A Guide to the Top Archaeology Sites in Egypt
How to Visit Egypt's Most Important Sites
I became fascinated with Egypt at a young age, even painting the Weighing of the Heart full-scale on my bedroom wall. Visiting the monuments and archaeological sites I had read about for so long was a wonderful experience. Tourism has declined recently in Egypt, though it’s hard to say what things will look like when it’s safe to travel again (post-pandemic). Either way, Egypt should definitely be on your list.
- The Giza Plateau
- Luxor Temple
- Colossi of Memnon
- The Valley of the Kings
- Temple of Hatshepsut
- Abu Simbel
The Giza Plateau
The Giza Plateau is 16 miles outside of Cairo, and reachable by public transportation, taxi, or tour guide. There is also a range of hotels located within walking distance of the entrances.
The Great Pyramids
Built over 5,000 years ago, the Pyramids of Giza include three primary pyramids: the Great Pyramid, the Pyramid of Khafre, and the Pyramid of Menkaure. You might also hear the Giza Plateau referred to as the Giza Necropolis. The pyramids functioned as tombs for the pharaohs of Ancient Egypt. The plateau is vast, and you can get around by hiring a tour, taking a camel ride, or by walking. I stayed at the Panorama Pyramids Inn across from the Pyramids (only about $38 a night) and chose to do a self-guided walking tour. A word of warning: you will likely be harassed constantly by people attempting to sell you photos, camel rides, and souvenirs. It is possible to visit inside each Pyramid, for an additional cost. It will be crowded, hot, and tight quarters, but it’s an experience you’re unlikely to get anywhere else and a tiny adventure.
Giza Plateau entrance cost: 80 Egyptian pounds.
Great Pyramid entrance cost: 100 Egyptian pounds.
Khafre and Menkaure Pyramids entrance cost: 30 Egyptian pounds.
The Great Sphinx
With the body of a lion and the head of a man, it’s not certain what the Sphinx was built for or exactly when it was constructed. However, most educated theories believe it was built during the Old Kingdom. The Sphinx spent thousands of years buried under sand before being fully uncovered in the 1930s. In Arabic, the Sphinx is called the Hbu Al Hol (the Terrible One or the Awesome). Remanents of pigment suggest that at one point in time it was quite colorful. Visiting the Sphinx is included in the cost of admission to the Giza Plateau.
The Egyptian Museum
Okay, the Egyptian Museum isn’t located at the Giza Plateau (yet). The museum is currently located downtown. But, its spectacular collection of over 120,000 items is set to move to the Grand Egyptian Museum at the Giza Plateau once construction has been completed. (Its progress has been delayed many times, most currently because of COVID-19). Artifacts and mummies line the walls and halls, and viewing the entire collection would probably require multiple visits, so make sure to plan as much time as you have available for your visit.
The museum is open 9-5 pm daily.
Cost: 75 Egyptian pounds.
Saqqara is a necropolis, where the royalty of Memphis was buried, and where ancient Egyptian architecture began. It’s most famous for the Pyramid of Djoser (also called the Step Pyramid), the first known pyramid constructed in ancient Egyptian history. It began as a mastaba but was modified over the years into the step pyramid it is today. It is no longer possible to visit inside this pyramid due to safety concerns. When first arriving at Saqqara visit the Imhotep Museum, dedicated to the architect Imhotep. In addition, you can visit the Pyramid of Ounas, the Pyramid of Teti, the Serapeum (with black basalt sarcophagi and cow mummies), and several mastabas. The site is located about 15 kilometers south of the Giza Plateau and can be reached by taxi or tour.
Open: 8am to 4pm
Cost: 80 Egyptian pounds will get you entry to the site
Additional costs: Entry to the mastabas (40 EGP); Entry to the Serapeum (100 EGP)
Dedicated to the mother goddess Mut and the god of the Moon, Khonsu, the Luxor Temple was home to one of the largest religious festivals in Ancient Egypt, the Opet Festival. Begun by Amenhotep III and completed by the “great builder” Rameses II, Luxor has functioned as a place of worship up until the near present day. An early morning visit will allow you to beat the intense heat and crowds. However, a sunset visit will let you see the temple infused with light alongside the Nile.
Cost: 160 Egyptian pounds. If you’re part of a tour group, the entrance is likely part of the cost.
The Luxor Standard Pass (includes entrance to over a dozen sites on the West and East Banks): $100, 5 days. Requires two photocopies of your main passport page and two passport photos. Bring euros or US dollars for payment. The pass can only be purchased in Egypt: at Karnak, the Valley of the Kings, and the Antiquities Inspectorate Ticket Office.
Karnak is a pretty stunning site to walk through, particularly amongst the Great Columns. One of the largest religious complexes in the world, Karnak was built to honor and house the gods. At the entrance, visitors are greeted by the Avenue of the Sphinxes. These statues once stretched as an avenue all the way to the Luxor Temple. The primary temple on site is the Temple of Amun, but the complex houses numerous other temples. To the south of the wall that surrounds the Temple of Amun is the Sacred Lake. The lake was used for ritual washings and was a symbol from which life arose according to Egyptian mythology.
Cost: 200 Egyptian pounds (or likely included in your tour cost)
Colossi of Memnon
Representing the pharaoh Amenhotep III, the former twins once marked the entrance to the pharaoh’s mortuary temple before flooding destroyed it. The colossi are a former acoustic wonder, as every day at dawn they would emit a song-like tune. Third century Romans, believing the sound had disappeared, attempted to restore the statues. In doing so, they silenced the song forever (and altered the statues so they no longer represented twins). Today, scientists believe that dew trapped within the cracks of the statue would evaporate with the morning sun, causing a vibrating sound. Visiting the statues is free, and they can be seen 24 hours a day.
Valley of the Kings
During the New Kingdom, pharaohs began using a valley on the west bank close to Luxor as their burial ground. Now called the Valley of the Kings, the most famous tomb is undoubtedly Tutankhamun. Over the years tomb robbers and treasure hunters have looted many of the tombs. However, there is still a lot to see (and much that remains to be found). Unfortunately, mass tourism has deeply damaged many tombs within the Valley. As a result, tombs are open to tourism on a rotating basis. You will also often see glass screens and dehumidifiers in place for protection and preservation. If you don’t wish to join a tour, you will need to take a taxi to get to the Valley of the Kings (45 minutes outside of Luxor).
Cost: 240 Egyptian pounds (includes a visit to 3 tombs)
*You will need to pay extra to see the tombs of Tutankhamun (250 EGP), Rameses V and Rameses VI (90 EGP), and Seti I (1000 EGP).
Temple of Hatshepsut
Built for one of the first female pharaohs in ancient Egypt, Queen Hatshepsut, the mortuary temple resides beneath the cliffs of Deir el Bahri. The tomb is decorated with images depicting Queen Hatshepsut’s reign and honors the gods Anubis, Hathor, Amun, and Re. Sadly, 20 years following her death, the pharaoh Thutmose III did everything he could to erase her reign. He had her statues and images of her destroyed and erased her cartouche from written history. Upon excavation of her mortuary temple, archaeologists and scholars were able to piece her story together again. It was revealed Queen Hatshepsut had a successful reign establishing trade routes and developing grand building projects. Many tour groups will visit this temple in the sweltering heat of the afternoon, so it’s best to plan a private tour or hire a taxi to beat the heat.
Cost: 50 Egyptian pounds
A true archaeological feat, Abu Simbel was first uncovered buried beneath the sand, only to be endangered years later when the Aswan High Dam was built. As floods threatened the temples, nearly 50 countries pitched in to move the temple, piece by piece, to higher ground. The process took 5 years. It is thought that Rameses II built Abu Simbel after his victory over the Hittites. Given the location on the southern border of Egypt, it has also been speculated that the grand scale of the monuments was designed to deter invaders. The site consists of two temples: the Great Temple dedicated to Rameses II and the Small Temple, dedicated to his favorite wife Nefertiti. Getting to Abu Simbel is a full day process. You can drive by private or group tour, but expect to spend 3-4 hours on the road each way (without restroom stops). Additionally, you can fly from Aswan directly to Abu Simbel with Egypt Air. The flight takes 45 minutes and a free shuttle will take you from the airport directly to Abu Simbel.
Cost: 255 Egyptian pounds
Camera ticket: 300 Egyptian pounds (required if you plan to take photos with anything other than a cellphone).
Tours in Egypt
While some locations can be easily reached and explored without a guide (such as the Giza Plateau or Luxor Temple), others are more difficult to get to individually. In addition, if you get the right guide you can learn a fascinating amount about Ancient Egypt and archaeological discoveries. Intrepid Travel provides all-encompassing vacation tours if you’re not looking to plan a single thing. I had good luck finding private day tours on Get Your Guide (just make sure to read the reviews). Most hotels are also happy to help set up a tour, though they may overcharge.
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