Cairo isn’t a ‘dry’ city, but locals tend to run on caffeine, available at both traditional ahwas (coffeehouses) and European-style cafes. Drinking beer or spirits typically doesn’t start till the evening hours, and then it’s limited to Western-style bars and some cheaper, more locals-only dives. For the former, Zamalek is the best place to go boozing; the latter are all Downtown.

Alcohol

Liquor is expensive, local wine is drinkable but not great, but beer is widely available and cheap. Beers range from LE25 to LE45, while cocktails are typically only served at more upscale bars and range from LE70 to more than LE200. The fancier places can have door policies as strict as the nightclubs, so dress well and go in mixed groups. Many places also have full menus, so you can snack as you go.

Find Your Own Ahwa

Cairo’s ahwas – traditional coffeehouses – are essential places to unwind, chat and breathe deeply over a shisha. Dusty floors, rickety tables and the clatter of dominoes and towla (backgammon) define the traditional ones. But newer, shinier places – where women smoke as well – have expanded the concept, not to mention the array of shisha flavours, which now include everything from mango to bubblegum.

There’s an ahwa for every possible subculture. We review a couple of the most famous ones, but half the joy of the ahwa is discovering ‘yours’. Look in back alleys all over Downtown. Sports fans gather south of Sharia Alfy; intellectuals at Midan Falaki. There’s a nice traditional joint down the lane behind Al Azhar Mosque, and a cool mixed crowd next to Townhouse Gallery. Most ahwas are open from 8am to 2am or so, and you can order a lot more than shai (tea) and coffee: try karkadai (hibiscus, hot or cold), irfa (cinnamon), kamun (cumin, good for colds), yansun (anise) and, in winter, hot sahlab (milky drink made from orchid tubers).

Baladi Bar Crawl

Bar-hopping in Cairo typically takes you to Western-style lounges. But there’s a parallel drinking culture in cheaper baladi (local) bars. These ‘cafeterias’, as they’re often signed, have a slightly seedy, old-fashioned air. Renovations funded by beer company Stella have taken a layer of grime off a few, and there’s even an (out-of-date but still fun) online guide at www.baladibar.com. Entrances are often hidden or screened off. A few Downtown classics:

Cafeteria El Horreya A Cairo institution, and quite wholesome as it’s big, brightly lit and welcoming to women. No beer served on the side with the chessboards.

Cafeteria Stella Ceilings are higher than the room is wide, with tables crammed with a mix of characters from afternoon on. Look for the entrance behind a kiosk. Free nibbles are served with beer.

Cap d’Or Quite run-down and lit with fluorescent bulbs. The staff are used to seeing foreigners, but usually male only.

Greek Club Cool beer on a terrace, and an air-kissing crowd talking about art, revolution and politics.

Cairo Walk through the grill restaurant to the 1st-floor bar. The sign is in Arabic only, blue letters on a red background.

Gemayka That’s Egyptian for ‘Jamaica’. In the pedestrian area around the stock exchange.