In ancient times, Aswan was the frontier of Egypt. Travelling south from anywhere in Ancient Egypt, you knew you had reached the end of the empire when you reached Aswan.
It was obvious, because Aswan was not founded in this location randomly. This was the start of the famous Cataracts of the Nile – the series of rapids that was virtually impossible to cross by boat. Egyptians decided their country ended here because, in their mind, the Nile – their lifeblood – ended here.
Thousands of years ago, the city was an important one. It was a trading post with the countries to the south, it was a military base to protect the border, and it was where much of the stone to build the empire’s great monuments came from.
Today it is none of those things but it is still one of the most interesting cities in Egypt to visit. There are lots of things to do in Aswan and it’s easy to spend a couple of days exploring it.
Many tourists visit Aswan because it is the starting point for a lot of the Nile cruises (including the one that I take on my G Adventures tour) and the closest accommodation to visit Abu Simbel. But there’s more to the city than that.
You can see on this map here that there are lots of things to do in Aswan that are easily accessible from the centre of the city, and then a few in the surrounding area.
Let’s have a look in more detail at why I think these are the best things to do in Aswan.
The Nubian Museum
Travelling through Egypt and learning about the ancient world, you hear a lot about the Nubian civilisation. They were a race of people who lived in the region that is today southern Egypt and Sudan.
Although they had their own unique culture, the strength of Ancient Egypt meant it was inevitable that the Nubians were heavily influenced – and ultimately controlled – by their powerful neighbours.
Today, there are lots of people of Nubian descent who live in Aswan so it’s an appropriate place for a Nubian Museum. And, as it turns out, it’s one of the most impressive museums in Egypt.
The large modern building was opened in 1997 and has an excellent collection of items that take you through the millennia of Nubian history. It’s all presented well with lots of information panels and you’ll come away from a visit with an excellent understanding.
Basically, everything that is wrong with the Egyptian Museum in Cairo is remedied at the Nubian Museum in Aswan!
Dinner in a Nubian village
While the Nubian Museum focuses more on the history, it’s important to remember that the culture still exists. In Aswan, there are villages within the city that are considered to be Nubian communities.
I am in Aswan as part of a G Adventures tour of Egypt and, if you would like to know more about that, you can read my review.
As part of the tour, we have dinner at a home in one of the Nubian villages on Elephantine Island.
It’s not just a chance to try some local cuisine, it also gives us a chance to ask questions and learn about modern life for the people of Nubian descent.
Felucca ride on the Nile
The Nile is such a prominent part of Aswan. In many ways, it defines the city, and you can’t really visit without doing something on the water.
Our G Adventures group went to dinner at the Nubian village by sailing a felucca and I think this kind of boat trip is one of the best things to do in Aswan.
A felucca uses just the wind in the sails to glide along the Nile and is the same way that people have travelled along the majestic river for centuries. It’s such a peaceful way to see a different perspective of the city.
If you can, take a felucca ride at sunset to really appreciate the different colours of the landscape. Doing a loop around Elephantine Island will give you the best variety of views.
Even without a felucca ride, it is worth visiting Elephantine Island while you are in Aswan. You can get there easily with one of the local ferries that cross from the mainland to the island.
On the island, I would suggest taking a walk through the Nubian villages to get a sense of some of the local life.
There is a small Nubian museum called Animalia that is worth a look and there are also the ruins of a temple at the southern end of the island.
Looking across to the west, you’ll see another smaller island that has the Aswan Botanical Garden.
I arrived in Aswan directly on a flight from Cairo and brought with me by bristling attitude towards vendors and touts. But it didn’t take long until I felt bad about how rude and dismissive I was being because this is a much friendlier place.
The vendors will, of course, ask if you want something as you go past but I never feel like I’m being hassled. It means that a visit to the Tourist Bazaar in Aswan is quite a pleasant experience.
It’s a strange name but basically ‘Tourist Bazaar’ means that it’s a market street where you can get souvenirs and authentic local crafts. But you’ll also notice lots of locals here buying food or having a coffee.
As I mentioned earlier, Aswan was home to the quarries of the stone that Ancient Egypt used to build its most impressive monuments.
One of these quarries has been preserved for visitors and it has an incredible sight within in – the Unfinished Obelisk.
This obelisk was almost completely cut from the quarry when it appears to have cracked in half. Because the obelisks of Ancient Egypt were made as one single piece, this one was just abandoned.
It means we today have a terrific example of how the quarry work was done. And what makes this obelisk so special is that it would have been the biggest one of all if it had been completed properly.
Aswan has had shifting cultures over the centuries. Of course, there was the Nubian civilisation and the Ancient Egyptians. These days, like most of Egypt, the city is predominantly Islamic.
But there is still a strong Coptic Christian community here that remains from the time when it was the main religion in the region.
It’s worth visiting the new Archangel Michael’s Coptic Cathedral, close to the Nile and just down the road from the Nubian Museum. It’s an impressive building from the outside and has some beautiful artwork inside the main hall.
I think one of the best things to see in Aswan is Philae Temple, the ancient complex that was built on an island in the Nile. It is just south of the city, on the other side of the Old Aswan Dam, and you need to take a boat across to the island.
The temple complex is actually on a different island to where it was originally constructed because it had to be moved to be saved from the rising waters of the dam. But what you see is a faithful reconstruction.
Philae Temple was actually built at the end of the Ancient Egyptian civilisation and is more of a tribute to the culture than a perfect representation of it. On one of the walls, you can find what has been declared as the last hieroglyphs of Ancient Egypt.
I’ve got a lot more information about visiting Philae Temple in a story I’ve written about its history.
And the last thing I want to mention is actually a few hours away from Aswan but most people use the city as a base to visit it. I’m talking about Abu Simbel, one of the most incredible sights in all of Egypt.
The enormous temple carved into the cliff would be significant in any case because of the enormous stone facade and the intricate decorations inside. But what makes it even more spectacular is the story of how it was saved.
I won’t go into all the details now because you may know some of it already and I’ve written about the history of Abu Simbel previously anyway. But both the international cooperation and engineering effort to move it are quite remarkable.
Abu Simbel is, in my opinion, a must-see sight in Egypt and using Aswan as a base to visit it makes the most sense.
In fact, that’s what is so great about Aswan. There is plenty to see in the city itself so you don’t feel like you are just coming here for logistical reasons so you can do something else.
But, having said that, it’s clear that many of the tourists do come here primarily because it is where their Nile cruise begins.
I am one of them. But it is with fondness that I say goodbye to Aswan, waving at this great city from the deck of the Princess Sarah as I continue my journey down the Nile towards Luxor.