Luxor, Egypt: The World’s Largest Outdoor Museum

After the hustle and bustle of Cairo, we were glad to have landed in Luxor.  Luxor is much calmer and a lot greener. The pace in Luxor is a lot slower, and you feel at ease while you are there.

Indeed, no trip to Egypt would be complete without a stop in Luxor, known as the world’s greatest open-air museum.  Modern day Luxor was the ancient city of Thebes.  Today, the ruins of the temple complexes at Karnak and Luxor stand within the modern city.  Right across the River Nile lie the monuments, temples, and tombs of the Valley of the Kings, the Valley of the Queens, and the Necropolis or tombs of the nobles.  To really appreciate all the history and the sites, you need at least two full days in Luxor.

We hopped a short one-hour flight from Cairo to Luxor and immediately began exploring.  Our first stop was to  the Colossi of Memnon, which are two massive stone statues of the Pharaoh Amenhotep III, who reigned in Egypt during the Dynasty XVIII. This site is a quick, free stop on the way to the Valley of the Kings.

The Valley of the Kings is basically a royal cemetery.  It is a valley where tombs were created by excavating deep into the mountainsides for the pharaohs and powerful nobles.  Ancient Egyptians were VERY concerned about their death.  In fact, they spent their entire adult lives planning for their afterlife, and these tombs are the proof.  Ancient Egyptians believed in life after death, the pharaohs were expected to become one with the gods.  As a result, they built elaborate tombs in preparation for their afterlife.

The underground tombs were well stocked with all the material goods a ruler might need in the next world, such as clothes, furniture, tools, weapons, and jewelry. The tombs were also stocked with food and drink for royal feasting in the next world.  Sometimes, when a pharaoh died, his slaves and pets were killed with him and put into the tomb to help the pharaoh in his afterlife. Mummification was used to preserve the body so that the eternal soul would be restored in the afterlife.

There’s an old adage that life doesn’t come with a manual.  That may be true; but, for the Ancient Egyptians, death did.  On the walls of the tombs, the Book of the Dead was painted or carved.  The Book of the Dead was a collection of spells to assist a dead person’s journey through the underworld and into the afterlife.

On arrival to the Valley of the Kings, you will enter a visitor’s center.  You can purchase your tickets from here.  The cost is about $11.00 per person.  The tombs (well, the ones that are open on the day you happen to be visiting) in the valley are accessible with your entrance ticket, except one — the tomb of King Tut.  To visit King Tut, the most famous tomb onsite, you must buy a separate ticket.

Just a heads up, all the tombs in the valley are not always open to the public, so you on any given day you can expect three to four tombs to be open. The tombs that are open rotate in order to minimize damage to them or because restoration work is needed.

Also, if you are going to take pictures inside the tombs, you MUST purchase a photo ticket for each person who will be taking pictures.  It’s only about $3.00, so it is worth it.  The moment you whip out your camera or phone, someone will demand to see your photo ticket.  If you don’t have it, they will take your phone or camera and delete the photo and/or kick you out of the tomb. There are NO photos allowed in King Tut’s tomb.

There is a tram that will take you from the visitor’s center to the entrance of the tombs.  It is about $.50 per person to ride the tram, and, in my opinion, worth the money.

Each of the tombs are different inside.  Some you can walk straight into, some you will need to walk on a ramp to get down, and some have stairs.  None of them were particularly strenuous.  We visited four tombs, including that of King Tut.

The first tomb we visited was the Tomb of Ramses VII. It is a small, unfinished tomb, and the artwork inside is not as impressive as the others.

The second tomb we visited was that of Ramses IV. This tomb has very intricate artwork and very vibrant colors. Speaking of the paints and colors, it’s incredible when you realize that they have not been restored; yet, in many instances, they remain almost as bright and beautiful as they were when they were first applied thousands of years ago.

Up next was the tomb of King Tut.  This was the only tomb for which we had to wait in line.  It is also the only tomb that contains a sarcophagus and the mummified remains, of the one and only King Tut!

We left the Valley of the Kings and made out way to the Mortuary Temple of Hatshepsut. This temple is dedicated to the sun deity Amun and is next to the mortuary temple of Mentuhotep II.  The temple is considered one of the incomparable monuments of ancient Egypt.  Also, the temple is aligned to the winter solstice sunrise, which makes it popular with spiritual people and yogis who come to the temple and sit there all day soaking up its energy and meditating.  The mortuary is open from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. and costs $10.00 to enter.  It takes about an hour to visit.

After lunch, we hopped a river boat and crossed the Nile as we made our way to the Karnak Temple.

The Karnak Temple was one of my favorites in Luxor; and, considering it only costs $5.00, it is must! It is a large complex that is like is a vast open-air museum.  It is the second largest ancient religious site in the world, after Angkor Wat in Cambodia. It is believed to be the second most visited historical site in Egypt,the Giza Pyramids in Cairo being the first. Also, you can do this temple by day, which is magnificent, and by night, which, honestly, was kind of cheesy (but only $4.00).

From there, we visited the Temple of Luxor. Luxor is known as The World’s Largest Outdoor Museum, and together with the Karnak Temple, the Luxor Temple is the reason.  It is one of the best preserved of all of the ancient monuments with large amounts of the structure, statuary, and relief carvings still intact.  It too is one of the most impressive sites in Luxor, and it is only about $3.00 to enter.

We ended our day at the Luxor Bazaar where we stopped for a rest, some famous Egyptian coffee, and bought some beautiful spices.

At long last, it was time to check into our hotel.  If you are going to Luxor, there really is just one place to stay, and that place is the Winter Palace.  This hotel has a long history. It is a historic British colonial-era 5-star luxury resort hotel located on the banks of the River Nile, just south of Luxor Temple. It’s claim to fame is that it was the choice accommodation for Lord Carnarvon and Howard Carter during their discovery and excavation of King Tut’s tomb. The hotel is a living antique, and the grounds are beautiful.

Day Two started with a trip to the Luxor Museum. This museum is often overlooked by visitors.  Most of the artifacts displayed at the Luxor Museum were discovered in the temples in Luxor. It’s a small museum that is open until 9:00 p.m. or 10:00 p.m. (depending on the season), and only costs $4.00 to enter. We got there just as it was opening for the day and basically had it to ourselves. Sine it’s relatively small, you can get through it in about  60 to 90 minutes. I highly recommend it.

Fun fact about the mummy below: It is the mummy of Ramses I. His tomb was robbed, and his mummy sold and re-sold on the black market.  By the time it found its way to Canada in the 1800s, its incredibly important royal pedigree had been lost, and it spent the next 140 years as an unknown mummy, unceremoniously housed with several others, some coffins, and other Egyptian artifacts as part of a “freaks of nature” exhibit. The museum changed hands, and crossed and re-crossed the Canadian border several times until it closed in 1999. Thereafter, the Carlos Museum at Emory University purchased the Egyptian collection for around $2 million USD.  They began testing the mummy for identification and after years of study,  the scientific community concluded that this is indeed the mummy of Ramses I. On October 24, 2003, Emory University returned the mummy to Luxor, Egypt, and it has been on display at this museum ever since.

Our second stop was to the Temple of Edfu. It is one of the best preserved shrines in Egypt.  It was also not as heavily visited by tourists. It had beautiful art work on the columns and ceilings with bright colors. It also has some of the deepest carvings in all of Egypt.  And, at less than $4.00 for admission, it is well worth a visit.

We ended our day with a trip to the Tombs of the Nobles. Unlike the funerary monuments for the kings and queens, these tombs are dedicated to administrators, governors, and other figures of minor nobility.  They are a cluster of tombs carved into a rocky hillside, and they are one of the least visited sites in Luxor.  In fact, when we were went, we were the only visitors there, which I loved. Also, there are active excavations going on here, and we got to see one in action!

While certainly smaller, these tombs were amazingly well preserved with the most vibrant color of any site we saw in Egypt.

But, before we headed to the airport, we made one last stop, and that was to get custom perfumes made using fine Arabic oils! These make great gifts, and they are so unique! The array of scents is dizzying, and they are made right in front of you using the bottle and size of your choice!

They say all good things must come to an end, and such was the case with our short, but amazing time in Egypt.  I am glad that we ignored our friends and family and took this trip.  We had a great time, we never felt in danger, we saw some amazing historical sites, and we did it all for such a reasonable price! Seriously, if you have ever thought of going to Egypt, GO! You will not regret it!

Egypt: What To Know Before You Go

After vising in Egypt, I can tell you that we were happy we went.  But, there are some things we wished we knew before we got there that would have made our trip better.  Below if a list of those things, as well as some things we did that we were glad we had:

1.  You must purchase a visa when you land.  There are no signs that assist in this regard.  Our guide took care of this for us, but if you have to do it alone here is how: when you land you will be funneled into an arrival hall before you collect your luggage and go through customs.  On the right hand side, you will see a bunch of bank kiosks.  You can buy the visa there and also change money at the same time.  The visa must be paid in cash and costs $25.00 USD per person. Once you get the visa, you can proceed to passport control and then to collect your luggage.  The Cairo airport is a disaster when it comes to luggage collection. It takes FOREVER. If you can get away with just a carry on, that will be your best bet, and a HUGE time saver for the rest of your trip.

2.  Hire a local guide and driver.  This will be the best spent money for safety and peace of mind. Comparatively speaking, it’s not that expensive, and it makes navigating the sites and the city A LOT easier. Trust me, you do NOT want to drive in Cairo, and you also do NOT want to take what they call public transportation. It is little more than a mini van crammed to the brim with people. It is so full that they often can’t even close the door! People just jump on and off mid-traffic! Do you want to be stuck in that, in the most insane driving ever? I don’t think so. The photo above was borrowed from Mr. Google, but it is a pretty accurate representation of what goes on on the road: cars in every direction, livestock, and some pedestrians peppered in for fun.  Also, there is Uber, but again, it’s local drivers, with local cars, who likely don’t speak English. And, don’t get me started with the taxis.  All I read and heard about were horror stories of bait and switch pricing and not letting you out of the car until you paid. Plus it is a lot easier to have a local do all of the translating, hassling, and negotiating for you. Finally, with a guide, we rarely waited in line for anything anywhere.

3. Spend two days in Cairo and two days in Luxor and take the cheap and short flight to get between the two.  Everyone kept recommending a Nile River cruise; but honestly, unless there is a way to do it with a very small group or privately, this is not for me.  See those big ass boats, back there.  Those are the Nile cruise boats.  The boats are huge, kind of old, and they do not look that comfortable. As in,they did not look as nice as the lowest level cruise liner in the U.S. But, it is a great way to cover a lot of ground and see some beautiful countryside.

4.  You must change money into local currency (they prefer their own currency and USD and credit cards are not widely accepted), but be sure you have a lot of smaller bills because …

5.  EVERYONE expects a tip for every single little thing.  If a worker at a site takes a photo of you, their hand will be out.  If someone gives you directions to the bathroom, they expect a tip.  They are not shy either.  They will ask, hand out, and follow you around continuing to ask.  To avoid this, get your own guide and ignore everyone around you. Don’t let them take photos for you. Don’t let them show you a “special” place. Just ignore them and avoid them.

6.  This brings me to your bathroom experiences in Egypt.  Bring your own toilet paper and hand sanitizer everywhere. This was the best thing we did.  There will either be no toilet paper or paper towels in any of the bathrooms or they purposefully take them out so a person can hand two squares of toilet paper to you (like, literally two squares) for a tip. Also, sometimes you have to pay to use the restroom, so keep small bills with you at all times.

7.  On the other hand, it is very much a pay to play economy.  If you want to stay at the pyramids after they close, offer the guard some cash. If you want to enter a prohibited or closed off part of a site, pay the site keeper.  There is a price for everything here; and honestly, I am not so sure that they do not purposefully “close off” portions of sites just so people can pay to get into them.

8.  Negotiate. Negotiate. Negotiate.  Never pay the asking price of anything. Ever. Well, except in restaurants.  Everything else is up for negotiation.

9.  Often times you will see a no photo sign. In most sites, if you are caught taking a picture they will take your phone or camera and make you delete the photo and kick you out. This is, of course, sporadically enforced. However, almost every single site sells a photo pass.  If you buy the pass, snap away.  Keep the ticket on you because they will ask you for it, but once you buy it, take all the photos you want. Is it a scam to make more money? Probably. But the ticket is usually like $2.00, so it’s worth it to be able to take pictures.

10.  This one sounds obvious, but don’t drink the water anywhere.  Make sure you have bottled water to brush your teeth.  Also, make sure all ice is made from filtered or bottled water.  The better hotels will have free water for you.

11.  There is security everywhere so be prepared for that.  When you enter a site or the property of a nice hotel, there is a law enforcement stop.  They will question the driver and search the car and its trunk with dogs and under-car mirrors. Once you get through that, you will have to go through security again at the entrance of  every site and before you enter any hotel. You will go through detectors while your bags get scanned.  Sometimes they will open the bags and check inside. I didn’t mind this one bit.

12. The locals are fascinated by Westerners. They will whip out their phones and take photos of you.  They will even come up to you and ask you to take pictures with them. One word of caution: if they see you are willing to pose for a picture with them, they will line up for pictures, and you can be there all day taking pictures with complete strangers and sometimes entire families! What are they doing with these pictures?!?  Actually, I don’t want to know. My advice is to be nice and take a few photos, but then say no. Trust me, if you don’t, it will never end. Which brings me to my next thought, should I have asked for a tip for allowing them to photograph me?!? Just kidding.  Kind of.

So, with that, I hope that my primer here helps to make your trip more enjoyable and less of a hassle. Again, Egypt is a wonderful place that offers a multitude of unique opportunities to experience legendary antiquity, up close and personal, and I highly recommend that you go. I just prefer to know what I’m getting into before I get there and figure you do too!  Have you been to Egypt and have any tips to add?  If so, I’d love to hear from you!