Ramadan in Egypt: How To Make Your Visit Amazing While Respecting Local Culture

Introduction

Visiting Arabic countries during Ramadan is an experience like no other. Ramadan in Egypt is no different; it’s a time of great celebration and joy for much of the Arabic world. Additionally, it’s a completely different way to experience the country. However, it’s really important to show respect for the culture when visiting.

My husband and I are not religious. We visited Egypt in March 2023 and knew it was Ramadan, but honestly, didn’t really know what that meant. We had some idea of the significance of Ramadan before our trip, and some of the backstory, but we didn’t know how it would look as a non-religious tourist visiting the country. I can now say hand-on-heart that we were delighted to be able to visit during this time.

We feel that we got a real peek into local life (which we would never have had otherwise!) from a very unique perspective. The local friends we made in Egypt went out of their way to welcome and include us. From our experience, we would wholeheartedly recommend anyone to visit during this time. However, it’s really important to remember the importance of this occasion to the local people. As visitors, we also need to make sure we respect local traditions and customs.

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Decorations in the streets of Cairo for Ramadan in Egypt. They are streamers between the shops on a market street.
Ramadan decorations in Cairo

What is Ramadan?

Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic calendar. It marks the time Muslims remember the revelation of the Qur’an (Muslim holy book) to the Prophet Muhammad. The night of the revelation itself is Lailut ul-Qadr (‘The Night of Power’). The celebration at the end of Ramadan is a huge feast, known as Eid ul-Fitr, wherein Muslims celebrate the strength given to them by Allah for their fasting the previous month.

Throughout the month, Muslims fast from sun up to sun down (with a few exceptions). They eat suhoor (the morning meal) before dawn and iftar (the evening meal) after sunset. Fasting is a reminder of the suffering of the poor and teaches self-discipline. Those exempt from the fast include pregnant women, children, the ill, elderly and people who are travelling. This is a very spiritual time for many Muslims. Many will attempt to read the whole Qur’an at least once during the month. Mosques also hold special services, during which imams will read segments of the Qur’an.

Iftar in particular is often an occasion for coming together in family groups. Many Muslims will feast and celebrate well. You can find out more about Ramadan here.

When does Ramadan in Egypt take it place?

Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic calendar and thus it happens every year during a different month of the Gregorian calendar. It’s normally around 12 days before the previous year. For example, in 2023 it started 22nd March and in 2024, it will be 10th March onwards. It lasts for 30 days.

An Iftar meal at our friend Rami’s house
Rami helping to prepare the meal

So what happens during Ramadan in Egypt?

Well, like much of the Arabic world, Egyptians fast from sun up until sun down. During that time, devout Muslims do not even permit themselves a drink of water and they do not eat any food. They also generally refuse smoking. There are sometimes exceptions for those who are working, as otherwise it can be dangerous for them to be without any fluids at all. In Egypt, from what we saw, the local people really go all out for celebrating Ramadan. There are celebrations most evenings through to daylight with feasting and partying the whole time.

There are some small decorations in the streets as well, so visually, it’s pretty nice! It’s also very interesting to see the festivities and, if you are lucky enough to be invited to one yourself, it can be a once in a lifetime experience. Generally the food served over Ramadan will be very rich and decadent – the aim is to keep you full for the whole day, so highly calorific foods (like dates) are really common.

What’s Ramadan in Egypt like as a tourist?

For the most part as a tourist, it’s really fun! There are certain rules that it is courtesy to respect:

  1. Eating or drinking in the streets during the daytime is frowned upon (you should only do this in restaurants or private spaces)
  2. It is always polite to dress conservatively in Egypt, but even more so during Ramadan, since this is a sacred time for many local people. Cover your knees, your shoulders and no bare midriffs or low cut tops (no matter your gender). For women tourists especially, you may wish to cover your hair and head, or parts of your face, but this is personal preference. Personally I preferred to stay as covered up as possible. It was very dusty and I did get quite a lot of attention, so covering my hair just felt more comfortable to me.

As we mention in our guide for things to expect in Egypt, Egyptians in general are super welcoming and understanding of tourist behaviour, so they will not usually pass comment if you don’t follow the rules. Nevertheless, it is culturally appropriate and polite to abide by them. As tourists, and guests in another’s home, we feel it’s important to follow these rules wherever we can.

A day out in Islamic Cairo

Will you be able to eat during the day?

Yes, for the most part, in restaurants. As mentioned Egyptians are extremely understanding of tourist behaviour and accepting of tourists in general. In most tourist areas, you will have plenty of options for tourist restaurants (or even occasionally some local options) which will serve food for most of the day, so it’s very easy to get by. We would recommend, out of respect, not eating or drinking in the street.

A map of all of the places in Egypt we visited is below; the only place we really struggled with was Alexandria, and honestly, we think we were maybe in the wrong area. There were still plenty of options as we went further into town later in the day (and plenty of fast food restaurants). We think maybe we should have been a bit more patient and waited until we were more central before we stopped for food. We thought we’d really struggle in Siwa, as it is so remote, but since the guesthouses deal so often with tourists, it wasn’t really a problem at all.

What are the feasts like?

We were lucky enough to attend a few Ramadan feasts (Iftah) while we were in Egypt, mostly at the family homes of our local guide, Rami. The format varied. At Rami’s house, his mother and sister would cook for most of the day, then just after sundown and evening prayers, we would all sit down to eat. Rami’s mother and sister would start cooking mid-morning, so it is a lot of effort!

Mostly, we would just sit together and talk, while enjoying the food and each other’s company. At other events we went to, there were more people and this was more of a party. The food (for both the more intimate gatherings and the larger events) was served in a ‘help yourself’ communal style. Everything was put on the table and we served ourselves.

We attended one event, which was a huge celebration. One of the family members was flying to Mecca the following morning, so there was great excitement on her behalf, and everyone was in very high spirits. At the end of the evening, over 200 people accompanied her to the airport!

Overall, to our eyes, it seemed like a joyful time to be around family and friends, and a time to give thanks and praise. The generosity and hospitality of the Egyptian people really surprised us too.

Islamic Cairo

Top tips for visiting Egypt during Ramadan

Here’s a quick round-up!

  • Dress respectfully: cover your shoulders and knees, and don’t expose any midriff or cleavage. Woman travellers should consider covering their hair.
  • Avoid eating, smoking or drinking outside of restaurants. There will be plenty of opportunities for you to eat and drink inside.
  • Understand and respect that local people may not be eating or drinking. This can be a tiring time for Muslims. Though some people who work are exempt from Ramadan rules, you may find that a tour guide/taxi driver/hotel representative is fasting, so it’s important to understand that their energy may be low. Not only will they have little to eat or drink, but Iftar can be a long event. If they have been celebrating with their family late at night, they may be tired. Of course, good service should still be important, but a little understanding can go a long way.
  • If you are invited to iftar, definitely go! We’re not suggesting you go round asking for invitations but if you do have the opportunity to attend iftar, it’s a great opportunity to learn more about this special period in the Islamic calendar, make some friends, and join in the celebrations. Remember your hosts have probably put a lot of effort into preparing the food, so gratitude can go a long way!

Overall, we highly recommend experiencing Ramadan in Egypt, as long as you keep it respectful.

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    Written by Emma

    Emma

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