Luxor, Egypt draws millions of visitors every year, even during the recent period of civil unrest, to contemplate the spectacular relics of Egypt’s ancient civilization. Temples bearing complex hieroglyphs rise from the desert and mark Luxor’s past life as the ancient city of Thebes, the capital of Egypt’s New Kingdom and the city of the great Egyptian god Amon-ra. Below ground in Luxor, elaborately painted tombs were built to house (and hide from grave robbers) the remains of pharaohs and queens, and are now unearthed and open to the public. (Warning: Visit the website of the U.S. Department of State for the latest Travel Alerts about Egypt). Pictured are columns of the Karnak Temple Complex, which is comprised of many decayed temples, chapels, and other buildings, and was the primary place for the worship of Amon-ra in Thebes.
Karnak Temple, pictured here, is the second-most visited site in Egypt, behind only the Giza pyramids in Cairo, which are located roughly 400 miles from Luxor. A one-way plane ride from Luxor gets you to Cairo in an hour for under $100 USD; the return trip costs more. Or, you can opt for an overnight, air-conditioned train. The village of El-Karnack surrounds the Karnack Temple in the modern day, with Luxor 1.6 miles to its north. Amazingly, much of the original temple complex remains buried and inaccessible beneath the bustling city of Luxor. In this photo, a man seated at Karnack gives a sense of the monuments’ towering scale.
Like most Egyptian cities, Luxor’s economy depends on tourism. A recent and controversial proposal to draw more visitors, and rescue Luxor from the “tourism recession” that has followed the Arab Spring of 2011, includes the development of new roads, five-star hotels, theaters, and opulent shopping centers. For now, however, Luxor retains its agricultural core, and many of its residents fish, grow, and raise their own food, in addition to cultivating sugarcane for profit, in order to make up for the tourist shortage.
Luxor is divided into two districts bisected by the Nile River: the East Bank and the West Bank. The East Bank is where you’ll find the majority of Luxor’s hotels, restaurants, museums, train and air transportation, and the city proper, as well as the Luxor and Karnak temples. The West Bank contains the majority of the ruins, including Valley of the Kings and Valley of the Queens, plus a smattering of hotels (with more likely on the way, as the West Bank becomes more developed).
Frequent Luxor travelers say a pleasant way to see Luxor, especially after nightfall, is to ride in a calèche, or horse-drawn carriage. If you choose this transportation option, keep in mind that you are expected to haggle with the carriage driver over the price of your ride. A rate of 20 EGP per hour (roughly $3 USD) is fair and common, according to travelers, though it will take some bargaining to get to that rate. Also, be on the lookout for skinny or wounded horses that appear to have been badly treated by their handlers. Some calèche drivers are reputable and will not abuse their animals; take time to locate these drivers for a more pleasant experience.
Imagine the thrill of tasting spices for the first time in ancient Egypt, and the new life they must have brought to the same old bland slab of bread and vegetables. Ancient Egypt was situated at the crossroads of the spice road, so access was easy, though expensive. As such, spices were mainly confined to the wealthiest tables. Now, Egyptian spice markets present hundreds of aromatic spices, herbs and condiments to peruse. Try the popular dukka, an Egyptian side dish made from various herbs, spices, and usually hazelnuts.
Irynefer’s Tomb, TT290, is located in the Valley of the Kings and was the underground resting place of Irynefer, a necropolis workman in the 19th dynasty. Elaborate and stylized paintings coat the tomb’s walls, including images of Irynefer and his father, whose white hair indicates he lived to rare old age. Pigments used to paint ancient Egyptian tombs were drawn mostly from minerals, and maintained their vibrancy over millennia because of Egypt’s dry climate, the lack of weathering elements underground, and the protective coating of resin used to finish them.
An ideal time to visit Luxor, and Egypt as a whole, is fall (September through November) and spring (February through April). The summer months of June through August are hot, sticky, and mostly unbearable, and December and January can get chilly, especially in the mornings and evenings. If you decided to travel in the summer (discounts on hotels can be steep during summer, after all), make sure to get an early start for your excursions, plan for a long, long mid-day break from about noon until five in the evening, and drink plenty of water. Slather on the sunscreen, too, and bring a protective sunhat.
Several outfits in Luxor provide hot air balloon rides that give a deity’s vantage point of the Luxor temples and the Valley of the Kings. Rides at dawn take advantage of the cool air and the day’s first light, which casts a pale orange glow on the mountain ranges and ruins. Despite a deadly hot air balloon crash in February 2013, hot air balloon rides in Luxor remain a popular tourist activity—perhaps because its breathtaking beauty is worth the risk, or because new safety regulations were put in place to prevent a repeat incident. If you’re wary of soaring above Luxor on hot air, you can still appreciate the balloons’ beauty—wake up early, stay on firm ground, and watch dozens of colorful globes rise overhead with the sun.
As is the case in most popular tourist destinations, there’s a sharp divide between visitors and locals in Luxor. Many tourists are insulated from the true lives of Egyptians, and face only the residents who make their living from selling to, transporting, guiding, and, yes, haggling, visitors. Whenever possible, try to veer from the beaten path into the agricultural areas and farming villages. You can take travel writer Rick Steves’ advice and do it by bicycle, which is available for rent for the equivalent of a dollar or two an hour—that way, you can outpace some of the more persistent hagglers and discover an unexplored slice of Luxor.