For a lot of people, Ramadan is the time of the year when the internet gets flooded with discounts and lucrative deals for visiting Dubai and one can't help but want to book a flight immediately because let's face it, travelling to Dubai is hardly ever cheap! However, one doesn't really know what they're in for when they're visiting Dubai during Ramadan. There are both pros and cons to travelling to this region during this Holy Month and as long as you're willing to respect certain rules, which might seem conservative to some, your visit to Dubai during Ramadan can be a highly enlightening experience culturally.
What is Ramadan?
Understanding the meaning and reason behind following this Holy Month will make it a lot easier for you to know what to expect when you're visiting Dubai during Ramadan. Every year, for 30 days, which fall during the 9th month of the Lunar-based Islamic calendar, Muslims observe fasting from sunrise until sunset in reverence to the Quran being revealed to Prophet Mohammed centuries ago. During this month, they abstain from eating, drinking, sex and other human 'vices' during daylight hours and also indulge in regular prayers and charitable acts.
Visiting Dubai during Ramadan means you'll have to be prepared to see a drastic shift from a fast-paced, lively and chaotic city to a quieter, serene and religiously-oriented one. Contrary to the popular perception that the UAE is an extremely conservative country, it is actually quite tourist-friendly and is home to many expats (which form more than 80% of the population) which makes it a lot more modern and accepting than its neighbours. Dubai, in particular, slacks many rules which other Middle Eastern countries expect its residents and visitors to follow, and is accepting of other cultures openly. However, during Ramadan, some rules are put in place only to make it easier for the people who're fasting and although these rules are enforced to a great extent, many allowances are made for the non-fasting people too. For example, while several restaurants close their dine-in area, some remain open for home delivery. In recent years, many restaurants have begun to cover small parts of their indoor seating area and allow the non-fasting visitors to dine in.
When does Ramadan happen?
Every year, the dates of Ramadan move about 15 days earlier according to the Gregorian calendar which means while in the last few years, the Holy Month would fall during the summer months where the treacherous heat was a big drawback for tourists, this year as well as the following years, it is likely to move towards the cooler winter months, which are also the peak tourist season in Dubai. In 2019, Ramadan falls in the month of May (likely to start on the 6th) with the exact dates to be revealed based on moon sighting 2-3 nights before the expected start date.
The Holy Month comes to an end with a big bang celebration - Eid Al Fitr, which lasts for about 3 days. While most residents travel during this period, a lot of people from the neighbouring Gulf countries visit Dubai at this time to indulge in the feasts, watch spectacular shows and performances, benefit from massive sales in the malls, watch the brilliant fireworks across the city and be a part of an extremely lively atmosphere.
Malls are likely to be packed, the airport sees a huge surge in the passengers, and taxis are hard to find. So while the vibe is pretty amazing, if you're not a fan of crowded places, you might want to take a day trip from Dubai to the other Emirates, which are likely to be quieter.
Recommended hotel to stay in Dubai: Citymax Bur Dubai
Visiting Dubai during Ramadan
What NOT to do
Do NOT eat or drink in public during daylight
This is one rule that needs to be strictly followed, except for children, pregnant women and medically unfit people. However, you're not expected to fast. Many malls have begun to allocate a specific area in their food courts during the day time, covered off and not visible to the outside, for the non-fasting people. You're, however, not allowed to carry any food or drinks outside the allocated area. Most bars and lounges do not serve alcohol during the day (another trend that has slowly begun to change slowly but not widely) and no loud music or entertainment is allowed throughout the month, even after sunset. This means, although you WILL enjoy local cuisine and delicacies in a Bedouin camp following your Desert Safari, you will not be able to experience the belly dancing or Tanoura folk dance. Most hotels continue to serve meals, though it is unlikely to be in open areas such as the pool/ beach. Not eating/ drinking in public includes the metro and even taxis. This extends to smoking and chewing gum as well.
More than as a rule, you must follow this out of respect, especially in family areas such as malls and entertainment venues. You can, however, wear beachwear when on a public/ private beach or swimming pool. People (both men and women) are expected to keep their shoulders & knees covered (no need to cover your head) and wear loose-fitting clothes ideally. You won't get arrested or told off if you do not follow these guidelines but it is always nice to be respectful of the local culture and norms, especially during the Holy Month of Ramadan.
Do NOT play loud music
During this month, most clubs remain closed and bars are not allowed to play loud music or have entertainment of any sort, even after sunset. They do, however, serve alcohol. You will not experience any performances or related activities during this time either. One must ensure not to play loud music in their home/ room/ car either as this can be frowned upon.
Avoid public display of affection
Although they have become a lot more accepting of public display of affection (holding hands, hugging) in recent years, this is unacceptable during the Holy Month. Any gesture that is likely to attract attention in a sexual way is forbidden during this time and you're likely to get told off if you indulge in it.
Be more patient & respectful
Especially towards those who are fasting. It is likely that you might come across people who are snappy or irritable but try and understand what not drinking water or eating food throughout the day must to do them! Try not to get into an unpleasant situation or argument; be the bigger person!
Visiting Dubai during Ramadan
Despite all the rules and 'don'ts', there is a lot that happens in Dubai during Ramadan which does not happen during the rest of the year and it's the best time to enjoy these experiences.
This is the fast-breaking meal that Muslims have right after the sunset prayers and many restaurants and hotels across the country put out a big feast, mostly with Arabic food. Dates are usually eaten to break the fast followed by a hearty meal and going for 'Iftars' is not limited only to Muslims. As a visitor to the UAE, you will be amazed to see the spread in most restaurants and the vibe, with people using this opportunity to chit chat, hang around and finally get out of their homes, full of energy. To accommodate the high number of diners, many restaurants put up large air-conditioned tents and a buffet spread with traditional dishes. Not only is this a great opportunity to soak up in a very unique atmosphere but it's also the perfect time to try out authentic Arabic foods such as Malfoof (cabbage leaves wrapped around a variety of fillings), lamb ouzi, chicken shish taouk, lamb kofta, and fish harra. Do not miss out on some of the best desserts such as the cheese-based pastry Kunafeh, the Turkish Baklava and the Egyptian bread and butter pudding, Umm Ali.
Some popular Iftars to try out are:
- The beachside Ramadan tent at Habtoor Grand Resort
- Kaftan Turkish Cuisine & Fine Art at La Mer with an Ottoman and Turkish Twist
- The Meydan Ramadan tent with live cooking stations
- Ninive’s urban majlis at Jumeirah Emirates Towers, with live entertainment from kanun and oud players
- Asateer Tent at Atlantis the Palm, an elegant and luxurious setting with a widespread buffet
- Qasr Al Sultan, with traditional Arabic architecture and setting
- Queen Elizabeth 2, a unique floating iftar on a purpose-built majlis, on a ship's deck
- Sikka Café, an inexpensive yet fantastic spread of authentic Arabic dishes in a lively part of the city
- A traditional meal served in the courtyard of a historical architecture building at Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding
It might also be a great idea to find an Iftar discount deal on Groupon.
Ramadan Night Market
The perfect way to enjoy a vibrant experience of culture and crowd, the Ramadan Night Market features funky or traditional trinkets, souvenirs, handmade goods, jewelery and fashion wear. Great bargains, a festive atmosphere, delectable foods from around the world, contests to win big prizes and interactive workshops are all reasons to visit this shopping and entertainment extravaganza.
Until 2017, the Ramadan Night Market was held at Za’abeel Hall in the World Trade Centre. However, in 2018 it moved to the Happiness Market located in Zabeel Park. The market usually lasts for about 10 days, closer to the end of the Holy Month. The exact dates and location for 2019 are undecided and will be available here.
Most malls in Dubai during Ramadan also extend their hours and remain open past midnight. You can be assured to experience a very lively atmosphere after sunset, although it remains fairly quiet during the day. Click here to read the extended opening hours of the popular malls in the city.
Suhoor is the last meal before the start of the fast and takes place in the early hours of the morning. While most locals are likely to take this meal at home, several restaurants remain open to offer this opportunity to the tourists and visitors. While Iftar is likely to be a heavy meal and thus offered as a buffet in restaurants, Suhoor is usually offered as a la carte. Suhoor typically starts at 9 pm and lasts until late night and the nights come alive with people flocking outdoors to grab a bite or smoke shisha.
Some recommended places to try Suhoor are:
- Layali Ramadan Tent at Dunes Café in Shangri-La Hotel, Sheikh Zayed Road
- Habtoor Grand Garden Tent with live oud entertainment
- Seven Sands Restaurant in JBR
- The courtyard of La Ville Dubai, City Walk
Should you visit during Ramadan?
Absolutely, and now that Ramadan is slowly moving closer to the winter months with every passing year, even the weather isn't all that bad! As long as you're willing to follow certain rules, practice patience and aren't too hung up on having to dress conservatively, restrict your eating to indoor spaces during the day and don't mind the clubs and other loud places being shut, you can actually enjoy Dubai in a manner that you cannot during the rest of the year. Shop in malls until late night, smoke shisha and chill until wee hours of the morning, indulge in an Iftar feast every day of the week, benefit from reduced crowds as well as lower prices at most attractions, keep an eye out for crazy offers and discounts, Ramadan is the perfect time to immerse in the culture, interact with the local community, understand the religious practices and experience a unique lifestyle in Dubai.
Dubai Parks and Resorts (Motiongate Dubai & Legoland Dubai) have special offers and discounts during Ramadan and as they continue to serve food and drinks in designated areas, it is a great idea to visit these places during the day, when the crowds are minimal and queues almost nil. Other special Ramadan events include Iftar with Cartoon Characters & Super Heroes at IMG Worlds of Adventure, mega sales in the malls and major discounts on entrance tickets for many other entertainment venues.
- No drinking and eating during the day time in public (with the exception of children, pregnant women and medically unfit persons), although several restaurants and food courts in malls will either allow take away or have a designated dining area for the non-fasters
- Clubs and entertainment venues remain closed during this time
- Most bars will open in the evening and will serve alcohol, though they will not play loud music
- Some bars in hotels also remain open during the day, allowing alcohol to be served in designated areas
- Although one is expected to dress conservatively, this need not be followed on the poolside areas and beaches
- Malls are likely to remain open until late night (2 am)
- Many restaurants remain open until 3 or even 5 am, serving food as well as shisha
- This is a religious time and although not everyone is expected to fast, one must respect the culture and norms more during this period than any other time of the year
- It is likely that most taxi drivers will also be fasting, it is sensible and expected from one to be more patient and considerate of those who are as it is not easy to go through the day without food and water
- Attractions and malls will be a lot less busy during the day so you can benefit from shorter queues. However, after sunset, many people will flock to these places and it can get very crowded then
- Although you're unlikely to land up in any major trouble like being arrested, it would be sensible to follow the norms and not get reprimanded for it