A Day Trip to Abu Simbel – tricky but possible!
Who isn’t interested in ancient Egypt? Or, should I ask, monumental, mind-blowing Egyptian temples? It’s just a shame one of them is so deep in the desert of southern Egypt. There’s not much around it, and it takes real effort to visit. I’m talking about Abu Simbel. Now, if you travel to Egypt, you might not want to miss this gigantic temple – but is possible to do this as a day trip to Abu Simbel?
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Day Trip to Abu Simbel
Probably very few people could deny any fascination with what remains of the Seven Wonders of the world, hieroglyphs and monumental temples. My earliest memories of them are from trips to my grandparents. And the 1930’s history encylopaedia they kept in their living room. Ten years ago, we had to kill a few hours before a friends wedding. I got comfy in a bookshop and browsed a coffee table book of the Valley of the Kings. That was it – the same year I booked a flight and a hotel in Luxor and set out to explore some wonders of the ancient world.
Some of these wonders I had meticulously planned, like Abu Simbel, others just came to me through a chance meeting with a lovely German woman in one of the more obscure temples on the West Bank who goes to Egypt for three weeks every year.
Instead of getting that coffee table book, I found The Travellers Key to Ancient Egypt by John Anthony West, a smallish volume stuffed with information about archaeological sites in Egypt – think what you like about the symbolism theories, and some fair mystic tinting, the history and art basics are pretty solid. It is currently out of print, but try to get it second hand – it is a small volume with tons of detail.
But Abu Simbel? That site is well known, firstly for its magnificence, secondly for its salvage (can I say “salvage” when such a wondrous magnificent site is concerned?) in the 1960’s from intended flooding through the newly built Aswan Dam. The problem is, Abu Simbel is miles from any other ancient sites, about 300km south of Aswan in the Nubian desert.
How to organise a Day trip to Abu Simbel
But don’t worry: Visiting is relatively straightforward, especially if you have a bit more time. You can do a day trip to Abu Simbel from Aswan by road on a modest budget. You can read about it here. But is there an easier way? Like, just flying in and out? It’s been a while since I visited, but it is still possible to visit Abu Simbel by air in relative comfort in a day – especially if you pan an overnight stop in Aswan, itself a very nice town on the Nile with decent holtes and some attractive sights, like the Nasser Dam and the Temple of Philae.
My itinerary was a little rushed, I only had a week, flew to Luxor to see the Valley of the Kings and wanted to be based in Luxor. So, off to the Egyptair website and flights from Luxor to Abu Simbel booked. I booked maybe six weeks in advance, and bought tickets for about 100GBP return. As Egyptair stopped flying from Luxor to Aswan, Cairo or Aswan are now your best bases for a day trip to Abu Simbel.
My flying Day Trip to Abu Simbel
So, what does a day trip from Luxor to Abu Simbel look like?
It must be quite luxurious to fly there just for the day, right? Well… it was an early start, and a long day.
My trusted taxi driver took me to the airport. I checked in for my Egyptair flight to Aswan in a deserted terminal. Then we flew in an ageing Boeing with about three other people in it. Aswan airport (smaller city, smaller airport) was mayhem. I had to check in AGAIN (why???) and this time, the airplane (a new-ish Airbus which I think was on stopover from Cairo) was chock-full of American package tourists. The second flight was maybe 40 minutes. I was lucky to have a seat on the left window, as we descended with sweeping views over the temples.
Abu Simbel airport is tiny, a one-storey building, really. Passengers disgorged from the plane speedily, and into waiting Egyptair buses. Usually, people have very little other business than to visit the temples so flights are even timed to coincide with tourist schedules, and the bus ride is part of the ticket.
Abu Simbel Site
Ten minutes later, we were dropped at the gate, and asked to be back in two hours, paid the entrance fee, and free to wander. Because it was desert-hot, most people headed straight to their destination, the monumental temple of Ramesses II, flanked by four partially damaged colossal statues of Ramesses himself, built into the rock. Inside the rock, it was pleasantly cool, and thanks to the enormous dimensions of the two temples, it mattered very little that an Airbus full of tourists had just descended on the site. A temple similar in style, but slightly smaller, is the Temple of Hathor and Nefertiti a couple hundred metres away.
Here you see both temples, part of a rock formation. The Temple of Ramesses II on the left is larger in size, the Temple of Nefertiti on the right maybe smaller but has not four, but SIX, somewhat more varied colossal statues flanking its entrance.
This is the Temple of Ramesses II and the somewhat larger of the two.
Just a few metres next to it is the Temple of Hathor and Nefertari
Two hours were plenty time, except if you wanted to walk round the rocks, which I don’t think was possible. There was a lot of military everywhere – you are free enough to roam around, but think of getting truly off the beaten path, you will soon be asked to return to the fold – I don’t find this a problem, but maybe half as many guns would have done the trick nicely, too.
Bus ride back, plane boarded (not much checking here, it occurs rarely that blind passengers join from the desert), and back to Luxor. Or so I thought. You could stay in Abu Simbel, if you wish to explore repeatedly or get that perfect sunrise photo or have a thing for desert nights. There are about three hotels, so no camping int he desert required
Returning from Abu Simbel via Aswan
A slight hiccup… and a stop in Aswan
The flight back was marred by weird turbulence despite fine weather. I wasn’t sure whether it was the deathly silence, or the fact that the plane was filled exclusively with Westerners, or the fact that I am not the best flyer in the world. I spooked, decided not to get back on a plane once we had touched down in Aswan. Not a problem! I just left the plane, never to be seen again…
The only slight problem was that Aswan Airport is somewhat out of town, about 10km, and of course, there is no public transport.
And Aswan is a touristy city, right? Nile Cruises go there. It has a train line.
So, I haggled for a cab to take me away from the airport… the airport is well out of the centre, so when the driver suggested we stop by the Nasser Dam, and I demanded he stops off at Philae Temple (Temple of Isis) too, we negotiated a suitable price, and two hours and another two sights of Southern Egypt later (again, Philae is rather little visited, and nicely located on an island, well worth visiting), he dropped me off by the train station.
Returning to Luxor by train- highly recommended
There, I just I went up to the counter, purchased a second-class ticket to Luxor for later that afternoon, walked to the touristy shop strip in Aswan, ate lunch, sat around by the Nile a bit and bought a backgammon board… Aswan has fewer visitors than Luxor, but has a fully grown tourist infrastructure.
The train ride itself was lovely – I think that was the first time in my week in Egypt where i wasn’t approached by anyone to buy anything. Perfectly safe in second class, polite fellow passengers, of course, the prerequisite chickens travelled along, too, bit of Nile Valley scenery from the window… I arrived back at dusk in Luxor, walked out of the train station and… no “guides”!
Probably they don’t find it worth their time hanging out by the train station waiting for a stray Westerner. I walked the kilometre back to the Winter Palace, had dinner, but too late for the pool. My leisurely agenda of early rises, temple, afternoon by the pool had been disturbed just for a day but it was so worth it!
You are on a low budget/want to avoid flying?
Even then not all is without hope! You will need to stay overnight stay in Aswan on the way in and out (go on, it’s pretty). The Man in Seat 61 says there is a daily bus from Aswan to Abu Simbel. It leaves Aswan at 7:00, arrives at around 10:00, and leaves again at 13:00. Alternatively, you can book a tourist day tour from Aswan. There are at least ten daily trains from Luxor to Aswan in each direction. These two cities being on the main line from Cairo, so you can expect quite a comfy trip on old French or Spanish rolling stock.
I flew from London Heathrow to Luxor and back on Egyptair, booked through a consolidator, and booked my Luxor to Abus Simbel flight directly on Egyptair.
Unfortunately, there are no longer any flights from Luxor to Abu Simbel (via Aswan). If you wish to visit from Luxor, the easiest option would be a train to Aswan, spend the night in Aswan, then use one of the frequent flights to Abu Simbel early the next morning. Egyptair currently flies up to three times a week from Aswan to Abu Simbel and back on the same day using Airbus A220 aircraft. From Aswan, you should easily be able to travel back to Luxor in the afternoon.
At present, I found return flights on Egyptair for 3000 Egyptian Pounds (approximately 170 Euro) by booking directly through their website. You will need to the country to “Egypt” in order to see them. This is significantly cheaper compared to the 100Euro more I would have paid had I used Skyscanner.
Alternatively, you can fly from Cairo and change planes in Aswan.
Before you get too excited, bear in mind that the Winter Palace then had three buildings: a beautiful historical wing (Old Winter Palace), a 1975 Soviet Style “New Winter Place Wing” (demolished in 2008) and a 1990’s Pavilion Wing.
Both the Old Winter Palace and the Pavilion Wing are four-to five-star, the New Wing was three-star. Guess which one I stayed in!
The good thing back then was that they were sharing pools and garden, so they were beautiful and five-star standard. You find both high-end and mid-range places at the Corniche, where I recommend you stay. If you do a lot of sightseeing, try to stay close to Luxor temple, as this is where the ferry to the West Bank departs. Back in 2007, I also liked the laid-back and pretty untouristy atmosphere of the West Bank Village, which, I was told, was very “up and coming”. I wonder what it is like now? Has any one stayed there?
For the West Bank of Luxor, usually the frequent public ferry in the early mornings, then I haggled long enough with a taxi driver of one of the many waiting taxis at the ferry pier to take me wherever I wanted and wait, then take me to the next place. Usually went well without any involuntary detours to alabaster factories.
For longer trips, I always hired the same taxi from a relative of a relative that someone knew… In short, I met a German woman in one of the temples who went here every year and knew people, so she helped me find a good driver from one of her many acquaintances.
The Winter Palace is in good walking distance to the train station. I took the train from Aswan to Luxor once. I felt very safe in a second-class carriage as a lone Western woman.
Can’t remember if there is public transport within Luxor. The town is fairly stretched out, with resorts dotted along the River Nile. Anywhere near Luxor Temple is easy walking distance to the town centre with good restaurants and the souk.
Is is safe to visit Abu Simbel?
On the ground – absolutely! Even with mobility issues you should have no trouble at all. The paths to and within the site are even, with fine gravel or even tarmac. There are very few steps between the aircraft doors and the temples.
As for visiting Egypt and the Nubian Desert… safety is relative, and specific advice difficult to give. At present, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (UK) has no travel restrictions for the Nile Valley (including Luxor and Aswan) or Cairo. It advises to avoid all travel to Northern Sinai and all but essential travel to large areas of Western Egypt and the rest of the Sinai. The most detaield advice is given by the German Foreign Office here – it includes visa and health advice. The US Department of State Travel Advisory is much more general and advises to exercise increased caution (Level 2). By the way, if you were to travel to Paris, France, you receive the same advice right now due to “terrorism and unrest”.
Bear in mind Egypt is a relatively conservative Muslim country and dress modestly. Covering your head is usually not required but a lightweight scarf will never go amiss.
The small print
Disclosure: This post contains some affiliate links. If you purchase anything through these links, I will earn a small commission at no extra cost to yourself. I only recommend hotels, experiences and products that I have tried and tested myself.
I travelled to Luxor solo and at my own expense in 2007. It’s what I consider a relatively safe period between large-scale tourist attack of 1997 and the Egypt Revolution of 2011. Never had any concerns for my safety whatsoever while I was there. At the time of writing, the German and the UK Foreign offices both had partial travel warnings in place. I recommend you check with your foreign office concerning safety in Egypt. This blog post was initially written in 2017 and updated in January 2020.