If you're a working-class Cairene and you want something more fortifying than a coffee and shisha but can't afford to go to a five-star hotel, then the <em>baladi</em> bars are for you.
The baladi bars are the dive bars of Cairo. They were once glamorous cabaret clubs; now they're run-down and seedy and far from bustling. Even so, they are the only place you can drink a beer outside of an expensive hotel or restaurant. Baladi means native or folk in Arabic. If you're a working-class Cairene and you want something more fortifying than a coffee and shisha but can't afford to go to a five-star hotel, then the baladi bars are for you.
Cairo was a big party town in the 1940s and 50s, and the downtown baladi bars were packed with an international bohemian crowd. This started to change after the ousting of King Farouk during the Egyptian Revolution of 1952 and the nationalization of many businesses by the new president, Gamal Abdel Nasser. Downtown Cairo, which was modeled on Paris and built in the late 19th century, has slowly crumbled. It's degentrified.
The bars have also been hit hard by the rise, since the 70s, of conservative Islam. It has become very hard for the owners to renew their liquor licenses or transfer them to new owners, and most Cairenes view them as being centers of prostitution and drug taking. They're disreputable places to go, and they have a furtive air about them—which you'll really notice when you pull out a camera and try to take some pictures.
But if you have a high tolerance for being hassled, you can have a good time there. You'll walk down streets crowded with women in headscarves, go through a discreet doorway, and see a few men scattered around, smoking and drinking locally brewed beer while a woman sways about on stage in skimpy clothes and men throw Egyptian pound notes at her. Other liberally attired women prowl the bar encouraging beer consumption, shelling peanuts, and soliciting tips. Foreign tourists are very rare in Cairo now, so you'll be jumped on and fought over the second you enter. A tip: Pay drink by drink to avoid an unpleasant scene when you're presented with the bill at the end of the night.