A visit to Riyadh during the month of Ramadan is an incredible opportunity to experience local life and culture at a time unlike any other in the year. Whether it’s the flicker from a copper fanoos lantern, the sweet scent of burning oud or the thud of a Musaharati’s drum, Riyadh’s city-wide Ramadan celebrations encompass a blend of traditions from Hijaz to the Eastern Province, and some from even further afield in the Arabian world. Here’s are some of the capital’s highlights.
What is Ramadan?
Taking place during the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, the sacred month of Ramadan traditionally begins with the sighting of the crescent moon. What follows is a month of fasting - one of the five pillars of Islam - to mark the first revelation of the Holy Quran to Prophet Mohammad (PBUH). During this time, Muslims abstain from food and drink during daylight hours in order to exercise spiritual discipline and inspire reflection and contemplation. As well as being the spiritual month there is also a focus on charity and giving as well as family, with Muslims traditionally spending more time with family and friends.
Eid Al Fitr marks the end of Ramadan and is a public holiday when most businesses and schools are closed for celebrations.
A typical Ramadan day
While visitors to the kingdom are heartily encouraged to immerse themselves in the atmosphere that places community, family and faith at its heart, it is a good idea to plan any trip with consideration as to how the daily life in the city changes during the holy month.
With the fast (known as sawm) observed between dawn and dusk, typical Riyadhi routines are inverted. Business opening hours tend to be shorter than normal - opening later and closing earlier - and most restaurants will shut during the daylight hours. Non-Muslims visiting Saudi Arabia are not expected to fast, and eateries within hotels are still likely to be serving. However; eating, drinking and smoking in public should be strictly avoided between sunrise and sunset to respect those fasting during this time.
It means that sleepy days are followed by a hive of activity upon nightfall, with the muezzin’s sunset call to prayer prompting the fast to be broken with the joyful iftar meal, as Riyadh comes alive with all manner of neighborhood festivities and culinary delights.
Note that Riyadh’s roads are at their busiest in the minutes before the Maghrib prayer as people dash to break the fast, and restaurant reservations should be booked well in advance.
That’s because those not hosting family and friends in their homes will spill out into all manner of cafes, restaurants and Ramadan tents, while the season for charity and good deeds sees thousands of Riyadhis heading for mosques with homemade dishes to share with the community. Popular amongst the younger generation during this time are istiraha; rented chalets where friends congregate to eat, drink, and play games.
To fully enjoy what Ramadan has to offer in Riyadh, visitors should embrace their inner night owl. Restaurants and shopping malls such as the Riyadh Gallery Mall and Al Nakheel Mall tend to open in the early evening and remain busy until the early hours of the morning ahead of the pre-dawn meal known as Suhoor.
Twinkling under white lanterns and bursting with colorful flags are Riyadh’s vibrant souks, with Al Thumari Souq - located in the heart of old Riyadh near the Al Masmak Fortress among those bustling with shoppers stocking up on ingredients, gifts and clothing ahead of Eid celebrations marking the end of Ramadan. To raise a smile from hawkers and shopkeepers, greet them with the phrase ‘Ramadan Mubarak (meaning ‘blessed’ or ‘happy’ Ramadan).
To enjoy traditional Saudi food such as camel meat, sambosa and shorba soup, seek out the dozens of Ramadan tents popping up all over the city, including at many hotels and resorts, including Hilton, Marriott, Movenpick, Four Seasons, Fairmont and Al Faisaliah.
Alternatively, the neon lights of Tahlia Street remain a hit among Riyadh’s younger generation, with its vast range of dining options giving people the chance to break their fast with a variety of international cuisines including American, European, Indian and Asian.
West of Riyadh, in the historic town of Ad Diriyah, is the Al Bujairi Heritage Park. With spacious green parks, lit palm trees and spectacular views of the palace and ruins, the area is a popular spot for families to enjoy magical Ramadan evenings. Alongside King Abdullah Park and the King Fahd International Stadium, it is also among the best places in Riyadh to watch the Eid fireworks and soak up the friendly and festive atmosphere.