Wednesday, December 2, 2020

Egypt's Must-See Markets: Khan el-Khalili and El Ataba - Cairo Egypt Travel Guide

I have explored many markets throughout the world, but none are quite like the mesmerizing and awe-inspiring Khan el-Khalili market in Cairo. Climbing out of our tuk-tuk taxi, we were greeted with sensory overload. Setting foot into the market is like entering into a maze of visual delight. Your brain enters into a level of heightened alertness as you navigate through seemingly endless corridors of stalls, shops, and workshops. Everywhere you turn, upon looking up, you see colossal minarets rising skyward.

To not take your time and enjoy this immense market would be a waste. One or even two visits are not enough. As you meander along the narrow passageways and alleys you will discover crafters piecing together artifacts and tailors creating the most elegant Egyptian style clothing.

If you are looking for local style food, this market allows one to sample quintessential Egyptian cuisine. Anything from falafel to foul, and even aromatic Koshary, can be enjoyed as you stop to take in the constantly moving scenery.

As evening approaches, the sky turns a deep red color and the sun disappears over the lofty minarets. The market now truly comes alive in all its splendor. This is the time to visit. The call to prayer echoes throughout Khan el-Khalili, as devotees fill the mosques. The market is ablaze in light and sound. People push past as children rush along the cobblestone streets. Vendors fill the local squares with their wares. Cheap toys with flashing lights and street food with aromatic aromas compete for your attention. Shopkeepers beckon you to enter their shops, sometimes physically grabbing you. It is, safe to say, probably nothing like you are used to.  Khan el-Khalili is mind-blowingly old, especially for an American.  The market was said to be established in 1382.  Walking along the streets, you can see the history oozing out at almost every turn.  

The market is divided in two by Al-Azhar road.  On the north side of the road are the more touristy souvenir and craft markets.  This could be called the "prettier side," as the buildings are in better condition and the shops cater more to the foreign crowd.  This is also where many of the historic buildings and mosques are located.  If you are at 
Khan el-Khalili, you can't miss the south side.  This is the more local market, and it is a great place to get some deals on some authentic Egyptian items.  If you venture to this side, you will get more stares.  Some locals may even ask you if you are lost.  Just enjoy yourself and keep on walking.  There's a lot to see here.

On the south side of the market, you will find a couple of restaurants (which are far cheaper than the ones on the north side).  You will also see a lot of clothing, food, and animal vendors.  There are a couple of mosques on this side that are also worth checking out.  The air here is a bit dustier, the ground rougher, and you will not be accosted quite as often as you will on the other side.  It's a bit of the real Egypt that many tourists sadly miss out on. 

If you want to see a more authentic market, head west to El Ataba market.  If you think that 
Khan el-Khalili is out of this world, you will see a real, and sometimes not-so-pretty market where there are thousands of people and probably no other tourists in sight.  This is almost as real as it gets.  If you are traveling by Subway, there is a stop at this market.  Both Khan el-Khalili and El Ataba can be done in one trip, but you will be exhausted once it's all said and done.  

Comparing Cairo's Central Markets:

Khan el-Khalili (north) is known for:
•Beautiful architecture
•Moques and historic ancient walled Cairo.
•exotic souvenirs 
•local food

Khan el-Khalili (south) is known for:
•Intricate and small alleyways
•Local vendors selling a wide variety of locally sourced items
•more local food, but at better prices
•Less harassment

El Ataba is known for:
•A totally local experience
•chaotic atmosphere that makes 
Khan el-Khalili look tame
•small spaces and hordes of shoppers from all over the city
•clothing, shoes, and other sometimes low-quality items that you may not be interested in.
•lack of restaurants and food stalls.
•Architecture is not that interesting.

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