Wednesday 25 April 2018

Desert star: What's it like to visit Dubai during Ramadan?

A trip to Dubai during Ramadan is different, but you won't be disappointed...

Maze-like streets: Dubai
Maze-like streets: Dubai
Camels in Dubai. Photo: Getty
The skyline of Dubai, a city that loves superlatives: the tallest, the biggest, the best, and the happiest, with a new minister devoted to goodwill.
The spice souk

Dee Finnerty

As the sun sets slowly on the horizon, the misty, humid glow of evening lights up the sand-coloured buildings all around me.

We weave our way through the maze-like streets of Dubai's Bastakiya Quarter to the Sheikh Mohammad Cultural Centre, where we remove our shoes and are greeted by families in traditional Emirati clothes gathering for their much-awaited feast.

I'm here for iftar, the 'break-fast' meal shared at sundown by Muslims during Ramadan. As we wait for the sun to wane, our Emirati guides kneel for prayers before revealing the tempting nightfall fare. Sitting on cushions around a vast array of silver platters with complete strangers was daunting at first, but it's not long before the jovial atmosphere has us all chatting and laughing as we break bread together.

Visiting Dubai during the month of Ramadan may not seem ideal, especially since most non-Emiratis choose it as a time to take a break from the city, but there are advantages to visiting at this time of year, including better hotel rates and less crowding at tourist attractions.

Camels in Dubai. Photo: Getty
Camels in Dubai. Photo: Getty

Most Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset during Ramadan, and in Dubai the rules of Ramadan are thus: it is illegal to eat, drink or smoke in public during the daylight hours and it's advisable to dress conservatively (man or woman). It is, however, perfectly fine to eat and drink in specially screened-off areas, such as food courts and hotel restaurants.

This all becomes surprisingly manageable quite quickly but it certainly does take planning - for example, I found myself rising an extra hour earlier just to be able to consume plenty of water as well as breakfast before leaving the privacy of the hotel. Temperatures soar to upwards of 40°C during summer so staying hydrated is vital.

Dubai is synonymous with glass skyscrapers and luxury living but, here in the heart of the Bastakiya area, I discovered a side to the city I hadn't imagined before. At Al Fahidi Fort, where the Dubai Museum is housed, I caught a glimpse of how this city of glass and sand has come to be. The city's bedouin heritage and pearl-diving history will fascinate, as will the ships on display. We decided to follow up with a boating adventure of our own by taking a water-taxi - known as an abra - across the Dubai Creek to visit the spice and gold souks on the other side. The spice souk, with its vast array of seasonings, teas, incenses and oils, will delight any foodie or amateur herbalist, but be sure to haggle your total price down. The gold souk, however, excited the magpie in me but disappointed my inner economist as I noticed some inflated prices not even worth haggling down. Certainly do your research before purchasing.

You need not only look to Dubai's historical side if you're in search of something different. I was surprised by the city's contemporary art scene, which would not be out of place in one of New York's trendy boroughs. Alserkal Avenue is warehouse space inhabited by museums, galleries, jewellers, coffee shops and even a chocolate factory. You can grab yourself a green juice or an iced latte and chill out with your Macbook on wooden benches, or wander through the gallery spaces, where you'll find everything from contemporary Arabic art to modernist pieces straight out of 1950s Chicago. And even those with no interest in cars (ahem!) will be impressed with the vintage car showroom sporting shiny Cadillacs and Beetles from every era.

The spice souk
The spice souk

After exploring Dubai's cultural side, I wanted to see more outside the city, and my stay wasn't complete without taking a desert safari. The raw thrill of surfing up and bouncing down a sand dune in a 4x4 just might keep you giggling for hours - that's if the motion sickness doesn't kick in!

As my trip comes to a close, I'm both baffled by this megacity, yet in awe of its heritage. I'm also fairly sure I've never seen or eaten as much food in my life as I have at each buffet and iftar, or met so many people over a meal. It soon becomes apparent that - regardless of all other attractions - family and togetherness are at the heart of Ramadan in Dubai.

How to do it

Ramadan takes place from May 16 to June 14, 2018. I flew direct with Emirates airlines (return flights from €509 at emirates.com).

Intrepid Travel offers a three-day Dubai Discovery short break including city explorations, travel across Dubai Creek in a traditional 'Abra' and a desert safari from €350pp (intrepidtravel.com).

The skyline of Dubai, a city that loves superlatives: the tallest, the biggest, the best, and the happiest, with a new minister devoted to goodwill.
The skyline of Dubai, a city that loves superlatives: the tallest, the biggest, the best, and the happiest, with a new minister devoted to goodwill.

 I travelled as a guest of Dubai Tourism (visitdubai.com).

Where to stay

I stayed at the JW Marriott Marquis Dubai (marriott.com) - the world's tallest hotel. This five-star twin-tower block boasts an array of restaurants and shops as well as its sleek Vault bar on the 71st floor, which are open throughout Ramadan.

And because Ramadan is all about rest and rejuvenation, a trip to the hotel's Saray Spa seems essential - a luxurious hammam experience is cultural, right?

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