Updated: Nov 28, 2022
The neighborhood of Downtown Cairo isn’t known for its upscale nightlife scene, but it IS known for something which may be even more up your alley: it’s the home to numerous baladi bars, historic bars and rooftop bars.
Wait. What exactly is a baladi bar?
Good question. A baladi bar is essentially a hole-in-the-wall, Egyptian version of a dive bar, popular with Egyptian locals (baladi translates to ‘my country’, but is also used to refer to something local or national – Egypt’s beloved local pita bread for example is called eish baladi or baladi bread). Baladi bars tend to be on the shabby side, and not a place you would necessarily want to eat. But the drinks are cheap and cold, and they’re a great place to feel like a real local.
Downtown Cairo also is known for its historic bars, which are decades old and have seen a lion’s share of modern Cairo (and even national) history. Downtown also has several rooftop bars which are a far cry from the fancier rooftop bars elsewhere in Cairo (here’s a list of our favorite Cairo rooftop bars).
You may also like: 10 Best Restaurants in Downtown Cairo
But without further ado, let’s dive right into Downtown Cairo’s dive bars (bad pun unintended).
(Psst, you can read more about Cairo's oldest restaurants and bars here).
Probably the most famous restaurant and bar in Downtown Cairo, Cafe Riche has quite a history. It was founded in 1908 and is known for being a beloved meeting place of historical revolutionaries, intellectuals and prominent figures in modern Egyptian history. A few examples: it was here where members of the Egyptian resistance planned the 1919 revolution against the British; where an assassin lay in wait to attempt (and fail) to kill the last Coptic Prime Minister, Youssef Wahba Pacha; where King Farouk first saw his second wife, Nariman Sadek; where beloved singer Umm Kalthoum performed in 1923; and where Gamal Abdel Nasser planned the 1952 revolution. Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz was a regular patron as well -- his novel Karnak Cafe is based on Cafe Riche, its customers and their stories.
Relics of these people and times in history still adorn Cafe Riche’s walls until now.
Built in 1959 by a Greek couple in a passageway between two buildings in Downtown, this restaurant and bar was named after the town of Estoril in Portugal, where the couple had their honeymoon. Similar to other vintage resto-bars in Downtown, Estoril was a popular meeting place for political activists, writers, artists and intellectuals. One wall is dedicated to local art while the other is full of memorabilia and clippings of articles and other old press about Estoril in its heyday.
Estoril’s menu now is not much to write home about, but it remains a popular spot to have a beer and chat with the bartender about years past.
Founded in 1941 and originally a restaurant and beer garden, Le Grillon was famous for being the spot where Cairo’s well-heeled would gather for drinks and a meal before and after national icon Umm Kalthoum’s performances in the nearby Qasr el Nil Theatre (and even during the intermission).
In the 50s, Le Grillon was popular with all the biggest names in Egyptian cinema: Roshdy Abaza, Sabah, Amina Rizk, Samia Gamal, Nadia Lotfy and more. This vintage restaurant has even witnessed some unforgettable scenes that had nothing to do with the movies, like when Fareed el Atrash had a heart attack there and the waitstaff had to rush him to the hospital, or how Abdelwahab was so specific about how his fruit was washed that he had the waiters bring him a pitcher of water to the table so he could wash the fruit himself.
Today it’s more shabby than chic, and we wouldn’t recommend eating there. But it’s still a good spot to go for a drink and a shisha in their closed terrace.
Located above the patisserie Groppi on Talaat Harb Square, the Greek Club when it first opened in 1906 was just that: a Greeks-only club where members could gather for dinner, drinks and live music.
It opened to the public in the 1950s, when Egyptians and visitors of all nationalities could enjoy its terrace, vaulted ceilings and Greek specialties. Today it’s still popular as a Downtown bar, especially its open-air terrace, and while it doesn’t feel particularly Greek anymore, they still take a stab at it with the menu and blue and white checked tablecloths.
Founded in 1936 over the remains of Ahmed Orabi, an Egyptian officer who led a mutiny in 1879 against the Anglo-French loyalist Khedive Tewfik, El Horreya is one of the most famous cafes and bars in Downtown Cairo.
It has a distinct ‘cafeteria’-ish look, with bright lights, high ceilings and scattered tables. It’s open from the afternoon until 2 am, and was popular throughout the years with artists, poets, intellectuals, foreigners and expats and students from the nearby American University (their new campus is now in New Cairo). People go there for an affordable beer, to play chess or backgammon or just to chat.
Carol started off as a French bistro in the 1960s, but over the years it deteriorated until it was a seedy baladi bar. A few years back though it was completely renovated, so while it’s still a baladi bar, it’s now what we’d consider a NICE baladi bar lol. They have a long wooden bar that goes well with their narrow space, and offer a range of tapas dishes to go with your beer.
This restaurant and bar is a good choice in Downtown Cairo if you want to have a drink with your meal, but want to avoid the subpar food of Cafe Riche or Estoril. Their menu is full of meat, chicken and fish dishes as well as an extensive appetizer list if you want to go for something lighter with your drink. There’s also a DJ on Thursday nights.
Not to be confused with the famous Cap D’Or bar in Alexandria (also known as Sheikh Ali), this Downtown Cairo Cap D’or is another extremely old baladi bar – it opened over 100 years ago in 1908! It’s still frequented mainly by locals for the beers and free termis (lupin beans) and other random bar snacks.
Other (rather downtrodden) baladi bars of note:
Le Comte Bar
Rooftop Baladi Bars
Odeon’s a 24/7 rooftop bar (on top of the shabby Odeon Hotel) and has been a Downtown Cairo staple for decades now. Popular with Cairo’s artistic and cinematic crowd, as well as foreigners, it’s always an interesting mix of people. The view may not be able to compete with the Nile or the Pyramids, but it has its own quirky charm.
They serve local alcohol and shisha, as well as a few dubious food offerings (stick to something safe, like fries).
On top of the dated 3 star Carlton Hotel is a surprisingly nice and breezy rooftop. The hotel has been open since 1935 and definitely hasn’t taken any steps into the 21st century (the interiors seem stuck somewhere in the 1980s), but the rooftop is simple and straightforward.
They serve local beer and wine and shisha, and at night you can see the High Court of Justice building lit up.
Atop another shabby hotel in Downtown of the same name, the Happy City rooftop bar is actually more well known than the hotel itself (although to be fair, the bar's real name is Wadi el Melouk, but no local calls it that. Being a baladi bar, it’s cheap and cheerful, and popular on weekends or nights with football matches.