When thinking of a trip to Egypt, does your vision include at least one visit to a classic bazaar full of rich scents of spices and tobacco, the call of merchants offering bargains, and an endless array of colorful and exotic wares? If so, it is the Khan El Khalili you have been daydreaming about. Most experts would tell you that a visit to Cairo is incomplete if it does not include a bit of time spent wandering the narrow lanes and seemingly endless goods at the Khan El Khalili.
WHAT TO KNOW ABOUT KHAN EL KHALILI
Dating all of the way back to the 1300s, the Khan El Khalili is part of Old Cairo and is considered one of the most important cultural and economic areas of the modern city. It is not just a place of stalls with goods, but also a home to many old and treasured cafes, stunning examples of architecture, and a parade of hard to resist goods. Whether it is a glass lamp, a pair of elegant slippers, a carving or some jewelry, you will find many options throughout the market. In fact, Khan El Khalili is the one “must see” destination if you are hoping to find unique and unforgettable souvenirs.
Even more appealing is that Khan El Khalili has a few key districts, and this can make it easier to seek out and acquire exactly what you are hoping to find. For instance, perhaps your “to do” list includes finding a spice merchant with elaborate displays and authentically exotic goods. There is a spice vendor’s area in the Khan El Khalili. The same can be said for carpets, gold and silver, perfume, copper ware and more. You can also just wander and explore what the fabric vendors have available or what the antiques sellers have available.
Of course, even if you have no intention of buying anything, a walk through the labyrinth-like area is like something straight out of a dream or storybook. A full-blown sensory experience, most travelers are beguiled by the buzz of activity, the sights and sounds, the aromas and the many flavors all around. It can be almost overwhelming.
That is why we strongly urge those on a first-time visit to Cairo to hire a knowledgeable local guide. There are many reasons that this is a savvy step. After all, they can often help you to haggle for the best prices. They can ensure you navigate yourself safely through the souk, and that you enjoy the very best of the hidden treasures tucked into the alleys and by-ways of Khan El Khalili.
They can also help you to avoid the common vendors’ tricks and techniques. For example, getting you to step inside of the shop is a common method of making a sale, but it can end up taking much time to diplomatically leave if you don’t wish to make a purchase. Your guide can be great at helping you escape any such situations. They can also tell you the difference between local goods and low quality imports, helping you to find just what you had hoped to find in this stunning marketplace.
How much time you spend in the bazaar really depends on what your goals are for the visit. Did you want to take a quick stroll, see a few classic vendors and perhaps enjoy an authentic coffee or some street food? If so, two hours can do the trick. However, people watching from the comfort of a café is one of the most enjoyable and free things you can do, so try to allot time for that.
MUST SEE SITES DURING A VISIT TO THE KHAN EL KHALILI
Are you eager to experience something entirely unforgettable while in the bazaar? Then it means you will want to save a bit of room to eat at one of the many cafes. Some of the oldest in all of Cairo are found here, including the famed El-Fishawi café which began business in 1797! However, a good guide will be able to point you towards the vendors offering the best traditional Egyptian dishes and drinks.
Keep in mind that the layout of the Khan El Khalili is not as chaotic as many think. Yes, the lanes are narrow and crowded, but many are arranged around small and welcoming courtyards, making it easier to figure out just who is selling what. Most adhere to similar hours, with all opening around 9AM and few closing up shop until a few hours after sundown (with the exception of Fridays and Sundays).
Of course, you may be one of the many interested in paying a visit to see the stunning gates and historic architecture that so define the site. After all, the bazaar was once a mausoleum called the Saffron Tomb or turbat az-za’faraan used to bury the caliphs of the Fatimid era. However, by the 1300s, the entire area was turned into a khan or area in which merchants were welcomed in order to sell goods to city inhabitants. Placed as it was in the heart of the city, it became a key economic zone in old Cairo and soon expanded.
Later leaders only built upon the area, but so too did many religious groups begin to build in the region. By the 1500s, a major reconstruction phase began, and that is when the modern Khan El Khalili was built, including the monumental gates, elaborate courtyards and grid-like layout it still uses today. Nearby is the al-Hussein Mosque, one of the holiest sites in the city as well as the Al-Azhar University.
It is easy to get to the market by taxi or metro as it is close to the Ataba Station. From there, you can quickly walk to the site and begin exploring, though we recommend a guide to ensure you enjoy every moment in the bazaar. It can be easily combined with a wider tour of the area, including an Old Cairo Tour or one that includes such popular sites as the Citadel, the Old Town and even the Cairo Museum. Of course, you can also spend an entire day and part of an evening in the souk, saturating yourself with the many sights, scents, flavors and sounds that make it such a dreamy and unforgettable spot.