Any mention of Aswan brings a smile to the faces of Cairo locals longing for a relaxing holiday. This cheerful city is home to the vibrant Nubian culture with a simpler lifestyle and a more relaxed pace of life. Aswan is also a popular winter destination for many Egyptians, where you can escape the crowds and noise while taking in some local culture and soaking up the sun.
Aswan is famously accessible by overnight train. Sleeping cars are available for around 550LE, but roughing it out in normal first-class seats for around 250LE will save you considerable cash. Foreigners beware: you might be asked to pay the fare in US dollars, no excuses accepted. Why not skip all this hassle and catch one of the moderately priced roundtrip flights from Cairo to Aswan? Plane fares on Egypt Air currently average at 800LE and will get you there in a mere 45 minutes, leaving much more time for exploring Aswan. If you do take the train; bring snacks, drinks and water for the long haul and enough foreign currency to buy your return ticket so that you don’t get stuck.
Where to Stay:
Aswan has a variety of hotels in every price range. Built in 1899, the famous Cataract Hotel is currently under renovation and will reopen in 2011. The newly opened Moevenpick Aswan is a great option for five-star luxury at reasonable prices. Some four-star hotels such as the Pyramisa Isis Island and the Iberotel are available, but Aswan also offers homey three-star hotels at great value. Try the Isis Corniche Hotel in the heart of the city or the Sara Hotel, which sits on a mountain above the city with a pool and sweeping views of the Nile.
Gourmet dining is not Aswan’s forte. For this reason it pays to check out restaurants in the nicer hotels. The Orangerie Restaurant at the Moevenpick serves Indian food and European classic fare; it’s a great choice for an elegant evening out. Some basic restaurants in town serve kabab and kofta, pasta and Arabic salads at reasonable prices. An exception is Chef Khalil Restaurant off the souk in town. This place is touristy but has character, and the menu choices get a bit more creative than other similar places. Make sure to try out the local karkadeh: freshly made, delicious and refreshing. Sample the drink at the Nubian House Restaurant in the hills to catch a great breeze and lovely Nile views. Another great way to enjoy a meal in Aswan is to take a picnic on a felucca; ask your hotel if they offer picnic lunches for sale or drop by a local market for snacks, drinks and sandwich supplies.
Things to Do:
Of course, most people visit Aswan for its ancient monuments. Don’t miss Elephantine Island, the Philae and Kalabsha temples, the St. Simon Monastery or the Mausoleum of Aga Khan. If you have extra time, a day trip to Abu Simbel can offer even more ancient ruins for exploration. Aswan’s monuments are amazing, but it’s worth checking out the more contemporary sites. Head to the Nubian Museum; a gem among Egyptian museums with its modern architecture and labelled displays. This world-class attraction is full of interesting information on Aswan’s native population and the impact of the High Dam on their culture.
With this context in mind, pay a visit to the High Dam, the most controversial and symbolic of President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s projects. For obligatory shopping, head to Aswan’s vibrant souk, where all manner of souvenirs can be found, in addition to the city’s famous spices, dried karkadeh and colourful local embroidery. Aswan’s small size makes it easy to see a lot of things in a short time, but make sure to leave some hours for relaxation by the Nile or by your hotel pool: leisure with a dash of culture is what this unique city is all about.
Aswan is a city that merits a visit by tourists and Egyptians alike. So, consider skipping one weekend in Sahel or Ein Sokhna and jet down to Aswan for an alternative weekend experience.