One of the most enduring Western clichés about the “exotic East”—along with the harem and the caravanserai of camels making its stately progress across the desert sands—is that of the souk. A labyrinth laden with goods, teeming with inscrutable faces, seething with mystery and temptation, it has occupied many a traveler’s imagination.
To visit Cairo’s Khan al-Khalili market is to have those elusive impressions come to swarming, noisy, fragrant life. Traders have occupied these narrow winding alleyways in the center of town for over 600 years. And while you’ll find truckloads of plastic pyramids and other souvenirs at various points along the taste spectrum, you’ll also experience something like the “authentic” Arab market experience.
Specialization is the name of the game. A rug-seller will probably sell nothing but rugs, but in hundreds of variations, piled up to the ceiling. If you’re looking for gifts, stowable options include slippers, lamps, cushion covers, and brassware. Look the part in a handmade fez or belly-dancing outfit. In the market for jewelry? There’s a sultan’s ransom in gold, silver, and other precious metals on offer. Remember: merchants will always start at a price much higher than they expect. Not haggling is like going to the local store and voluntarily paying five times the price of a soda.
Make sure you stop in at Fishawi’s, a highly atmospheric coffee house steeped in Egyptian literary history. The neighborhood around Khan al-Khalili is also filled with historic treasures, including Al Azhar Mosque, which is more than a millennium old and claims to be the oldest university in the world. Its bright, quiet courtyard provides a welcome breather from the busy streets.