. Here are some of the main points of interest you can find on the western bank:
The Aga Khan Mausoleum is a popular tourist attraction due to its monumental architecture inspired by the Fatimid tombs of the cemetery located on the other bank. It was built in the mid-20th century and is dedicated to Sultan Mahommed Shah Aga Khan III, the 48th Imam of the Ismaili Shiite Muslims from present-day Pakistan, who was fond of spending winters in Aswan. After his death, his wife, the Begum Aga Khan, a former Miss France, promoted and cared for the construction of his mausoleum in Aswan.
The Monastery of Saint Simeon, also known as Deir Amba Saam, is the best example of how Christianity took root in Aswan. Located just over 1 km from the shore, it surprises visitors with its relatively good state of preservation. The monastery was built in the 7th century with later reconstructions, and was abandoned in the 13th century. It combines stone with adobe, and some sections of its wall measure 9 meters. Visitors can see some remains of mural decoration, such as the painting of Christ in the apse. To get here, visitors can choose to ride a camel and cross the dunes of the area. On the way to this Christian monastery, visitors will find another one, the Monastery of Santa Hedra, although it is quite deteriorated.
One of the great monuments of Pharaonic times in Aswan, the Tombs of the Nobles, consists of tombs dedicated to significant figures of that civilization. They are located on the western bank of the Nile where the sun sets, and they belonged to dignitaries of ancient Sunt, many of them dating back to the Old and Middle Kingdoms. The most prominent among them is probably that of Sarenput II from the 12th Dynasty, where small Osirian statues and murals are preserved.
When talking about the beaches of Aswan, do not imagine vast areas and resort-style vacation spots like those in the Red Sea or the Mediterranean. They are rather small areas where the Nile washes the shore of white sand, typical of the dunes. Here, small local boats can stop for travelers to refresh or rest in the shade of a sycamore. The hotel offer here mainly consists of small accommodations, many of them decorated in Nubian style, some with a pool, or cafes with terraces that offer beautiful views towards the river.
Aswan has a number of interesting places that can be reached by road or by felucca, further south on Sehel Island. To visit these places, it is ideal to organize a half-day or full-day excursion, which will provide enough time to enjoy the journey and the visit itself. Here are the main suggestions.
The Temple of Philae is located next to the island of the same name, about 8 km south of the city. Despite being relatively recent (Greco-Roman era), it is recognized by experts as one of the most beautiful and probably the last great architectural work of Ancient Egypt. For this reason, we dedicate a separate page to it.
Located about 20 km south of Aswan, in the same direction, is the Kalasbsha Temple. Although its state of preservation is worse than that of Philae, it remains another interesting example of an Egyptian temple built in the Roman era. Mainly dedicated to the local deity Mandulis (or Merul), associated with the sun, it retains some interesting reliefs carved on stone blocks: some represent Egyptian deities and others deified emperors. It is one of those temples that were threatened by the rising waters of the Nile with the construction of the Aswan High Dam and was moved stone by stone to its current location, with the collaboration of German archaeologists and engineers.
Although it is a modern engineering project and not a historical-artistic monument like the others, many people visit the Aswan High Dam to see this project that forever changed the appearance of the area and the economy of the city. Its spectacular figures speak for themselves: it is over 3.5 km long and has a base width of almost 1 km.
This monument is not exactly close to Aswan (almost 300 km by road). However, this is the nearest city and therefore the place from which excursions depart. Many of them are by road, some by boat and others by plane, which are more comfortable and faster. Due to its tourist importance, we also dedicate a separate page to this great project of Ramses II.
Despite not being one of Egypt’s largest cities and being located far from other major cities, Aswan is well-connected to the rest of the country, and there are various transportation options for getting around the city and its surroundings. We’ll provide you with all the details below.
There are four main ways to get to Aswan from other parts of the country. The first is by plane, as Aswan has its own commercial airport located about 15 km south of the city. It mainly receives domestic flights from Cairo and Luxor and serves as the base for flights to Abu Simbel. However, new routes are sometimes added, such as the one that previously connected Aswan directly to London Gatwick, so it’s worth keeping an eye out for updates.
Another major way to enter Aswan for tourism is via the Nile River. Thousands of travelers arrive in the city every day on private cruises. This is usually the final leg of a river journey that often begins in Luxor or Esna, on either modern motorboats or traditional dahabiyas.
On the other hand, it is worth mentioning the night train as another means of transportation to Aswan. The main railway line connecting four of Egypt’s major tourist destinations, Cairo, Giza, Luxor, and Aswan, ends at its central station. The station is located north of the city center and is well-served by local taxis. The train journey from Cairo to Aswan usually takes about 14 hours.
Road travel is also an option, although large bus companies do not always include Aswan as a destination in their regular routes due to the city’s distance from other cities. However, if you opt for a private vehicle with a driver, such as the one offered by Egipto Exclusivo, you should consider the following distances and travel times:
As with other cities in Egypt, public transportation in Aswan has its quirks. Microbuses are mostly used by locals, while taxis provide a safer and relatively inexpensive alternative. For a typical trip in the city center, such as from the train station to your hotel, expect to pay between 10LE and 20LE.
Ferries that ply the Nile are more reliable in terms of schedules and have more standardized frequencies, with departures approximately every 15 minutes from the Corniche. These ferries go to the islands or the western bank of the river. There are three main routes: one towards the southern area of Elephantine Island (where the Aswan Museum is located), another towards the northern area where the main hotels are situated, and another further north of the city towards the Tombs of the Nobles.
Of course, you can also consider private options for touring Aswan, such as hiring a taxi or minivan with a driver or taking a traditional felucca to sail the Nile, either as a means of transportation or for pure pleasure. If you need help with budgeting for this type of service, just contact Egipto Exclusivo.
The tourist office in Aswan is located next to the train station (Midan Al Mahatta), but it’s not a large office and doesn’t have an abundance of material to offer tourists. However, they can provide valuable information about schedules and other interesting details.
Alternatively, if you want to plan your transportation and visits in Aswan, Egipto Exclusivo can help you. Our agency can plan a vacation package with all the necessary details, including vehicles with drivers, guides for monuments, accommodation, restaurants, and more. Put yourself in the hands of professionals with the most experience and seriousness to enjoy every moment of your trip!