Egypt. The name conjures exotic images of ancient pharaohs, mysterious pyramids and dunes of sand punctuated only by the palm-strewn Nile River. For good reason, Egypt is at the top of many people’s bucket list, and visitors flock to the nation’s capital each year to espy its most famous sites, the Pyramids of Giza, the elusive sphinx and the dusty artifacts at the world-famous Egyptian Museum. But what many tourists don’t consider, is that Luxor, Cairo’s little sister to the south, is brimming with stunningly impressive Egyptian relics of its own.
Luxor is a dusty city perched on the verdant banks of the Nile, as most Egyptian enclaves are, but what sets it apart is the vast role it played in Egyptian history. The ancient capital of the New Kingdom and previously called Thebes, Luxor is home to the Valley of the Kings, Valley of the Queens and Karnak Temple, among many others–in fact, there is so much to see, Luxor is often dubbed “world’s greatest open-air museum.” For thousands of years, this city was the pinnacle of Egyptian life and death, leaving a legacy that has captured imaginations throughout the centuries. Today, Luxor is a cacophonous maze of sand blown streets filled with horse drawn carriages and hawkers touting papyrus scrolls and silver ankhs, but amidst the chaos you’ll find glimpses of a time when Pharaohs ruled, the sun was god and people lived and died by the whims of the mercurial Nile.
The Temple of Karnak
Perhaps the most impressive site in Luxor is the Temple at Karnak. Built and continuously improved by a string of pharaohs during a time frame spanning nearly 2,000 years, the temple complex is a vast and dramatic sight. The entrance through an avenue of ram headed sphinxes is impressive, but more so are the giant stone statues of Pharaohs of old looming high above. Behind them, the pillars composing the Hypostyle hall tower even higher–it seems every sight at Karnak is more imposing than the last. The temple is built on a massive scale, each pharaoh having tried to assert his power by outdoing his predecessor, and what’s left is a mind-blowing collection of temples filled with monumental effigies to the once great rulers of this ancient empire.
Valley of the Kings
Cross the Nile to the West Bank to explore the infamous Valley of the Kings. Made famous by the discovery of King Tut’s tomb in 1922, the Valley of the Kings is fraught with superstition and wonder. The rocky valley is the final resting place for 63 pharaohs of Egypt’s New Kingdom, and you’ll wander through the crumbling doorways into chambers where the peeling remnants of colorful hieroglyphics still cling to the walls like decorations forgotten from a party long ago. You’ll see gods and goddesses mingling, the Nile flooding, animals being slaughtered, and myriad other scenes depicting the life of ancient royalty as you meander through the burial chambers, but you won’t see any artifacts or mummies as they have all been taken to museums elsewhere in Egypt and worldwide.
Getting to Luxor from European destinations is easy, with flights leaving from many major capitals daily. It is possible to take the train from Cairo to Luxor, but it is a long and frustrating experience, thus a quick flight is recommended.
Luxor offers backpackers a multitude of both hostels and hotels that are supremely wallet friendly. The least expensive options are situated downtown between the train station and Luxor Temple, where you can expect to pay less than $10 per night, including breakfast. For a more authentic experience, many guesthouses operate from the West Bank of the Nile, and exude a calmer, more relaxed vibe than those in the city center.
- Colossi of Memnon – Two massive statues originally built in the likeness of the pharaoh Amenhotep to stand guard at the entrance to the Valley of the Kings.
- Sunset felucca cruise – Travel like the ancients did on the Nile in a traditional Egyptian felucca, just watch out for crocs.
- A drink at the Winter Palace Hotel – A posh hotel frequented by dignitaries both foreign and domestic, a drink on the terrace at the Winter Palace overlooking the Nile is a must.
- Luxor Temple – Located in downtown Luxor, this impressive temple is easy to get to and the surrounding area exudes a carnival-like atmosphere. Wandering the crumbling ruins brings ancient Egypt to life better than any National Geographic special ever could.
- Temple of Hatshepsut – Carved dramatically out of the surrounding limestone cliffs, this beautiful, modern-looking monument was built as the mortuary temple of Queen Hatshepsut.
Leslie Patrick is an international freelance writer and journalist specializing in travel, culture and fashion. Her work has appeared in La Mode Dallas Magazine, GT Weekly Newspaper, The Penny Rose and BestWeekends.com among others. Although originally from the San Francisco Bay Area, Leslie currently resides in Ulsan, South Korea.