Visiting the Incredible Ancient Temples in Luxor, Egypt

The sun beat down from a nearly white sky. The air was dry, the ground hot. The only shade to be found was in the ruins—colonnades with swollen pillars, towering statues of crossed-armed rulers, thick walls laden with the deep carvings of ancient kings and queens. This is Luxor, straddling the banks of the Nile, its rose-colored mountains the resting place of hundreds of Egyptians, its low-lying banks home to some of the most beautiful temples in Egypt.

Often called “the world’s greatest open air museum”, there’s no excuse for some Luxor tours not to be on your Egypt trip itinerary. Deciding which temples in Luxor you want to see can be complex. There’s so much to see—and a lot of those sites are gigantic. We spent five days in Luxor, dedicating two days to temples and relaxing, and one day to the Valley of the Kings and Queens. Here are the five temples you shouldn’t miss in Luxor.

Visiting the Ancient Temples in Luxor, Egypt

The Mortuary Temple of Hatschepsut

The Mortuary Temple of Hatschepsut, the first and only female Pharaoh, is located on the Nile’s West bank. Tucked into the Theban mountains alongside the valley’s many tombs, the temple, which also goes by the name Al-Deir Al-Bahari, is one of the most popular tour stops. Due to the fact that the big groups tend to visit first thing in the morning or in the late afternoon (after the Valley of the Kings), try to plan your visit for mid-afternoon. However, this is when the day is the hottest— so make sure you bring plenty of water for the walk.

Hatschepsut’s temple complex has some sprawl, but we covered it in a little over an hour, with stops for guidebook reading and photo breaks waiting for the crowds to part. In the first court, which used to be a garden with plants and trees brought from Punt (modern-day Somalia), you can see the shriveled remains of a few exotic plants. Make sure you take time to explore the side wing—I loved the pillars decorated with the goddess Hathor’s head. The craziest thing to me was that this temple was once linked to the Karnak Temple by an Avenue of Sphinxes that spanned the Nile.

The Mortuary Temple of Hatschepsut is open from 9:00-17:00. Entry costs 40 EGP as of October/November 2018. Tickets are bought on-site. No photo permit necessary.

Mortuary Temple of Seti I

In stark contrast to the swollen crowds and dusty dryness of the other temples in Luxor, the Mortuary Temple of Seti I feels like a secret oasis. In fact, it’s so secret that we had the entire place to ourselves. Seti I was known for his buildings—it was he who commissioned the Great Hypostyle Hall at the Temple of Karnak, and his tomb in the Valley of the Kings is nothing short of spectacular in scale.

What makes this temple unique from all the others we visited is the amount of greenery. Palms line the walkway up to the main hall, and peek out from doorways as you continue to move through the temple spaces. It offers a glimpse into what the rest of the temples might have looked like in the past—blooming so surprisingly in the middle of the desert.

The temple is covered in rich details—the carvings are deep and well-preserved, and dark paint still clings to a lot of the inner rooms. Along the edges of doorways and walls, the cartouches are beautiful and ornate. Near the end of our walk, we were joined by the site Egyptologist, Akmed, who was happy to share some insights about the carvings. In contrast to the Temple of Hatschepsut, this site gets barely any visitors. So if you want a break from the crowds and the chance to explore a gorgeous temple all to yourself, make sure you add the Temple of Seti I to your itinerary!

The Mortuary Temple of Seti I is open from 9:00-17:00. Entry costs 60 EGP as of October/November 2018. Tickets are bought from the main ticket office and not sold on-site. No photo permit necessary.

Medinet Habu

This temple we didn’t actually visit, but passed over during our hot air balloon ride. Doing so made me instantly regret not adding it to my visit list. Also known as the Mortuary Temple of Ramses III, Medinet Habu is a colossal temple. The first pylon is mammoth—almost fortified.

Medinet Habu is famous for its reliefs and is generally quite well-preserved. I would definitely visit it (from the ground this time) on my next trip to Luxor.

Medinet Habu is open from 9:00-17:00. Tickets are bought from the main ticket office and not sold on-site. No photo permit necessary.

The Temple of Karnak

Karnak is the one of the most famous temples in Luxor. Nothing can beat it in terms of size. This massive structure consists of three main temples, a few smaller temples, and then outlying outer temples stretched over 2 square kilometers. Multiple pharaohs had a hand in designing and building it, which resulted in a wide diversity of styles, flourishes, tributes, and architectural complexities that no other structure in Egypt shares.

The Temple at Karnak was known as the holiest site in the New Kingdom, and the main structure—a temple dedicated to Amun—is the largest place of worship ever built. The Great Hypostyle Hall, built by Seti I (above) is the largest hypostyle hall ever constructed. What is a hypostyle hall? Great question: it’s a room of columns, typically lit only by small windows set into the roofline. The Hall would have been highly sacred, with only priests and persons of high power allowed in, and used for religious ceremonies and rituals. In present-day Karnak, there is no roof, but the columns’ sheer size still invokes that feeling of weight and magnitude. I can only imagine how crazy an ancient ritual in the fully-constructed hall must have felt.

It’s hard to picture, but in ancient times, all of Karnak’s beige stone structures were covered in rich, earth-toned paints. However, you can still glimpse some of that jewel-like vibrancy in the Festival Hall of Tuthmosis III. Though the building’s purpose in largely unclear, the columns and ceilings still hold some of that ancient paintwork, giving us a glimpse of what the temple might have looked like before.

Once you get to the outer Pylons (a pylon is the gigantic gate that separates each temple component from the next), the crowds start to thin. For a small bakshish, or tip, the guides or guards will let you climb one of the more deconstructed pylons for an incredible panorama over the temple ruins.

It took us two hours to see the main temples and side pylons—unfortunately, we skipped the open air museum because we ran out of time. Again, because of the temple’s enormous popularity, there can be a lot of tourists. Try to aim for the middle hours, after the morning rush of tours (9:30-11:30/12 but before the evening tours come for the light show. By 16:30, it was starting to get crowded again. The bathrooms are very clean, but unlike other temples, they required a tip to access. We brought our Lonely Planet Guidebook and didn’t hire a guide.

The Temple of Karnak is open from 9:00-17:00. Entry costs 120 EGP regular/60 EGP student as of October/November 2018. Tickets are bought on-site. No photo permit necessary.

Luxor Temple

So, I’ll let you in on a little secret. Everything’s a bit of a letdown after Karnak. After, how could it not be? Though ruinous, the size of Karnak is absolutely insane. Luxor, however, is more intact but also significantly smaller and more condensed. Which brings me to my biggest tip: either see the Luxor Temple before you see Karnak, or see the Luxor Temple at night.

Visiting the Luxor Temple at Night

Located in the heart of the city of Luxor, the Luxor Temple is the only temple accessible in the evenings. Like many of the Luxor structures, the temple is fully lit—so we aimed to arrive at magic hour and watch the sunset from within the complex walls. What we weren’t expecting was the evening prayer call. In the middle of this ancient place of worship is a modern mosque, and to hear the muezzin’s call echo through the ancient space was incredibly eerie.

Besides, the Luxor Temple colonnade is incredibly impressive, especially when lit by floodlights. I would absolutely recommend visiting this temple in the evening.

I particularly liked the side path around the back end of the Luxor Temple, where you can see the different detailed carving fragments at closer range. Doing so allows you to appreciate the evolutions the temple went through: Egyptian, Greek, and Roman influences.