Ramadan (or Ramazan as it is known in Turkish) is one of the most important dates in the Islamic calendar. During this month adherents are to abstain from food, drink, smoking and having sexual relations during daylight hours. My entire stay in Turkey happened to fall within Ramadan. What does this mean to the traveller?
At first I was worried about how this would affect me. With the start of Ramadan falling in August in 2009 (as the Islamic calandar is based on lunar cycles holy days vary from year to year) I was not relishing the thought of having to eat breakfast before dawn (say around 4.30am) and then not being able to eat again until dusk (8.00pm). However, whilst Turkish people are, on the whole, Muslim, the state of Turkey itself is constitutionally secular. As such Ramadan did not seem to be embraced quite as fervently as it did elsewhere (in Syria for example). But even then, as a guest in their country you would be granted a certain amount of leeway – I doubt anyone anywhere would take offence at a sweltering tourist struggling in the heat and taking sips at a bottle of water. Indeed, according to the Koran travellers are spared the dictates of the fast just as are the ill and the pregnant.
As for the other parts of the fast, it varies where you are. You might be forced to fast ‘unofficially’ in some parts of the country, simply because restaurants and cafes are closed. This is more likely in smaller towns and in places away from the usual tourist trail. In Antakya and Niğde restaurants did seem to be mostly shut until sundown; in the backpacker mecca of Göreme every single eating establishment was open 24-7. Likewise I imagine that you would be able to pass a very comfortable fortnight in an Aegean or Mediterranean resort without realising that Ramadan was going on at all! And I also found that not only did motorway service stations still sell food, but the coach lines themselves distributed cups of water and slices of cake, the same as ever.
Istanbul is, as I’ve said elsewhere, a European city. Here more than most places a lot of the locals have a secular western outlook on life. So Ramadan should really not have an effect on your stay here at all. Restaurants, cafes and shops were open, bazaar hawkers encourged me to try their wares, the fish stalls in Eminönü were heaving with a predominantly local crowd. About the only negative that you would need to look out for is that come sunset there is a rush to eat; restaurants were packed at 8pm.
Conversely there are actually plus points to visiting Istanbul during Ramadan. The city authorities seemed to have put their glad-rags on for the occasion. Flags flew from posts, messages were picked out on mosque facades in fairy lights, and there was a craft fair running in Taksim Park. Best of all though was the fact that the Hippodrome was the hub of the party. Stalls down beside the Blue Mosque sold candy floss, pancakes, and sweets. The grass was thronged with picnickers. And the crowds were entertained by stiltwalkers, costumed actors, and toy salesmen. The good-natured press of the Istanbulus, the laughter and chatter, the clanging of bells on the sweetstalls, all came together to leave me with a fond and lasting memory of Ramadan in Istanbul.