Essential Guide to Visiting Khan el-Khalili Market
Updated: Sep 15, 2022
Khan el-Khalili market is old.... real old. It is located in Islamic Cairo/Old Cairo and was established in the 14th century (!!). And it shows in the street layout. The market itself it not a typical "market", in the sense that there is a defined building or covered area that encompasses the market. Rather, this is a bazaar, in the true sense of the word -- a sprawling collection of winding streets, narrow alleyways, and dead-ends that are lined with food vendors, cafés, and shops to buy everything from spices to lanterns. And being deep inside -- with the heady smells of spices, yelling vendors, and stunning Islamic architecture -- you feel as though you've been transported back in time to a 14th century Arabian souk.
Just One of Many Ancient Walkways in this Bazaar
Get Lost in the Market
Like I said above, there are multiple ways you can enter the market. The two most popular would be off of Gohar Al Kaed street and through the ancient Bab El Nasr gate, an imposing stone archway built in 1087, when it served as the fortified gate to Old Cairo.
Bab El Nasr Gate
If you enter off Gohar Al Kaed, plan to stop for a Turkish coffee or tea at any number of the cafés on the square overlooking the beautiful Al-Hussain Mosque. At night, this square turns into a lively area, with street vendors, dancers, and locals simply going for a walk in the light of the mosque, which is lit up at night.
Al-Hussain Mosque at Night
The market itself is informally divided into various shopping districts -- spices, clothing, knick-knack types of souvenirs, lanterns, housewares etc etc. And it's very easy to walk around and become lost -- which is a good thing! You can go on your own and just explore, or you can hire a guide. My recommendation -- try on your own. English is not very well spoken, but there are a number of vendors who can speak decent English. If you know Arabic, definitely avoid the guide -- you'll have a much more authentic experience exploring this market by yourself. The streets are narrow and drivers move quickly, so be careful. Cairo traffic is a complete shitshow, and that does not change just because you are inside the market. Like I said above, the market is really just a large section of Cairo that encompasses a labyrinth of streets and alleys -- fully functioning corridors for Cairo's crazy drivers.
Watch Out for Cars
Stop for Lunch or Dinner
There are innumerable cafés and restaurants in Khan el-Khalili, where you can stop to enjoy a strong Turkish coffee (get it with sugar, I made that mistake), tea, or food. A great place right off of Gohar Al Kaed is Farhat Restaurant. The specialty of the house is pigeon (yes, pigeon), stuffed with rice and other spices, and then slowly grilled on a spigot over open flames in an old brick oven. It's freaking awesome, and chances are you'll be the only tourist there. Place is often packed with locals, as this is a common meal in Cairo.
Trying the AMAZING Stuffed Pigeon at Farhat Restaurant
Incredibly Nice Employees at Farhat
The other popular street food item you'll find in Khan el-Khalili (or really anywhere in Egypt) is Aish Baladi, or Egyptian flatbread. You see if baked on the streets everywhere in fire ovens. Stop to grab a piece. At about $0.10USD, it's a great snack and is really quite good.
Aish Baladi Straight from the Oven
Explore the Spice Market
Of all the sections to visit within the market, the spice section should be high on your list. Tucked in a narrow section of the market, it is a sprawling network of vendors selling everything from cumin to hibiscus in bulk quantity. Plan to be bombarded with vendors trying to sell you stuff, but that is a common theme everywhere in Egypt, not just here.
Spices For Days
A Final Note
I'm not going to sugarcoat this place like you might see in other blogs. It's freaking nuts, all the time. You will be BOMBARDED by vendors as soon as you enter the place. And unlike in other countries/cities around the world, Egyptian vendors are persistent and aggressive. "No" only makes them work harder to sell you their stuff. Sometimes they will follow you for a good clip before finally backing down. La Shukran, or "No Thank You" in Arabic, is helpful phrase to have on hand. And if you decide to enter a shop, be prepared to not be left alone. But.. at no point did I feel threatened. It's a safe place, very safe. Vendors are just aggressive to sell you their wares, so just be ready for it and expect it. Additionally... everything is negotiable. Haggling here is more than accepted, it's expected. Never take the first price, always talk them down, and don't be afraid to walk away if they don't meet your price.
All of that to say.. this place is a must-visit in Cairo. If you fly all the way to Egypt, go to Cairo, and don't visit this market... you're missing something truly special and unique. Go explore this centuries-old souk, sample some cuisine, and walk away with an experience you won't soon forget.