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Visiting Egypt brings up a question truly unique to this part of the world—is Egypt the Middle East, or is it Africa? The answer is, unsurprisingly, that it’s both, because Egypt it's of course on the African continent but part of the Middle Eastern region. However, one of the most fascinating things you’ll experience when touring Egypt, besides the tombs you’ve been waiting to see since you studied them in grade school, is the cultural give-and-take between Middle Eastern influence and African influence within the country. Cairo, Luxor, and Alexandria, all in the northern part of Egypt (also known as “Lower Egypt”) feel more Middle Eastern. But Aswan, the southernmost city in Egypt (or “Upper Egypt”), only about 200 miles from the Sudan border, feels distinctly African. The Nubian roots in Aswan inform the beautiful culture you’ll experience when visiting the city. From temples to vibrant spice markets to one of the finest luxury properties in Egypt, here’s how travelers can spend one perfect day in Aswan.
9:00 a.m. Start your day at the Sofitel Legend Old Cataract Aswan. The Terrace has sweeping views of the Nile and the Legend Old Cataract’s expansive pool deck. Starting your day on the scenic terrace lets you soak in the old-world luxury of Aswan from the property that played host to elite guests like Winston Churchill and Princess Diana. Sofitel Legend Old Cataract has an excellent breakfast spread inside at their French restaurant, 1902. Assemble your plate of freshly baked goods, order a pot of coffee, and enjoy your breakfast al fresco on the terrace.
11:00 a.m. Book a felucca to sail you from the hotel directly to Philae Temple. You can walk down to the water directly from the Sofitel Legend Old Cataract Aswan, where a boat can sail you leisurely to Philae Temple, which is set on Agilika Island. A temple to Isis, Philae Temple is revered by the Egyptians and the Nubians, and was built in 690 A.D.
Not only is Philae Temple one of the most remarkable structures in Egypt, but the efforts that have gone into preserving the temple are astounding. In the 1970s, Philae Temple was dismantled stone by stone and moved from Philae Island to Agilika Island to ensure that the Nile’s rising waters wouldn’t submerge the temple.
1:30 p.m. When in Egypt, enjoying a full meal of kebabs, various grilled meats, and an array of spreads, complete with hummus, babaganoush, and freshly baked pita bread is practically mandatory. In Aswan, visit Al-Makka, one of the classic places to indulge in kofta kebabs. The travel hack of Aswan is coming to Al-Makka for lunch instead of dinner, because their lamb chops and veal run out early. If you’re overwhelmed by the menu options, mixed grill is always a safe bet at an Egyptian grilling establishment—you’ll get fresh kebabs, grilled steak or lamb, and usually a side of vegetables, french fries, or rice.
3:00 p.m. After lunch, venture to Kitchener’s Island, one of the most famous Aswan landmarks. Once again, you’ll pile into a felucca to get to Kitchener’s Island, which is a tiny island in the middle of the Nile. The biggest draw of Kitchener is the blossoming Aswan Botanical Gardens. Lord Horatio Herbert Kitchener, who was given the island in the 1890s, apparently had a penchant for horticulture and imported plants from the eastern world—India, the Middle East, etc.—and from Africa. The flora and fauna of Aswan Botanical Gardens are best seen in the late afternoon, when you’ll have the gardens mostly to yourself. If you’d like to visit Elephantine Island as well, which is slightly east of Kitchener’s Island, you can ferry from mainland Aswan to Elephantine, and then take a short felucca boat ride to Kitchener’s.
6:00 p.m. We’ve saved the best for last here, because there is not a more classic Aswan adventure than visiting the Aswan Souk, or the legendary Aswan markets. If you’ve been waiting to flex your haggling muscles, now is the time. Referred to by the locals as Sharia as-Souq, the Aswan Souk has African, Egyptian, and Middle Eastern goods and is best seen at night when the market is at its liveliest. If you’re not sure what to bring back from Aswan, the clear answer, as you’ll see in the market, is spices. Aswan is the Egyptian spice capital, and walking through the market, you’ll see towers of ground turmeric and hibiscus, and whole peppercorns in every color imaginable.
7:30 p.m. Within Sharia as-Souq, you’ll find Chef Khalil, a casual eatery with some of the best seafood in Aswan. The seafood and fish are sourced from Lake Nassar and the Red Sea, and you can choose what you’d like from their chilled, fresh-caught display. When the lobster is available, it’s a popular choice, as is the seabass and grilled shrimp. And if it’s not too hot out, try Chef Khalil’s seafood soup as well.
Where to Stay
Stay in one of the luxurious rooms at Sofitel Legend Old Cataract Aswan. You can opt for the Palace Luxury Room, which looks out on the perfectly tended-to Old Cataract gardens, or a Nile-view Luxury Room. The beauty of staying at the Old Cataract in Aswan is that you have access to the French amenities you’d get at Sofitels around the world, but also have the privilege of staying in a historic palace that has become a fixture of Aswan culture.