The most beautiful city I’ve been to in Egypt is Aswan.
Without a doubt.
Aswan is cleaner, less noisy and, despite the heat, a comfortable small city. It has fantastic ancient Egyptian sites to go visit, such as Philae, The Unfinished Obelisk, The Tombs of the Nobles, and is also the launching pad for the convoys that go to Abu Simbel. Aswan also has the wonderful Nubian Museum, the Mausoleum of Aga Khan and beautiful new coptic church.
Aswan has several major hotels, but both times I’ve been there I stayed in a relatively cheap hostel, which you can easily find. The trip into town from the airport will cost you about 50 L.E., and is one of the few things you really can’t bargain on. Once there, spend some time in the city itself. There are really only 2 streets in Aswan, El Corniche (the street along the Nile that has the same name in just about every city in Egypt) and a street one block West whose name I can’t remember, but is one long market street that the local authorities have been cleaning and sprucing up. The market is full of stores with exotic spices (like indigo so blue it looks otherworldly, cinnamon, anise and others), galabeas (full length gown worn by many Egyptian men and women), blankets with beautiful designs, scarves, miniature ancient Egyptian statues, and dozens of other goods. Walk up and down the street a few times or stop off at one of the corner shops to smoke a sheesha and watch the colorful people and goods pass by.
Look out for the guys along the Corniche offering felucca rides – they’re very good talkers these fellows. Be nice but firm if you want to say no. Be nice but firm if you want a ride but want a good price. Be nice but firm if you want a ride but during your stay in Aswan. They’re very convincing and will try to box you in to hiring them… and they will remember you the next time you see them. Just be honest or you’ll fall under the cross-examination. And have fun.
Aswan has a wonderful mix of Northern Africans and Nubians, a black Africa group of people, many of which had to move into cities like Aswan after their villages and towns succumed to the flooding of Lake Nasser. On the far side the Nile, just below and South of the Tombs of the Nobles is a Nubian village – you can tell by the happy pastel colors they use to decorate their house. When my wife and I tried to visit the village a guard took us through (apparently we couldn’t wander around on our own – for our own safety?) and then took us to a home. After giving us the tour he stopped us in a room where all the women of the household laid out the goods they were making – apparently the tour was going to cost us a little. 20 L.E. for a simple bracelet later we were on our way, a little pissed off, a little glad to pay for the tour anyway.
I won’t go into detail about all the wonderful sites in and around Aswan, but please follow the links there are to relevant posts on the sites themselves. That way I can be much more thorough. If you’d like to know more about Aswan or nearby sites, please leave a comment.
Some other pictures of Aswan: