Abu Simbel Temple in Egypt: How To Have The Best Visit

Few temples are as well known as Abu Simbel Temple in Egypt. The question seems to be: how to visit without all of the other people there?!

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Abu Simbel is iconic. The temple is so beloved that UNESCO went so far as to deconstruct and rebuild it, in order to stop it being destroyed in the building of the Aswan Dam. This was the one temple that we desperately wanted to visit in Egypt. We had heard that it’s nearly impossible to see it without people, and heard so many conflicting stories about when as the quietest time to visit. There were so many tips online and no one seemed to have succeeded in getting the temple quite ‘people-free’.

Of course we knew we couldn’t visit with no people there at all, but the stories we had heard sounded truly horrible: people who’d had to get up a 3am and driven 3 hours, only to arrive at the temple to find it absolutely heaving with crowds and no space for them to see the murals or take photos. Abu Simbel is a comparatively small complex, so this is really not somewhere you want to be fighting for space. When I say small, I mean in comparison to, say, Karnak or Philae.

We made it our mission to have a crowd-free visit and I’m happy to say we succeeded.

A snapshot through a stone wall with a glimpse of hieroglyphics on the other side
Interior of the temples

About Abu Simbel Temple in Egypt

Abu Simbel Temple first came to be more than 3000 years ago in the age of Ramses II. This particular Ramses had a penchant for showing off and being flashy. This is evident from everything he built in his own name and image! Abu Simbel is no exception. Perhaps the most iconic part of the temple is the four gigantic statues of Ramses himself. Originally he had them carved into the side of the rock on the West Bank of the Nile just South of Aswan.

Over time, the sands of the Egyptian desert moved in the wind and, unbelievably, covered the entire temple complex of Abu Simbel. The person often credited with the discovery of the site is Swiss explorer Jean-Louis Burckhardt, but actually he has since revealed that he was led to the site by a young, local boy, whose name was Abu Simbel. In order to move the temple, UNESCO had to dissemble the whole complex and quite literally peel the cliff apart. It was an incredible feat of engineering, which managed to preserve the temples in their entirety.

There are two main temples in the complex, and they are both interesting. The main temple (with the four statues of Ramses II) is of course the most iconic, but the second has some equally beautiful artwork inside.

Where is Abu Simbel now?

These days, it’s a bit more of an effort to get to Abu Simbel, as it’s three hours south of the nearest major city, Aswan. It’s been there since 1964. The reason for the relocation was the building of the Aswan Dam, which would have completely submerged the complex otherwise.

A shot of the front of Abu Simbel Temple with four giant statues of Ramses II. Three of them are complete, one is missing the head.
Statues of Ramses II

How to get to Abu Simbel?

Well, you have a few options.

  • There is a public bus that goes from Aswan. We didn’t take this option ourselves, but from the information we have seen, it goes around 7am (to arrive at 10am), and departs around 1pm from Abu Simbel (to arrive in Aswan at 4pm). We couldn’t find any information online about where it went from in town, but we’re sure you could find this information by asking in town.
  • You can take a taxi. To us this seemed quite difficult to organise. The local taxi drivers in Aswan didn’t seem very keen to take us 3 hours down the road for any less than the maximum fee (which is fair enough!). We were told we could negotiate with them but it didn’t really feel like there was much wiggle room!
  • You can hire a private driver. This is the option we took. Full disclosure, we didn’t know about the public bus, otherwise we might have done that. We used this Viator link to book, and you can filter down what you want included – we went for the driver and car only. It was super easy and we thought quite good value. We’ll go more into this below.

Unfortunately, there is no train.

Is it worth taking a private driver?

That really depends on what you want. Here are some reasons you might consider taking the public bus instead:

  • If you have a lot of time to explore, you might want to take the time to figure out the buses. You could also stay overnight in Abu Simbel town! They have a good range of hotels and it’s nice to explore.
  • If you’re very well-used to Egypt or a very confident traveller. Like we said, we didn’t think about the bus (which is unusual, as we always take public transport!), but think it would have been easy enough to find the information about where it went in town. The downside is that it would be a super early start! You’d have to be at the bus stop waiting a while beforehand
  • You’re on a budget – I’m not sure how much the bus would cost but there’s no denying it would be cheaper than a private tour
A portrait of Emma standing in front of the temple. She is looking to the side and smiling.

On the other hand, you might consider a private driver if…

  • You’re on a time-limit. Buses in Egypt are not the most punctual so there’s a chance there’d be delays or a lot of waiting.
  • You’re not especially confident with public transport. The driver does remove a lot of stress from the equation, plus they pick you up from your hotel. This saves you having to figure out where to go and means you get a lie-in.
  • You’re in a large group – of course this brings down the price of the tour further. A group of 4 or 5 would have a cheaper ride than a group of two.
  • You prefer a bit more comfort – and we can’t stress, there is no shame in this! Egypt is dusty and hot, and as tourists, you often get a lot of attention. It’s an amazing country and we’re not saying this is a bad thing, but every now and again, you want a bit of luxury

The company we used were really efficient and professional, let us stop for breakfast on the way, and the driver was lovely.

Why we would not take a group tour

Another option is to take a group tour. Naturally, it is cheaper usually than hiring a private driver. However, the idea of the tours that go to Abu Simbel really didn’t appeal to us. All of the group tours (apparently without exception – our Cairo guide told us) go at 3 or 4am from Aswan.

Why is this? Because they all work alongside Nile Cruise tours. This means that every group tour is led by Nile Cruise operators, and you have to follow the schedule of the boats. Unfortunately if you take one of these tours, you will be in a large group of people who are on a Nile Cruise. The tour arrives at Abu Simbel around 7am, when the temple is at its busiest.

To us, this really just sounded like a poor deal all round: photos full of people, fighting for a spot to see the temple, a super early start and a long drive, all kind of for nothing…

So, of course it’s your choice, and we understand personal circumstances (especially financial) might dictate, but we’d say better rather try the public bus at 7am, and avoid the crowds.

The inside of one of the temples in Abu Simbel. There are hieroglyphics inscribed on the walls.
One of the inner rooms

Do you need a guide?

Again, this is personal choice and depends on your budget, and how you wish to experience the temple. We didn’t take one, and didn’t feel like we missed out, as we did some research before we went. However, if you really enjoy learning about this period of history, a guide is worth the cost. Again, you can use the same link we used for the driver to book a guide as part of your package, you just have to select the option you want.

We overheard a guide speaking to another group and the information she gave was certainly very interesting, but we didn’t stop to listen of course. As with any tour in Egypt, if you take a guide it is customary to tip. (Note: if this is your first trip to Egypt, you might want to check out our guide on things to expect as a first-time visitor)

How long do you need to spend in Abu Simbel?

We were in the temple complex for around an hour and a half. Our driver suggested we take two hours but actually we didn’t really need it. We are sure this would have been different if we had had a guide though as you’d be stopping to listen. The complex itself really isn’t that big (especially in comparison to, say, Karnak Temple or Philae).

In terms of facilities, there are toilets at the entrance, and there are a few vendors selling souvenirs. Unlike many of the other temples, there isn’t a large market at Abu Simbel (at least not yet). There is a very small shop inside the complex, which sells coffees and snacks. Other than that, there isn’t much else on offer.

The cost to enter is currently 240 EGP, which is the most expensive of the Nile Valley temples and sites.

A selfie of Emma and Murray. Both are wearing sunglasses and are in front of Abu Simbel temple. Their faces are in the place of two of the statues of Ramses II.
Loving the temple!

Should you stay overnight in Abu Simbel?

Though we didn’t actually stay overnight in Abu Simbel, we definitely would have if we’d had more time. From a responsible travel perspective, we would have liked to invest more in the local economy there. There seem to be some great hotels and you can even stay in a traditional Nubian Guesthouse! Or find a place to stay below.

We did wander around the town and get a coffee there, and it looked very sweet. It’s understandable, given the circumstances of how it came to be in place, that it is mostly built around tourism, but there are also lots of locals living here. We’d at least advise having lunch on the way through in a local restaurant.

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    Written by Emma


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