Home to vast tracts of unspoiled desert, fertile deltas, teeming coral reefs, and the largest city in the Arab world, Egypt is a land of extremes. To see it all in one week is impossible; and yet seven days is enough to begin to understand the age-old magic that has been drawing tourists to this corner of North Africa for hundreds of years. The itinerary detailed below focuses on Cairo and the ancient temples that stretch from Aswan to Luxor along the banks of the River Nile. It’s a great place to start for first-time visitors to Egypt, but also leaves plenty to come back for. Next time, consider heading north to the Nile Delta and cosmopolitan Alexandria; or spending a whole week scuba diving and enjoying the beaches of the Red Sea coast.
Day 1: Cairo
After touching down at Cairo International Airport, make your way to your hotel in the city center. Uber is one of the easiest, cheapest, and safest ways to navigate the city. Favorable exchange rates mean that 5-star hotels are relatively affordable in Cairo, so make the most of this by checking in to the top-rated Kempinski Nile Hotel Garden City. It’s conveniently located within easy reach of the city’s top attractions and spoils with a magnificent rooftop pool that overlooks the waters of the River Nile. Once you’ve checked in, unpacked, and freshened up, it’s time to head out and explore the City of a Thousand Minarets.
Your first stop should be The Egyptian Museum, home to some 120,000 artifacts excavated from the tombs and temples of the ancient pharaohs including mummies, sarcophagi, and fabulous gold jewelry. The main attraction is the death mask of Tutankhamun, though this and other Tutankhamun relics are due to be relocated to the Grand Egyptian Museum on the Giza plateau when it opens later in 2020. After gazing in wonder upon the treasures of the ancient world, spend the rest of the afternoon exploring Cairo’s fascinating medieval landmarks. These include Al-Azhar Mosque (the city’s first mosque) and the Hanging Church (one of the oldest places of Christian worship in Egypt).
In the evening, cross the river to Gezira Island to explore the cultural venues and first-class restaurants of contemporary Cairo’s upscale Zamalek neighborhood. Le Pacha 1901 is a vintage boat with no fewer than nine gourmet eateries on board.
Day 2: Giza and Saqqara
After breakfast at your hotel, join a private guided tour to the ancient monuments of Giza and Saqqara. Air-conditioned, chauffeured transport is included, as are the services of a professional Egyptologist guide. Your first stop will be the world-famous Pyramids of Giza, located just outside Cairo on the west bank of the River Nile. The necropolis comprises three separate pyramid complexes and the Great Sphinx of Giza; a tableau that you will recognize from every Egyptian travel brochure ever printed. The largest and oldest of the pyramids, the Great Pyramid of Giza, is more than 4,500 years old and is the only one of the Seven Wonders of the World still standing.
Spend several hours exploring the temple complexes before returning to your vehicle for the hour-long drive to the ancient city of Memphis. What’s left of the former capital of the first nome of Lower Egypt can be explored with a stroll around the Mit Rahina Museum, where a colossal fallen statue of Rameses II provides a stunning example of the detail and accuracy with which the ancient sculptors were able to depict human anatomy. The next stop on the itinerary is Saqqara, the Memphis necropolis. Don’t miss the stepped Pyramid of Djoser, built in the 27th century B.C. As the oldest stone-cut monumental structure in the world, it is believed to have been the blueprint for the smooth-sided pyramids at Giza.
Lunch at a traditional Egyptian restaurant is included in your tour, which lasts for approximately eight hours. As you’re likely to be tired by the time you return to the hotel, opt for dinner at on-site Ottoman restaurant Osmanly followed by an early night.
Day 3: Aswan
Day three begins with an early start and an Uber ride back to the airport in time to catch an EgyptAir flight south to Aswan. The flight takes roughly 1.5 hours, after which you’ll make your way to arrivals where a representative will be waiting to transport you to the Oberoi Philae. This luxury cruise ship will be your home for the next four nights, during which you’ll travel in style along the River Nile to Luxor. Nile cruises are an excellent way to see Egypt’s most iconic sights in a short amount of time, and the Oberoi Philae is a particularly decadent choice of transport with a swimming pool, a spa, and a fine dining restaurant on board. You’ll experience the latter over lunch after settling into your cabin.
The ship remains moored in Aswan for the rest of the day, giving you the chance to take part in an onshore excursion to the Nubian Museum. This excellent attraction documents the culture of the Nubia region, which extends from Aswan to Khartoum in central Sudan. Clearly labeled displays take you on a journey through 6,500 years of history, with artifacts from the Kingdom of Kush and early Coptic and Islamic places of worship. Perhaps most interesting is the description of the international, UNESCO-led project to relocate the region’s most important temples ahead of the flooding caused by the construction of the Aswan High Dam. Return to the ship for cocktails and dinner overlooking the Nile.
Day 4: Aswan to Edfu
After breakfast, the fourth day of your vacation begins with a tour to Aswan High Dam and Philae Temple. Built between 1960 and 1970 to control the annual flooding of the Nile, the dam is an incredible feat of engineering that measures 364 feet in height and 12,562 feet across. You can find out about its construction (and the controversies that surrounded it) at the Aswan High Dam visitor’s pavilion. One of the effects of building the dam was the creation of Lake Nasser and the flooding of a vast area of land including several important ancient temples. Amongst these was Philae Temple, which was relocated block-by-block to higher ground on nearby Agilkia Island.
During your visit to Philae, your guide will explain its connections to the goddess Isis and how the 30th-dynasty pharaoh Nectanebo I was the first to start work on the temple complex. Today it bears evidence of additions by rulers of the Greek, Roman, and Byzantine periods. Afterwards, return to the ship for an afternoon cruise to Edfu. Lunch will be served en route before making a stop at the Temple of Kom Ombo. The temple dates back to the time of King Ptolemy VI Philometor, who ruled during the 2nd century B.C. It is unique amongst Egyptian temples because of its double design, with two identical sides dedicated to the crocodile god Sobek and falcon god Horus the Elder respectively.
Day 5: Edfu to Luxor
Wake up in Edfu, a city famous for the Temple of Horus. The focus of your morning excursion, the temple was built between 237 and 57 B.C. in honor of the son of Isis and Osiris and was later buried by desert sand after pagan religions were abandoned with the arrival of Christianity in Egypt. The hot, dry sand kept the temple immaculately preserved until it was excavated in the mid-19th century, and it remains one of the most intact monuments in all of Egypt. Take note of the blackened ceiling of the hypostyle hall, evidence of early Christian attempts to eradicate its heretic imagery with fire. The symbolism behind the temple’s magnificent reliefs and statuary will be explained by your guide.
The rest of the afternoon is spent cruising along the river to Luxor. On the way, you will travel through the Esna Lock. Make sure to be on deck to watch as you enter the gates and the water levels are manipulated to allow the ship to continue its journey downriver. Lunch, afternoon tea, and dinner are all enjoyed on board as you watch the passing landscape and the traditional feluccas plying the river as they have done for thousands of years.
Day 6: Luxor
Today starts early, and will be one of the highlights of your trip. The morning is dedicated to exploring the West Bank, otherwise known as the necropolis of ancient Thebes. This hugely powerful and influential city served as the capital of Egypt during periods of the Middle and New Kingdoms and the most famous area of its necropolis is the Valley of the Kings. More than 60 royal tombs have been discovered in the valley. Your guided visit includes a tour of two of the most famous: that of Rameses VI and boy king Tutankhamun, whose tomb represents one of the most important archaeological discoveries ever made. You’ll also learn about the artisans responsible for the tombs at nearby workers’ village, Dier el-Medina.
Later, recharge your batteries while escaping the heat of the day with lunch and a swim back on board the Oberoi Philae. The afternoon is dedicated to exploring the temples of Luxor and Karnak, both located on the east bank of the River Nile. These are amongst the country’s most recognizable sights, so don’t miss the opportunity to snap a photo of yourself standing in between Luxor’s colossal statues of Rameses II, or in Karnak’s Great Hypostyle Hall. Karnak is believed to be the world’s second-largest temple complex after Cambodia’s Angkor Wat, with literally hundreds of kiosks, pylons, and obelisks to explore. To see it lit up at night, enquire about attending the Karnak Sound and Light Show.
Day 7: Luxor to Cairo
On your final day, enjoy a last breakfast on the ship before being transferred back to Luxor International Airport for your return flight to Cairo. If being on a cruise ship for the majority of your vacation has left you feeling like you’ve missed out on the authentic Egyptian experience, this is your chance to immerse yourself in local culture. Spend the afternoon at Khan El-Khalili, a meandering souk that dates back to the 14th century and hosts stalls overflowing with artisan crafts and produce. Cobbled streets wind their way between silver shops and spice merchants, fabric stores and leather workshops. Remember to haggle for the best price when purchasing souvenirs, and stop at iconic Fishawi’s café for a cup of mint tea when you need a break.
If you have one more evening in Cairo before catching your international flight the following day, treat yourself to a stay at spectacular The Nile Ritz-Carlton Cairo. Its elegant Bab El-Sharq restaurant is rated as one of the best Egyptian restaurants in the capital, with a romantic open-air setting, live music, and belly dancing performances. Share a plate of traditional mezze and take a moment to reflect on the wonders you’ve seen throughout the past week.