Travel to a Muslim country during Ramadan requires a bit more thought, but can be a great time to visit. Here’s a primer on what you need to know.
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 June 18 to July 16. Next year, it will be June 6 to July 5. And 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. In some places, like in Dubai, it’s not allowed to eat or drink in public during daylight hours, whether you are observing the fast or not. In others, like Istanbul, it’s more tolerated. You should 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.
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. 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.
Expect things to happen slower than usual, if at all. Many businesses—this might include tourism sites—will be operating on reduced hours, and you’ll need to cut the staff some slack. 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), and in places such as Egypt, they will implore you to join them. Do so! It doesn’t matter whether you’ve been fasting or not. People will be stoked you are breaking bread with them, and it’s a great way to learn about your host country’s religion and culture. And even if you share no common language, you can always share the same food, right?
During Ramadan, nights are where the real action lies. Iftar acts like a pressure valve, and once people have recovered from the shock of eating and drinking for the first time in hours, the streets come alive again. While some people spend time reading the Quran or praying at the mosque, others will visit friends and family, go shopping, hang out in coffee shops, and, of course, eat and drink some more. Where you are will determine how festive it feels—Cairo, to me, always felt like one big party—but there will always be something going on, and it will often last through the night until the dawn prayer, fajr. 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.
Photo by Jiuguang Wang/Flickr.
For a deeper dive into Islamic culture, travel to the Middle East in 2016 as part of AFAR Experiences Dubai.