Khan el Khalili

An enchanting, labyrinthine souk (market) in the Egyptian capital of Cairo, Khan el Khalili proves one of the must-see attractions for visitors to the city. Huge, bustling, and visually astounding, it makes for an impressive thing to do during an Egypt vacation—even for those who hate to shop. Simply moseying around this Cairo bazaar should make for a fun day in itself, as you get to see the local day-to-day life in all its splendid, ramshackle glory. And then, of course, for those who do like to exchange their money for souvenirs, the Khan el Khalili bazaar is like heaven on earth.

This immense market dates back to the fourteenth century, when Emir (meaning "of high office or nobility" in Arabic) Djaharks el-Khalili built a large caravanserai in the area. This caravanserai, a traveler’s resthouse, created a lively flow of commerce, and as a result the market continued to grow in size and import as the years passed.

Today the Khan el Khalili is considered the main bazaar in Cairo, thanks both to its size and the sheer variety of goods on offer. You’ll find everything here, from sentimental items to expensive pieces of oriental craftsmanship—as is so often the case in African souks (and also Asian markets) sorting the pricier stuff from the clutter is part of the job for the shopping tourist, who is inevitably quoted astronomical prices. Shop in any Cairo bazaar and you’ll have to barter your way with stringent persistence, and it’s no different here. Still, the bartering is part of the fun of sampling the Khan el Khalili, and most visitors find they enjoy the process even if they’re not accustomed to it back home.

In terms of what to buy, the Khan el Khalili genuinely offers a dizzying display of goods and wares. All those iconic objects of Egypt are here: silk scarves; brass ornaments; handmade mosaics; perfume; carpets, and shisha pipes. You’ll even find the odd belly-dancing shop, where you can buy a spangled belly-dancing outfit in preparation for a dance back at your Cairo hotel or in one of the city’s nightlife haunts!

Aside from browsing in the shops and stalls of the Khan el Khalili bazaar, it’s worth spending some time in one of the souk’s coffee shops. These are atmospheric places that serve excellent Arabian coffee and normally offer clients the opportunity to smoke on a shisha pipe, too. After the bustle of the souk’s streets, these coffee shops provide a welcome retreat and a great chance to do some relaxed people-watching.

Having exhausted the Khan el Khalili, two other markets close by complete Cairo’s Market Triangle. These are the market on al-Azhar Street and, further to the west, Muski Market. Furthermore, you’ll find a bunch of gold and silver sellers in the streets between these markets, should you really want to splurge. Like every Cairo bazaar, much of the Khan el Khalili bazaar doesn’t open on Sundays. Most sellers do open on Fridays, however, even though it’s considered a holy day in Islam.

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