For travelers looking to experience Ancient Egyptian history, the most fruitful regions are those around Luxor - both north and south on the Nile - and Aswan, as well as the Cataracts region south of the Aswan dam. Having just spent the better part of the week in the area, I wanted to highlight some of the best spots to visit.
While staying in Luxor, there is more than enough to do for two or three days (or a lifetime, if you're an archaeologist) just in the immediate vicinity of the city. The biggest highlights are:
1) The Karnak and Luxor Temples
Located right inside Luxor itself about 15 minutes walking from one another, these two sites are the two finest examples of New Kingdom Temple architecture in all of Egypt. The New Kingdom - famous for great Kings like Ramases II, as well as the enigmatic Tutankahmun, lasted from about 1500-1000 BC and is generally considered the height of Egyptian art and achievement. Following them, the country slipped into decline and was then ruled by the Persians, Ptolemaic Greeks - of whom Cleopatra was the most famous - and then the Roman Empire.
The Karnak Temple is the closest thing the Egyptians had to Federal Mall in DC. It was the "state temple" where each great Pharaoh built his own section, and it grew to be an enormous complex. The most interesting feature is the Hypostile Hall, with over 120 columns, it is truly awe inspiring. Visitors who read on it beforehand will also note that it was built roughly "chronologically" from the back to the visitor entrance side, so you get to older and older architecture as you progress. The central part - from Seti and Ramases II including the Hall, was arguably the most prosperous era of Egyptian history, so its no surprise it is grand.
The Luxor Temple, down the road, is another prime example of New Kingdom architecture. It's most beautiful at night, when you can access and walk through it and see its enormous columns wreathed in light and shadow. Unlike some of the other sites, where you have to sit through an interminable light show to see it at night, you can free roam here.
2) The Valley of Kings
The tombs of the Kings feature some of the best preserved Egyptian wall art anywhere in the country. Some tombs are more impressive than others - generally reflecting the prosperity of the time during that Pharaoh's rule, as well as their fame and longevity. Despite its higher cost (relatively speaking, access costs about $50) the tomb of Seti should not be missed.
3) Deir El Bahari
The famous Temple of Hatshepsut set directly into the mountainside. This is arguably the most complete Temple left in Egypt, a combination of its isolation and the preservative qualities of the desert climate.
4) Medinet Habu
My personal favorite, this temple was built by Rameses III, the Pharaoh who repulsed the Sea People's invasion of Egypt (the same peoples that sacked Troy in Homer's famous epic). I like it most perhaps because of what it symbolizes: it was the last edifice built at Thebes that is truly as magnificent as its predecessors. After Ramases III, Egypt went into a fairly rapid decline and, despite a few shining moments, never regained its superpower status. The other great regional sites - at Edfu, Kom Ombo, and Philae in Aswan, were all Ptolemaic or Roman, so Medinet Habu stands as the last great example of native Egyptian achievement.
While there, look up for the flocks of birds in the different courtyards. With low tourism, you may just have the place to yourself and be able to hear them, and their wonderfully peaceful sounds.
Around Luxor, there are many sites, however the four best are a bit of a drive - two north and two south.
To the north, you have Dendera about 1.5 hours drive, and Abydos about 3 hours away.
From my perspective, despite the distance to Abydos and that the Temple of Abydos is the ONLY thing to do in the area, the visit is absolutely worth it. Unlike Karnak, Abydos has been partly reconstructed - with some care to distinguishing old from new - and so the interior wall art is better protected. The designs here, and similarly at Dendera, which you can easily hit on your return drive back to Luxor in one day, have some of the most vibrant surviving color in any Egyptian temple site. When you see them, you really do get a much better understanding of how alive the Egyptian temples must have been in their living heyday
To the south, Edfu and Kom Ombo are the two best sites to see, and conveniently located on a day drive to Aswan. Both are Ptolemaic Greek temples, so when you see them, its interesting to reflect on how the aesthetic seeks to evoke earlier times in its grandeur but is subtly different. At Kom Ombo, and at Philae in Aswan itself, this effect is particularly strong: you see Roman narrow Corinthian columns set against traditional Egyptian temple structure of pylons and courtyards. Notably, Philae, Kom Ombo, and Edfu are all almost totally colorless - but far more complete than their New Kingdom counterparts - so by seeing both you get the best true sense of what the best examples of Egyptian architecture looked like in antiquity.