Aswan is an often over-looked destination in Egypt. It’s a long way from Cairo, especially if you’re traveling to Aswan with kids, and doesn’t have a large, famous site like the Valley of the Kings in Luxor. I wanted to visit Aswan for two reasons; as a base for a day-trip to Abu Simbel, and as the starting point for a felucca from Aswan to Luxor. For these reasons alone it’s worth a spot on any Egypt Itinerary, but there are a few incredible sites that make Aswan a great travel destination in itself!
I didn’t initially research what to do in Aswan, it was just a home base! Luckily, I found Waleed at Aswan Individual, and managed to sort out a few great days exploring Ancient Egyptian sites away from the crowds. (Our trip wasn’t sponsored in any way! We paid full price for everything, and he didn’t even know I have a travel blog. We had the most incredible tours planned by Waleed, he was flexible and great with the kids, and I can’t recommend him enough!).
We arrived in Aswan on an early morning flight from Cairo. I had pre-arranged pick-up at the airport (with Waleed) to take us to our guesthouse. I’m so greatful we did! Our guesthouse was across the Nile on the West Bank, and we had to take a small ferry to reach it. I’m sure I would’ve figured out how to navigate it on my own, but sometimes it’s just nice to not have to worry about it! Also, our guesthouse was a short walk from the ferry dock, and I’m sure we would’ve easily been lost if left on our own! Since we all had our luggage, and were a bit tired from the early morning flight, getting lost would NOT have been a good start to our time in Aswan!
Our guesthouse was perfect! The rooms were cute, and provided ample space for us to spread out, There was a little garden out front where the kids could play, and the rooftop terrace provided a stunning view over the tombs of the Nobles and the Nile. I loved just sitting on the terrace, drinking mint tea (of course!) and watching the boats sail down the river. Occasionally a camel would walk down the street below us, on it’s way to or from work with it’s owner. It felt like we were part of the fabric of Aswan rather than tourists observing from afar.
The first day in Aswan was spent relaxing at the guesthouse, sorting out laundry, and walking the Corniche. Initially I thought I’d spend the day trying to arrange a felucca to take us to Luxor, but Waleed did that for us so we got to relax instead! After a long day visiting the Pyramids of Giza the day before, it was better to lay low and let the kids recover a bit. Plus, we had lots planed for the next day in Aswan!
We spent one day touring the main sites of Aswan. It’s not a huge city, so it’s easy to fit it all into a day or a day and a half. I felt like we didn’t need to over-load ourselves so I chose 2 temples to visit, Philae Temple and Kalabsha, with a stop at the Aswan High Dam in the middle. Philae Temple is the major draw for tourists in Aswan, and Kalabsha is significantly less popular. This deviated slightly from what Waleed had suggested, but he was happy to change things around.
How To Visit Philae Temple With Kids
The Philae Temples are located on an island in the middle of the Nile, just below the Aswan High Dam. The island was said to be the location of the Tomb of Osiris, making it extremely important for both Egyptians and Nubians. Most of the Temple was built between 282 and 145 BC, and remained on Philae Island until 1960.
By this point the increasing height of the Nile (due to the building of the Aswan High Dam) had already washed away much of the colours from the reliefs and was threatening to destroy the Temple. The ruins were moved brick by brick to the nearby Island of Agilkia, where it stands today. It does seem a bit silly that the Philae Temples are no longer on Philae, but I guess if they were we might need to scuba dive to see them.
Since the temples (Philae Temple plus a few smaller ones) are on an island in the middle of the Nile, you have to take a boat to visit them. You can catch it from the Marina Philae Temple, a few km South of Aswan. If you’re on your own, expect to pay between 40-100LE ($3-$8 CAD) round trip for a taxi from downtown Aswan to the dock, including wait time (the taxi will wait for you at the dock while you visit the temples). Also, you’ll need to haggle hard for 40LE ($3 CAD) per person for the return boat trip (or expect to pay quite a bit more!).
The ticket stand for the Temples is BEFORE you haggle for the boat, so you’ll have already purchased it by the time you get to the dock. The boatmen tend to be difficult to barter with because they know they’ve got you between a rock and a hard place. If you’re on your own, try to join up with a few other tourists, or a small tour group, to keep the price down. Even our tour guide, a local, bounced between 3 or 4 different boat drivers before finally getting to a price she was happy to pay!
The boat ride to the Temple complex is pleasant. The boats are covered from the sun, and they go relatively slow so you can enjoy the surroundings along the way. Disembarking was relatively easy, although if you have bad knees make sure to brace yourself as the boat will rock as everyone gets out.
*expert tip – Make sure you pay attention to which boat you get off, as you’ll have to find it again for your ride back!
Philae Temple isn’t usually overrun with tourists, so it’s possible to enjoy much of the visit without many other people around. However, if you arrive and the Temple of Isis is relatively empty, head there first! There’s a large carving of Isis on one side of the door, and many other areas where the only thing remaining is the imprint of one of the Gods having been removed by later religious groups who occupied the temple. Our guide explained that many of the carvings were defaced in order to force the general public to “forget” about their past beliefs and adopt new religions.
The temples were also full of a fair amount of graffiti, religious and otherwise. One of my favourite things to look for were the Coptic crosses, randomly found throughout the temple (can you spot one in the pictures above?). There were also names and dates carved into the stones in multiple places. I just can’t wrap my head around the need for anyone to carve their name into anything, let alone an ancient temple!
When you visit, take your time to wander around and enjoy the temple. There are multiple places where you can stand along an ancient building, look out over the Nile, and pinch yourself because it almost doesn’t seem real! There’s also lots of room for the kids to play while you explore. So few tourists were visiting while we were there, the kiddos had free-range of the place. They decided to play tag, and then hide and seek. Tag was alright, but hide-and-seek wasn’t as good (for me) cuz there’s a lot of places to hide! At one point we lost Kacela for a good 20min. I was close to thinking about panicking when she finally re-appeared. I guess she found a really good hiding place! She didn’t seem to think there was anything wrong with the game!
Before you catch the boat back, there’s a small restaurant and tourist shop where you can stop for a cool drink before finding your boat back to the East bank. The toilets are also located near the restaurant. I recommend bringing your own toilet paper.
*expert tip – Buy the kids a postcard with the hieroglyphic alphabet. Calais bought one here and used it throughout the rest of our time in Egypt. She translated hieroglyphics at most temples we visited, and got quite good at recognizing a few of the characters.
Know Before You Go
Hours: Oct-May 7am-4pm, June-Sept 7am-5pm
Cost: 60LE ($4.60 CAD) for a full day, if you visit at night this will include the light show. Expect to pay 40LE ($3 CAD) per person for the return boat trip.
Stop At The Aswan High Dam
The Aswan High Dam was built between 1960 and 1970 to help Egypt better control and harness the power of the Nile. It’s an impressive 4000m (13,000ft) long and 980m (3220ft) wide at the base. It’s possible to take a tour of the Dam, however I think you need to be really interested in dams to make it worthwhile. Instead, stop for a few minutes and look out over both sides of the dam. My favourite view was out towards Lake Nassar!
The dam has had a number of effects, both positive and negative, on the economy and environment of Egypt. The girl’s favourite effect was about the now almost non-existent presence of Nile crocodiles downstream (North) of the dam. Only small crocodiles are able to make it through the dam’s turbines, while the larger ones get chewed up and killed. The smaller crocodiles are typically caught before they become large enough to cause a problem. This simple fact made it much easier for everyone to enjoy swimming in the Nile!
We had to pass across the dam to get to Kalabsha temple. It was interesting to see it and read about it, but we didn’t think a tour was necessary.
Cost: 30LE ($2.30 CAD) for a foreigner to cross the dam (kids 5 & under free).
Temple of Kalabsha – My Favourite Temple in Egypt
The Temple of Kalabsha was originally built in Nubia in 30BC and was moved to it’s current location after the building of the Aswan High Dam. It was built for Mandulis, the Nubian Sun God, and is one of the greatest examples of Egyptian Nubian architecture.
It was one of my favourite things we did in Egypt! It’s not that it was the most impressive, or the most intact, but that I felt like we’d discovered something no one else knew about. We were the only ones visiting the entire time we were there.
The reliefs and details were similar to Philae Temple, but the lower ceilings and lack of natural light in the rooms give them an almost haunting feel. Plus, wandering around alone, I could pretend to be an explorer discovering the temple for the first time (okay, maybe not quite, but it was still pretty cool).
Use the solitude, and that postcard you bought at Philae Temple, to decipher some hieroglyphics! It was one of the girls’ favourite things to do at Kalabsha Temple!
After spending some time in Kalabsha, we wandered up the hill to visit Beit El-Wali. This small temple was built by Ramesses II during his reign from 1279-1213BC to remind the Nubians of the power of the Egyptian Pharaoh and to encourage them to worship the Egyptian gods. It’s a bit out of the way and had our tour guide not said anything I would’ve had no idea it was there! It’s a short walk uphill, but it’s worth it! Having not visited Luxor yet, this was the first time we saw the vibrant coloured paintings on the walls. I was so impressed by them, and didn’t expect it at all, which is likely what made it so cool.
Kiosk of Qertassi
The last stop before leaving Kalabsha was a photo-op at the Kiosk of Qertassi. This beautiful and elegant Roman kiosk used to stand at the entrance of the sandstone quarries of Qertassi. When it was built it had 14 columns, however only 6 columns remain (4 inside and 2 large ones at the entrance). There’s not much left to see, but it offers a beautiful view over the Nile. There’s also a few large stone blocks decorated with African animals on the walkway between Beit El-Wali and the Kiosk of Qertassi. I think these may have been the girl’s favourite thing at Kalabsha!
As we climbed aboard the boat to leave Kalabsha, the guard/ticket-man asked if he could catch a ride back with us. He figured it might be his last chance for the day!
Know Before You Go To Kalabsha
Hours: I couldn’t find any official hours. However, since the guard hopped on the boat back with us when we left around 3:30pm I wouldn’t visit too late in the afternoon.
Cost: 40LE ($3 CAD) (kids 5 & under free). If you’re traveling independently you’ll also have to negotiate one of the fishermen to bring you to & from the temple in his boat. Expect the boat to cost 100-150LE ($8-11.50 CAD) round trip with waiting.
Places We Didn’t Visit In Aswan
We decided to visit Kalabsha during our day in Aswan, rather than the unfinished obelisk. I think the girl’s would been interesting to see how the obelisks were made, however it was a bit out of the way and we didn’t want to rush things. If we had a second day in Aswan (or if we hadn’t lazed around on our first afternoon), this would be a good addition to any Aswan itinerary!
There are a few museums in Aswan, but this one seems to be the most popular. I knew we were going to visit the Luxor Museum (to see the mummies), so we decided not to visit the Nubian Museum. When traveling with kids we don’t ever want to cram too many activities in or it ends up being exhausting. The Nubian Museum, although full of incredible treasures from Upper Egypt, will have to wait for a future visit.
Tombs Of The Nobles
We chose not to visit the Tombs of the Nobles as we knew we’d see something similar in Luxor. The tombs still have some colourful facades visible, and I’m sure the view of the Nile is stunning. It’s also quite cheap, and very non-touristy (which is partly why I wish we would’ve visited!). Since we were staying so close, it would’ve been SO easy! I do regret this decision, although I guess I can’t make the right choice 100% of the time! They’ll definitely be on our itinerary next time.
Know Before You Go To Aswan With Kids
Where To Stay in Aswan
There are a plethora of guesthouses in Aswan, and my guess is you’d be happy at most! The Mango Guest House consistently comes up as being popular with travellers, although we haven’t stayed ourselves.
We stayed at the Bet Al Kerem Guesthouse, and I loved it!! The rooms were comfortable, and the location on the West Bank was non-touristy and peaceful. We had a view of the Tombs of the Nobles and across the Nile to the center of Aswan. Our host was incredibly kind and very helpful. We had our laundry done for a reasonable price, breakfast was included every day, and we had 2 home-made Nubian dinners that were delicious. Cold drinks, coffee and tea were always available, and sitting on the roof-top patio with a beverage was the perfect start and end to a day in Aswan.
Cost: $55US ($68CAD) for a family room with breakfast. Dinner was 10Euro ($15 CAD) per person.
It’s hard to think of Aswan and not think about the Old Cataract hotel. It’s an icon and would be worth the splurge for a night (or a few) if you can. It’s not specifically set up for children, the rooms only have one king bed, however the Luxury King Room has a living room containing a sofa with ample room to fit 1-2 kids at night. If you’re up for it, this is THE luxury hotel in Aswan, if not all of Egypt!
Where To Eat in Aswan
Makka – My suggestion is to stop for lunch at Makka between Philae Temple and Kalabsha. You’ll be in need of some food, and Makka offers a filling Egyptian meal at a reasonable price.
Cost: We ate a filling lunch for 7 people, with stuffed peppers, kebabs, rice and a variety of other dishes for 385LE ($63 CAD).
How To Get Around Aswan
This is the easiest way to get around town, and prices seem to be reasonable (although you’ll need to barter a bit, as with everything in Egypt!). You can just hail one from the side of the road, or have the hotel or restaurant call one for you. If you’re taking a taxi to Philae Temple or Kalabsha, you’ll need to pay for waiting time. Expect this to cost anywhere from 40-100LE ($3-$8 CAD).
The centre of Aswan is easily walkable, however many of the “sites” are not within walking distance. We used walking more as a way to see the city rather than as a mode of transportation. I highly suggest wandering along the corniche just before sunset to watch the city tuck in for the night.
Boats are in an abundance in Aswan. There’s everything from feluccas to motorboats, luxury sailboats and small local ferries. We took the local ferry back and forth to the West Bank to our accommodation, but even if you’re not staying on the West Bank, I suggest taking the ferry for the experience! Women sit on one side, men on the other. It leaves when it’s full, and is a short and comfortable crossing.
A a foreigner you’ll pay significantly more than the locals, but it’s still a small amount. We typically paid 20LE for the 7 of us to cross the ferry, mostly because I was stubborn and refused to pay more! The locals paid 1 LE ($0.08 CAD), while the going rate for foreigners was 5 LE Each ($0.40 CAD, so I shouldn’t have been complaining!). If we only crossed it once I wouldn’t have thought twice, but as we often crossed a couple times a day I just decided we didn’t need to pay the full foreigner amount. Sometimes I can be a bit stubborn about things (or a lot of the time!!), and feeling like I’m being extorted because I’m caucasian often exacerbates this!
How To Get To Aswan
“Luxury” Sleeper Train – Takes approximately 12 hours and costs $100 US/adult in a double cabin, including dinner and breakfast. $90 US/child 4-9yo. Kids 3 and under are free. You can also travel in a chair rather than on a sleeping berth. These are $40US per seat and also includes dinner and breakfast.
Flight – Takes 1hr25min and costs approximately $100-150 CAD one way. There are 3 EgyptAir flights each day between these 2 cities.
Bus – This is longest but cheapest way to get to Aswan, costing around 40 LE ($3 CAD) per person. I don’t know much about it, and haven’t actually met anyone who’s done this, but I know (think) it’s possible! If you’re interested in taking the bus, look at Alternative Egypt for pricing and schedules.
Luxury Sleeper Train – Takes approximately 3.5 hours and costs 94 LE ($7.50 CAD) in first class and 63 LE ($5 CAD0) in second class. Both classes have Air-con and are seats only (no sleeper beds). Children 4-9years old and students with an ISIC care get a 33% discount, kids 3 and under are free.
Private Van – This may be the most convenient way to get from Luxor to Aswan, although it’s also the most expensive. Expect to pay around $135US ($180 CAD) for a van fitting up to 5 guests. There are multiple companies offering private shuttle services and you’re best to either book through your hotel in Luxor or through Waleed at Aswan Individual.
Luxor Cruise – A cruise can be 2-5 days depending on how much time you want to stay on the boat in Aswan or Luxor. The price is also quite variable, as there’s everything from relatively budget (kind of) to ultimate luxury. At the low end, budget for around $500 CAD per adult for 4 nights, with a small discount for the kids depending on their age. Find your perfect cruise from Luxor to Aswan.
How Much Did We Spend?
We Averaged $192 CAD/day for our family of 4, including a full day tour and a day-trip to Abu Simbel! Egypt definitely offers a lot of bang for your buck.
If Egypt is on your bucket list (and I think it’s on everyone’s bucket list, even if they don’t admit that to themselves!), make sure you pin this for later. Aswan is a great addition to any trip to Egypt.