Although the Great Pyramids of Giza are easily the most famous of Ancient Egypt’s surviving sites, the small city of Luxor offers Egyptian history nerds (like me!) an unparalleled treasure trove of temples, tombs and relics.

Located more than 300 miles south of Cairo and Giza off the River Nile, Luxor is most famously known as the former city of Thebes, Ancient Egypt’s religious capital. Fun fact: although Cairo and Giza are located in the northern part of Egypt, this part of the country is commonly referred to as ‘Lower Egypt’ since the Nile (starting in Uganda and ending in the Nile Delta north of Cairo) actually flows south to north. Conversely, the southern part of the country including Luxor is considered ‘Upper Egypt’.

Unlike smoggy chaotic Cairo, Luxor is clean and tranquil. With just a few hundred thousand residents and greenery all around, Luxor is a favorite destination for those looking to escape a bit and relax on the River Nile. Its sites are generally in better condition than those found in Giza and Cairo because 1) a greater proportion haven’t been looted, and 2) the temples and tombs here were built 500-1000 years later than those around Giza. Ensuring a comfortable and prosperous eternal afterlife was extremely important to Ancient Egyptians, so as lootings of the royal tombs at the Great Pyramids in Giza grew more prevalent, more caution and discretion were used when choosing a king’s burial site.

The Valley of the Kings located in Luxor’s West Bank (pictured above) is literally one cul-de-sac after another in a completely remote desert valley, all containing within an entrance to a beautiful and elaborate Ancient Egyptian tomb. For almost 500 years from the 16th to the 11th century BC, ancient kings would build the most elaborate underground systems of passageways and chambers, leading further down into the earth towards their final resting place, hundreds of feet underground. Holding the king’s mummy, sarcophagus and all his worldly possessions, tombs would take years to build with no expense spared in their decoration.

Because the burial sites were so well hidden, the riches contained within have been well preserved. Most of the previously buried relics are nowadays in museums across Europe and Egypt, but the wall paintings still remain showcasing vibrant colors and imagery unlike anything you can see further north in Giza. The tombs are absolutely extraordinary; 63 have been found so far though the general consensus is that countless more likely remain undiscovered.

Unfortunately pictures aren’t allowed anywhere within the site, so I can’t share just how breathtaking the excavated tombs really are (but the above shots hopefully give some indication). It’s really something, to stand in the cool damp air, so far belowground taking in floor to ceiling murals and hieroglyphs with the sarcophagus of an ancient king at your back.

It’s interesting to note that the Valley of the Kings is also the site of famous King Tutankhamen’s tomb; while he wasn’t a historically significant king and actually died quite young, it was the discovery of his perfectly intact burial chamber and its contents that lead to his fame thousands of years after his lifetime…

Nearby on the East Bank of Luxor stands the Valley of the Queens or, more appropriately, Queen.

Though few can argue that Cleopatra was the most famous of Ancient Egypt’s rulers, in the eyes of Egyptian historians, there was only ever one true Egyptian queen, Queen Hatshepsut. Because Cleopatra was technically Greek, her reign is often overlooked when listing Ancient Egypt’s greatest rulers.

Unlike the multitude of burial tombs within the Valley of the Kings, there is only one temple within the Valley of the Queens. (Picture of the temple entrance above.) Like any strong woman, Queen Hatshepsut viewed herself as the equal to any man, and insisted on being buried at the Valley of the Kings.

The temple is stunning and the murals within fascinating, but for me it was the beauty of the gold stone against the cliffs and blue sky above that left me awestruck.

Because the temple is so exposed to the elements outside, a team of European archaeologists live and work on site to ensure the future preservation of the site.

Probably my favorite site in Luxor was Karnak, pictured below. Not only was it rich in history, full of life and the equivalent to an adult playground, its entrance was something straight out of one of my favorite childhood movies, The NeverEnding story.

The site is famous for its size and complexity; after Angkor Wat in Cambodia, Karnak is the second largest ancient religious site in the world. Over thirty different pharoahs contributed to its development spanning almost 1200 years!

And here’s the face I make in 105 degree heat.

Karnak has everything: ancient gates, temples, halls of pillars, obelisks, statues, even a lake. You could wander for hours here and only a quarter of the complex is even open to the public!

As you can see, Luxor is an absolute must-see when in Egypt; visiting was one of the highlights of my entire trip, and I would highly recommend to anyone traveling to plan at least a day to visit its awesome sites. Also, learn from my mistake and don’t pass up the chance to take a Nile cruise between Luxor and Aswan, another ancient city further south in Egypt. I heard amazing things about others’ trips and wish I’d had time myself!

Thanks for reading!

xo Carrie