Luxor is the most important destination for any visitor to Egypt, particularly visitors interested in ancient Egypt. Many attractions—perhaps the biggest attractions—are not in the city itself, but across the Nile. The funerary complexes in the Valley of the Kings, Valley of the Queens and the Tombs of the Nobles are the final resting places of ancient Egyptian royalty.

The sooner you see these ancient sites, the better: The damming of Lake Nasser and the constant flow of tourists through the tombs have accelerated the fading of color pigmentation inside the ancient tombs.

The first indication that you're nearing the valleys is the presence of two enormous seated statues, seemingly isolated in what is now a farmer's field. Known as the Colossi of Memnon, they're the only remains of a temple to Amenhotep III. The tombs, which lie beyond this site, are spread out over quite a large area. Though the treasures that once filled them are long gone, the tombs themselves are very impressive works of art, and each is different. The sculpted bas-relief figures are still intact, and, in many tombs, the colors on the walls have barely faded.

One of the best-known tombs in the Valley of the Kings is the tiny chamber of young Tutankhamen. Unlike the other tombs, his was not robbed over the centuries—his treasures, many in gold and encrusted with gems, are in Cairo's Egyptian Antiquities Museum. When you compare the size of some of the larger tombs with Tutankhamen's, you can only wonder what incredible treasures were plundered from them.

The most impressive tomb in the Valley of the Queens is Nefertari's, open to the public after a lengthy restoration.

On the west bank of the Nile are also a couple of funerary temples. The Ramesseum is mostly a ruin, but enough of it remains to impress you with its scale. The Temple of Deir el-Bahari, built by Queen Hatshepsut, shows a keen understanding of royal drama: A series of terraces and ramps leads from a mountain backdrop toward the Nile—it was once a broad avenue lined with sphinxes. Although much of it is a re-creation, the temple is just as impressive from a distance.

To appreciate the area fully, spend at least two days there. You'll need to hire a guide: Security has tightened considerably since tourists were attacked in the area in the late 1990s. Just as important, a guide can explain the historical importance of each of the kings and queens for whom the tombs were built and the significance and meaning of the artwork. (Most of the guides speak English and will be able to answer questions.) Start each day early, before the sun and crowds become oppressive. Tickets go on sale at 6 am.

Back on the eastern side of the Nile are the Temple of Luxor (directly in town) and the massive Temple of Karnak (a bit north of town). Both are incredibly impressive structures, filled with statues, colonnades, obelisks and ornate wall murals. Of the two, Luxor is more compact and easier to take in; Karnak covers a large area and offers a sound-and-light show in the evening. The Luxor Museum has statues from various area temples and a separate wing devoted to recent finds, all perfectly lit and beautifully displayed.

If you have more time, visit the Mosque of Abu el-Haggag, near Luxor Temple, and the Howard Carter House, once the home of the man who discovered King Tut's tomb. It displays some of the tools used in the search for the tomb. Note the empty spot at the entrance to the Temple of Luxor, where a second obelisk once stood. It's possible that you've already seen the missing obelisk. It's at the Place de la Concorde in Paris.

Luxor is located 415 mi/670 km south of Cairo.

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