Luxor and Ancient Thebes, Egypt: The Complete Guide

Giant statues guard the entrance to the Temple of Luxor, Egypt

Visions Of Our Land/ Getty Images

One of Egypt's most important and best-loved ancient sights, Luxor is commonly referred to as the world's greatest open-air museum. The modern city of Luxor is built on and around the site of the ancient city of Thebes, which historians estimate to have been inhabited since 3200 BC. It is also home to the Karnak temple complex, which served as the main place of worship for the Thebans. Together, the three sites have been attracting tourists since Greco-Roman times, all of them drawn by the area's incredible collection of ancient temples and monuments. 

Luxor's Golden Age

Luxor's history pre-dates the modern city and is inextricably woven with that of Thebes, the legendary metropolis known to the ancient Egyptians as Waset. 

Thebes reached the height of its splendor and influence in the period from 1550 to 1050 BC. At this time, it served as the capital of a newly unified Egypt and became known as a center of economy, art, and architecture associated with the Egyptian god Amun. The pharaohs that ruled during this period spent vast sums of money on temples designed to honor Amun (and themselves), and so the incredible monuments for which the city is famous today were born. During this period, known as the New Kingdom, many pharaohs and their queens elected to be buried in the necropolis at Thebes, known today as the Valley of the Kings and the Valley of the Queens. 

Top Attractions in Luxor

Located on the east bank of the River Nile, present-day Luxor should be the first stop for visitors to the region. Start at the Luxor Museum, ranked by Lonely Planet as one of the top museums in the country. Here, exhibitions filled with artifacts from the surrounding temples and tombs give a comprehensive introduction to the area's must-see attractions. Signs written in Arabic and English introduce priceless pharaonic art, colossal statues, and intricate jewelry. In an annex dedicated to the treasures of the New Kingdom, you'll find two royal mummies, one believed to be the remains of Ramesses I.

If you find yourself fascinated by the process of mummification, don't miss the nearby Mummification Museum with its displays of carefully preserved human and animal remains. 

The main attraction in Luxor itself, however, is the Luxor Temple. Construction was started by Amenhotep III in approximately 1390 BC, with additions by a series of later pharaohs including Tutankhamun and Ramesses II. Architectural highlights include a colonnade of soaring columns decorated with hieroglyphic reliefs; and a gateway guarded by two massive statues of Ramesses II. 

Top Attractions in Karnak

North of Luxor itself lies the Karnak temple complex. In ancient times, Karnak was known as Ipet-isut, or The Most Selected of Places, and served as the main place of worship for 18th-dynasty Thebans. The first pharaoh to build there was Senusret I during the Middle Kingdom, although most of the buildings that remain date back to the New Kingdom golden age. Today, the site is a vast complex of sanctuaries, kiosks, pylons, and obelisks, all dedicated to the Theban Triad (Amun, his consort Mut, and their son Khonsu). It is thought to be the second largest religious complex in the world after Angkor Wat in Cambodia. If there's one sight to top your bucket list, it should be the Great Hypostyle Hall, part of the Precinct of Amun-Re. 

Top Attractions in Ancient Thebes

Head across the River Nile to the West Bank and discover the great necropolis of ancient Thebes. Of its many sections, the most visited is the Valley of the Kings, where the pharaohs of the New Kingdom chose to be entombed in preparation for the afterlife. Their mummified bodies were buried alongside everything they wanted to take with them, including furniture, jewelry, clothes, and supplies of food and drink contained within great urns. There are more than 60 known tombs in the Valley of the Kings, many of which have long been stripped of their treasures. Of these, the most famous (and most intact) is the tomb of Tutankhamun, a minor pharaoh who ruled for just nine years. 

To the south of the Valley of the Kings lies the Valley of the Queens, where members of the pharaohs' families were buried (including both men and women). Although there are more than 75 tombs in this section of the necropolis, only a handful are open to the public. Of these, the most famous is that of Queen Nefertari, the walls of which are covered with magnificent paintings. 

When to Go

In the summer months (May to September), the heat can make sightseeing uncomfortable but budget travelers may be able to get good discounts on Luxor accommodation and tours. Winter (December to February) is the coolest time of year, but also the busiest and most expensive. The best time to travel is during the March to April and October to November shoulder seasons, when the crowds are less intense and temperatures are still bearable.

Where to Stay

There are many accommodation options to choose from in Luxor, most of them located on the east bank. You should be able to find something for every budget, from affordable options like the top-rated, three-star Nefertiti Hotel (with rates starting from around $22 per night for a single room); to the splendid luxury of five-star hotels like the historic Sofitel Winter Palace Luxor. The exchange rate is such that foreign visitors will be able to stay comfortably without breaking the bank. Check the TripAdvisor listing for Luxor for a full list of options.

Getting There

Many people will visit Luxor as part of a longer tour or Nile cruise (it's the starting point for most cruise itineraries). If you plan on visiting independently, you can catch regular buses and trains from Cairo and other major towns across Egypt. Alternatively, Luxor International Airport (LXR) allows you to fly in from a myriad of domestic and international departure points. Consider joining a day tour led by an Egyptologist guide to get a better understanding of what you're seeing. There are many different options listed on Viator, ranging from private luxury tours to hot air balloon flights over the temples.