Sitting on the bank of Lake Nasser is one of Egypt’s most striking monuments, the twin temples of Abu Simbel. Built by Ramesses II over 3,000 years ago, these temples have stood the test of time. The story behind Abu Simbel becomes even more fascinating when you learn that the entire complex was dismantled and relocated to higher ground, after the construction of the Aswan High Dam.
To get here, you can plan a day trip from either Aswan or Cairo. Travel times can be long (if you travel by land) or expensive (if you travel by air), so is it worth it? Absolutely! The temples of Abu Simbel are some of most impressive and unique temples you will see in Egypt, so it is well worth the visit.
Here’s how to do it.
Where is Abu Simbel?
Abu Simbel is located 300 kilometers south of Aswan and just 20 kilometers north of the border with Sudan. It sits on the western bank of Lake Nasser in a a region called Nubia. Nubia is a large region along the Nile River that spans southern Egypt and northern Sudan.
Interesting Facts About Abu Simbel
The temples of Abu Simbel were constructed over 3,000 years ago by Ramesses II, one of the most powerful rulers of ancient Egypt.
The Great Temple of Abu Simbel is dedicated to the gods Amon-Ra, Ra-Harakhti, and Ptah, but it was also erected to demonstrate the might of the Egyptian empire and for the eternal glorification of Ramesses II.
The Small Temple is dedicated to Queen Nefertari, the beloved and favorite wife of Ramesses II (he had eight wives and, depending on the source, as many as 200 children).
Construction of the two temples took twenty years and was completed in 1244 BC.
Over time, the temples were forgotten and slowly covered with sand. In 1813, Jean-Louis Burckhardt rediscovered the temple, finding the top frieze of the Great Temple. Four years later, Giovanni Battista Belzoni managed to remove some of the sand and find the entrance into the temple. Once the sand was cleared away, this became a tourist destination, attracting visitors even at the end of the 19th century.
With the construction of the Aswan High Dam, rising water levels threatened to flood the temples of Abu Simbel. In the 1960’s, the entire complex was dismantled, moved to higher ground, and completely reconstructed. It took the combined effort of over 50 countries and 5 years of work to save the temples.
When you stand in front of the temple, and when you go inside of it, it is hard to imagine that the entire complex once sat at a different location.
How to Get to Abu Simbel
To visit Abu Simbel, you can do so either on a day trip from Aswan or when flying between Cairo and Aswan.
There are three ways to get to Abu Simbel:
- Roundtrip flight from Aswan
- By land from Aswan
- When flying between Cairo and Aswan
Can You Visit Abu Simbel on a Day Trip from Luxor? No. Technically, you can fly to Abu Simbel from Luxor, but we don’t recommend it. You will have to change planes twice (in Cairo and Aswan) and one-way flight times average 10 to 15 hours.
Roundtrip Flight from Aswan
This is the fastest way to travel between Aswan and Abu Simbel. Flight times average 45 minutes one-way. The flights are timed such that you have roughly an hour and a half to visit the two temples before you catch the flight back to Aswan.
Egypt Air is the only airline that offers flights to Abu Simbel. This airline offers two round trip flights per day between Aswan and Abu Simbel, although this can vary depending on the time of year. Also, when we did our flight search, we did not see any flights on Sundays.
When you book your tickets, you will book them as a roundtrip reservation from Aswan. The flights are direct flights between Aswan and Abu Simbel. Time your flights such that you have roughly 2.5 hours in Abu Simbel, in order to give yourself enough time to visit the temples.
What We Did: We booked a 9:25 am flight Aswan to Abu Simbel and a 1:10 pm flight Abu Simbel to Aswan. Including transportation time to and from our hotel in Aswan, this day trip took a total of 7 hours. However, these flight times vary day by day.
When flying to Abu Simbel on Egypt Air, the airline provides a free bus service between the Abu Simbel airport and the temple complex. Once you exit the airport, you just hop on the Happy Year Transport bus that is waiting outside of the airport (more about this below). It is already paid for by Egypt Air, but the driver might ask you for a tip.
The bus waits for you at the temple complex parking lot while you tour the temples. You will have about 1.5 hours to visit the temple complex.
You will fly back to Aswan on the same airplane that brought you to Abu Simbel. However, you are not allowed to leave anything on the airplane. If you have anything that you don’t want to carry to the temples, you can leave it on the bus. We left some snacks on the bus while exploring the temples.
As a rough estimate, and with advanced planning, you can expect a roundtrip flight between Aswan and Abu Simbel to cost $325 per person. Check the Egypt Air website for current pricing based on your travel dates.
By Land from Aswan
You can travel from Aswan to Abu Simbel by land, either by tour or by hiring a driver.
One way, it is a 290 km drive that takes between 2.5 and 3 hours. Most land tours to Abu Simbel take a total of eight hours.
The Sofitel Old Cataract Hotel offers a variety of land tour options based on the type of vehicle. Pricing starts at $160 per person in a regular car (max 2 people), or $210 per person in a minivan (max 8), or $375 per person in a Pajero (max 2), or $425 per person in a Land Cruiser (max 2). They also have options that will include a guide and your entrance fee. For full details, visit the Sofitel website.
The Movenpick Hotel also offers a land tour. We do not have the details on this, but if you will be staying at this hotel, you can contact them for their pricing information.
This 8-hour tour on Get Your Guide includes pick-up and drop-off from your hotel in Aswan and a guide. Prices start at $95 USD per person.
Egypt Tailor Made is a highly rated tour company that offers a day trip to Abu Simbel. This tour lasts 8 hours, includes a guide, and it is a private tour. We did not use Egypt Tailor Made for our day trip to Abu Simbel, but we used them for the remainder of our time in Egypt (Cairo, Luxor, and Aswan) and we highly recommend them.
Visiting Abu Simbel When Flying Between Cairo and Aswan
This can be a convenient way to visit Abu Simbel if your itinerary is going to include a flight between Cairo and Aswan.
If you have plans to fly from Cairo to Aswan, you can book a multi-hop flight so that you visit Abu Simbel on the way. Alternatively, if you plan to fly from Aswan to Cairo, you can do the same thing, and schedule a visit to Abu Simbel on the way.
Important Note: All Egypt Air flights to and from Abu Simbel go through Aswan. The Cairo – Abu Simbel segment and the Abu Simbel – Cairo segment will have a stop in Aswan.
For example, if you are flying from Cairo to Aswan with a stopover in Abu Simbel, your flight order will be Cairo to Aswan to Abu Simbel to Aswan. Conversely, if you are flying from Aswan to Cairo with a stopover in Abu Simbel, your flight order will be Aswan to Abu Simbel to Aswan to Cairo.
Tim spoke to an Egypt Air gate agent and was told that the checked luggage does not get flown to Abu Simbel. On a flight from Cairo to Abu Simbel, the aircraft will stop in Aswan and the checked luggage will be removed from the aircraft and held at the Aswan airport until you return later that day. If you start your day flying from Aswan to Abu Simbel, then they will not load your luggage onto the aircraft until your flight returns to Aswan on the way to Cairo.
You need to book this as one reservation so use the multi-destination option on the Egypt Air website or call Egypt Air for assistance.
However, there is one factor to consider. You don’t have to worry about what to do with your checked luggage, since the airline handles that for you. But if you have a carry-on bag, you cannot leave it on the airplane. You will either have to check your carry-on bag, leave it on the bus that takes you from the airport to the temple complex, or carry it with you to the temples.
We ultimately decided against this option because we typically travel with laptops and we did not want to leave those on the bus and we did not want to explore the temple complex with them in our backpacks. That made flying round trip from Aswan a more appealing option to us.
How Much Does this Cost? As a rough estimate, and with advanced planning, you can expect this option to cost $500 per person. Check the Egypt Air website for current pricing based on your travel dates.
A one-way flight on Egypt Air between Cairo and Aswan costs roughly $155 per person, so you are paying $345 more per person to fly to/from Abu Simbel. That number is important when comparing the cost of this option to the other options.
What We Did (And the Reasoning Behind our Choice)
We chose to visit Abu Simbel by flying round trip from Aswan.
Flight costs are very similar to the option of visiting Abu Simbel while flying between Cairo and Aswan. By doing this as a day trip from Aswan, we could leave all of our valuables, such as our laptops, at the hotel.
Prior to our visit to Abu Simbel, we had two big driving days in our itinerary: a huge day trip to Dendera and Abydos from Luxor and a day of driving in between Luxor and Aswan. The thought of spending another day in a car did not sound very appealing.
Going by plane is only one hour faster than traveling by land, but for us, it was a very nice break from land travel. Plus, we were back at our hotel just after 2 pm and the entire day was a nice, leisurely day.
What to Expect on a Visit to Abu Simbel
Getting to the Temple Complex
If you arrive to Abu Simbel by land, you will be dropped off at the temple complex.
If you arrive by airplane, there is an Egypt Air shuttle bus that, for whatever reason, has the title “Happy Year Transport” painted on the side of the bus. This is a free shuttle bus, although the driver might ask you for a tip.
When you exit the airport, there will be numerous taxi drivers offering to drive you the very short distance to the Abu Simbel temple complex. Simply say “no thank you” and board the shuttle bus.
It takes five minutes to drive to the temple complex. When you exit the bus, ask the driver what time the bus leaves to go back to the airport.
You will exit the bus in a small, crowded parking lot. You will see Lake Nasser in one direction and then a series of small buildings in another direction. Walk towards the small buildings.
From left to right, you will see a food stand, a sitting area, and bathrooms (this is the best place to use the bathroom). Walk between the food stand and the sitting area. Once you pass through the food stand you should see a sign pointing towards the temple complex. Walk down the street until you reach the Visitor Center.
Purchasing Your Tickets
In the Visitor Center, there is a movie that explains how the temples were relocated. Save this for the end of your visit, if you have time. Next to the visitor center is the ticket booth.
Prices for Abu Simbel in 2020 are:
- 255 EGP per person
- 133 EGP per student
- 300 EGP per camera ticket
- 20 EGP for a tripod
Pro Travel Tip: Photography is allowed inside of both temples with a cellular phone. If you want to take photos with something other than a cellphone, or if you want to shoot video with your cellphone, you must purchase a camera ticket.
To enter the temple complex, you will go through a quick security screening. Follow the paved path to the temples.
The Great Temple
As you walk down the hill, the first temple you will see is the Great Temple.
Four massive statues of Ramesses II stare down at visitors. Sitting next to and between the legs of Ramesses are members of the royal family, including his beloved wife Nefertari, sons, daughters, and his mother. The broken statue was damaged in an earthquake and a portion of the statue sits on the ground in front of the façade.
Inside of the temple, eight statues of Osiris, with the facial features of Ramesses II, fill the first main chamber. There are numerous smaller chambers and vestibules to explore.
Not to be missed is the sanctuary. Located in the back of the temple, this small room contains the statues of deified Ramesses II, Ptah, Amon-Ra, and Ra-Harakhti. Twice a year, on February 22 and October 22, the first rays of the sun penetrate this room (even after the temple complex was painstakingly relocated in the 1960’s).
The Small Temple
The Small Temple is a temple of Hathor, dedicated to Nefertari. Of the statues on the façade of the temple, Nefertari is represented as Hathor, with the horns of a cow, a solar disc, and two plumes.
Once inside, you will see that this temple is much smaller than the one dedicated to Ramesses II. The hypostyle room contains pillars with the heads of Hathor. The hieroglyphics tell the story of the king and queen.
If you want to capture both temples in one photo, you can do so from the small covered terrace that sits near the Small Temple.
Exiting the Temple Complex
You will exit the temple complex on a different path. Look for the paved path the leads uphill from the Small Temple. It takes about five to ten minutes to walk back to the visitor center and parking lot. You will walk through a series of souvenir shops to get to the parking lot.
Take the shuttle bus back to the airport or look for your driver in the parking lot.
Spending the Night at Abu Simbel
It is possible to spend the night at Abu Simbel. People who do this are usually here to watch the Sound and Light Show or to catch sunrise at the temple complex.
One last look at the temples of Abu Simbel
If you have any questions about planning your visit to Abu Simbel, let us know in the comment section below.
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