Egypt is nothing short of a miracle. Though the forbidding Sahara encroaches from every direction, the Nile River splashes a verdant green ribbon through the country, sometimes managing to push the desert sands only a few hundred feet back from the riverbank.
One of the world’s longest and most legendary rivers, the Nile travels more than 6500km (4100 miles) through five countries, but it’s most closely connected with Egypt. And indeed, so much of Egyptian history has unfolded along the Nile that nearly all of the country’s major cities and ancient tombs and temples are located along this lush life-giving artery.
The ancient Egyptians used the river as a highway, dispatching trade and military expeditions and toting statues of their gods between temples. The 5th century BCE Greek historian Herodotus famously called Egypt the “gift of the Nile,” and even now, millennia later, cruising the Nile is still the best way for travelers to see Egypt’s gifts for themselves.
Ready to embark on the trip of a lifetime? Here’s what you need to know about picking the best Nile river cruises.
Get trusted guidance to the world’s most breathtaking experiences delivered to your inbox weekly with our email newsletter. See the dramatic contrasts in Egypt’s landscape © Lauren Keith / Lonely Planet
Why are so many travelers talking about Egypt in 2022?
Nowhere else in the world is the past so intertwined with the present than in Egypt, and 2022 promises to be a blockbuster time to experience them both.
Lonely Planet named Egypt one of the top 10 countries to visit this year, and the long-anticipated Grand Egyptian Museum is expected to open in November to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun, the famous golden pharaoh and “boy king.”
September marked 200 years since the Rosetta Stone was translated, which revealed the meanings of the hieroglyphs and recaptured knowledge that had been lost for centuries. New archaeological discoveries continue apace in Luxor, Saqqara and elsewhere that keep rewriting history.
Tourism hit a record high in Egypt in 2019 and was expected to grow even more in 2020, but we all know what happened then. Like many places, tourism in Egypt has now entered recovery mode, making the coming months a great – and still relatively quiet – time to visit.
Some Nile cruise companies continued construction projects that have seen new boats launched on the river, including the August 2022 debut of the Viking Osiris, a brand new 82-passenger vessel built specifically to navigate the Nile.
Most Nile cruises run in both directions between Luxor and Aswan © Lauren Keith / Lonely Planet
Why you should take a Nile cruise when you visit Egypt
While cruises might get a bad rap elsewhere in the world, traveling by boat on the Nile is a time-honored tradition that stretches back to the pharaonic era.
Along the riverbanks, life carries on in the way that it has since time immemorial: mudbrick houses poke out from behind the foliage, children wave excitedly at passing ships, a lone man paddles a blue-painted canoe piled high with alfalfa for his hungry livestock, palm trees heavy with golden dates sag as they await the harvest.
In a fast-paced world, opportunities to simply sit back and watch life glide by are few and far between. Sitting outside on the Osiris’s balcony traveling at the speed of the river, I felt like I was watching a slow travel TV show – at once both an outside spectator and also completely immersed in it.
In ancient times, mastering the river helped rulers unite the country, and most temples are built within easy reach of the water. Sure, Egypt’s modern-day road and rail network can transport you to these temples overland, but if you skip a cruise on the Nile, the magic of the journey will certainly be missing.
Local experts explain the meanings behind the hieroglyphs as you tour temples and tombs © Lauren Keith / Lonely Planet
How to choose a Nile cruise itinerary
The vast majority of Nile cruises operate in both directions between Luxor and Aswan in southern Egypt, making stops in Edfu, Kom Ombo and sometimes other small towns.
Which Nile cruise you pick depends on the usual two travel constraints: your budget and your time. Certain boats sail only on certain days, and Nile cruises can be as short as three days, but more commonly last five days.
Most luxury cruises on the Nile, including Viking’s Nile cruises, require signing up for a full Egypt-wide itinerary that starts and ends in Cairo, an excellent option for first-time visitors.
With little signage at historic sites and prices always open to negotiation, Egypt is a tricky place for independent travel. Unless you want to spend your precious vacation time bargaining with taxi drivers and tour guides everywhere you go, it’s best to join a tour for your first visit and leave the logistics to someone else.
What I liked in particular about Viking’s Pharaohs & Pyramids itinerary is that it includes two unusual stops that aren’t standard ports of call for most Nile cruises.
The ship travels north of Luxor to Qena for passengers to disembark and visit the gorgeous Temple of Hathor at Dendera, where the ceilings have recently been cleaned, exposing beautifully painted zodiac symbols and the warped body of the sky goddess Nut, who swallows the sun every night and gives birth to it the next morning.
The boat also stops in Esna for the Temple of Khnum, a small but wonderfully preserved structure. Look up to spot the column-topping capitals, each of which has a colorfully decorated, unique bouquet of palm fronds, bunches of grapes, lotus flowers and papyrus shoots.
In Luxor, you’ll get private access to the show-stopping tomb of Nefertari – arguably the most beautiful burial site in the entire country (and certainly the most expensive at LE1400, about US$72) where nearly every square inch is painted in stunningly vibrant bas-reliefs – as well as the chance to see the stark dichotomy of Egypt’s landscapes from the sky in the basket of a gently drifting hot air balloon.
Tours of the temples and tombs are led by local expert Egyptologists who explain and translate the meanings of the hieroglyphs before your very eyes.
A few companies offer Nile cruises from Cairo, but these sailings are rare, usually operating just once a month – if at all – and take significantly longer because of the distance involved. But you’ll get the chance to check out off-the-beaten-track tombs and temples between Cairo and Luxor that see few visitors.
The Viking Osiris is one of the newer ships cruising the Nile © Lauren Keith / Lonely Planet
What is it like on board the Viking Osiris?
Decked out in a sleek Scandi color scheme of blond wood and blue textiles that are drenched in natural light thanks to huge floor-to-ceiling windows across much of the ship, the Viking Osiris is an oasis of calm that’s a treat to return to after a long and dusty day of exploring.
The cruise ship has 41 cabins across three decks, plus two upper levels with an indoor/outdoor dining space with windows that fold away for al fresco evenings, a cozy bar and lounge with a resident piano player in the evenings, an infinity-style pool at the back of the boat and a sun deck for days of lazy lounging.
Travelers can check out books from the on-board library’s exquisite collection to read up on Egyptian history on their voyage.
The guest rooms are surprisingly spacious, with comfy hotel-like beds, plenty of wardrobe and storage space, and good-sized bathrooms. Many staterooms come with balconies.
The ship is partially powered by solar panels, and you can see how much electricity is being generated by the sun as well as the carbon dioxide savings on a screen inside.
What travelers should know before visiting Egypt
Almost all nationalities need a visa to visit Egypt, which you can get on arrival at the airport or apply for online in advance if you’d rather skip the line. The cost of a single-entry Egyptian tourist visa is USD$25, payable in cash at the airport or by card online.
Egypt is a traditional, Muslim-majority country, so both men and women should dress modestly when visiting. For tips on what to pack, local etiquette and more, check these 14 things to help you plan your visit to Egypt.
Lauren Keith traveled on the Viking Osiris cruise by invitation from Viking River Cruises.