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As seen in Transitions Abroad Magazine January/February 2005
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A Season in Cairo

Cairo Coffee Shops

Escape the Bustling Streets to Savor

Days can be long in Cairo. Markets are crowded and streets are crazy. And for all the city's alleyway allure, for all of its history and romance and excitement and motion, sometimes it can be just too overwhelming, too much to take without a few moments of calm. And for travelers eager to regroup and reflect without retreating to their hotel rooms, such moments can be had at the closest coffee shop.

Cairo coffee shops, or ahwas, have provided a place of reprieve—and social exchange—for centuries, and can be found on almost every city street. For Egyptian residents (the male ones at least), they offer a spot to congregate with friends, peruse the morning papers, and puff on a shisha, or water pipe. For visitors, they serve as a stopping point in the midst of a busy, bustling Cairo day—and a good place to take in some local culture while sipping strong Turkish coffee.

Although a handful of these well-known haunts in the downtown and Khan al-Khalili areas have made their way into travel guides and onto tourists' to-do lists, most have remained "Egyptian" establishments. Downtown, Cafeteria Hurriya is a veritable institution in coffee-shop history. Located in Midan Falaki, a square ringed by coffee merchants selling bags of freshly roasted beans, Hurriya is spacious and airy as it was when it opened in the 1930s. Solitary newspaper readers are around at all hours, but they are joined by groups of intellectuals, artists, and backgammon players as morning fades into afternoon, and a noisier, less restrained crowd appears in the evenings. For a smaller, more "tucked-away" alternative, Al-Nadi Al-Saqafiya is less than a block away, as is the oftentimes empty Cafeteria Hamadiya. The tables inside are better spots for private conversations than those of its noisier neighbors. And for coffee with arts and culture on the side, Ta'kiba is a short walk away. Its tables line the stone wall of the barren but beautiful Champillion Palace and sit just around the corner from Town House Gallery and Theater. Between rounds of caffeine and conversation, coffee shop patrons can wander through art exhibits, attend plays, lectures, and performances, and make use of the gallery's exceptionally sanitary bathroom.

For those looking to shop and willing to brave the relatively high level of harassment by vendors hawking their wares, the coffee shops around Islamic Cairo's Khan al-Khalili offer an alternative to downtown, though generally not the most peaceful, relaxing one. Fishawi's, located near Midan Hussein and open 24/7 for the past 200 years, is high on those traveler to-do lists (and hence frequently filled with tourists). Those wishing to escape a carnivalesque atmosphere may wish to head elsewhere during the day and early evening, but the place does calm down significantly once the khan's shops have closed for the night.

Virtually all of Cairo is open to coffee shop discoveries; indeed, coffee shop hopping is an excellent way to get a feel for unfamiliar neighborhoods. And while many coffee shops are established venues, open from early til late in regular places of business, many others simply appear on sidewalks around sundown. One particularly pleasant variation on this "instant coffee shop" scene can be found in Manial, a neighborhood located on Rhoda Island. As the sun starts to fall, makeshift cafes pop up along the Nile side of Manial's Abdel Aziz Al-Saud Street, providing a place for young couples to sit in the shadows while sipping tea and hummos ash-sham (fava bean and tomato soup).

And whether in Manial's makeshift "coffee shops" or the more established venues, coffee is not the only beverage on order. Tea can be found everywhere, and decaffeinated alternatives such as na'na' (mint), karkadey (hibiscus), and yinsoon (aniseed) are often available as well. During Cairo's chilly winter months, glasses of hot sahlab, a sweet, thick milk drink, warm the insides; and during interminably long summer days, nothing soothes frazzled nerves quite like freshly squeezed limoon, or sugary lemon juice. And, when you really need to unwind, Hurriya also serves beer.

Since cheap and tempting street food is even more abundant than coffee shops, picking up some fuul (mashed fava bean) sandwiches or kushari (rice, noodles, and lentils mixed with tomato sauce) en route is inexpensive and easy.

And for those travelers who are all for culture but just can't forgo their favorite designer coffee drinks, trendier (and significantly pricier) coffee shops are ever increasing in number. Some, such as Groppis' central downtown branch and Simonds in Zamalek, are long-established landmarks of contemporary Cairo history and offer up nostalgic kitsch along with their fancy drink options, decadent pastries, and above-average prices. Others, such as Beanos and Cilantros, represent a much newer, Starbucks-style set.

With the possible exceptions of Hurriya and Ta'kiba during certain afternoon or evening hours, Egyptian coffee shops are largely male-only affairs. Female travelers who enter them—and they should feel free to do so without hesitation or fear—are bound to attract notice and likely to receive a few obnoxious (though generally harmless) stares or remarks. Arriving with male companions undoubtedly keeps this in check—all the more so if one of them happens to be Egyptian. But even lone females will find that the novelty of their presence and any unwelcome attention are likely to drop off if they frequent a place and dress conservatively (no shorts, minis, or tank tops). And coffee shop waiters are usually more than willing to put a rude patron in his place if asked to do so. As a female traveler myself—one fond of frequenting Cairo coffee shops alone and with friends—I can think of few better places to get a "feel" for the city while taking a rest from its crazy, beautiful streets.