Before moving to Egypt, I never believed you could properly socialize without alcohol. But while many Egyptians do drink—and I certainly spent my fair share of time playing whack-a-mole with my brain cells—the country’s cafes are far more numerous and far more popular than the bars, and at least as lively.

Coffee shops in Cairo run the gamut from Nile-side posh to franchise bland to perched-on-a-hillside illegal (although “law” in the city is a somewhat subjective phenomenon). The more upmarket joints might serve anything from sushi to Sakara (a local beer) to sahlab (a hot, creamy drink made from orchid starch), blurring the lines between cafe, restaurant, and bar. But I always preferred the simpler neighborhood cafes that seemed to anchor every street corner.

A traditional Cairene ahwa is like a microcosm of the city: crowded, boisterous, and sensuous to the point of overload; a ramshackle gestalt formed from the swarm of plastic tables and chairs spilling onto the street, the ebb and flow of conversation and laughter, the swirl of fragrant shisha smoke, and the slap-clack-curse of backgammon games.

My friends and I would chat and chill and play for hours, sipping tiny cups of grainy, tooth-achingly sweet black Arabic coffee and exhaling thick clouds of apple-flavored smoke from the water pipes we passed back and forth—or hogged to ourselves. Fired up on caffeine, we’d still be calling for hagar tani (another bowl for the shisha) as our boozier brethren were staggering home from the bars.

No matter my mood, there was always an ahwa that would deliver. If I wanted to run into someone I knew, I’d check out Taka’eeba, an artsy joint next to the Townhouse Gallery with excellent people-watching but mediocre shisha. Ahwa Bustan, squatting a narrow alleyway next to Café Riche, was my go-to venue for backgammon games against out-of-towners. If I felt like channeling my inner tourist and bantering with the store owners, I’d head to the iconic El Fishawy, in the heart of Khan El Khalili bazaar. And if I needed to subsume myself in the anonymity of the crowd, I’d wander into downtown’s Borsa area, a maze of cafes in which I could curl up in a nook and let the city wash over me.

For more drinking tips, check out our feature “How to Drink Anywhere in the World” from the May 2015 issue.

Photo of El Fishawy cafe by Charlie Phillips/Wikimedia