NOTE: This article was updated in April of 2023 to reflect the changing logistics of getting to and from Abu Simbel.
Ramses II was one of ancient Egypt’s greatest Pharaohs. Not only did he manage to live into his 90s in an era devoid of modern medicine and build an empire over which he ruled for 66 years, but he is thought by some to be the pharaoh featured in the Bible during the Exodus. (This isn’t likely, but it didn’t stop him from being immortalized in this role by Hollywood in The Ten Commandments.) He had eight official royal wives, dozens of other “unofficial” ones, and over 100 children, 13 of whom he outlived. He undertook numerous military campaigns and expeditions abroad and celebrated his triumphs and greatness with an endless campaign of monument-building to honor himself.
Of all the monuments that Ramses II built to celebrate himself, the greatest is the temple which today rests along the banks of Lake Nasser at Abu Simbel. Despite it’s remote location out in literal BFE (in the far south of Egypt near the Sudanese border), tens of thousands of tourists make the out-of-the-way trek down to Abu Simbel every year to see these magnificent ancient structures. And if you plan the trip right to avoid common logistical nightmares that often come up in trying to get there, it can be totally worth it.
If you want to go to Abu Simbel, you have to go to Aswan first. While there’s no reason why EgyptAir could not offer direct flights to Abu Simbel from Luxor, it’s likely that if they did many tourists would chose to skip Aswan. So they make you visit Aswan too if you want to see Abu Simbel. You can fly to Aswan from either Cairo or Luxor, although most visitors come via Luxor as a continuation of their journey around Egypt’s south. Flights to and from both Luxor and Aswan are very frequent, to the tune of 6 or 8 per day, every day. Flights between Luxor and Aswan are less frequent, so most people don’t rely on this to be a reliable option between these two cities.
You can also take the train from Luxor to Aswan. Now I’m not a huge proponent of the train by any means for travel between Cairo and Luxor. That’s a 10-hour, bumpy, uncomfortable, overnight journey and it doesn’t get much better even if you splurge on a sleeper car. But for shorter rides, such as the three-hour rides from Cairo to Alexandria or from Luxor to Aswan, it can be tolerable. The Luxor to Aswan ride is actually even quite nice for the scenery. So if you don’t want to deal with the hassle of an airport check-in, screening, and boarding for the short 45-minute flight between Luxor and Aswan, on the days that it’s even running, or the tediousness of the drive between Luxor and Aswan, which is getting longer and longer because of all of the new speed bumps that villages along the way are putting in the road, then the train is the another option I can recommend for some travelers.
However, just keep in mind that train service in Egypt is nothing like train service in other countries, even other developing countries. Egypt’s train stations are crowded and chaotic and dirty and confusing. But at least the stations in Luxor and Aswan are small compared to Cairo and Alexandria, so the level of chaos and confusion is on a smaller scale down there.
From Aswan, you then have two options for continuing on to Abu Simbel. You can take another short flight, or you can go by road in a car or van if you don’t mind the drive. It’s nearly a 200-mile journey between Aswan and Abu Simbel by road, so it takes about three and a half hours each way. But unlike the journeys between Luxor and Aswan or Cairo and Alexandria, which meander through villages and small cities, the trip from Aswan to Abu Simbel is through a whole bunch of nothingness… just desert on either side of the road as far as the eye can see.
But here’s the catch – no matter how you choose to go to Abu Simbel, you’ll need to leave early. Abu Simbel is a morning visit, and it’s not even possible to depart Aswan to go there after about 10:30am. In the high season, there are usually two flights per day from Aswan to Abu Simbel’s tiny airport, and two flights per day back to Aswan from Abu Simbel, but they are always in the morning. If you’re driving, you’ll need to leave a little earlier to allow yourself time to get down there (3.5 hours, longer if you stop for the bathroom at the one semi-decent place along the way) and back (another 3.5 hours) before the checkpoint to get back into Aswan closes at 4pm, which means you have to be done at Abu Simbel and back on the road back to Aswan by about 12pm to be safe.
All of this focus on “morning only” in Abu Simbel is because it gets so hot down there, even in fall and spring, that you don’t want to be out there walking around in the height of afternoon heat. They want to get you there, give you enough time to explore, and get you back on the bus for the return journey before you get fried.
But despite how out-of-the-way Abu Simbel is, how early you have to get up, and how long you have to spend on the road (if you opt for the land journey), the sheer number of visitors who make the trek anyway should serve as a good indication of how worth it Abu Simbel can be for most. And since you have to go through Aswan anyway, investing in an extra two days to explore another major region of Egypt can be really worth the extra time and effort. Abu Simbel is essentially a two-for-one deal that will be just as memorable as the other incredible places you will visit and explore in Egypt.