Cairo, known for its faded 19th-century architecture, its 22 million inhabitants and its constant buzz of city noise, isn’t a destination for those who want to switch off. Egyptians have nicknamed the city ‘Umm Ad Dunya’ – the Mother of the World – and fittingly, the city has borne witness to some of the most pivotal events in both ancient and modern Egypt.
The city’s many historic cafés attest to this. Some of the city’s coffee shops date as far back as the 15th century and the days of the Ottoman Empire, yet still remain popular amongst locals and tourists alike to this day. Here’s our selection of 5 must-visit cafés in Egypt’s famed capital city.
1. El Fishawy
El Fishawy first opened its doors just one year before Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Egypt, in 1797. Located in the world-famous Khan el Khalili bazaar, the café is one of Egypt’s most famous ahwas, and claims to be one of the oldest cafés in Cairo. Over 240 years ago, a man called El Fishawy began serving his friends coffee after evening prayers in a small alleyway in the same place. The tradition of serving drinks continued until it became a proper establishment, famous for its coffee and shisha.
Today, Akram el-Fishawy is the seventh generation of his family to manage the coffee house, which has been frequented by the likes of Napoleon and Naguib Mahfouz, one of the most famous Egyptian writers of the 20th century.
2. Beit Zeinab Khatoon
Beit Zeinab Khatoon (Zeinab Khatoon’s House) is an old Mamluk house in the Darb Ahmar area of Old Cairo. Built in 1486 with later additions during the Ottoman Empire, the house is named after its last owner, Zeinab Khatoon, the wife of prince Al-Sharif Hamza Al-Kharboutly, who opened her house to wounded fighters in the Egyptian resistance against Napoleon’s French occupation in 1798.
Today, Beit Zeinab Khatoon is a protected heritage site, with its café in its scenic open courtyard serving shisha, tea and coffee.
3. Café Riche
Founded in 1908, Café Riche is one of the most famous establishments in downtown Cairo, known for being a regular haunt for historical revolutionaries, intellectuals and prominent figures in modern Egyptian history. It was at Café Riche that members of the Egyptian resistance planned the 1919 revolution against the British, and where Gamal Abdel Nasser planned the 1952 revolution.
Today, its decoration references its history throughout. Like El Fishawy, writer Naguib Mahfouz was a regular patron, and his novel Karnak Café is based on Café Riche’s customers and their stories.
In 1891, Groppi was founded by Swiss chocolatier to Middle Eastern monarchs and pashas Giacomo Groppi (1863-1947). The tearoom quickly became one of the most celebrated in the Middle East, and Groppi chocolates were gifted to foreign dignitaries, royals and celebrities. It has been claimed that Groppi was the first to introduce Chantilly cream and ice cream to Egypt, and the business was also the first chocolatier in Egypt to employ women.
There were originally two branches – one in Heliopolis, and one in Alexandria. Today, Groppi is located at the Talaat Harb Square in the center of downtown Cairo, and is very popular amongst the Egyptian elite, British officers, celebrities and wealthy expats.
5. El Horreya Café and Bar
Translating to ‘freedom’ in Arabic, El Horreya is known as being a historic centre for thinkers, poets and politicians. A bright, open, marble-walled and high-ceilinged establishment decorated with hand-painted advertisements, it was one of many cafés which flourished in 1930s Cairo.
Built upon the remains of a famed Egyptian officer who led a mutiny against the French, the café is located in the modest Bab al-Louq square, just moments away from Tahrir Square. It is a popular spot today amongst tourists and locals alike.