5 tips for shopping in Egypt

July 26, 2017

If you’ve had even the slightest inkling to learn about Ancient Egypt, to see the pyramids up close, or to visit the open-air museum that is the city of Luxor and its seemingly hundred-foot-high stone tributes to the gods, now’s the time to go. Tourism has been quieter of late, meaning it’s quite possible to have the Great Pyramids literally all to yourself.

Outside of tourist sites, though, Egypt is a bustling country, and some of the best places to experience in the country are local bazaars. Though they have their share of authentic-but-really-made-in-China tchotchkes, they’re also home to cafés, culture, and great conversation. Here, some suggestions to prep for a market visit in this North African country:

Prepare to be overwhelmed…

Enter a market like the famed Khan El Khalili in Cairo’s Islamic district, which is one of the oldest bazaars in Egypt, and you’ll be spoiled for choice in terms of where to turn, what to buy, and how much to pay. The labyrinth of streets is lined with stalls, restaurants, and shisha bars, most offering the same things, and most manned by overly friendly salespeople who’ll do what it takes to get — and hold — your attention before hopefully closing a sale. Many markets in cities around the country are smaller versions of this. If you’re prepared for the sensory overload going in, you’ll have a great time. If you’re not interested in what a stall owner is selling — or if a price isn’t to your liking and you don’t want to bargain — offer a fair, but firm “la, shukraan” (Arabic for “no, thank you”) and keep walking.

…and underwhelmed

Every merchant will claim to have authentic wares — Egyptian cotton scarves, ancient scraps of papyrus, hand-knotted carpets. Don’t believe the hype. Make a point to look for that “Made in” product tag. It’s very likely that lovely “ivory” carving or beautiful cotton caftan was made in China, which explains why you’ll find the same pieces at markets throughout Egypt’s well-travelled tourist route, from Alexandria to Aswan. When in doubt of authenticity — and doubt should always be guiding your bazaar shopping experiences — ask your tour guide for advice on whether to close the deal.

Always take time to recharge and refuel in between shopping stops in Egypt.

Always take time to recharge and refuel in between shopping stops in Egypt.

Invest in the real stuff

Papyrus, that beautiful paper-like material that was used in ancient Egypt for writing and art, is a worthy souvenir to bring home, but I promise you will not find an authentic piece at any street bazaar in Egypt. The same goes for jewellery, precious stones, and other handicrafts that only look to be worth big bucks. Look for established detailers and retailers who can guarantee the authenticity of the product you’re about to buy. You might still be able to haggle, and you’ll know you’re walking away with the real deal.

Recharge and refuel

The best place to get a real taste of local life in these markets is at the food stalls, whether for spices and snacks, or a café where you can enjoy a mint tea or a flavourful shisha, with offerings verging on a Baskin Robbins-level of diversity: think cherry, apple, watermelon, coconut, and fig, to name just a few. If you have time in Cairo to visit Khal El Khalili, stop for a light bite (or big meal) at the Naguib Mahfouz Café, named after one of the country’s most famous writers, a Nobel Prize winner. The decor is remarkable, the milkshakes refreshing, and the food flavourful. (But be warned: During peak market hours, there’s a minimum charge per table.)

Enjoy the conversation

During a visit to a small market that lined the path into the entrance and exit of a tourist site in Aswan, a shopkeeper started chatting with me, asking where I was from (Canada) and then telling me a story about how he was supposed to go study there, but stayed in Egypt to take care of his family. I’ll admit I started our interaction by telling him I wasn’t interested in buying anything, but he didn’t mind. He smiled and we had a friendly, sales-free conversation. Later, I mentioned this to my guide. “He was lying to you,” he said, revealing that it was a long con. The sales guy was simply chatting me up, but doing it in a personalized and roundabout way. I was bummed that I was duped by my own wits, but will always remember our interaction. And if I ever go back, I will buy something from him — he's definitely fine-tuned the art of the deal.

Getting there

Ready to take on the markets of Egypt? G Adventures can get you there. Check out our small group tours to Egypt here.

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