It’s Ramadan season where, throughout the month (May 27 – June 25, 2017), Muslims around the world observe fasting, introspection and deep prayer. For Muslims, Ramadan is a time for spiritual strengthening and personal development, when days are spent exercising discipline and commitment, and nights are spent in both celebration and vigil.
It might not be the obvious idea to visit Muslim countries during Ramadan. After all, everyone’s going to be hangry (hungry + angry), and most shops will be closed. In reality though, it’s quite the contrary! I believe certain countries with active Muslim communities are in fact best visited during Ramadan. It’s a good way to enrich your travelling experience, and you get extra bragging rights! Plus, it’s an off-peak season, so it’s friendlier to the pocket and there is less crowd!
Many might get concerned about travelling during Ramadan because of the food, attire, strict rules etc. The best tip I can offer is to learn about the country and culture before embarking your journey during the Holy Month. To start with, although non-Muslim visitors are not expected to fast, it would be courteous not to eat, drink, chew gum or smoke in public during the fasting hours. Be respectful of these practice, then you absolutely can travel to enjoy the wonderful experience of Ramadan in these destinations around the world.
Top Destinations to Experience Ramadan Abroad
The heart of Moroccan tourism cannot be missed, especially in Ramadhan! Marrakech is all about vibrant souks (marketplace) and culture and many during Ramadan, the streets remain lively, especially at night.
The Jemaa el-Fna, the square in the old city, is a UNESCO site and has been the icon of the city since ten centuries ago. It’s easy to understand why! It offers a colourful concentration of cultural exchange, traditions, and commercial activities. From henna tattooing and traditional food medicine to poetry performances and snake-charmers, the square does possess a different charm at night that attracts many tourists to immerse themselves with the locals.
During Ramadhan, Marrakech will be a little quieter as the shops are less crowded and activities are slower. Yet, Marrakech remains as a visitor-friendly city during this period.
Rows of traditionally-inspired homes, with an interior garden as its focal point, provide an extraordinarily stunning retreat and a cosy place to rest, both during the day and night.
CC 2.0 / Terry Munson
If you happen to make friends with the locals, you may get invited for iftar, when friends and family come together to have a meal after fasting during the day. Otherwise, do take to the streets of Marrakech at night to experience the joyful and lively atmosphere with people over food, music and colourful lights. Besides, Marrakech is also famous for its breathtaking mosques, grand museums, and beautiful gardens.
Koutoubia Mosque from the Rose Garden / About The Journeys
Koutoubia Mosque, the strikingly tall minaret across Jemaa el-Fna, is popular but is exclusive for Muslims only. However, you can still snap a few shots of the majestic structure of the mosque from several places, such as the Rose Garden.
Museum of Marrakech / Photo Credit: About the Journey
Another highlight would be the Museum of Marrakech that can be found inside Dar Menebhi Palace, boasting a classical Andalusian architecture with various exhibitions on modern and traditional art pieces. The gorgeous design will definitely keep you amazed throughout your visit.
Not far from the museum, you will discover Ben Youssef Madrasa that is often swarmed by tourists. The colourful tiles and intricate carvings on the walls are truly enchanting, and many find this a perfect place to slow down and marvel at the beauty has stood through centuries.
Museum of Marrakech / Photo Credit: About the Journey
Carvings and colourful tiles / Photo Credit: About the Journey
Heading to the world’s largest Muslim nation during Ramadan is an experience like no other! Well-known as a historically and culturally rich city in Indonesia, Yogyakarta still operates smoothly during the Holy month. Most eateries remain open during the day, and tourists activities are still happening. There are plenty mosques in the city, so you will often hear the call to the prayers wherever you are.
Prambanan Temple / Photo Credit: About the Journeys
The most popular site there is the magnificent Prambanan Temple, the largest Hindu temple in Indonesia and one of the most beautiful temples in Southeast Asia. It offers breathtaking sunrise and sunset views that will definitely charm every tourist to visit this temple. Slightly far from the main temple is Sewu Temple, a Buddhist temple with a much smaller scale but equally beautiful sights.
Borobudur Temple covered in mist /@theodorews
Another spot to capture the best of Yogyakarta is Punthuk Setumbu, where you can witness the sun slowly rises from the back of two mountains, with the Borobudur Temple clothed in shadow and mist.
Dawn and Sunrise at Punthuk Setumbu / Photo Credit: About the Journeys
There is also Chicken Church, a 20-minute walk from Punthuk Setumbu, that is completely unrelated to chicken or church. It is a common place for anyone to pray according to their individual religion. You will also be rewarded with another gorgeous sight of misty Borobudur. What’s not to love from this place?
The view from Chicken Church / @theodorews
Legend says that Prambanan was built to compete against Sewu Temple and Borobudur Temple, but which one is better? You should go there to experience them yourselves! Visits to the temples such as Borobudur, Prambanan, and Sewu will not be affected during the Ramadan period.
However, it is better to avoid travelling here during the last week of Ramadan. Indonesia has extended national holidays after Eid al-Fitr where most Muslims will visit their families in various cities across the islands. You would expect a more congested road and price-hikes in air tickets to Yogyakarta.
Sarajevo, Bosnia Herzegovina
CC by 2.0 / Gabriel Hess
Sarajevo will surely captivate you with its lively and vibrant city life. I was in Sarajevo for Ramadan last year, and I loved it! It was during a low season, so I managed to build a closer relationship with the locals, while at the same time enjoying relatively lower prices on the tourist deals.
The Ramadan spirit and atmosphere lived throughout the city, and, oh boy, was it a cheerful atmosphere. All shops were open during the day since there was a mix of religions in the city, but the city became super lively after sunset. Canon shots rang around the city when the time for the iftar — the breaking of fast — came.
CC by 2.0 / Anthony Joh
I especially enjoyed spending my time in the Old Quarter of Sarajevo. It made me feel like I had gone back in time, to the Ottoman period, with its variety of Ottoman-styled architecture and food. In the evening, I constantly found myself near Baščaršija Mosque, one of the most prominent mosques in Sarajevo, right next to the main square after which the mosque was named.
After prayers, I’d duck into nearby bakeries to get coffee, burek or somun bread. A local told me that Ramadan in Sarajevo is all about the smell of somun bread, and I couldn’t agree more!
Somun Bread. CC by 2.0 / Nancy Hann
Xian Bell Tower / CC by 3.0 / Gzy.29
Yes, China! With an estimated 50,000 Muslims in Xian, it is the first city in China to be introduced to Islam and was once part of the Silk Road. It has a Muslim Quarter located in the city centre, which holds nearly 20,000 Muslims. It’s the perfect place to see the unique blend of religion and culture, and what better time to experience this than in Ramadan!
Muslim Quarter / CC by Richard Fisher
You can visit the Great Mosque in Huajue Lane, which can be undoubtedly mistaken as a temple. Then, walk down Muslim Street in the evening to get a taste of famous (and Halal, too!) Xian dishes such as stir-fry lamb, noodles, skewers, hammered candies, mutton dumplings, and many more! Some of these were what the merchants ate while travelling through the Silk Road long time ago!
Prices here are generally cheaper compared to major Chinese cities, and the city has an impressive public train system. So, you have nothing to worry here during Ramadan!
The one place that I have always wanted to visit in Xian is the Terracotta Warriors — thousands of soldiers, chariots, and horses statues in such great precision and details. That would be the biggest motivation for me to travel there!
Istanbul becomes more festive during Ramadan! Trees are draped with fairy lights, and mosques display sparkling celebratory messages between their minarets.
You might even be lucky to catch an iftar picnic while strolling around — mats and food are laid out on the roadside for everyone to enjoy the breaking of fast together. Special seasonal food like the Ramadan pide and güllaç, a milky pudding with pomegranate seeds and ground pistachio nuts, are also available for you to try!
Istanbul Blue Mosque / CC by 2.0 / Laszlo Ilyes
Interior of the Blue Mosque. Istanbul, Turkey, Southeastern Europe./ CC 3.0 / Mstyslav Chernov
Another special experience is the Ramadan drummers! In some neighbourhoods, about an hour before dawn, a drummer walks along the streets while beating some rhythms. The purpose is to wake everyone in time for the morning meal before sunrise. This tradition may disturb your sleep a little bit, but a couple of minutes are all it takes before the noise fades into the darkness of the dawn!
Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates
I can’t skip a UAE city on this list, can I? Ramadan is an exciting period to be in Abu Dhabi as hotel prices usually drop during Ramadan. Abu Dhabi has always been on my list specifically because of the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque. Its beauty is beyond words!
Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque. CC by 2.0 / Hisham Binsuwaif
CC0 / Max Pixel
However, things might be a little tricky in Abu Dhabi. During Ramadan, it is illegal to eat, drink or smoke in public during daylight hours; cafes and restaurants are closed, too. The same rule applies at hotel pools and beaches as well, although since 2009 the rule has been less strict in some of the larger hotels. Four and five-star Abu Dhabi hotels usually have restaurant facilities for non-fasting guests, hidden from public view, and it is possible to get meals delivered by room service. Supermarkets are still open, and most takeaways still deliver.
Shisha / CC0 / Pixabay
Ramadan tents are also common at hotels for them to serve iftar and suhoor as well as shisha (also known as nargile, hookah or water pipe). Shopping centres are open during the day and for an extra hour or two at night. Closing times might be as late as midnight or 1 am, but it changes from one mall to another.
Ferrari World Theme Park. CC by 2.0 / Aziz J. Hayat
Travelling during Ramadan to Muslim-majority destinations isn’t that daunting an affair! As long as you prepare your itinerary and accommodation well, you’re in for an incredible experience! Remember to pack water and some snacks in your day bag, just in case you run into any difficulties finding food. Do your research and respect the culture, religion, and customs. You may even decide to try fasting and to join the crowd for a well-deserved iftar!