Warm, gentle winds against my skin. Fresh sugarcane juice in hand. The call to prayer lingering in the air while passing archaeological treasures. This is what I recall of my time sailing down the Nile River on a dahabiya (a traditional shallow-bottomed Egyptian sailboat), passing monuments, villages, and riverbanks lined with mango trees, wild horses, and kids waving as we sailed by.
Dahabiyas, Egypt's traditional passenger boats, trace their origins back thousands of years, with the name derived from the Arabic word for "gold.” In ancient Egyptian tombs, there are illustrations of the river-going sailboats that once served as the primary means of transportation along the Nile, which stretches more than 4,000 miles through Egypt to the Mediterranean. Their prominence gradually waned as steamboats and trains emerged as the leading modes of travel for the masses. But for intrepid travelers of the 19th century, traditional dahabiyas remained a way to cruise the Nile in style.
This era, known as the Golden Age of Travel, welcomed wealthy adventurers, writers, and archaeologists as they traded Europe’s cold winters for a holiday wrapped in Egypt’s warmth. These travelers would rent such boats for extended periods, leisurely drifting from one temple to another, powered solely by the gentle breeze of the river.
Today, modern travelers can still experience the Nile this way, thanks to the numerous boats that embark on journeys ranging from one to five nights, allowing guests to experience river life up close. These beautiful wooden boats dock in serene locations away from bustling towns, granting access to the Nile's lesser-explored ancient sites. It's an ideal escape from the fast-paced intensity of cities like Cairo and Alexandria.
I traveled with Nour El Nil on their ship, El Nil, as it sailed 155 miles from Esna to Aswan over six days. Though El Nil is their third-largest boat, it’s still intimate, featuring an expansive top deck with low-slung seating, a cozy salon, and 10 guest rooms for up to 20 guests.
Known for its striking white and red striped sails, Nour El Nil’s fleet is unmissable as you set sail down the river. Built with modern luxuries and a blend of authentic architecture, the El Nil has wood construction, two triangular sails, bright white molding, and small but comfortable guest rooms with one or two beds, bedside tables, fans, a closet, a humble bathroom, and windows that let in loads of natural light. Upstairs, the open-air top deck is ideal for sipping, snacking, sleeping, and soaking up the views as you slowly sail by.
Nour El Nil introduced their dahabiyas to the Nile over a decade ago and offers insider knowledge that makes the journey truly exceptional. Providing the longest sail time (5 nights/6 days) between Luxor and Aswan, they allow guests to experience the ins and outs of the Nile for longer than the rest. By carefully designing a voyage that leads guests to unexplored corners of the Nile's valley and temples, particularly during quieter hours of the day, the experience unfolds with a sense of exclusivity, as if you are the sole adventurers in these remarkable destinations. From stepping inside local villagers’ homes to watching the sun go down while docked on uninhabited islands along the river, these are experiences not offered by the larger boats.
This slow pace of the voyage afforded me the opportunity to experience all the culture, history, and relaxation I dreamt of along the Nile Valley in the most peaceful setting. Walking around local villages and through orchards or stepping in and out of temples scattered along the river’s banks, I met Egyptians as they went about their daily lives. I read under the sun and dined under the stars.
On the third day of our voyage, we spent the heat of the afternoon on a private island along the river—joining the crew for our first dip into its shocking but refreshing waters. Not long before sunset, we sailed a bit further and were greeted excitedly by local children and guided on a desert walk that ended with a birds-eye view of the Nile. On our last morning, we docked alongside Kom Ombo, a double temple dedicated to the crocodile and falcon gods, exploring and learning from our guide before the afternoon rush arrived.
Throughout the trip, the ship had a warm, inviting ambiance, made even better by the hospitality of the local crew. From hunting down my favorite sunscreen while docked in port to arranging a rejuvenating massage with the onboard masseuse to serving refreshing juice after an afternoon temple visit, their attention to detail left me oohing and ahhing throughout the journey.
I also loved indulging in the family-style Egyptian cuisine prepared from fresh ingredients sourced from local farmers and fishermen along the river. The menu was a surprise every day, with traditional dishes like sweet crepes smothered in fig jam and creamy tahini, roasted eggplant curry, zucchini in tomato sauce, and fresh falafel.
The itinerary is also a bit of a surprise. A detailed itinerary is not shared at any point during the trip, as these boats are bound to the ways of the river, and plans are quick to change. Each evening, the boat’s captain brings guests together to share how the next day will unfold. One day, he even asked us all how we desired to escape the heat—by visiting another temple or veering off course to dip into the river.
That laissez-faire attitude is what makes the experience of floating down the Nile in a dahabiya so special. Lingering just a bit longer for another swim or docking on a beautiful island just in time to catch the sunset, the trip is fleeting, but the moments are stretched out as far as they can go.
Most traditional dahabiyas set sail from Esna, ending their voyage in Aswan. The nearest airport is Luxor International Airport (LXR), though most international flights arrive in Cairo (CAI). Most cruising companies will pick up passengers from their Luxor hotel and transfer south to Esna (approximately one hour) to the port, or you can hire a local driver or Careem (Egypt’s take on Uber) from the airport to Esna Port, located on the river’s West Bank.
Average Going flight price for cheap flights to Cairo: $604 roundtrip
How to do it
- Best time to go: September-June. Egypt has pleasant weather most of the year, though the summer months can be extremely hot. While the Nile River is always cool and great for a dip, you’ll want to enjoy sitting out on your dahabiya’s top deck. Many boats do not have AC in the guest rooms (though some do), which is important to keep in mind when selecting travel dates.
- Cost: Many tour and cruise operators provide multi-day dahabiya Nile cruises, all at different price points and trip lengths. On average, the cost per person is $300 USD/night. Nour El Nil’s voyages start at $2,840 USD/room (for up to two guests) for five nights, inclusive of all transfers, meals, snacks, and non-alcoholic beverages, entrance fees to the five sites visited en route, as well as an official Egyptian guide.
- Tips: Pack layers. It is hot in the sun and cool in the early morning and evenings. Don’t forget to pack something for swimming. Take your time to find a dahabiya that you love, as the majority of your time will be spent on board. Tipping crew members is encouraged based on comfort level and the experience you have on board. Crews work 12+ hours/day, and tipping is a generous way to say thank you.