Sultanahmet Mosque

So we are in the last week of Ramadan, or Ramazan, as it is known in Turkey and there is an air of excitement as people look forward to the holiday that follows it.. This year it started on 6 June, and it will finish on 4 July.  The date of Ramadan is around 11 days each year because it is based on the lunar calendar. After Ramadan there is a 3 day public holiday known as Şeker Bayram (Sugar Festival) from 5- 7 July inclusive.

Every year our guests who are on tour with us during Ramadan are surprised at how easy it is to eat and drink, as they had worried about this when booking their trip to Turkey, thinking that it would be difficult. The truth is, it is actually a really fun time to travel as long as you have booked any bus or plane trips travel in advance (more on that subject in a moment).

So what’s it all about? During the month of Ramadan, those who are fasting cannot eat, drink (not even water) or smoke between sunrise and sunset.   This is aimed at teaching patience, discipline, sacrifice and empathy for others who are less fortunate.  It is also designed to cleanse the body, mind and soul. Young children, the elderly, women who are pregnant and those with certain medical conditions are exempt from fasting.

Those who are fasting will have a small meal before sunrise call sahur, and it is the key to a successful fast.  In some areas of Turkey, drummers will roam the street, keeping alive a very old tradition of playing the drums to wake up people for sahur.  This is not as common as it once was, but you may be lucky enough to hear them.

When the call to prayer which marks sunset is heard, those who are fasting are able to eat.  Most people will start with something simple such as a few dates and then move on to their meal which is called iftar. It is a time of celebration and sharing an iftar meal with family, friends or colleagues is a special thing.

It is common for local municipalities to host a community iftar event. Each evening, just before the sun goes down, there’s a definite air of excitement as people get ready for iftar and then share their meals with family and friends.  As a traveller, it is impossible to miss this excitement.

Blue Mosque IstanbulIf you are lucky enough to visit Turkey during Ramadan, you will enjoy the festive atmosphere – especially in Sultanahmet (Istanbul Old City).  You’ll see the Blue Mosque lit up with festive lighting, and the Hippodrome is filled with night market stalls offering lots of tasty snacks and arts and crafts. The area is buzzing with happy families who are out strolling after iftar.  You might also see communities joining together for iftar dinner out on the streets and in parks at long trestle tables – don’t be surprised if you are asked to join in!

There is no need to worry about whether you will be able to eat – in touristic areas, restaurants will be open for business as usual.  In more conservative areas there will still be restaurants open for people who are not fasting, although sometimes they might have some reduced hours due to less business.  In really conservative areas, such as in the East, some restaurants may cover their windows with curtains in order to be sensitive to those who are passing by and are fasting.

Turkish people understand that non-Muslim tourists won’t be fasting, and you will find that you will be served with a smile.

The most important thing you need to think about if you are travelling during this time is travel by bus and plane.  Just before the end of Ramadan, many people will start to travel to their home towns for the holiday that follows it, and so buses and planes get fully booked, traffic gets congested, and prices of flight tickets are higher. To make sure your holiday is hassle free, it is a good idea to book any domestic flights and bus tickets as soon as possible. It can be difficult to book bus tickets in Turkey from overseas as most bus company websites are in Turkish, so its a good idea to get a Turkish travel agent to help you with these arrangements.

So, as long as you do a bit of planning and make sure that you have your bus and flight tickets booked in advance if you are likely to be travelling in the days before, during and after Şeker Bayram, and you have a little patience if there is extra traffic, you will have a happy Ramadan travel experience.