If you only have time to make one stop in Egypt, choosing between Cairo and Luxor can be difficult given the rich history and beautiful setting of each city. Thankfully, there are several key differences between the two that should easily help you make a decision. In this guide, we’ll discuss where to find the famous ruins and cover the differences in setting, transportation, accommodation and other amenities. Get your scoreboard ready!
The Ruins of Ancient Egypt
Arguably the world’s first great civilization, for over 3,000 years, Egyptian pharaohs built upon each other’s legacies and would leave behind a spectacular array of ruins. These remnants are one of the primary reasons people travel to Egypt, with some of the most famous sites including the Giza Necropolis, The Valley of the Kings and the Abu Simbel Temples. But which contains better ruins, Cairo or Luxor? Well, they contain drastically different ruins and if a blast from the past is what you’re after, your preference of ruin will determine which city you’ll want to visit.
Ancient Memphis & Modern-Day Cairo
During the Old Kingdom, Memphis was the center of administration for Egypt and thus is where you’ll find most of the ruins from this period. Pyramids were the trendiest tomb to build during this era and the three famous pyramid necropoli sit just south of Cairo: Giza, Dahshur and Saqqara. Stepped pyramids were built first as they required less math and engineering, the earliest of these structures can be found at Saqqara with the Pyramid of Djoser being the best example.
Next came straight-sided pyramids, which can be seen at both Dahshur and Giza, with the grandest of all, The Great Pyramid of Giza reaching a staggering 455ft. The Great Sphinx is also one of the most famous ruins in Egypt and sits at the base of the pyramids at Giza.
Ancient Thebes & Modern-Day Luxor
After the Old Kingdom, the administrative centre of the country was largely moved to Thebes and it’s for this reason you’ll find most of the other major historical sites either in or very close to Luxor. This impressive selection of ruins includes The Mortuary Temple of Hatshepsut, The Colossi of Memnon, Karnak Temple Complex, Valley of the Kings, the list goes on.
Apart from the two main temples in Luxor city centre, most of the ruins are found on the west side of the Nile and if you have time, possibly my favourite ruin in all of Egypt, the Dendera Temple Complex is a short drive north.
I cover this argument in more detail in The Best Places to See Ancient Egyptian Ruins but in my opinion, Luxor exhibits a far greater selection of ruins and would therefore be my pick over Cairo. Keep your own tally but for me, Luxor takes this one!
Luxor 1 vs 0 Cairo
Size & Setting
According to UN estimates, Egypt’s capital, Cairo is the 6th largest city in the world, beating out Mumbai, Beijing and New York. With a city proper of 9.54 million, Cairo is a much larger city than Luxor, which is home to 1.33 million people. Depending on your preference, this comes with both advantages and disadvantages. Generally speaking, larger cities tend to have better and more varied amenities, however, they also tend to have higher levels of pollution and are generally much busier and louder places.
Both Cairo and Luxor have spectacular views of the Nile River, which runs from the south of the country to the Mediterranean, just north of Cairo. Those accustomed to larger cities may prefer Cairo’s sprawling metropolis whereas those who prefer a slightly quieter setting will prefer the more relaxed vibe of Luxor.
For me, Luxor just doubled down but this may be the opposite for you.
Luxor 2 vs 0 Cairo
Transportation & Accommodation
Both cities are served by international airports with Cairo’s being the second largest on the African continent. For this reason, you will find cheaper and more varied flights in and out of the capital. Cairo also boasts an impressive metro system, which was the first on the continent and far surpasses anything that Luxor has to offer. However, given that Luxor is much smaller, this shouldn’t deter you from visiting, the distance from Luxor Temple to Karnak—roughly halfway across the city centre—is only 4km, which is easily walkable or navigated by minibus or taxi.
Horse-drawn carriages called Calèche are available in both cities and offer a unique and exciting way to explore either city. In terms of accommodation, both offer 5-star hotels, both have a wide range of vacation rentals and both have a selection of hostels for those on a budget. That said, if I had to pick one over the other, Cairo wins hands down.
At the end of the day, the sheer size of the capital city lends to superior infrastructure and a greater selection of places to stay, so… this one goes to Cairo.
Luxor 2 vs 1 Cairo
Other Things to Do
Both cities have large souks and beautiful mosques but in a similar vein to the last item, it’s hard to argue with the fact that as a much larger city, Cairo has the upper-hand in terms of experiences outside of ancient ruins. Cairo is home to several spectacular mosques and a gigantic bazaar, where you’ll find every spice you can think of and endless amounts of souvenirs.
The capital is also home to some of the best museums on the planet with The Grand Egyptian Museum set to open in 2021. On the other hand, while Luxor is a paradise for the historically minded, it just doesn’t have the amenities a larger city has to offer and I can only imagine how boring that would be if you’re not that into old buildings!
I could spend all day listing the additional options in Cairo but suffice it to say, if you’re travelling with your family or would like to see more than just the ruins, there is no question that Cairo is the better option.
Luxor 2 vs Cairo 2
Ok, that wasn’t very decisive, was it?! Ultimately, the decision on whether you should visit Cairo or Luxor will boil down to personal preference and the reason that you’re visiting. If you want to see pyramids, you have no choice but to pick Cairo. Similarly, if you’ve always wanted to visit the spectacular temples of Ancient Egypt, Luxor is your only bet. However, if there isn’t anything specific on your culture hit list, your decision will depend on the following:
- A larger city with many more things to do
- Better transportation and accommodation options
- Pretty much the only place to see Egyptian pyramids
- A quieter setting with fewer things to do
- More expensive flights and harder to navigate
- Easily the best place to see Ancient Egyptian ruins overall