Ramadan is a very holy period for Muslims, and it can be confusing going into an Islamic country without knowing what to expect. Egypt is a majority Islamic country. The entire country observes Ramadan and whether you like it or not, it can affect your travels. How much it impacts your travels can depend on where you are, but no matter what, Ramadan is a very special time to be traveling in Egypt.
Traveling in Egypt during Ramadan can come with its challenges, but with an open mind and respect for the religion, it can also be a very rewarding and culturally immersive experience. Here’s everything you need to know beforehand.
Table of Contents
- When is Ramadan?
- What to Expect During Ramadan in Egypt
- Cultural Norms to Be Aware Of During Ramadan
- The Pros of Visiting Egypt During Ramadan
- The Cons of Visiting Egypt During Ramadan
- Should You Observe Ramadan As A Traveler?
- Will Ramadan Affect My Trip to Egypt?
- Closing Thoughts on Spending Ramadan in Egypt
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When Is Ramadan?
Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, and it actually changes every year. Typically, Ramadan occurs about 10-12 days before the previous year’s Ramadan, so it is different each year. It starts and ends on a crescent moon, and can vary from country to country. I was in Egypt when Ramadan took place from March 22nd to April 20th, 2023. I arrived in Cairo right in the heart of Ramadan and spent the next few weeks traveling around the country during Ramadan and the following feast days of Eid. It’s amazing just how different the country is between the two periods.
I decided to partake in the religious tradition at least somewhat, having an early breakfast and then withholding on food until sunset came around. It wasn’t always by choice, but with limited options for food during the day, I decided to just wait until the restaurants opened up in the evening. For the most part, Ramadan is about community and reflection. Despite going through the motions, I didn’t get much out of it as I didn’t really have any stake in it as a non-Muslim. I didn’t get to look forward to iftar with my family, or gift-giving during Eid. Ramadan is much more than just fasting, and I can imagine it is a very special time of year for most Muslims.
What To Expect During Ramadan in Egypt
In some cities, you will feel the effects of Ramadan much more than others.
I stayed at a relatively local neighborhood in Cairo, and outside of the KFC and McDonalds, most restaurants were closed during the day. They would only open up at around 5 PM, an hour or so before sunset. At this point, they would mostly be preparing meals that were already pre-ordered by people earlier in the day. There will be massive lines in front of street food stalls and restaurants. Actually, line is a generous term for it. It’ll be a big crowd, and if you adhere to the custom of waiting in line, you will likely never make it to the front. If you want food, either wait for the line to subside or be aggressive.
In other parts of the country, Ramadan was a little more relaxed. This was especially true in places that relied heavily on tourism, such as Luxor and Aswan. Other places, like Dahab, with big communities of foreigners and digital nomads, one could ignore Ramadan entirely.
Cultural Norms for Ramadan
Egypt’s atmosphere during Ramadan is imbued with a strong sense of spirituality and reflection. Many Muslims will be engaged in acts of worship, charity, and self-discipline. The local communities often come together to share the spirit of compassion and generosity. It is crucial to be respectful of the cultural norms and religious traditions.
During Ramadan, Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset. They start the day with a big meal and then withhold from eating, drinking, smoking, and other pleasures until the sun sets. Once the sun sets, everyone will break their fast with a meal known as iftar.
During the day, the streets will be relatively empty as most people snooze away or just take shelter from the blistering Egyptian midday sun. However, once everyone has finished their meals, the streets come to life. I’ve never seen more people in one place than at Khan el Khalili in Cairo after iftar. It was crazy. I walked over right before iftar, and found myself caught in a huge crowd where I barely even had to walk. I was pushed the entire way before escaping into a side street and catching people closing up shop so they could have their meals.
Many people will plop down on the streets or right in their shops as they eat. It was surreal to see the streets go from utter mayhem to just bizarrely empty. It felt like a scene from an apocalyptic movie. A massive city with a population of over 20 million with hardly a soul in sight. Catching a glimpse into the shops and seeing people eating was the only indicator that I was not alone. For about 30 minutes, everything was quiet and peaceful. Slowly, the streets came back to life as the reinvigorated faithful bounced back with a renewed energy.
The crowds returned in full force, and the streets of Khan el Khalili were alive once more.
To a lesser extent, the scene was similar in smaller cities like Luxor and Aswan. During the day, the streets were desolate, and you’d have a hard time finding an open restaurant that wasn’t a Western fast food chain. The best time to experience the true energy of a city was after iftar.
The Pros of Visiting Egypt During Ramadan
Egypt has a unique vibe during Ramadan especially at night. The shops are open throughout the night and the city really comes to life at this time. The mosques are lit up and the streets are decorated for Ramadan. There are also a few foods and desserts specific to Ramadan that are only offered during the month. Despite many restaurants being closed during the day, travelers can have the unique experience of sharing iftar meals with locals and savoring traditional Ramadan delicacies, sweets, and drinks after sunset. Sweets are a huge thing during Ramadan. If you have a sweet tooth, there is no better time to visit Egypt than during Ramadan. Night markets and food stalls come alive with a variety of delectable dishes and refreshing beverages.
It’s generally just a very festive time in general. Everyone seems to be happier and more generous, since good deeds are believed to be more meaningful during Ramadan. Even just roaming the streets of Cairo after iftar, I’d be handed drinks and food for free without expectation of anything in return. Sometimes, you’ll even get invited to break fast with a local family.
Giving and charity, as well as hospitality to travelers and foreigners, is a big thing in Islamic countries, and I’ve felt this in many of the Islamic countries I’ve visited. In Egypt, it was harder to distinguish who was genuine and who had ulterior motives, so I generally grew a bit more suspicious of hidden agendas and unfortunately ended up turning down offers that seemed to good to be true. I’m sure many of them were genuine and meant well, but I had one too many experiences where I was offered something for free and then harassed to pay at the end. Just try to use your best judgment. If you have local friends in Cairo, it can be extremely helpful.
The Cons of Visiting Egypt During Ramadan
The main thing that affects travelers during Ramadan are the changing hours of museums and temples, and of course, the fasting. Restaurants will be closed during the day, so if you do want to eat, your choices are very limited. Your best bet would be to grab some unhealthy snacks from a supermarket and munch away on them in secret.
This didn’t bother me too much, but if food is a big part of your travels, then you might have a tougher time. Alcohol and nightlife will also be more limited during this time, but I wasn’t particularly planning on visiting Egypt as a party destination, so this didn’t make much of a difference to me either.
Some businesses and attractions may also have altered operating hours, with some places opening later in the day and remaining open late into the night. Planning activities accordingly can ensure a smooth and enjoyable travel experience. Visit the tourist spots like museums and historical sites during the day and then save the bazaars, markets, and city strolls for late at night. Keep in mind, though, that many of these markets and bazaars will be ultra-packed with locals. It makes for a lively atmosphere, but dang, I did think I was going to get squashed in a crowd surge a few times.
Should You Observe Ramadan as a Traveler?
Foreigners are not expected to observe Ramadan in Egypt. However, it is respectful to avoid eating, drinking, and smoking in front of those who are observing it. You’ll see it even in the few restaurants that are open. They’ll black out the windows during the day so that Muslims passersby do not see people eating and drinking. I am not a Muslim, but in general, I always try to respect the cultural and religious norms of the countries that I visit. I arrived in Egypt at 8 AM after not having slept for 30 hours, and subsequently passed out until 9 PM. It was my first day in Egypt and it fell right in the middle of Ramadan. I figured, why not? Egypt was a new country for me, and the best way to immerse oneself in a country is by observing their customs and traditions. I already accidentally fasted for one day, so why not tough it out for the next two weeks?
Spoiler alert, I did not last two weeks, and even on the days where I did not eat, I drank water throughout the day which is also forbidden during Ramadan.
I mean, think about it. It’s over 100 degrees out, you’re in the desert, and your local guide and driver are partaking in Ramadan. It’s a bit cruel to down a liter of cold, refreshing water right in front of them, no? Most Egyptians working in the travel and tourism industry won’t mind, and will happily offer you drinks and refreshments throughout your tour. However, this is not always the case when you’re staying in more conservative neighborhoods. I’ve had people chastise me for taking a drink, sarcastically saying “Ramadan Kareem” as I took a sip of soda.
I’d say just use your best judgment. I didn’t think it would be an issue as we were at the entrance of a temple and had just passed a dozen mini markets where everyone was trying to sell tourists cold drinks. I withheld from eating or drinking when I was around locals, and if I was in a restaurant around iftar, I would wait for the locals to start eating before taking a bite of my own meal.
Respect is a big thing in Egypt, and I think that following or even just attempting to follow some of their customs and traditions will go a long way.
Will Ramadan Affect My Trip to Egypt?
In short, no. Egypt relies heavily on tourism, so if you have any concerns that the pyramids or temples will be closed during Ramadan, don’t worry. Some places will have strange hours, usually closing down for an hour or two around iftar so that the workers can eat. Some scammers will take advantage of the confusion surrounding Ramadan by trying to convince you that certain attractions are closed because of Ramadan and try to redirect you elsewhere so they can get you to hop in their taxi or horse carriage.
Don’t listen to them, and see for yourself. The more they harass you, the more likely it is they’re lying. I fell victim to this at the pyramids where I was told over and over again that they would close at 3 PM because of Ramadan.
Most tourists that visit Egypt tend to stay in hotels that cater to Westerners. You won’t have to worry about starving if you’re staying at the Ritz Carlton. For my fellow backpackers, the same kind of goes for hostels. They’ll usually offer you breakfast, meaning that you can have a meal in the morning to tide you over during the day. No one at the hostel will chastise you for smoking or eating.
For a certain type of traveler, Ramadan might not affect them at all. It’s easy to avoid this custom if you frequent hotels and restaurants catering to tourists. Up to 20% of Egypt’s population are coptic Christians as well, so there are communities and neighborhoods where Ramadan might not even be observed.
Again, just use your best judgment. If you’re walking through a local market in the middle of the day, avoid taking that sip of water until you’re out of view. Someone offers you a cold hibiscus tea during one of your tour stops? Drink away.
Closing Thoughts on Spending Ramadan in Egypt
It was a challenge, I will admit. Spending the first week in Cairo in a non-touristic neighborhood was a learning experience. I had to call my Egyptian friend just to get a few pointers and a run down of what to expect for Ramadan in Cairo. Some days, I would simply be counting down the minutes until I could eat, and even when I could, I’d be waiting in long lines to find food. I ended up getting into the routine of inhaling a can of Pringles while waiting for the lines to die down and then going on the prowl for a late night meal.
It was amazing to see a country so united in their devotion, and one could truly feel the energy shift from the late afternoon to the early evening.
Visiting Egypt during Ramadan can be hit or miss depending on your travel style and interests. After a few days, you get used to the routine, and whether you’re fasting or not, it can still find ways to dictate your day.
Overall, I don’t think Ramadan impacted my travels in Egypt as much as I thought it would. One can fully adhere to the tradition and immerse themself in the culture. Likewise, one can continue traveling normally without it affecting their travels at all. This is especially true in tourist hotspots like Luxor, Giza, Aswan, and Dahab.
As Ramadan comes to a close, things start to get really lively. You’ll hear fireworks go off throughout the day, and more frequently after the sun sets. Even in the small towns, you’ll here loud pops and booms go off through the night. Egypt is a loud country in general, and during Eid, it gets even crazier.