There’s absolutely nothing in Cairo like exploring the enormous shopping labyrinth of Khan El Khalili, the city’s largest souk that has preserved much of its original structure since its days as a famous medieval bazaar. Tourists and Egyptians alike arrive at this densely populated maze of streets and alleyways to find all sorts of gifts, including Egyptian antiques, fine handmade crafts, shishas and spices.
El Azhar Surroundings
It’s not a terribly far walk from Downtown Cairo, but the easiest way to get to Khan El Khalili is by taxi (5LE from Tahrir Square). Tell the taxi driver ‘Midan Hussein,’ not Khan El Khalili; unless you want a price increase. The taxi will drop you directly in front of El Azhar Mosque. Across the road, you’ll see a grassy knoll that is called Hussein Square, where Khan El Khalili is located.
El Sheikh Mohamed Abdu, the street that runs behind El Azhar mosque, is famous for three things: an old-world book binder called Abd El Zaher Atelier, a shop full of unique jewellery and lighting fixtures known as Al Khatoun, and the Sufi Dancing performance at Wikalat El Ghori.
If you continue walking eastward down the street, away from El Azhar Mosque, to the left there is the opening of a deep market that sells non-tourist home furnishings such as curtains, fabric, tapestries, bed sheets and towels.
The Maze of the Market
The traditional Khan El Khalili is off the aforementioned Hussein Square. To reach the other side without risking your life; take the underground passageway that connects both sides of Islamic Cairo. Once you’re in Hussein Square, walk eastward away from the grassy knoll and into the maze of the market.
While we’d love to give you a detailed, guided tour, these streets are ancient, unmarked and unplanned; meaning that much of the fun is getting lost and stumbling upon something amazing in the process. Our advice is to go as deep into the market as you can: the deeper you go, the more prices go down and bargaining power goes up. If you ever get lost, politely ask someone for Midan Hussein; and you’ll be right back where you started.
What To Buy
Skip the touristy key-chains, fake papyrus and plastic figurines of Egyptian gods. There are lots of treasures in Khan El Khalili that make great gifts. Be on the lookout for alabaster pyramids and statues; these are an Egyptian specialty. There are also several shops that sell quaint jewellery boxes, backgammon and chess boards made with mother of pearl designs. When it comes to handmade crafts, we encourage you to inspect the item closely for quality of workmanship. Do not pay for faulty work.
There are many stores selling gold and silver jewellery, home accessories and trinkets. Traditional jewellery includes kaf Fatima , evil eyes and pharaonic symbols like Horus’ eye. Several shops offer your name in hieroglyphics framed in a cartouche. Make sure all gold and silver is weighed before the price is determined.
There are several stores that sell Egyptian antiques, including lighting fixtures, movie posters and old books. Spice stores sell inexpensive common spices, Egyptian incense and shisha tobacco.
El Fishawy Café
Shopping in Khan El Khalili can be exhausting and overly stimulating. If all of the shopping has left you weary, and you’re looking for a nice mint tea and apple shisha, El Fishawy Café is just the place to do that. Open 24 hours a day, seven days a week for the past 250 years, this mirror-laden alleyway café has hosted dozens of notables including Egyptian literary legend Naguib Mahfouz. During the evenings, you might see oud players, poetry readings or women offering henna tattoos.
Don’t forget that prices in Khan El Khalili are not fixed and you should bargain your little heart out or prepare to be properly robbed. Generally the rule is to ask how much the item is, and aim to pay exactly half of what the initial price was. Walk away if you don’t like their offer; they will either agree to lower the price when you show disinterest.
Visit several shops to see what the going rate is before agreeing to buy anything. And for the love of shopping; do not ever show that you’re interested in whatever you want to buy. You’ll never get a good price like that!