Photo by Ishaq Madan
Ramadan is observed May 6 to June 4 in 2019.
Daily life slows down a bit, but traveling to a Muslim country during Ramadan allows you to be charitable, meet gracious locals, and taste some seriously good food.
Ramadan, the Muslim holy month, is marked by fasting from sunrise to sunset, with days reserved for introspection and evenings for socializing with family and friends. Since Muslims follow the lunar calendar, Ramadan naturally falls 11 days earlier each year. This year, it is observed May 6 to June 4. If you’re heading to Indonesia, Egypt, or another Muslim-majority country during Ramadan, follow our guide to get closer with the people, food, and culture during your travels.
First up, you need to check when Ramadan actually is. Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, during which it’s believed the Quran was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad. The Islamic calendar is lunar, so it shifts back a bit each year as measured by the Gregorian calendar. This year, Ramadan is May 6 to June 4. In 2020, it will be April 24 to May 23. (Note that the exact dates can vary by a day or two, depending on when the new moon is sighted and how you determine “start” and “end.”)
How Ramadan is observed around the world varies, so you should research local laws and practices in advance. “Some countries are closed to visitors during Ramadan while others are more welcoming,” says Anissa Helou, cookbook author, teacher, and chef who specializes in Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cuisine. In some places, like in Dubai, eating and drinking in public during daylight hours in not allowed, whether you are observing the fast or not. In others, like Istanbul, it’s more tolerated. Check things like whether restaurants are open during the day, and the availability of alcohol. Bear in mind that the time between sunrise and sunset is a lot longer during the summer.
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Ramadan is also an ideal time to connect with local culture by supporting your host country. One of the best ways to learn about a region’s customs is by hiring a local guide. During Ramadan, guides can provide information on the traditional food and practices and connect you with people who will invite you to observe Ramadan as the locals do. Support those in need by cooking an iftar meal with Resala in Egypt, donating food or clothes to Ajialouina Organization in Lebanon, or contacting another established NGO to volunteer.
Ramadan is a period of devotion, reflection, and charity. The most obvious manifestation of this will be the fast, which is one of the five pillars of Islam. People observing the fast will not eat, drink, or smoke between sunrise and sunset. Particularly devout practitioners may even avoid swallowing their own saliva.
As a visitor, you will not be expected to fast (though you may if you want). However, you should be mindful of consuming (or even displaying) food and drink in public during the day, regardless of your destination’s actual laws. It’s common-sense respect: If not a drop or morsel had passed your lips for hours, you wouldn’t want to have someone merrily guzzling right in your face. Watch what non-fasting locals do, and follow suit.
Many places, especially touristy ones or where there is a large non-observant population, will have restaurants open and serving during the day, though they may not be flaunting it. Hotels often offer private dining options for visitors. Everywhere is different.
During Ramadan, Muslims will also try to avoid all forms of sinful behavior, such as evil thoughts or false speech. It’s therefore respectful to conduct yourself in a similarly restrained manner, moderating your language and behavior and dressing modestly: Long pants and a top that covers your shoulders (and midriff) will do the trick. Likewise, public intoxication is a no-no—and it’s probably going to be hard to find alcohol, anyway.
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Business slows down during Ramadan. Many restaurants, government entities, and even some tourism sites operate on reduced hours or may be closed entirely during Ramadan. Don’t plan on getting much done just before or after sunset, when people break their fast with the evening meal, iftar. Before this, everything grinds to a halt as everyone is either at home or heading there (or to wherever else they are breaking their fast). And if you do need to go somewhere and are lucky enough to find a taxi, prepare for the ride of your life as the hangry driver speeds home to his family. Afterwards, everyone is in a blissful post-iftar food coma for a while. From a traveler’s point of view, all this is fine as long as you plan your day in advance.
If all this sounds rather dour, think again. Sure, Ramadan is a time of sustained religiosity, and the fast is tough, but it’s also a time of intense joy, camaraderie, and affirmation. People often break their fast at communal public tables (sometimes provided by richer members of society for the poorer). Although all are welcome to attend public iftars, it’s relatively common to be invited to a private iftar. “Being invited to share iftar in people’s homes is a sign of friendship and respect,” says Helou, and it allows you to experience this holy time in an intimate, authentic way. It doesn’t matter whether you’ve been fasting or not. There are plenty of savory dishes, sweet treats, and conversation to go around, and though visitors are not expected to bring a gift for the host, dates or desserts are a nice way to show your appreciation. At the end of the month, Eid al-Fitr breaks the month-long fast with an elaborate feast, classy dress, and gift-giving.
During Ramadan, nights are where the real action lies. Iftar acts like a pressure valve, and once people have broken the fast, the streets come alive again. While some people spend time reading the Quran or praying at the mosque, others will visit family and friends and, of course, eat and drink some more. Sometimes, feasting lasts until the early morning. Where you are will determine how festive it feels, but there will usually be something going on. As a visitor, this is a wonderful time—and a privilege—to be out and about, soaking up the atmosphere and sharing a little of what makes this month so special to more than a billion people around the world.
This article originally appeared online in 2015; it was updated on March 19, 2019, to include current information.
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