Things to Do in Luxor
Valley of the Kings is a treasure trove of archaeological wonders, containing dozens of tombs filled with art and hieroglyphics. See King Tutankhamun’s tomb—the most famous sight in the valley—then tour the temples of the sons of Ramses II and of Amenhotep III and others to marvel at the centuries’ old art and artifacts.
Ancient architecture goes monumental at this landmark in Luxor, which houses magnificent statues, columns, and the largest place of worship ever constructed—just a stone’s throw from downtown traffic. Construction of Karnak Temple spanned more than 1,000 years, and it shows in the diverse art and architecture of this Egyptian site.
The enormous Luxor Temple was one of the great constructions of the New Kingdom (dating from the 14th century BC) dedicated to the god Amun. It was known as the “Southern Sanctuary” and was the site of ceremonies aimed at encouraging the life-giving Nile floods.
Once through the processional Avenue of Sphinxes you come to the First Pylon, which announces the phenomenal scale of the stonework here: statues, columns and obelisks all compete with each other in a race to the sky.
Ensuing civilizations have also left their marks: there’s a shrine erected by Alexander the Great, Roman wall frescoes as well as a 14th century AD mosque, ensuring this remains a place of worship in the present day.
The vast Temple of Hatshepsut (at Deir el-Bahari) rivals the Pyramids as one of the great funerary monuments of the ancient world. Built into the towering cliff face which shelter the Valley of the Kings on the other side, it rises on three enormous terraces connected by ramps, each level marked with a colonnade of stark, largely unadorned square pillars.
Its namesake was one of the few female pharaohs of ancient Egypt, who not unfairly called her monument “Splendor of Splendors”. However, much of the construction dated from earlier rulers, starting with Mentuhotep II in 2050 BC. Numerous sphinxes and other statues have since disappeared, making the whole structure appear even more monolithic.
The cool stone interior provides welcome relief from the pitiless heat of this region, and features well-preserved wall reliefs and hieroglyphics, some in brilliant colors.
Little remains of the once impressive Amenhotep’s memorial temple. But the two imposing statues of Pharaoh Amenhotep III, erected to guard the ancient entrance, still stand watch some 3,400 years later. Today, travelers can venture to the shores of the Nile, just across from the city of Luxor, and revel at the giant manmade sculptures.
In addition to these impressive twin statues, travelers can check out two smaller figures of the Pharaoh’s wife, Tiy, and mother, Mutemwia. Visitors can also get an up close look at the sandstone panel carvings that showcase images of the Nile god Hapy. Even if most of the Colossi has been lost to weather an the ages, travelers can still get a sense of the wonder this site once held.
The Temple of Horus (at Edfu), built as homage to the falcon-headed god Horus, was erected between 237 and 57 BC, during the reign of six different Ptolemies. It’s the second-largest temple in Egypt, only after Karnak, and its main building includes a number of marginally preserved reliefs.
The temple pylons stretch an impressive 118 feet into the sky and visitors can still see where guards once stood, keeping watch over the pharaoh’s enemies. Visitors to this ancient site can trace history through age-old etchings that record years of land donations and even depict the annual Triumph of Horus—a yearly ritual that uses 10 harpoons to kill a ceremonial hippopotamus.
Hidden in a Y-shaped ravine on the West Bank of the Nile, the Valley of the Queens is an ancient burial site where the wives of the reigning Pharaohs from the 18th, 19th, and 20th dynasties were buried. The valley not only contains the tombs of the royal wives and children from this time, but is also home to a number of other tombs of members of the royal families, including princesses and princes.
The most famous tomb at the site is that of Queen Nefertari, which is only occasionally open to visitors. Widely considered to be the finest in the whole of Egypt, the tomb of Nefertari has been completely restored but is nevertheless closed more often than not. Nefertari was one of the five wives of Ramses II, and the tomb he built for his favourite queen is a grand shrine to her beauty and a testament of his love for her. Among its ornate decoration it features colorful scenes upon its chamber walls and golden stars adorning the ceiling.
Vivid wall paintings keep watch over the Tomb of Tutankhamun, where King Tutankhamun’s linen-wrapped mummy is preserved in a glass case. While most of Tut’s treasures are on display at the National Museum in Cairo, visit the tomb to see where the young king’s body lay for thousands of years.
The main lure at Dendera is the Temple of Hathor, one of the least ancient of ancient Egypt’s glories, main construction being more or less contemporary with the life of Christ, although it was built on much older foundations.
There are fascinating glimpses of the meeting of great civilizations, with a famous wall relief of Cleopatra VII (the Cleopatra of legend) and her son, fathered by Julius Caesar. Other depictions of Roman emperors make this a Who's Who of the ancient world.
Well-preserved remnants in the Dendera complex also include modestly-sized Roman constructions and an early Coptic Christian basilica.
In a country that’s home to some of the most ancient structures on earth, the city of Abydos is a standout destination for lovers of history, hieroglyphs and architecture. That’s because this city is one of the nation’s most historic—and home to perhaps the most well-preserved temple in the country.
Travelers to this Middle Egypt destination can examine the exquisite reliefs of King List at the Temple of Seti. These finely-detailed carvings are some of the best kept in all of Egypt and the temple’s off-the-beaten-path vibe means it’s easy to explore without bumping into tons of other tourists.
Archeologists say the carvings on the temple’s exterior are worth checking out, but it’s the interior reliefs that really showcase the craftsmanship of early artists. Seti temple, which is dedicated to the god of the underworld and afterlife, is an essential stop for anyone traveling to Luxor.
More Things to Do in Luxor
While the size of its collection can’t rival the treasures of Cairo, Luxor Museum is renowned as one of the thoughtfully assembled displays of antiquities in Egypt. Most of its exhibits come from temples and other constructions in the Luxor area.
Highlights of the museum include sculptural depictions of Amenhotep III, under whose reign many of Luxor’s temples were built. There are also a number of objects from the controversial opening of the tomb of Tutankhamun, including an imposing cow-headed deity, and the Talatat Wall, reassembled from one of the temples at Karnak.
For many visitors the chief attractions here are also among the newest: the mummies of pharaohs Ahmose I and Ramses I, which were presented to the public with much fanfare in 2004. They are shown without their bandages; a gruesome yet fascinating sight.
Pharoah Merneptah (Merenptah), son of Ramesses II and Queen Isis-Nofret, was entombed in the Valley of Kings in Tomb KV8, more popularly called the Tomb of Merneptah (Merenptah). This paticular tomb was discovered by Howard Carter in 1902, almost a decade before his more famous discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb.
When the tomb was first excavated, it was filled with debris, indicating that it had been open for centuries. While very little in the way of funerary items or furniture was found within, the tomb is notable for the height of its corridors and rooms and wide entrance — stylistic choices that marked the transition between tombs of nineteenth and twentieth century kings. It’s also the second largest tomb in the Valley of Kings.
While Merneptah was originally interred within four nested sarcophagi within Tomb KV8, his mummy was later moved to the tomb of Amenhotep II, discovered by Victor Loret in 1898.
The Valley of the Nobles (Tombs of the Nobles) may lack the star power of the Valley of the Kings or other Luxor hot spots, but this lesser-visited gem is well worth the trip. A cemetery on a rare scale, the site features hundreds of tombs embedded in rock, often richly decorated with frescoes depicting the working lives of their inhabitants. The site is most often visited on day tours of Luxor's West Bank.
Only a fraction of the sites can be accessed, and the most highly recommended is Sheikh Abd El-Gurna. Highlights include the tomb of Sennofer, the mayor of Thebes (modern-day Luxor), with its charming painted grapevines, and the harvest scenes accompanying Nakht the astronomer on his eternal journey.
One of the grandest tombs belongs to the nobleman Ramose, affording visitors a rare glimpse of life under Akhenaten, possibly the earliest of all rulers to espouse a monotheistic faith.
Where the fertile Nile floodplain meets the desert lies the Mortuary Temple of Ramses III, known locally by its Arabic name Medinet Habu. The whole compound forms a huge rectangle, with the temple a smaller rectangle within. The ensemble is the second largest in Luxor after Karnak, and is related in both style and scale to the nearby Ramesseum.
Visitors come here mainly for the outstanding wall reliefs, enormous depictions of pharaohs, gods and battles; one section serves as an accounting system for notching up vanquished enemies. There are also highly impressive hieroglyphs on both walls and columns. Other extant structures besides the Mortuary Temple itself include the Memorial of King Horemheb and the lavishly decorated tombs of favored New Kingdom officials.
While not as well preserved as nearby Medinet Habu, this mortuary temple dedicated to Ramses II, dating to 1258 BC, still has more than enough to interest the visitor. In the inner sanctuary, for example, the majority of the columns in the hypostyle hall are still standing, as are a number of osirid statues standing sentinel at the entrance, albeit mostly without heads.
As is typical with such structures, giant wall reliefs trumpet the pharaoh’s military accomplishments and proclaim his immortality. But also on view are parts of the fallen Colossus of Ramses, which in Shelley’s poemOzymandias (“Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”) became a powerful warning against hubris.
The Avenue of Sphinxes was the site of ceremonial processions and originally connected the temples of Luxor and Karnak, although it is considerably more recent than either of those sites, dating to around 380 BC. It stretched some 1.5 miles (2.7 kilometers) and would once have had 1,350 sphinxes lining its sides. Around half of those have been uncovered, with many reworked by later civilizations or sitting in museums. Much of the avenue itself is covered by modern buildings.
There are dozens of examples in various states of preservation forming the immediate approach to each temple. Some of them bear the cat-like features of the famous Great Sphinx at Giza, others have rams’ heads. The entire avenue is the subject of a major ongoing excavation project.
Located on the west bank of the Nile in Luxor, the Valley of the Kings is the final resting place of the last of Egypt’s warrior pharaohs. At 125 meters long, the Tomb of Ramses III is one of the longest in the Valley of the Kings. It has been well preserved, with its colorful sunken reliefs of traditional ritual texts still clearly evident.
All 63 of the royal tombs here are different, and what’s unique about the Tomb of Ramses III are the foreign tributes located within its side chambers, including detailed pottery imported from the Aegean and depictions of royal armoury and boats. In the last of these side rooms there’s a bas-relief of two blind musicians that gives the tomb its alternative name: ‘Tomb of the Harpists’.
In the chamber beyond is an aborted tunnel; after realising they were building into the neighboring tomb, ancient builders apparently shifted the axis to the west, constructing a corridor leading to a hall featuring grand pillars and walls decorated with scenes from the Book of Gates.
The Tomb of Ramses VI is one of the most striking and architecturally interesting tombs within the Valley of the Kings, which is situated on the west bank of the Nile in Luxor. Originally built for Ramses V and expanded upon by Ramses VI during the 20th dynasty, its decoration is one of the most sophisticated and complete of the royal tombs.
In general, the Tomb of Ramses’ elaborate decoration depicts the story of the origins of heaven and earth, including the creation of the sun and life itself. Extracts from the Book of Gates and the Book of Caverns adorn the entrance corridor, and these continue into the midsection of the tomb, with the addition of the Book of the Heavens.
The tomb’s most notable and striking feature is the stunning vaulted ceiling in the main burial chamber featuring a double image of the Goddess Nut swallowing the sun. This is said to represent the endless cycle of life and the revival of the souls of the dead pharaohs.
Located in Luxor, to the north of Luxor Temple and overlooking the River Nile, the Mummification Museum is a small yet interesting museum dedicated to explaining the ancient art of mummification. It can easily be explored and appreciated in less than an hour.
At the museum’s entrance is an ornate statue of Anubis, the god of embalming. The Ancient Egyptians applied their embalming techniques to many species, and the museum displays a number of mummified animals, including cats, fish, and crocodiles. There’s also a particularly well-preserved mummy of the high priest Maserharti of Amun from the 21st dynasty.
The tools used for the mummification process are also on display, including macabre items such as spoons and spatulas that were used for scraping the brain out of the skull. Several artefacts that were believed to aid the mummy’s journey into the afterlife are also exhibited, along with some intricately painted coffins.
Creating the Valley of the Kings was no simple undertaking: a small army of builders, engineers, engravers and other workers was required to carve the dozens of tombs out of sheer rock over the centuries.
Naturally they all had to be housed somewhere, ideally not too far away. But it was only with the discovery of Deir el-Medina (Valley of the Artisans), around the time of the opening of Tutankhamun’s tomb, that we learnt more about their living conditions.
The outlines of the “workmen’s village” are still clearly visible, and extant reliefs offer a fascinating portrait of everyday life. All of this makes Deir el-Medina a pleasant change after countless monuments glorifying the pharaohs and their morbid fixation on the afterlife.
Qena provides visitors to modern-day Egypt with a glimpse into the far-distant past.
The ancient city was formerly known as Cainepolis, and also boasts many famous Islamic buildings.
Today, Qena is best known as the closest town to the ancient, well-preserved ruins of Dendera.
The temple complex at Dendera includes the immaculately intact and impressive Temple of Hathor, and is well set up for visitors with an information center and cafe.
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