Key sights in Luxor

Luxor’s architectural splendour: vast temples, colossal statues and royal tombs, can be admired on foot, from the river or from above by hot-air balloon.
Once the capital of Egypt as Ancient Thebes, Luxor is split in two by the Nile, and a popular departure point for classic cruises along the river. On the west bank, the Valley of the Kings and the Valley of the Queens form a vast necropolis where pharaohs, their families and nobility were entombed along with their riches, while on the east bank the temples of Karnak and Luxor are stunning for their scale as well as their preservation. Luxor is Egyptian history writ large across a grand canvas – the discoveries here have inspired wonder in visitors and explorers alike for centuries.

Avenue of Sphinxes

In the days of the pharaoh Nectanebo I this three-kilometre avenue served as a religious processional route linking the temples of Luxor and Karnak. It was, as the name suggests, lined with well over 1000 human-headed sphinxes (not, though, as large as the Great Sphinx of Giza). There is a relief thought to be of Cleopatra here, suggesting she walked the route herself at one point.

Colossi of Memnon

Located west of Luxor, the Colossi of Memnon are, as the name suggests, colossal. Two huge sandstone statues, representing the pharaoh Amenhotep III the Magnificent, face the river a few metres apart. Both have been considerably damaged over the centuries, but it’s not so much the detail of the statues that fascinates, it is their sheer scale – 18m high and weighing over 700 tonnes each.

Deir el-Medina

This planned village accommodated the artisans that built the royal tombs in the Valley of the Kings. The workers were prized for their discretion (grave robbery being a major problem) as well as their skill. Deir el-Medina is now an archaeological site in itself, and you can visit workers’ houses to learn about their lives, and see the cemetery – naturally, they built some handsome tombs for themselves as well.

Karnak Temple

An impressive temple, unique in that some 30 different pharaohs were involved in its construction, lending it a scale and character that is quite unmatched. There are four main sections to Karnak Temple, but only the largest, the Precinct of Amun is open to the public. A highlight is surely the hypostyle hall, with over 130 columns measuring 23m high and 15m in diameter.

Luxor Museum

Royal mummies, chariots and weaponry, treasures from the tomb of Tutankhamun and displays showing the harvesting and processing of papyrus for scrolls are just a few of the standouts at this superb museum. The Luxor Museum is not as sizeable as the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, but it boasts an impressive collection that includes intricate reliefs and statues, such as one representing the crocodile god, Sobek.

Luxor Temple

Built from the 14th century BC onwards by pharaohs including Tutankhamun and Ramses II, this vast sandstone temple runs parallel to the Nile and continues to serve as a place of religious worship even today. The Avenue of Sphinxes, leading to Karnak Temple, begins outside. Visit Luxor Temple early in the morning to avoid the heat and crowds, or at sunset when the stones glow beautifully.

Medinat Habu

A lesser-visited temple, this complex was primarily a memorial shrine for Rameses III, and was inhabited up to the 9th century AD. Entry is through the Syrian Gate, which depicts the pharaoh smiting his enemies with a club as he dangles them by the hair, after which you can see reliefs showing battles and religious ceremonies, and a succession of rooms such as those used by the royal harem.

Valley of the Kings

The tombs of more than 60 pharaohs have been discovered in this vast necropolis, including that of one of Egypt’s most famous rulers: Tutankhamun. Visits to the tombs, and photography, are strictly controlled due to the deterioration of wall paintings, but the valley is definitely a must-see in Luxor. Due to restoration efforts, only a few of the tombs are open for viewing at a time.

Valley of the Queens

The wives of the pharaohs, and various high-ranking women, along with their children, were buried in this wadi just south of the Valley of the Kings. They include Nefertiti, who was one of Egypt’s most well-known and well-educated queens, and whose tomb is one of the handful that can be visited.

Winter Palace Hotel

This handsome British colonial-era hotel on the bank of the Nile, just south of Luxor Temple, has a pretty distinguished history. Not only did Agatha Christie write her classic Poirot novel ‘Death on the Nile’ here, but another famous guest was the 5th Earl of Carnarvon, patron of the Egyptologist Howard Carter who in 1922 unearthed the tomb of Tutankhamun.

Things to do in Luxor

See the city from above. Luxor is an immensely popular place to take a hot-air balloon flight, and you should be able to book either a sunrise or sunset flight that doesn’t eat into your sightseeing itinerary (balloon flights are not generally included in your tour price). The superb aerial panoramas that you’ll get as you sail over the city and its temples, the boats on the Nile, and the Valley of Kings are pretty special. We strongly recommend asking your operator and doing your research carefully before making a booking, as to be honest hot-air ballooning in Egypt doesn’t have a great safety record. Take a cruise along the Nile. Aswan lies around 200km downstream of Luxor, and you can make the journey either by small ship cruise, dahabiya houseboat or wind-powered felucca, which is the much more basic, most traditional and of course most environmentally friendly way to sail the river (if you’re going from Aswan up to Luxor then felucca will not be an option as they don’t have engines). Along the way you might pause at classic stops including the temples at Edfu, Kom Ombo and a Nubian village, or make a day trip to the vast temples of Abu Simbel further south of Aswan (we suggest going overland rather than flying – four hours and an early start). Our Nile cruising vacations travel guide goes into more detail. For many visitors visiting Luxor with only a day or so to make the most of it, they will divide their time between the ancient sites and browsing the stalls at the souks. They are noisy, hectic places and you will be pestered like crazy, so if you do spot something you like then any haggling skills you possess will come in very handy. Like the souks of Aswan and Cairo, if you can avoid the tat and the dubious ‘tours’ aimed at the unwary then these are good places to seek out authentic Egyptian handicrafts, spices and clothing and put some money into the hands of the locals. Be warned however that the way live animals are treated can be upsetting. As with ballooning, your tour operator should be able to offer reliable advice on where to head.

Things not to do in Luxor

It’s easy, when you’re visiting a place where so much has been written about it, to dismiss the importance of a professional local guide. But as well as filling you in one what those hieroglyphics on the wall over there mean, what this room in the temple was used for, or which pharaoh was which, a good guide can fill in the gaps of your knowledge on modern Egyptian ways of life as well. That degree of cultural insight won’t just turbocharge your enjoyment of your vacation, it will ensure that you’re contributing to the local economy too – vital when so many people here are dependent on tourism employment and income. Every evening, the Karnak Temple is illuminated by a Sound and Sight show as a booming narrator recounts the tales of ancient Thebes, the lives of the pharaohs who built it, their gods and 2,000 years of history. Maybe we’re being a little unfair – it’s garish, but not awful, the story is dramatic and it is quite a spectacle to see these incredible ruins lit up at night. Just don’t expect to be blown away, as it’s more Disney fantasy than historical epic. You might well see yourself as the next Banksy – others might not, and the authorities will definitely take exception if you’re caught leaving your mark on any of the ancient monuments and ruins in Luxor. Of course graffiti here is nothing new – cheeky remarks have been found in the Valley of the Kings that are thought to date back thousands of years – but the modern phenomenon of letting people know that You Were Here is best left to social media, rather than being scrawled into the walls.

Our top Luxor Vacation

Nile cruise vacation in Egypt

Nile cruise vacation in Egypt

Discover ancient temples & tombs & travel by Nile cruise boat

From US $1399 to US $2099 9 days ex flights
Small group travel:
2019: 14 Dec
2020: 14 Mar, 28 Mar, 4 Apr, 18 Apr, 25 Apr, 2 May, 16 May, 23 May, 6 Jun, 13 Jun, 19 Sep, 26 Sep, 3 Oct, 10 Oct, 24 Oct, 31 Oct, 7 Nov, 14 Nov, 21 Nov, 28 Nov, 5 Dec, 12 Dec, 19 Dec, 26 Dec
2021: 9 Jan, 16 Jan, 23 Jan, 30 Jan, 6 Feb, 13 Feb, 20 Feb, 27 Feb, 6 Mar, 13 Mar, 20 Mar, 27 Mar, 3 Apr, 10 Apr, 17 Apr, 24 Apr, 1 May, 8 May, 15 May, 22 May, 29 May, 5 Jun, 12 Jun, 18 Sep, 25 Sep, 2 Oct, 9 Oct ...
Travel Team
If you'd like to chat about Luxor or need help finding a vacation to suit you we're very happy to help.

Luxor travel advice

Andrew Appleyard from our specialist operator Exodus takes an archaeologist’s perspective on Luxor:

Valley of the Kings

“Some of the tombs have had to have CO2 monitors fitted because of the humidity levels. You’ll often find three are open in the morning, and a different three in the afternoon, and not know until you arrive what you’re going to get. We find arriving around 10.30am gives you the most choice. Everyone flocks to Tuankhamun’s tomb of course but that’s not actually the most exciting. Ramses III and Ramses IV are also popular. Ancient graffiti can be seen around the entrances to some of the tombs, some of it left by the builders it’s thought. You drive over the bridge to get there, and everyone stops at the Colossi of Memnon on the way. Two interesting sites that we go to but most don’t are Medinet Habu, Ramses’ mortuary temple, and Deir el-Medina the workers’ village.”

Things to do in Luxor

“The evening light show is actually quite nice, very photographic especially from the back. We take a cab to see it, or a horse and cart. Our small ship cruises will also often include a short sail in a felucca. They are a very basic but inexpensive way to see the Nile but not very comfortable. We’ll sometimes go around Elephantine Island in Aswan by felucca for a picnic or to do some birdwatching.”

Responsible tourism

“The more modern cruise vessels on the Nile are much more fuel efficient, and their recycling and waste procedures are much better too. They also tend to source a lot of local produce for meals. There is still a great deal of work to do, but we know just from the training we give our own guides that things are progressing."
Written by Rob Perkins
Photo credits: [Page banner: VasenkaPhotography] [Top box: Christopher Michel] [Avenue of the Sphinxes: Jorge Lascar] [Museum of Luxor: Justin Otto] [Valley of the Queens: David Broad] [Things to do/not do: Peter Nicola]
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