Aswan, Egypt, is known for the remarkable preservation of its ancient archaeological sites. But beyond the otherworldly temples and rich history, Aswan is a city of open-air marketplaces, felucca cruises, and tranquil views. So let’s dive into this gem on the Nile, and see what is in Aswan and why you need to add one of our Egypt tours to your bucket list. (No seriously, add it to your list today!)
Where is Aswan?
Aswan is in southern Egypt on the banks of the Nile River. Its positioning on the water has made it a strategic trading port since early Antiquity (4,500 BCE to 450 CE). Aswan is known for its trading industry and marketplaces. So it makes perfect sense that the city’s name comes from the ancient Egyptian word for market, soun.
Aswan is known as the Land of Gold, not because you’ll find a literal gold mine here but because this is the resting place for Nubian pharaohs. Ancient Egyptians believed gold was the flesh of the gods, so they buried their pharaohs in golden sarcophagi.
Which all adds up to why we need to talk about the unforgettable things to do in Aswan!
1. Sail the Nile like a pharaoh in a felucca
Feluccas are traditional wooden sailboats with lateen sails. (Lateen refers to the 45-degree angle of the sails, a signature in feluccas worldwide.) They’re common in Sudan, Greece, and of course, Aswan, Egypt.
But it’s not just the boat’s iconic look that makes riding on a felucca one of the best things to do in Aswan. On board, you’ll find colorful pillows for comfort and style, and even food service. So picture yourself cruising down the river on a mountain of pillows, eating authentic Egyptian cuisine, and taking in the enchanting views of the banks of the Nile River. Add a Sunset Felucca Ride & Dinner excursion to your trip when you’re on our Week in Egypt: Giza, Nile River Cruise & Cairo tour to really feel like a pharaoh.
Travel tip: The best time of year to take your felucca trip down the Nile is between the months of October and April, when the weather won’t be too hot. But if you're looking to take advantage of even cooler weather and seasonal events, you’ll want to visit Egypt in the winter.
2. Learn the art of haggling and earn your souvenirs at the markets
True to its namesake, Aswan, Egypt boasts vibrant marketplaces. These markets, also known as souks, are full of souvenirs, food, and art. “In the city itself, there is a wonderful open-air market full of authentic Egyptian trinkets,” said staffer Gabriella. “You need to be good at bargaining, but the experience is definitely worth it,” she said.
The shops in these markets feature everything from locally sourced, natural oils to beadwork, clay products, rugs, and more. They’re full of bright colors, intoxicating smells, and people haggling for the best bargain. But it’s not all about spending cash. Having the opportunity to walk through a city that has thrived for centuries on the art of trading is a memorable souvenir. “We walked through their local market which was such a fun way to be able to experience the everyday life,” said staffer Josie.
Travel tip: Look to your Tour Director for pointers before you begin to bargain. Once you’re ready, don’t start the process unless you intend to buy the product. You should also know what price you would pay ahead of time, and offer half of that in your first exchange. Don’t start with your number though—let them throw out the first digits before you counter. And remember that while this might be new to you, this is a not only commonplace is Aswan, it’s considered rude to not bargain for your goods. Happy haggling!
3. Take in the iconic views
Aswan is a lush, green oasis on the bank of the Nile River, bordered by desert sand and full of ancient ruins and temples. Check out a traveler’s photo diary from Egypt to see what we mean. “Aswan is unbelievably beautiful,” said staffer Gabriella. The Nile is a vibrant, shimmering, life-giving element, integral to the city now as much as it was in the past. Full of feluccas and peppered with islands, the river is a marvel to behold. And those islands aren’t empty—many are home to colorful and bright Nubian villages (see the next reason to visit Aswan below for more on them).
You’ll find the best lookout on our trips to Aswan at the top of Qubbet el-Hawa or Dome of the Winds. This ancient cemetery rises up on the western bank of the Nile, across from the city. Qubbet el-Hawa is worth a day of exploring when you have free time on tour, and while you’re at it, take time to stop and gaze out over Aswan. The high-elevation point of the necropolis offers an awe-inspiring view of the city, well worth the hike.
Travel tip: To help support the environment while you enjoy even more unbelievable views, stay at the Mövenpick hotel in the middle of the Nile. Staffer Gabrielle raved about its unique location, “It offers incredible views of the river and the city itself. In order to get to the hotel you need to take a ferry,” she said. It also has a strong commitment to the planet. “Their main sustainability efforts include an upcoming solar energy farm, financing the construction of a water treatment facility, and recycling food waste from its restaurants,” said staffer Tom.
4. Visit nearby Nubian villages
These brightly colored villages are on the West Bank of the Nile and various islands down the river. The vibrant colors of their buildings are bright and light, meant to reflect the hot sun instead of attract it. And this stop in Aswan is more than a pretty view—this is a rare opportunity to meet Nubian people (whose population is only about 100,000) and to be fully immersed in their culture. So if you visit Aswan, you really have to also visit these small villages too.
Stopping off in a Nubian village will be completely different from being in Aswan. You will see how the Nubian people traditionally dress, have the chance to purchase their handmade jewelry, and get to try their food. Which, incidentally, like much of the Egyptian food, is vegetarian and vegan friendly!
Travel tip: When on our Egypt & the Nile River Cruise tour, don’t miss the excursion to a Nubian village near the Aswan Dam. You will be greeted by a local, who will give you a tour of his home-turned-museum. Afterwards, sip tea with him on the roof and take in the views. This experience is a great way to spend your free time, as a visit to the Nubian villages is one of the best things to do in Aswan. Read about what it’s like to experience Egypt on tour.
5. Ancient Egypt history first-hand
If you’re any kind of history buff, you need to visit Aswan. One of the best things to do in Aswan is to experience the amazing archaeological sites. There’s no shortage of respectfully cared-for and well-preserved ancient monuments—including the last temple designed in the classic, ancient Egyptian style: the Temple Philae. There is also the Temple of Kom Ombo, unique in that it houses a place of worship for two different gods. Another archaeological treasure in Aswan is Abu Simbel, built by Ramses II. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site—and rightly so. After all, it’s an architectural triumph, complete with a room that is only illuminated by the sun on Ramses’ birthday and the day of his coronation. (Let that marvel sink in a moment.) “We took a small boat ride through the Nile to see temples which was unbelievable, to be surrounded by these historic buildings,” said staffer Josie.
Travel tip: Unlike many other archaeological sites in Egypt, it is free to take photos in Aswan. Make sure you bring some kind of protective cover for your camera, to keep sand from getting inside and causing damage. Photography pros also recommend arriving at sites early for crowd-free photo-ops. See our list of all the ancient ruins you have to see in Egypt.
6. Enjoy Lake Nasser: a manmade wonder in Egypt
Lake Nasser is one of the largest manmade lakes on the planet, and it was created in the 1960s to increase the availability of irrigation and drinking water. This huge undertaking first required tediously deconstructing, moving, and reassembling archaeological monuments like Abu Simbel—brick by brick—so the lake wouldn’t swallow this relic. For this reason, Abu Simbel, along with a few other ancient monuments, is not in its original location.
Unfortunately, construction teams couldn’t move every ancient Egyptian structure, including the fortress of Buhen. It now lies beneath Lake Nassar, which is 591-feet deep.
Travel tip: Whether on a boat or on shore, Lake Nasser is a great place to fish for Nile perch, which can grow up to six-and-a-half-feet long! You can also take in more of those tranquil Aswan views from a boat on the lake, and look at Abu Simbel from a new perspective.