With sunshine and warm weather practically on tap, Dubai and Abu Dhabi are very much year-round destinations to visit. There is, however, one season in the region that offers a different experience to the rest of the year, and that’s Ramadan. I recently visited Abu Dhabi during Ramadan, having no idea what to expect, and found it not only to be a great (and cheap) time to visit, but also a very special time to enjoy.
Here’s everything you need to know about visiting Dubai and Abu Dhabi during Ramadan.
What is Ramadan?
Ramadan is a spiritual month observed by the Muslim religion. During the month, the Muslim community fast from dawn until sunset, refraining from consuming food, liquids and smoking. When the sun sets, locals break the fast with a meal call iftar, and also dine again before sunrise on a meal called suhoor.
When does it happen?
Ramadan takes place on the ninth month of the Muslim calendar which is determined by the moon. Because of this, Ramadan varies each year. When I visited Abu Dhabi it took place in June, but the following year it will occur from mid-May to mid-June.
There are rules you need to abide by
When visiting Abu Dhabi or Dubai during Ramadan, you don’t need to fast yourself but you do need to be respectful of others who are. Think about it, if you were spending a month fasting the last thing you’d want to see is a bunch of tourists chowing down on burgers and beer right in front of you.
Because of this, it is prohibited to eat and drink in public. Some places are more lax than others, but for the most part restaurants will be closed during the day while most hotels will have private dining areas open for guests for breakfast and lunch. Alcohol is also not served until the sun goes down.
Top tip: If you’re in public and find yourself thirsty, the best option is to go into the bathroom to take a drink.
What to wear during Ramadan
As a holy month, it’s also recommended to dress modestly when in public. When in your hotel or by the pool, summer clothes are fine. But if you’re shopping or visiting an attraction, it’s important to cover up your shoulders and knees out of respect.
Top tip: Bring a scarf with you to cover up your shoulders. It’ll also come in handy when inside as the air conditioning in the UAE can be freezing.
You’ll have the place to yourself during the day
Due to everyone fasting, Abu Dhabi is very quiet during the day. Most locals work shorter hours which means business travel to the region is less than usual. Many public areas such as the city’s shopping centres and hotels also remain very quiet. If you’re looking to go for a shopping or spa trip, or just for some chill out time by the pool, then this is the time to do it as you’ll feel like you pretty much have the place to yourself.
Attractions still remain open to the public
Though most locals work shorter hours during Ramadan, the tourism industry operates as normal, meaning local tours and attractions are still open. Food markets such as Abu Dhabi’s date market also remain open during the day, so there’s plenty of things to see during your stay.
The only sites that operate reduced hours are the local mosques which are typically open to the public during the morning, but closed to the public in the evening. If you can, I highly recommend visiting one of the city’s mosques during Ramadan to learn more about the spiritual month and the religion in general. I enjoyed a tour of the spectacular Sheikh Zayed Mosque in Abu Dhabi during my visit and loved learning about the impressive structure, the religion, and more about Ramadan.
The city comes alive when the sunsets
As soon as the sun sets, locals are able to break their fast and do so in a spectacular way with iftar. Most hotels offer an iftar buffet, typically served in an outdoor tent, which visitors are more than welcome to take part in.
Depending on the hotel, most iftar buffets will serve traditional dishes such as harees, which consists of mashed wheat served with meat. Dessert is also a highlight of iftar with restaurants offering impressive platters of sweets including baklava and sweet dates. In recent years trendy restaurants ranging in cuisine from sushi to Peruvian, have also starting offering iftar buffets, so it’s a great time to dine in the city, whatever cuisine you crave.
And although Muslims don’t drink alcohol, restaurants and bars will start serving alcohol once the sun sets.
It’s the cheapest time of year to visit
As mentioned previously, Ramadan is a quiet month in the United Arab Emirates and thus a great time to snap up a bargain. Flights tend to be cheaper while hotels will typically offer massively discounted rates, as well as extra perks such as half board and discounted spa treatments.