In Muslim countries, especially in North Africa and the Middle East, the word used to describe a marketplace is a souk or suq/souq (suːk ). In the sprawling capital of Egypt, Cairo, one can find a smorgasbord of souks/markets and bazaars to choose from. It’s here, making your way from one stall to the next, you’ll get a glimpse of life as it unfolds here day after day. It’s all spice, adventure and mystical allure. You will encounter the locals at their authentic and unposed best. The raw, unfiltered version, instead of the visitor-friendly facade.
And that’s what we want when we travel, right? The opportunity to discover a new way of being.
Here are 5 of the most popular markets in Cairo and where to find them…
1. Khan El Khalili
Khan El Khalili is one of the oldest markets in Egypt and the Middle East. It’s located in Cairo’s Islamic area and dates back all the way to 1382. If you want to learn more about the Islamic history of Cairo and Egypt, this market is a must. As you stroll the market you will catch sight of the Islamic historical buildings and discover more about Islamic Cairo’s history. It’s also well known for its silverware and one of the best places to shop for anything from glassware, old antiques, handcrafts, shishas and other special Egyptian souvenirs.
Where to find it: In the historic center of Islamic Cairo
2. El Azbakeya Wall (the book heaven)
Welcome to Egypt’s most famous second-hand book stores. Go to El Azbakeya Wall to buy old, rare and used books that date as far back as the 1800s at 130+ stalls. The market area can be found close to the Azbakeya gardens. Among the stacks of travel guides, history books and literary masterpieces (on any subject imaginable), you might find interesting gems like alphabet posters in Arabic. Truly a haven for booklovers!
Where to find it: Near the wall of Azbakeya gardens, outside the El Abakeya wall.
Bibliophile? Read this helpful Book Lover’s guide to Cairo, Egypt.
3. Souq El Gom’aa (Friday’s Market)
Souq El Gom’aa is a popular, non-tourist market where you can find just about anything and everything, or as Egyptians say “from needle to rock”. It’s perfect if you’re not sure what you’re shopping for and also, the prices are affordable. Take care, however, of your pockets, purses and wallets – this market is renowned to be super busy and pickpockets might be roaming around.
Where to find it: Under the Al-Tonssy flyover
4. Wekalet El Balah
Established in the 19th century, Wekalet El Balah is one of the most famous markets that sells medium quality, and second-hand imported clothes. Shoppers can also find affordable fabrics, shoes, bags and furniture. Merchandise can be local or imported from countries like China and Turkey. The market dates back to when traders from Upper Egypt (Aswan) came to Cairo carrying supplies. El-Wekala, as it is known by the locals, is known to be an adventurous shopping experience because of the chaos, haggling and abundance of stalls.
Where to find it: Between Boulak, one of the popular Cairene neighborhood of Boulak and the upscale area of Zamalek.
5. Mohamid Ali Street
Named after the founder of modern Egypt, Mohamed Ali, this street was constructed in the 1860s as a part of Khedive Ismail’s vision for a Cairo built in the European style. The street was a centre for oriental arts in Cairo, and home to professional belly dancers. For now, it’s one of the best places to manufacture, sell and repair musical instruments.
Where to find it: Mohamid Ali street
What to buy and how to go about it
No matter where you go, try to find something that is authentically of that place. Even if you buy a fridge magnet – see if you can source one that features a local legend or symbol that will remind you of your destination when you get back home.
Egyptian souvenirs that are worth spending your money on:
Important to remember when you head out on a shopping spree in Cairo:
When shopping at street markets in Egypt it’s important to get ready for a full-blown sensory overload. You can be sure that each vendor will have his or her own selling technique. Products might not be marked and you can be expected to ask for and negotiate selling prices. If you want the best price and best quality, it’s always a good idea to shop around, check the price with a local you can trust. Also make sure of the authenticity of locally made product. If you’re really not interested answer the vendor with a kind, but firm, “la, shukran” (‘no thank you’ in Arabic).