I had the opportunity to visit Dubai during the holy month of Ramadan last year. Ramadan (also known as Ramadhan or Ramzan) is the ninth month in the Islamic calendar. It’s a time when Muslims around the world focus on prayer, fasting, giving to charity, spending time with family and religious devotion. It’s a great country with wonderful places to stay that are similar to the Hotel Jules and has an amazing culture.
I grew up in Afrikaans, suburban Johannesburg and to be honest, I didn’t know anything about Islam until I moved into Woodstock a couple of years ago. Last year I moved in next door to two Muslim families and I was very interested in learning more about their faith and culture. So when the opportunity came up to travel to Dubai during the holy month, I was very excited.
During the month of Ramadan, Muslims fast from food, water, smoking and sexual conduct from sunrise to sunset. Ramadan is also a time to reflect on behaviour like jealousy, fighting and cursing. This self monitoring is amplified by the fact that fasters are hangry during the day, so an extra amount of self-control is required.
Each day, before dawn, Muslims observe a pre-fast meal called the “suhur”. Once the sun has set, families and friends meet to pray and break their fast, settling in for the meal known as “iftar”. In Dubai, the fast is broken first with water and dates, followed by an epic feast. Feasters often stay up all night eating small portions, smoking shisha and spending time together. It’s a time for family and friendships and I actually felt quite emotional experiencing it.
Five Reasons Why Ramadan Is A Great Time To Visit Dubai
1. The summer rates are lower
Summer is considered out-of-season in Dubai, with desert temperatures soaring into the 40’s. However, you’ll hardly spend any time outside of air conditioning. From hotels to buses and shopping malls, every public space is cooled by aircon. Hotels offer reduced rates and special offers during the off-season period, which is always great for anyone travelling on the Rand.
Where to stay:
Al Manzil Downtown
I spent 4 nights at the Al Manzil Downtown, which is located in the heart of Downtown Dubai and has been built in traditional Arabic style, to resemble the old town. We arrived just after 2am, and even at that hour we were presented with cold towels and a refreshing lemon mint drinks. My room was spacious and modern and overlooked the swimming pool. Dubai is big on hospitality, so prepare to be treated well.
2. It’s a great way to learn about a new culture
Ramadan is a time to observe and be absorbed by a new culture. You don’t have to adopt a new religion to be able to appreciate new practices and beliefs. I loved the emphasis on self-reflection, family and feating during this time. I also really respect the self-sacrifice required and sense of being part of a community during Ramadan.
Where to learn:
Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding
We celebrated iftar one night at the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding. Here you can attend mosque and sit down to a feast, Middle Eastern-style. The SMCCU is an NPO that works to raise awareness around the various cultures in Dubai. It’s an inclusive space where anyone can ask questions and learn about the Muslim faith and Emirati culture.
It’s facilitated by a group of students who are friendly and open and willing to chat about anything you might want to know. Anything from “what’s an appropriate gift for Ramadan?” to “how many wives does your dad have?” – visitors are free to ask the questions that are normally reserved for Google. I found it educational, beautiful and moving.
3. It’s a feast
Visitors are free to eat in private during the day, and at restaurants and hotels as long as they are respectful of those who are fasting. Restaurants serve tourists and non-Muslim locals behind dividers, while eating, drinking and smoking in public is not allowed. But the real feast starts when the sun sets. Muslim culture is all about food and at no time is food more significant than during the holy month.
At 11pm, it’s time for a Ramadan tradition of suhour. This is the post-Iftar meal eaten late into the night and in the early morning hours before fasting for the day begins. Special tents are set up during Ramadan for the occasion and they are beautiful. The tents are like elaborate wedding venues. People dress up, in beautiful traditional wear. I tried to keep my portions small, but it was all so good and I ended up with plates piled high with hummus, flatbread, butter chicken, rice jewelled with sultanas and a variety of pickled vegetables.
In Dubai, work hours are shorter during Ramadan, so Muslim people will socialise and eat through the night then go home from work early to sleep or rest before the call to prayer.
Where to eat:
Lunch at 3in1 Restaurant at the Vida Downtown
My first meal in Dubai was a relaxed and delicious lunch at the 3in1 Restaurant at the Vida Downtown.
Fashion Nerd it up at the Armani Hotel
If you’re a fashion lover or detail nerd, you’ll probably faint as you walk in the door of the Armani Hotel. Every inch of the iconic hotel was curated by Mr Giorgio Armani himself – including the Armani suits worn by all the staff. The long corridors have a distinct “catwalk” feeling about them and I later found out that this was the exact intention of the interior designers (Mr Armani); for guests to feel like they are strutting Armani’s own runway.
The Armani Deli is the most authentic Italian experience you could ever imagine finding in the middle of the desert. This is where you’ll find Italian meats, European cheeses, freshly baked breads and beautiful, tiny desserts. I ordered: Fresh pasta with truffles!
High Tea at At.mosphere
Something really “Dubai” is standing in an elevator that is jumping into the sky at 11 meters per second. At.mosphere is on the 122nd floor of the Burj Khalifa. The view is magnificent and spreads from Downtown all the way into the desert. Here you can have high tea at 422 metres up in the sky, just two floors from the top of the highest building in the world. High tea consists of tiny cakes and sandwiches, macaroons, rare beef-filled mini croissants, tiny tuna sandwiches and sweet Arabian treats, paired with views that will make your eyes water.
Cocktails at The Address Hotel
The Address Hotel is the place for cocktails, on the 63rd floor at Neos. I got dressed up in heels and dark lipstick for the occasion and after taking a series of lifts, we walked through a parking lot lined with Maseratis and Lamborghinis.
The bar is beautiful, with elaborate lights hanging from the ceiling and every type of luxury alcohol you could dream of asking for. Alcohol is served in bars during Ramadan after 8pm and I try the signature Level 63; a delicious blend of vodka, red grapes, lime, lime leaves, lemongrass and elderflower syrup.
Buffet at The Palace Downtown
At The Palace Downtown Hotel tall palm trees line the entrance and enormous pool. It’s a real desert oasis. Here you can enjoy local food like hummus, flat bread and olives from a huge buffet. Mouthwatering.
Breaking fast at Asateer at Atlantis The Palm
The Asateer iftar tent at Atlantis The Palm was packed with gorgeous men and women dressed in perfectly white Kanduras (the white robes worn by men) and dazzling Abayas (the long black cloak worn by Emirati women). Outside people were stepping out of gleaming luxury cars. Glittering chandeliers hung from the billowing ceiling of the tent and tables were laden with a feast. What an event.
4. Dubai is a crazy experience
From futuristic architecture to wealth I’ve never experienced before, Dubai is a total trip. It’s at once traditional and cosmopolitan. Experiences range from desert safaris to luxury shopping and most of them are just wildly different from anything in South Africa.
What to do:
City Sightseeing Red Bus Tour
A red City Sightseeing bus tour is a great way to explore the city. You can do a quick tour in two hours, in air conditioning, and learn about the history of Dubai. It totally fascinated me. Dubai has literally risen from the dust in the last 50 years and is connected by a 12 lane highway, with room for traffic growth in the future – just one of Dubai’s life hacks.
See the city by night
The city by night is a whole other experience and we watched the fountain display from the balcony of The Address Hotel as a hot desert wind whipped through our hair.
Dubai Coffee Museum
The Dubai Coffee Museum is located in the old part of the city, where the buildings are made from an orange coral stone. This part of the city really appealed to me and I felt like I was being transported back in time as I walked through the maze of corridors.
Inside it’s dark and cool, and the room is cooled by the distinctive and traditional wind tower on the roof of the building. This age-old structure allows rising hot air to escape, while sucking in cooler air. It’s a basic, yet interesting and effective system and I was reminded of just how different it must have been living in the harsh desert climate just a hundred years ago.
The museum is a beautiful homage to this celebrated bean, with both ancient and new coffee grinders from around the world displayed on long tables. Custom dictates that you never turn down the offer of coffee in Arab culture. Once someone has offered you coffee, it means you are welcome, and turning it down would be the height of rudeness.
See it from the sky
This is my favourite thing to do in a new city, and while I often get to do it for free (on blogger trips) it’s something I definitely spend money on too (like in Melbourne).
During a 40 minute Seawings flight, you’ll get an idea of the full scope of Dubai. What it means to be a modern-to-the-point-of-borderline-futuristic city in the middle of the actual desert. The impossibly tall Burj Khalifa towered far above our little plane into the heavens – talk about perspective! Just beyond the borders of the city, the empty nothingness of the desert, veiled by a haze of dust, is trippy. It reminded me of a post-apocalyptic movie.
Learn about traditional fragrances
The Ajmal Perfume factory is a great place to learn about the art of Middle Eastern perfume. Oudh is near-priceless entity in the Arab world, formed in Agar trees when small insects burrow into the wood, leaving behind an infection that turns the wood black and scented. Oudh has a sweet, woody, aromatic scent which is prized amongst Eastern perfumers and is extracted by hand using sharp instruments.
5. Dubai really surprised me
Dubai really blew me away with its megastructures, endless options for entertainment, history and unique desert oasis position, but also with its beautiful culture and commitment to faith. It was an unexpectedly great trip and if you’re looking for a unique experience, I think Ramdan is a great time to go.
Good to know
There won’t be any music playing in restaurants, as entertainment is not allowed during fasting hours in the Holy Month.
Contrary to popular belief, Dubai is not strict on the dress code of visitors and Westerners. However, during the month of Ramadan it’s respectful to adhere to the general rule of not showing too much skin. Keep your knees and shoulders covered and don’t wear anything super tight.
Arabic coffee tastes quite bitter, a little spicy from cardamom pods and strangely, it has a tannic, tea-like quality. Always finish your cup.
Dubai is a great destination for vegetarians and vegans, with loads and loads of variations of hummus, flatbreads, pickled veggies, and salads of every kind.
Ramadan this year is from Monday, the 6th of June and will continue for 30 days until Tuesday, the 5th of July. Note that in the Muslim calandar, a holiday begins on the sunset of the previous day, so observing Muslims will celebrate Ramadan on the sunset of Sunday, the 5th of June.
*My visit to Dubai was sponsored by Visit Dubai South Africa. The trip was an initiative to learn more about Dubai and visiting during the holy month of Ramadan. I was in destination for three days in 2015.