Although Cairo has plenty of Western-style bars, people-watching and convivial conversation more typically take place at the ahwa, neighborhood coffee houses offering non-alcoholic drinks, shisha (water pipes). At Sequoia, an upscale cafe and shisha lounge, cosmopolitan young Egyptians mingle with expats trying more than two dozen shisha flavors at alfresco tables right on the Nile; the menu also includes alcohol, Arabic dishes, pizza and sushi. Taakeeba, a 10-minute walk downtown from the Egyptian Museum, is an old-school streetside ahwa. In the eponymous alley of the Khan al Khalili Bazaar in the historic Islamic district, El Fishawi draws tourists and, in the late afternoons and evenings, as well as a parade, of fortune-tellers, henna artists, and watch sellers.
Note: When ordering thick, dark Arabic coffee, specify “ahwa mazbout” for medium sweetness or “ahwa sada” for a ristretto-strong, sugar-free single. Other drinks to try include shay, powdered tea, with or without mint; karkadey, or dried-hibiscus-petal infusion, which can be had hot or cold; and sahlab, a sweet hot drink made from dried and crushed Orchis mascula, sesame seeds, coconut, sugar, and milk, and topped with raisins and nuts. With shisha, the smooth smoke of a hunk of flavored tobacco (try mint or melon) heated atop a hot coal bubbles through a water-filled glass chamber before passing to a mouthpiece at the end of a long flexible hose.
Taakeeba is on the corner of Al- Nabrawy Street and Hussain Pasha Al Meamari Street, 10 minute walk from the Egyptian Museum of Antiquities. El Fishawi is on El-Fishawi Alley, just off Passage No. 6 near the Khan Al Kahlili Bazaar. It has a dark wooden exterior.
TAAKEEBA: Corner of Al Nabrawy and Hussein Pasha Al Meamari Sts.
EL FISHAWI: El-Fishawi Alley, Khan al Khalili Bazaar; 20-2-2590-6755
SEQUOIA: 53 Abou El Feda St.; 20-2-2735-0014; sequoiaonline.net