Table of Contents
- 1 1. Personalized notebooks and photo albums, from Abd El-Zaher Bookshop, Islamic Cairo
- 2 2. Dates and hibiscus, from any spice vendor or large grocery store
- 3 3. Pottery, from Fayoum, Khan el Khalili or Fair Trade Egypt
- 4 4. Handblown glass vases, from the City of the Dead, Cairo
- 5 5. Alabaster pieces, from around Egypt and shops around the pyramids in Giza
- 6 6. Straw baskets, from Siwa and various shops around Cairo
- 7 7. Wooden bowls, from Fustat or Khan el Khalili
- 8 8. Pottery from Fustat, Old Cairo
Did you ever get excited about a souvenir at an exotic market only to come home and watch it gather dust? I love how souvenirs can conjure up memories of a trip. But very often, they end up just boring us years later. Eventually, they either languish in the back of a closet or they get donated to an overflowing charity shop.
I love hunting down souvenirs that never get old. Souvenirs that bring memories, but are practical enough to use in daily life. Pieces that aren’t too loud or kitsch, and that fit seamlessly into my home without creating clutter.
But shopping for souvenirs in Cairo can be a challenge. Especially when you’ve only got a few days and most of your time is spent sightseeing. Or when you’ve got a tour guide who’ll only take you to the shops where the owner cuts him a percent of the profits.
Many souvenirs, in parts of Khan el Khalili, aren’t even genuine. They’re made in China or Malaysia and have little to do with Egypt. Worst of all they don’t support the local artisans who are at risk of disappearing in Egypt, like everywhere else.
In my past six years of living in Cairo, I’ve done a lot of shopping. I’ve brought back a lot of gifts back to family in the states and in Europe. And some of these souvenirs are treasured to this day while others are hidden away in forgotten drawers.
Here are my recommendations for what to buy in Cairo and where to find pieces that are authentic, well-made and practical.
1. Personalized notebooks and photo albums, from Abd El-Zaher Bookshop, Islamic Cairo
This beautiful gem of a bookshop is tucked away on a side street behind the city’s iconic Al Azhar Mosque. It offers personalized leather notebooks, less pricey notepads, photo albums where you can secure your photographs with mounting corners, vintage postcards and a small selection of books about Egypt.
The workers can stamp your name (in Arabic or English) into any notebook you choose – on the spot while you wait. Such pieces make for beautiful and personal souvenirs.
Last year, I did all my Christmas shopping at Abd El-Zaher and got everyone in my family personalized photo albums with their name written in Arabic on the spine. In this age of smartphones where we only ever see our photos on a screen, it’s refreshing to have them to flip through.
If you have old books that are falling apart, Abd El-Zaher can also rebind them for you – though this means leaving your book there and picking it up later.
2. Dates and hibiscus, from any spice vendor or large grocery store
Loose hibiscus leaves make a great gift for loved ones that you can package in a nice glass jar. Dates (especially from the Siwa region) also make yummy and nutritious treats.
I love giving food as gifts because I know it will be enjoyed and it won’t be stored away and eventually forgotten.
Some packs of dates come wrapped in a straw bowl, which also makes a great souvenir to store odd bits on your desk. I have a straw bowl on my nightstand filled with rocks and shells picked up during my travels.
3. Pottery, from Fayoum, Khan el Khalili or Fair Trade Egypt
I love the bold yet simple patterns of Fayoumi pottery, much of which is blue drawings on a light surface, portraying nature scenes. Some patterns are geometric and more brightly colored, but it never gets too loud to fit into my decor.
If you can’t get to Fayoum, then I recommend shopping at Fair Trade Egypt at their locations in Maadi or Zamalek. You’ll get authentic Fayoumi pottery made by artisans who are paid fairly for their work.
4. Handblown glass vases, from the City of the Dead, Cairo
The City of the Dead was once a mysterious and rarely visited district of Cairo, but now more independent travellers and small tour agencies are discovering its hidden architectural gems.
The Complex of Sultan al-Ashraf Qaytbay is a great starting point for a walking tour, and it’s recently been restored. There are several workshops in the area that sell beautiful handblown glass. And you can often walk in and watch the artisans at work.
There are lamps in colorful mosaics, and vases, glasses, and pitchers in an array of colors. Though I prefer the clear and blue glass.
5. Alabaster pieces, from around Egypt and shops around the pyramids in Giza
I only have a small souvenir from the many times I’ve visited the pyramids at Giza: a single pyramid made out of alabaster. It’s simple, fits easily with any decor, and hasn’t bored me yet though I’ve had it for years.
You’ll find alabaster throughout Egypt, and an array of pieces with an Ancient Egyptian motif. They’re a far more beautiful and elegant version than their plastic and brightly-painted counterparts.
6. Straw baskets, from Siwa and various shops around Cairo
I use mine to store laundry, though they’re practical for many uses. Some straw baskets are more ornately decorated than others. But I love the more minimal baskets that will fit into my home decor no matter how it changes over the years.
7. Wooden bowls, from Fustat or Khan el Khalili
Wooden bowls, coasters, and plates are a great way to liven up a coffee table. They’re great gifts too because you’ll be sure any kitchen will find a practical use for them.
8. Pottery from Fustat, Old Cairo
Fustat in Old Cairo has a centuries-old tradition of creating beautiful pottery.
The complex at the modern art gallery Darb 1718 has several workshops where you can buy directly from the artisans. There are plant pots in simple yet gorgeous colors and designs that will complement any balcony.
All of these souvenirs have found a place in my home, and most are still used almost daily.
And they’re all uniquely Egyptian made in the traditions you won’t find anywhere else. Because nobody needs yet another plastic keychain.
I would love to hear from you! What are your favorite souvenirs you’ve bought during your travels?
*All photos are courtesy of Dee Nowak.
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