For many people the thought of visiting an Islamic country is met with fear and apprehension. If you’ve never been before you might be unsure how to dress or act. You may be fearful based on news reports. It can seem overwhelming and intimidating. But, one of the best ways to get past these feelings is to simply GO! I write regularly about Morocco so I asked some other blogging friends to provide their insight on travel in other Islamic countries. You might be surprised to discover these countries and why they make excellent destinations to visit.
One of the best ways to conquer stereotypes and fears is to experience through travel. This is the best reason why you should visit an Islamic country this year. Get out there, explore the unknown, and discover there’s much more to these places than the media would have you believe.
Top 5 Reasons to Visit an Islamic Country
- Centuries of history to discover.
- Some of the most breathtaking landscapes at your fingertips.
- You’ll be welcomed as a revered guest almost anywhere. Hospitality is key feature of these societies.
- You won’t have to deal with hordes of tourists, many of these places are largely untraveled.
- Food! Each of these places has their own unique cuisine that is out of this world.
Where Will You Go?
I’m starting with Iran, as it’s at the top of my “must visit” Islamic countries. I can hear your gasping that an American woman would want to visit this country. But, for all it’s political pandering I know the Iranian people are wonderful. We’ve had many friends over the years from this country and it’s left me itching to go. Not to mention Persian food is some of my absolute favorite. If you’re a woman you’ll have to don a headscarf and men and women will need to wear conservative clothing while visiting but it’s a small trade off.
“Iran is so many things rolled into one, but there’s one thing it’s not. It’s not a country of gun-toting or American-hating extremists. It’s not a land of war-loving, flag-burning terrorists. And it’s definitely not how the world perceives it to be.” Nellie of Wild Junket in Traveling Iran – What It’s Like
Qatar is mostly known around the world as the home of the Al Jazeera news channel but there’s much more to this small country. Many Islamic countries have a long and celebrated history though unfortunately not many of them have the economic ability to protect and promote their art and history. Qatar however is doing so in a major way.
“Doha, however, has culture. And by culture, I mean the government understands the importance of investing in the arts. These investments have made Doha a great destination for those interested in Middle Eastern art (and contemporary architecture!). While Doha is not yet the type of place you’d spend your whole vacation, it is a great city for a 24-36 hour layover.” (MarocMama note: Qatar Airways flies many routes through Europe and Asia with a layover in Doha) Ashley of NOXP in An Art Day in Doha, Qatar
United Arab Emirates
Of all the Muslim countries people have familiarity with the UAE tops the list. This is a country made up of several emirates including Dubai and Abu Dhabi. While there are remnants of traditional culture the area has been largely modernized and provides everything you would find in North America or Europe.
“The children and I had a fabulous time in Abu Dhabi! I found it safe, clean and family-friendly. The harsh punishments for disobedience meted out by the rulers really do ensure compliance. I thought of it in many ways as ‘Singapore in the Middle East.’ The flight time is 7 hours from London which makes it closer than lots of other places as a winter sun destination.” Shobha of Just Go Places Blog in Visiting Abu Dhabi with Children
Bahrain is separated from Saudi Arabia by simply a long bridge jutting to the island in the Persian Gulf (the country is made up on archipelago of 33 islands). It became known in recent years due to protests held and put down by the king of the country. But this small nation is a unique spot to visit. Whether you like museums, history or wildlife you can find a bit of everything in Bahrain.
“Along with delicious Arabic coffee. I jotted down the recipe, spilling a bit as I went. After making sure I wrote it down properly, one of the women went into the kitchen. She returned a few minutes later with a jar containing some coffee and a bag of accompanying spices: cloves, cardamom and saffron. “Take this home with you,” she said. “Of course, with Arabic coffee you must have this,” she continued – and produced a large bag of ripe dates…Arab hospitality is legendary. Where else would a wandering stranger be invited into people’s homes like that?” from Anne-Sophie of Sophie’s World in The Kindness of Strangers
“It’s been five months since my trip to Bahrain, but so many memories still linger on. Every time I’m at an airport and hear of a flight leaving for Bahrain, I am overcome by the urge to run and catch it. The warmth of its people was the kind that could get me through a cold night. I remember it as the land of a thousand friends.” Shivya of The Shooting Star in Land of a Thousand Friends
Another one of my most desired countries to visit is the west African nation of Gambia. It’s the smallest country in mainland Africa but also one of the most politically stable with an extremely friendly population. The nation borders the Atlantic Ocean and has beautiful beaches along with wonderful wildlife viewing. The population is largely Muslim with a small percentage practicing Christianity as well as plenty of traditional tribal beliefs mixed in.
“The country has so much to offer including a vibrant culture and wonderful wildlife. With some 560 bird species it is a twitchers paradise, being popular with the likes of wildlife and bird watching expert, Chris Packham. It is also great for river and sea fishing. There is no big game here but there a number of species of monkeys including green vervets, baboons and the endangered red colobus monkeys. You may also see monitor lizards, bats, crocodiles and marine mammals including dolphins.” Kat of Travels with Kat in Guide to the Gambia
Nestled into the Middle East is the country of Jordan. Many travelers dream of visiting this country to see the ruins of Petra but there’s so much more than just this site. The country is large with varied landscapes including gorgeous deserts. You can swim in the Red Sea, float in the Dead Sea and hike across Martian like landscapes. For a city feel head to Amman and be sure to eat some amazing Jordanian cuisine. The country is home to hundreds of thousands of refugees from neighboring countries so along with experience Jordan there’s a good chance you’ll also meet people from all over the Middle East who now call Jordan home.
“Everywhere we went, Jordanians were eager to extend a hand of welcome and peace, providing a stark contrast to the culture of fear propagated by the mass media and the corporations/politicians who stand to benefit most from continued military action in the region (war, after all, is EXTREMELY profitable). Much like sharks, wolves and any other number of species that have been demonized by Western mythology over the centuries, the Middle Easterners we met exhibited absolutely no animosity or aggression towards us; only curiosity and a willingness to engage where mutual respect was on offer.” Bret of Green Global Travel in The Country of Jordan, the Middle East & Our Culture of Fear
“I stepped out of the hotel and reached the Roman Theatre, and was welcomed by a group of kids who repeatedly asked me to take pictures of them, asked me ‘what’s your name’ and all. Their beautiful smiles warmed up my heart. I just don’t get how people can dislike/be afraid of traveling to the Middle East. People are so helpful, welcoming and friendly in the area!” from Giulia of Travel Reportage in Travel Solo and You’ll Never be Alone
Arab and Muslim tend to be synonymous in a western context but the largest Muslim population is in fact Indonesian. There are more Indonesian Muslims in the world than Arab – amazing isn’t it? This country is known for beautiful landscapes, beaches, and the tropical sun. Bali is arguably the most visited part of Indonesia but it’s also home to the island of Java (hello coffee!), and 17,000 other islands, as well as volcanos, Buddhist temples, and out of this world spa treatments.
“Given Z, as a pre-pubescent child, would be excused fasting even were he Muslim, we’ve trampled on no sensitivities…Bad temper? Not a jot. Quite the reverse, in fact. Folk have been implausibly helpful and positively jolly. From the folk at the mangrove forest who gave us a masterclass in Bahasa Indonesia, through to the five chaps at the Pelni ferry office who painstakingly located a (largely fictional) schedule, smiling, bowing and welcoming me to the country all the time.” from Theodora of Escape Artists in Ramadan in Tarakan
“While Indonesia is over 87% Muslim, it is by no means a theocracy. With six official religions, over 700 languages spoken, and thousands of islands, Indonesia is immensely diverse. Through CouchSurfing, my experiences ranged from riding on the back of a motorcycle to get to Ubud in majority-Hindu Bali to staying with a devout Muslim student in Yogyakarta who got up early for morning prayers and would peel off briefly while showing me around due to his devotion. History, nature, and amazing people to share it and show it; it’s easy for me to recommend a visit to Indonesia.” from Roni of Roni Weiss check out his trip to the Sacred Monkey Forest too!
The official slogan of Bangladesh tourism is Land of Stories and it’s no coincidence. The first page of their website proclaims, “Here everyone has a story – story to celebrate the life, story to survive, story to come to the help of others, story to become and hospitable and smiling – which might be your life-time experience.” This country only became independent in the 1970’s and is unique in many ways. You can’t escape the water in Bangladesh, you can even fish with otters! If you prefer hiking, the Sundarbans is a UNESCO world heritage site and the home of the Bengal tiger. Don’t stop there, you’ve just begun!
“Bangladeshi cities may be bustling, crowded, and jammed with activity, but the soul of Bangladesh is in its villages and along its rivers. Villages that surprise with their calm, their order and their relative peace. Sure there’s activity — in the fields, homes, schools, mosques and temples, but there’s a different pace to it all than you’ll find in a Bangladeshi city. In the words of a friend working in development, “When I go to the Bangladesh countryside, it gives me a sense of hope.” from Audrey and Scott of Uncornered Market in Bangladesh Village Homestay: Becoming One of the Family
“I truly loved the brief stay I had in Dhaka. Everyone I interacted with was incredibly warm and friendly. They all truly love their country and wanted to show off the best face of it to me and other visitors. I’m genuinely looking forward to getting back over there and exploring more. It seems to me there is so much variety to see and places which deserve a proper wandering.” from Seth of Boarding Area in A day(ish) in Dhaka
You may be thinking, there’s not a snowball’s chance in h*ll you’ll get me to visit Iraq and for that no one will judge, but it’s not to say completely impossible. Northern Iraq is largely autonomous (though with recent uprisings spurred by ISIS it may be advisable to hold off planning). There isn’t a tourism sector so to speak but you’re sure to find dozens of citizen ambassadors ready to make you feel at home. One thing is for certain, if you’re able to visit, you’ll be in for a treat.
“This first impression stuck with me, as it was a taste of the kindness I’d experience throughout my 10 days of traveling in Iraq’s Kurdistan Region. And when people ask me what it was like, I can honestly say that the people I met in Iraq are by far the warmest folks I have ever encountered! From the soldier at customs who took it upon himself to teach me Kurdish, to the young man in Dohuk who had worked as a translator for US troops in nearby Mosul, to the group of college students in sublime Amadiya who “adopted me” for the day and to the Arab young man from Baghdad who invited me to his home in Sulaymaniyah, the people are what absolutely stood out to me most.” from Aaron of Aaron’s Worldwide Travels in So What’s it Like to Travel in Iraq?
Turkey sits at a crossroads of culture and this is reflected when you visit. From metropolitan Istanbul to the villages of Anatolia, the coastal beaches to mountain cities this is a country of many contrasts. This is the only country in the world that my parents can say they have visited and I haven’t! My mom had nothing but amazing things to say about their albeit short stay in Istanbul. While I feared they would face issues with unscrupulous taxi drivers and the madness that is driving in this part of the world, she loved it and waxed affectionately about the kindness they experienced. Why should you go? A million reasons including amazing airfare deals from Turkish Air from destinations around the world!
“A year and a half ago I booked a ticket to Istanbul. I had no clue what to expect. All I knew was what I had heard from trusted friends, travel bloggers, and my brother. Each insisted it was a must-visit destination. I was anxious. It was my first Muslim country. I was nervous about what to expect and torn about booking the ticket even after I locked in my flight. Boy oh boy did I have Turkey pegged wrong! Not only did I enjoy Istanbul, but I fell in love with it.” from Alex of Virtual Wayfarer in 8 Ways Turkey is Nothing Like You Expect
“You need to visit Istanbul! In fact, it’s a great intro to the Muslim world, I find, as it is very European, yet it has deep roots and so much culture! Istanbul’s mix of communities really surprised me and I was impressed at how people went about their daily business in total harmony. I was also stunned at how fashionable Muslim women were, I know, it sounds funny, but I had never expected women to be so fashion-forward with their scarves and dresses, all adorning beautiful colours, patterns and silks. Let’s just say it’s not what is portrayed here in Canada and not what I had seen in other countries.” Jennifer of Moi, mes souliers
I would love to visit Palestine (and Israel) one day. Early this year I spoke to a representative from the Israeli Tourism board and expressed our interest in possibly visiting Israel and Palestine, how we are interested in sharing a different kind of story, focused on diversity and an interfaith appeal. She looked back at me without blinking and told me, “we’re not interested in working with Muslims.” Well, that’s that. I hope that it becomes more of a possibility down the road. We’ll see. For those of you who can visit, please do it for me.
“In addition to the international efforts to end the difficult situation in Hebron, there are local movements that try to make awareness about the problems that Palestinians face in this place. Such as the group Youth Against Settlements, that organizes a yearly march with international activists presence to open Shuhada Street, known in Hebron asthe Ghost Town. Following this example, and with the aim to build international understanding between Palestinian community and show the true picture of the place, Hebron Peace Center organizes tours to the city and the refugee camps around conducted by a local guide.” from Giulia of Travel Reportage in Shuhada Street in Hebron, the ghost city of Palestine
“On a backpacking stint that also took me along the Jesus Trail and into holy places like Nazareth, Jericho and Jerusalem, it was probably Bethlehem that endeared me the most…This is just to get you thinking about Bethlehem. I really recommend a visit to Bethlehem, and even more so places like Hebron, Jericho and Ramallah. I was simply inspired and from a personal point of view – I class this entire area as a separate country. It was a pleasant and enjoyable welcome to Palestine.” from Jonny of Don’t Stop Living in O Little Town of Bethlehem, Palestine: 10 Things to See and Do
My guess is your first question is Brunei? What is it and where is it? This Islamic sultanate is located on the northern edge of Malaysia. It’s arguably one of the richest nations in the world (thanks to oil riches) and often under the radar for tourists. You likely won’t be spending a week here but visit if you’re in the area. The country has some of the world’s most beautiful mosques and is incredibly safe. Just remember there’s no nightlife here, it’s a strictly dry country which may not appeal to some.
“When you are in Bandar Seri Begawan, there isn’t an abundance of things to see and do unlike a lot of world capitals.. Partying, drinking and dancing simply are not options here – it’s a strict Muslim state and while you can take alcohol into Brunei if you are a non-Muslim, at night time, the capital Bandar Seri Begawan tones down to a halt…However, I liked Brunei and I admired Bandar Seri Begawan for this. It’s not a fast paced capital – it’s a slow moving, tranquil and relaxed place…” from Jonny Blair of Don’t Stop Living in Backpacking in Brunei
Could it be that someone would actually suggest visiting Yemen? The thought never crossed my mind until this year when I started talking to other travelers who had nothing but simply amazing things to say about this country. When all you seem to hear is how awful this country is I admit it was refreshing to hear positive things. It made me curious, and most of all it makes me want to go. Now. Like in Iran you’ll have to adhere to a dress code, ladies especially. You also may want to consider hiring a booked tour instead of going alone (citizens of some countries can not go alone), and avoid remote rural areas unless accompanied. Ah…just to see Sann’a!
“I don’t think there are too many places left in the world that would make God smile, but Yemen is one of them. Yemen has been inhabited forever and in many ways it is the birthplace of all our lives. In the days of yore, Noah’s sons knew it as the land of milk and honey, Gilgamesh came here to search for the secret of eternal life and most famously, a woman simply known as Sheba called this land of Yemen her home. However, since the book of mythology has closed, Yemen had been locked away in a hidden corner of the peninsula-until now.” from Lee Abbamonte of Lee Abbamonte in Sann’a Yemen
A few years ago there was a couple who sang in the Eurovision content and almost won, they were from Azerbaijan and before that time I really knew very little about this country. But then I got curious. Azeri’s are Persian and while the inhabitants of the country are mostly Muslim, their roots trace to Zoroastrianism. You’ll find loads of really interesting history as well as amazing landscapes. Unlike many Muslim countries where people can shy away from photographs, you’ll have few problems with them here. Most people love having their picture taken!
Egypt gets mixed reviews from travelers, with some falling instantly in love and other running the other way. With flare ups happening in Cairo from time to time you might think, not now. But, with few tourists visiting you can find great travel deals and if you’re outside Cairo you will discover life has gone on largely unchanged. Keep update with news, stay away from any potential hot spots (Tahrir Square being a good example), and enjoy!
“It has been widely reported regarding the recent troubles in Egypt. It is true, it has been an uncertain time over the past 2 years but we would like to assure you all, that the Red Sea Resorts, including Sharm El Sheikh, are very safe and operating as normal. Since the beginning of the revolution 2 years ago there has been no trouble within the resorts and this remains the case today. We are more than 500km from Cairo. There is so much Sharm El Sheikh has to offer its visitors and there is no reason they shouldn’t come and enjoy it!” from Emma Soliman of Aquarius Diving Club on Travel with Kat Snorkeling in the Red Sea
I have several personal friends who are married to Tunisians and regularly visit the country. They always have wonderful things to say about their experiences. While Tunisia is the country that sparked the Arab Spring, life has largely gone back to normal. This small country is full of history, great food, and generous people. Many Mediterranean cruises include a stop in Tunisia. Even if you can go for just a day – go and be sure to eat some harissa, Tunisia is its home!
“Much of the highway we’ve driven along, particularly on the way back to Tunis, is lined with the ruins of an ancient Roman aqueduct. You can tell that parts of it have been rebuilt over the centuries and other parts were very, very old and decayed. But it felt rather grand, almost odd, to be so casually driving beside the remains of such legendary engineering and historic importance. But this is so much of Tunisia … phenomenal ancient ruins strewn everywhere with the casualness that little late-1800s/early-1900s mining cabins lie in ruins in the area around my home. But these here are architectural masterpieces centuries and millennia old.” from SKJtravel in The Bridges are Washed Out in Tunisia
The number one destination in the world I’m dreaming of visiting is the Maldives. These islands off of India are truly paradise. But, I bet you didn’t know it was a Muslim country! There are some ultra lux resorts here, scattered amongst the islands. If you want to visit an island or village where everyday people live you’ll need to get special permission from the village chief. While you might opt for an all inclusive resort you can also book a cruise that takes you around the islands. This is the ultimate way to disconnect and relax.
“The further north we went, the less touristy the islands became and I loved it. Fewer and fewer resort islands, more and more traditional islands where they still built wood boats, fished for a living and everyone owned their own patch of coconut trees. This was the real Maldives, not the Maldives found in glossy honeymoon magazines. Probably the most relaxing trip I’ve taken anywhere in the world.” from Red of Red Hunt Travel in Maldives Cruising Safari
Several of the -stan countries are Islamic countries. During the Soviet era when religion was largely a taboo many people became more secular however with independence and the ability to practice their faith openly it has re-emerged. Did you know Kazakhstan is the largest land locked country? Or that the length across is roughly the same as the distance from London to Istanbul? You’ll find lots of variety in this huge country and if you’re a horse lover than this is a must visit destination.
“All my friends from Almaty told me its not worth it. Just a trade city. Booming with oil exploration and unbearable heat. They couldn’t be more mistaken. It is all that and so much more. The city and the region met all my expectations I have had about Kazakhstan. Everything what I have came to see in this country. Authentic Kazakh culture, people and landscape, Shymkent has.” from Marysia of My Travel Affairs in Shymkent – Breathing Central Asia
The west African country of Senegal is a stop for many people making a trip to this part of the world. The capital Dakar sits on the Atlantic coast and is a mixture of traditional and modern. There are several interesting museums and historical sites in the capital. Further south you will find tropical forests and secluded beaches. Senegal has faced little violence in recent years though it’s always wise to check with local sources before venturing outside of inhabited areas. Be sure to visit the traditional markets, taste some spicy Senegalese tea, and enjoy a typical meal eaten family style.
“Would you follow a total stranger who you casually met at a market in an African city? It was exactly what we did here in Dakar and we got a great experience in the private home of a typical African family in a typical African neighborhood in Dakar, Senegal…Mustafa says that both Christians and Muslims live together in the village and there are no problems with that. What people believe in is a private matter, says Mustafa.” from Bente of Travel with all senses in Local Tourism in Dakar
The Balkans are still in the process of recovering from a brutal civil war that rocked the region in the early 1990’s. Some areas are still a bit off limits but overall things are back to normal. But, because there are so few tourists visiting the area you can find some really amazing deals. While you might visit other regions of Europe for history of decades past, a trip to Bosnia-Herzgovina is a reminder of the not so distant past. You’ll find great cities but also beautiful natural environments, delicious food, and people ready to greet you with their arms wide open.
“A trip to Sarajevo changes your life, makes you think . It seems impossible that this city was the scene of a terrible war only a few years ago. A war of the worst: an internal war between brothers… Yet, Sarajevo does not seem a city with a Muslim majority. Or, at least, does not seem an Islamic city as we Westerners imagine the Islamic cities.” from Silvia of Trippando in Viaggo a Sarajevo: Dove Convivono Popoli e Religioni (translated to English)
You didn’t really think I’d leave off my home, Morocco did you? I’ve got a post in the works with all the reasons you should visit Morocco but to tempt you I’ll share some early. Morocco is a moderate/liberal Islamic country. When I first came 11 years ago what lured me was the promise of a country somewhat exotic yet European enough not to be overwhelming (well that’s up for debate!) With gorgeous beaches for sunbathing or surfing, rugged mountains to hike in summer and ski in winter, and the expansive Sahara desert there’s no shortage of scenery. Urban Morocco is very different from rural Morocco so be sure to include a mix of both. Most of all enjoy some Moroccan hospitality – there’s nothing like it.
“Dear Maroc, May I just start by saying how much you confuse and amaze me? I’m pretty adept at picking up on cultures and things, and well, every time I think I’ve got you nailed down you laugh a little and surprise me. Good for you! I already had a pretty open mind, but you’ve opened it further. We humans tend to see things as they appear rather than as they are. I’m so grateful for the people who have been willing to open up and share with me so I can see things from a different angle. Your country and your people are so alive. Maroc, you humble me. You truly do. And, I hope you don’t mind me saying this, but, well, I’m in love with you.” from Talon of 1 Dad 1 Kid in A Letter to Morocco
I haven’t hit every Islamic country this post (there’s about 12 missing), but I hope this has given you some inspiration to explore some of these beautiful places that in many cases get a bad rap. Sure you’ll be challenged and you’ll face lots of stereotypes and misconceptions square in the eye but that’s what travel is about; exploring the unknown and going outside your comfort zone. I have a feeling you’ll walk away with a new perspective.
**One of our hopes when moving to Morocco is to explore more Islamic countries. We haven’t been yet but are hoping in 2015 we will!**
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Two weeks ago I shared some of the best food tours in the world (and I love food tours!). Today we’ll get more hands on and talk about cooking classes. If you have more time and really love food than taking a cooking class is an excellent way to learn much more about a culture. Not only do you learn to make something new but you also can learn about the history of a place, why foods are important and likely you’ll hear plenty of great stories from your teacher. The one on one interaction is what makes cooking classes such a great part of travel. I think the best cooking classes are small in size, offer you the opportunity to actually do something – not just watch the instructor, and use traditional cooking techniques.
Over the years I’ve done my fair share of cooking classes and just like my best food tours of the world post, I asked others to share their best recommendations for cooking classes around the world.
- Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin – Osthoff Resort from Wisconsin Parent
- Burlington, Vermont – Essex Culinary Resort Spa from Go Girlfriend
- Ottawa, Canada – C’est bon Cooking from Moi, mes souliers
- Leon, Nicaragua – NicAsi Tours from Vagrants of the World “It was held in the home of a local indigenous family cooking traditional food after we shopped the ingredients in both markets and some places we didn’t expect.”
- Paute, Ecuador – Cooking Class at Restaurant Corvel from Nomadic Texan
- Valparaiso, Chile – Casa Kultour from Ever in Transit
- Buenos Aires, Argentina – The Argentine Experience from Moi, mes souliers “This Buenos Aires food class was also fun, although it was more of a wine and dine experience where we learned how to make most elements of our meal, yet they were cooked for us so we had time to chat, talk about the culture and learn a lot of stuff about Argentinian food!”
- Budapest, Hungary – Chefparade Cooking Class from Wagoners Abroad
- Rome, Italy – Eating Italy Kid’s Pizza Making Class from We 3 Travel “What I loved about this kid’s pizza making class that we did in Rome was that the kids were occupied for a couple of hours while the adults got to sit and eat and drink wine while we watched! Fun for all.”
- Rome, Italy – Nonna Lina’s Private Cooking Class from Holiday Nomad
- Rome, Italy – Walks of Italy from Calculated Traveler
- near Florence, Italy – Max&Me: Tuscany Cooking from Curry Strumpet “I’m useless in the kitchen, but I gifted my husband (our household’s resident cook) with a one-on-one Tuscan cooking class in the kitchen of a formidable Italian mama. He loved it! What made the day was sitting down to lunch with her family and simply feeling very much at home with some real locals. No fuss and glamour.“
- Venice, Italy – Enrica Rocca Cooking School – Venice, Italy from Laura at The Culinary Travel Guide
- Istanbul, Turkey – Istanbul Culinary Walks from Women on the Road
- Istanbul, Turkey – Istanbul Cooking School from The Kay Days
- Bangkok, Thailand – Anita Thai from Nomadic Texan
- Bangkok, Thailand – Somphong Thai Cooking Class from Around the World L
- Penang, Malaysia – Penang Cooking School from Malaysian Meanders
- Penang, Malaysia – Pearly’s Cooking Class from Travels4Yum “The instructor was absolutely incredible. Learned a ton about culture and even picked up some handy cooking technique tips!”
- Uji, Japan – Nakamura Tokichi Honten from Ever in Transit
- Chiang Mai, Thailand - Thai Farm Cooking School from Travel ‘n Lass “Though there isn’t exactly a dearth of cooking classes in Chiang Mai, the thing that sets the Thai Farm Cooking School apart is that the classes are a full day out in the country at their organic farm. And the classes are so well orchestrated, that we each had a choice of *15* different dishes (plus 3 curry pastes we pounded from scratch). We each got to make 5 different dishes, and I opted to make Green Curry with Chicken plus Tom Yam with Shrimp, Chicken with Cashew Nuts, Stir-fried Noodles, and for dessert: Mango with Sticky Rice!”
- Ubud Bali, Indonesia – Paon Bali Cooking Class from World Wide Adventurers
- Petra, Jordan – Petra Kitchen from Lumemare
- Hanoi, Vietnam – Hanoi Cooking Center from The Culture Mom
- Marrakech, Morocco – Amal Women’s Training Center and Restaurant from MarocMama
- Marrakech, Morocco – Faim d’Epices from Wagoner’s Abroad
- Brufut, Gambia – Home Cooking Course with Ida from Travels with Kat “I’ve done this cooking course with a very colourful lady, Ida in The Gambia a couple of times. Visiting the fish market with her is an exciting experience in itself but its her character and interesting anecdotes that make it such a brilliant day.“
There’s still plenty of room to add more! If you’ve taken a great cooking class, leave a comment or send me an email. I would love to include your suggestions!
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I always knew that Arab traders made there way throughout the Mediterranean and I knew that Greece was ruled by the Ottoman Turks for quite some time, but I always wondered what that time was like. What foot print did it leave? In places like Cyprus there’s a deep split between the Greeks and the Turks, did this exist elsewhere – or were there any Muslims left?
The town of Chania is a mix of Byzantine Greek, Venetian, and Ottoman architecture and design. These three groups dominate and shape the history of the island. I heard really conflicting stories while we were there. George, our food tour guide told us that when the Ottomans’ took the city from the Venetians the population was really happy. The Venetians were strict overlords, requiring male citizens to preform labor for the state yearly. Some of the things they were tasked with included building walls and rowing in the galleys of Venetian ships – an especially loathed and dangerous task.
This news from George backed up something else I knew about the Ottoman Empire, which was the Millet System that was a part of their rule. Under this system, which was set up for non-Muslim communities such as Armenians, Syrians, Greeks, Serbian Orthodox, and Jewish areas, the local religions and languages were permitted to handle most of their own personal affairs. For example, each had the legal right to use its own language, develop its own religious, cultural and educational institutions, collect taxes and maintain courts for trying members of the community – except for those cases involving public security and crime.
However when it came to what my experiences with the Greek Orthodox religious community, their stories were much different. In one museum there was a showcase of the “secret school” where children were taught the faith. I don’t doubt this however, nearly everything I’ve learned or researched has said that Ottoman rulers allowed Christians and Jews to practice their faiths Scholars such as Bernard Lewis noted, life for dhimmis (Christians or Jews) living under Ottoman rule was “much easier than that of non-Christians or even of heretical Christians in medieval Europe.” The church was largely kept in tact and left alone, albeit under scrutiny, until the Greek War of Independence in 1821.
This isn’t to say life was rainbows and butterflies. While dhimmis were given protection and largely allowed to live their lives as they wished, they also had to pay tribute and many non-Muslim boys were enslaved as janissaries, between the 1300-1600’s. I found these conflicting stories confusing. I know that under Islamic law people of other faiths were permitted to practice and pass on their religious beliefs. There are Christian and Jewish schools in Morocco and many other Muslim countries today. It just didn’t make sense. So I decided to do some research to see what the reality was. What I learned was that while some historical sites claim these secret schools existed, the story behind them is largely believed to be a myth. After the Greek War of Independence the first mention of a krifo scholio (secret school) emerged and the myth held on.
The Mosque of the Janissaries is one of the large buildings in the port of Chania. It no longer operates as a mosque and is the oldest structure from the Ottoman period remaining. The story of janissaries is as interesting as Crete’s past. The Janissaries were enslaved non-Muslims (it’s not permissible to enslave a Muslim) at first they were those taken as political prisons or prisoners of war. Later the sultan’s men would comb the kingdom seeking out boys that showed promise. The boys were typically between six and fourteen, were taken from their homes and sent to live with Turkish families, learn the language and customs of Islam, and were under 24 hour supervision. But they weren’t normal slaves. Janissaries were subject to strict discipline, wore uniforms, were paid salaries and pensions on retirement and eventually formed their own social class. They were extremely good soldiers and were feared.
I immediately identified this building as a mosque and was surprised to find Arabic inscriptions still on the outside. When I went inside, I saw it operated as a gift shop of sorts – that was kind of sad. But the niche was still in place. While everyone else was looking at things on racks, I was the crazy lady in the corner taking pictures of the niche. I wondered how many people knew they were standing in a mosque.
There also is one other example of the Ottoman rule left. This church shows examples of all three major conquests. The building is Venetian, the minaret is Ottoman and the bell tower is Greek Orthodox. It’s the strangest looking church I’ve ever seen but I really could appreciate how they left it in tact to show the progression of history on the island.
One of the saddest stories about this time I heard was about the Greek/Turk population exchange. In 1923 the governments of Greek and Turkey signed a decree that forced all Turks living in Greece to leave, and all Greeks in Turkey to do likewise. This amounted to nearly 2 million people forcibly made refugees. It was done under the auspices of protecting minorities after the Ottoman Empire collapsed. People who were ethnically Greek, who spoke Greek and had no roots in Turkey, but were of the Muslim faith were still made to leave Crete. Little weight was placed on ethnic identities, only religion.
I wish that I would have had more time to explore the Jewish history of Crete. What I do know is that during World War II all but one Jew perished. The island suffered greatly under Nazi occupation had much of the island was destroyed. Like the Muslim population, there really aren’t any Jews remaining in Chania.
I really did enjoy learning about the history of this island. For such a small landmass there are so many stories to tell!
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When I was in Italy last month a few of my friends started chatting about the idea of creating a Pinterest travel community. This idea exists on a lot of platforms. People with similar interests, coming together to share their work. Before I knew it Katja of Skimbaco and Nienke of The Travel Tester rolled out “Mappin’ Monday” (#MappinMonday) on Pinterest and the community was born!
The concept is simple, one board where contributors pin 1-3 of their best travel related content each Monday. Then we each share our pins as well. Long, long ago I joined Pinterest – in fact when it first started. Today I pin travel, food, and other things that interest me and my multicultural/bilingual family. (Are you following me on Pinterest yet? Be sure to!) At the beginning of each month I’ll be sharing my FIVE favorite featured pins from the previous month – that I think you’ll like too! Click the pictures to be taken to the pin so that you can keep and share them.
I really love posts that are honest and give the good with the bad. This pin from Souvenir Finder fits that mix. As we get ready for our Berlin Christmas Market experience it’s been fun reading about markets in other places too.
I almost always fly low cost carriers from Morocco to European destinations because they’re so affordable. ($50 RT to Spain, France, or Italy? Yes please!) Live, Share, Travel offers tips in this post to make those low cost flights not only easy on the wallet but to make traveling more comfortable too.
It shouldn’t be a huge surprise that this month I was loving Berlin pieces. We’ll be leaving for a long weekend soon and I’m trying to gather as much information as I can before we leave. Who knows maybe I’ll toss it all out the window once we get there but better to be safe than sorry! I found this article from Angloitalian Follow Us to be helpful.
Now that we’ve been to (or have plans in the works to be in) all of the big European countries, we’re starting to think about the smaller ones. Luxembourg has always intrigued me and I really hope we can go in 2015 to see what this tiny country is all about! For now The Travel Tester whets my appetite to learn more!
Lastly, a little bit of home. Visiting New York City during Christmas time should be something that everyone experiences at least once. From giant Christmas trees to amazing window displays, fabulous food and performances it really is the most wonderful time of the year. Read more about how to make your New York Christmas fantastic on Skimbaco Lifestyle.
If you want to learn more about Mappin’ Monday or become a part of our community you can learn more on the Mappin Monday page. Get pinning!
The cities of Morocco have a reputation for touts, or people who offer you a service you haven’t requested, such as “helping” you find your riad, or in the case of females those making unwanted advances. While there’s no way to completely avoid this, there are some ways to lessen them and prevent too much unwanted attention.
Shopkeepers, restaurants, and some tour keepers are known to have an employee outside of their place of business trying to bring in sales. While it can be obnoxious to be constantly asked if you want to come inside to eat or to buy something, they’re truly just doing what they can to earn a living. It’s very easy to say “no thank you” and walk away.
You’re also bound to run into another kind of tout and this is the much more aggressive and infuriating kind. Young men and sometimes children will offer to show you to your riad, or show you to whatever place it looks like you’re trying to find. They may be very kind and seem like they’re simply doing a good deed – and in some cases they truly are – but once you reach your destination they may ask for payment. Expect to pay them 10-20 dirham but no more. Yes, they may ask for more but the amount quoted is plenty. If they’re young kids, than maybe 5-10 dirham. The majority of young kids aren’t doing this as a way to make money for their family, they’re doing it to go buy snacks or a toy.
What happens if I pay and they ask for more?
Be firm and tell them no. Yes, they may complain or get upset but do not give them more. If the person begins to get hostile or you feel threatened, go to the nearest riad and knock on the door – even if you’re not staying there. The staff can and will help you if you tell them what is happening. Also, much of Marrakech is patrolled by undercover police officers that are there to protect tourists from this type of behavior. You can threaten to involve the police as a final resort and this tends to turn them away.
You may find women in Marrakech who offer to do henna. Many times they’re sitting on stools in the square and will ask however lately we’ve seen more and more walking around and will simply grab your hand and start applying henna. Sometimes they say it’s “free” then demand money when they’re done. We’ve also heard that they are charging insane prices 200-400 dirham for a bad henna job. A really good henna application won’t cost that much. The best way to deal with this is to pull your hand away and tell them no. If enough people do this, then hopefully they will stop. If you really do want it, then pay them but only a very small amount such as 20 dirham.
The final type of tout are those who harass women. In many instances a boy/man will make a comment/compliment in passing and no more. He may try to pick you up. He might directly ask you to have sex. How you handle any of these situations will depend on your personality and level of irritation. In most cases simply ignoring is the best bet. You can expect that the less clothing you have on, the more comments you will receive. Also, many young men have watched a lot of TV and movies and their perception of women from the US or Europe is skewed. For example, they see men pick up women in the movies and then take them home, therefore they assume this is common and why shouldn’t they try to see if the same thing happens for them? While we know movies are not real life, they often don’t have any other frame of reference.
If you’re being harassed beyond a passing remark than you should absolutely respond and tell the person to leave you alone. Again, threaten to involve the police. If they refuse to leave you alone or follow you, than you should find a police officer, even a traffic officer, and let them know what is happening. While it is very annoying to experience this, in 99% of cases there is no physical threat. The majority of men will not touch you. However, if you do engage with them and show them some interest back you can expect the behavior to contine. Ignoring them is really the best avenue. If you’re a woman traveling in Morocco, you can read my tips on travel where I address these issues further.
Strategies for Handling Touts;
- Ignore them
- Decline what they’re selling/asking and walk away
- Pay attention to how you’re dressed, and err on the side of modesty over revealing clothing
- Ask for help if you feel at risk
- Involve the police if needed.
While you most likely will find touts anywhere you go, and while it can put a damper on things try to take things in stride. Saying no isn’t so hard, nor is continuing to walk by. The Moroccan authorities do not take kindly to tourists being harassed so know that should you reach out to the police, they will help you.
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What you see isn’t always what you get!
Sometimes I feel like I’m being fooled everyday. There are countless number of things that seem real on the surface in Morocco, but once you dig further you discover that in reality it’s just a myth. Instead of letting them perpetuate I’m debunking some of the top Morocco myths I’ve heard!
The “Orange” Trees in Marrakech
This is the only myth that is limited to Marrakech. If you’ve ever visited or even seen pictures of the “orange” trees around the city I’m sure you thought, “how awesome to have oranges everywhere!” Sadly, those trees aren’t edible oranges. They’re called znbou3 and you don’t want to bite into one. They are sometimes used in homes to help cure olives but are not sweet juicy oranges!
If you come to Morocco you’ve either got carpets on your mind or you’re certain to at least wander into a carpet shop. Here you’ll be barraged by hundreds of carpets in different styles, textures, patterns, colors and fabrics. Of course you’ll be told every carpet is old, handmade, and of the finest sheep wool. It’s not. A lot of rugs that look old, aren’t really old – they’ve been made to look that way and likely even kept out in the sun for sometime to make them appear even older. If you’re an antique dealer coming to Morocco, it’s best to connect with a local expert who can help you find rugs that are truly authentic. If however you are looking for a piece for your home than you should go in with this knowledge and adjust your price accordingly. That being said, there are beautiful, handmade rugs that may not be as “perfect” as the dealer claims but make a wonderful addition to any home.
There are a few myths around couscous. First, Moroccans don’t eat couscous everyday – not even close. Couscous is usually only eaten on Fridays. If you’re visiting that’s going to be the best day to eat it as many restaurants only serve it that day as well. Second, couscous is a dish separate from tajine. A tajine is a stew, cooked in an earthenware vessel. It has meat and/or vegetables and is eaten with bread. Couscous is cooked in a pot that looks like a double boiler but with a collandar on top. The semolina grains are triple steamed over a pot with boiling broth, vegetables and meat. It’s then arranged on a platter and eaten with spoons. But tajine and couscous are never put together (unlike many cooking shows and recipes may have you believe).
Yes, Islam is the dominant religion in Morocco but that doesn’t mean it’s the only religion. There are many churches all over the country, including an impressive cathedral in Casablanca. There also are many synagogues across Morocco. Casablanca still has 35 in operation, while smaller cities may also have one. As the Jewish population ages there are becoming fewer and fewer. Finally, not all Moroccans (including Muslims) are religious. There are plenty of Moroccans who are not. Morocco has a very long tradition of interfaith relations and tolerance.
It’s not a Moroccan thing, it’s Egyptian. You’ll find belly dancing shows which are fine, just know it’s not traditionally Moroccan. Women might dance something similar to belly dancing but it’s in the company of women only and at something like a wedding party. The “traditional costumes” you may come across are not traditional at all.
There they are 5 Moroccan myths busted! Any others you can think of or want to know about?
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From the outside, almost every riad looks the same. The doors might be different. The walls may be shorter or taller and of course the neighborhoods vary. But from the outside there’s no way of knowing what you’ll find inside. It could be a lush green garden surrounded be heavy tapestries and ornate rugs. Or maybe trellises of flowers reaching to the roof. Or, you may be completely surprised and find white and silver modern designs welcoming you. This is what we walked into at Riad Sapphire.
I love modern design. Clean lines, with simple decorations – a way to showcase a very natural simple beauty without going overboard. It’s the kind of style that puts me at peace. After walking through the cacophony of noises and assault of colors and smells entering Riad Sapphire is like wandering into a dream. Typically the courtyard area has large trees or water fountains. The middle here featured a small silver ball fountain, something I’d never seen before. But it works and it’s even more lovely at night. Again, something so simple and yet perfect.
You can enjoy relaxing in any of the multiple sitting rooms, courtyard, or even take a dip in the ground floor pool. While many riads make use of the rooftop to add in a plunge pool, Riad Sapphire has one on the main floor. Though you won’t be swimming Olympic laps it’s the perfect size to take a swim on a warm afternoon. Take a pot of mint tea on the couches while reading or catching up with other guests. Because, one of the best things about a riad is that everyone is welcome to keep as private as they’d like or to interact as much as they care to. It’s a feeling that you can’t replicate in a hotel and makes riad living even more interesting.
When you’re ready to get ready for dinner wander through the second story hallways to one of the carefully designed suites. Each featuring a different color palette and style. This hallway leads to the dining table where dinners and breakfasts are served. The rooftops of riad courtyards are open to the sky, and at Riad Sapphire three panes of white fabric create a draped effect across the open space. It feels like you’re in a tent but with the comforts of a building! While we sat at the table for dinner, the adhan (call to prayer) echoed all around us. I hear the adhan every day, 5 times a day however sitting here and hearing the echo from mosque to mosque was truly one of the most beautiful experiences I’ve had living in Morocco. Even if you don’t understand the words you will appreciate the beautiful lilt of the imams’ voices.
For the evening I called the Peridot room home (it’s the green one). There are eight rooms to choose from, each designed differently and with slightly different amenities and capacities. Children are permitted to stay, so if you’re visiting as a family be sure to select a room or rooms that will accommodate everyone. If you’re traveling with a large group the entire riad can also be rented. I had some work to complete during the evening and was so touched to find Beryl knocking on my door offering some tea and cookies. What a welcome surprise! Small things like this are what really go a long way in my book. It’s what makes staying in a riad special. Riads aren’t just a place to sleep, they’re a place to experience a special part of Moroccan history and culture that can’t be found elsewhere.
For dinner I shared Moroccan salads and a vegetarian tajine with the owners and got to know more about how the riad came to be and our shared love of Marrakech. It was obvious to me this is truly a passion and that so much has gone into making this not just another property or business but an extension of themselves. What a pleasure it was!
Who should stay here?
- You’re looking for a luxury experience but are on a budget (rooms start at under 100E a night)
- Couples looking to get away from the frantic pace of life
- A group of girlfriends exploring Marrakech
The owners and the staff speak English (some natively) and are happy to help you find your way around the city. Riad Sapphire also offers complimentary cell phones for guests to use. If you really can’t get away they also have fantastic WIFI which is an amazing feat in Marrakech! Don’t forget to book a hammam treatment in their on-site hammam. You’ll feel fantastic!
Kaa Akhlij 3, Sidi Ben Slimane, Medina
Rooms start at under 100E per night
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Visiting Marrakech and wondering where you should eat? It’s true that there’s some amazing food in this city. There’s also some really medicore food. Maybe it’s because there’s so many tourists visiting that restaurants don’t feel the need to keep a high quality. Or, maybe it’s because Moroccans don’t typically go out to restaurants to eat Moroccan food that the best Moroccan meals aren’t often eaten in restaurants. Whatever the reason, here are some of our favorite places. You’ll notice that most of them are not exclusively Moroccan, they’re a mixture of different types and styles of food. You can only eat so much tajine!
Patisserie Amandine; 177 Rue Mohamed El Beqal Gueliz
There are loads of patisseries in Morocco – many of which serve Moroccan cookies and French pastries. Somehow I heard that Amandine had American style cupcakes and I had to see for myself. This is probably one of the more expensive patisseries in Marrakech however they have a great selection, beautiful presentation, and did I mention cupcakes? We also discovered they had Arizona Sweet Tea imported from the US. Even though it was ridiculously expensive MarocBaba enjoyed this treat immensely! If you go, try their macarons and sip on one of their excellent hot drinks. If you’re celebrating a birthday or special occasion they also make gorgeous custom made cakes.
L’Ultimo Bacco; Angle rue Tarik Ibn Ziad & Moulay Ali, Gueleiz
Last winter I was dying for a really good bowl of pasta. Even though there are places to get pasta here, it’s made in the “Moroccan” way. The spices are different and often lackluster. I had passed this place a few times and finally we made a date to go. The menu is Italian 100%, the decorations simple and lovely and while the prices were a bit more, we found the food quality and service to be really excellent. I felt a little underdressed but unlike in some places, there was no hostility towards us. You might not come to Morocco for Italian food but if you are looking for something different, we recommend stopping here.
We rarely go out for breakfast, not because I don’t like to but because typically it’s either something quick at home or eaten past the traditional breakfast hour. But, when we do go out there are several restaurants in the Hivernage area of Marrakech with outdoor cafes and some decent menus. Why I like this restaurant is because they have different types of breakfast. You can have crepes or a traditional Moroccan breakfast. They also have French, German, and American breakfasts (though I’d argue they may not be what you expect!) It’s a good place to people watch and to eat something before sightseeing or taking in the souks. You can come later in the evening for coffee and crepes too.
Food stalls Djem al Fna
In my last post on what to eat and what to avoid in Marrakech I said you should stay away from the food stalls in Djem al Fna. I still stand by this as I think there’s better food to be found elsewhere. However, if you really want to have the experience I recommend Stall 93 for grilled foods and Stall 14 “Krita” for seafood. The owners of stall 14 also owns a seafood restaurant in Gueleiz. At either place you’ll get good seafood, cooked fast, and insanely affordable.
Bejghueni; 65, Rue Mohamed El Bekal | Gueliz
This is one of our favorite places to take guests that are visiting. The restaurants on this street almost all serve a variety of grilled meats along with sides and starters. Some have a more Middle Eastern feel than Moroccan. But, overall they’re packed full of Moroccans with few tourists in site. You pick and choose what you want. Feel free to add more as you go. You can also get specialties like grilled sheep liver and heart which may not be for everyone but they do it well. I love their lamb and chicken kebabs, stewed white beans, and tomato salad.
Cafe 16 Place du 16 Novembre; Gueleiz
Located in the Marrakech Plaza, between Djem al Fna and Gueleiz is Cafe 16. I like this cafe because it offers simple foods that lack quality elsewhere. My favorite items are their salads that remind me of salad in the United States. Plenty of lettuce and toppings plus good dressings. The menu changes seasonally. They are open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The price is a little more than you’d pay in a neighborhood cafe but you can enjoy a filling lunch for 100 dirham or less.
PastaZa and/or Catanzaro
(PastaZa – 27 rue Imam Chafai | Kawkab Centre – Guéliz) (Catanzaro - Rue Tariq Bnou Ziad – Gueliz)
Catanzaro is one of the most well-known Italian restaurants in Marrakech. The first time we wandered in it was just by chance as the restaurant we wanted to go to was a big disappointment. We love the pizzas and pastas here. It’s one of the only places I’ve found ravioli! If you’re tired of Moroccan food this is a nice break. We also found a second affiliated restaurant called PastaZa a little closer to home. This is more of a quick service restaurant. The prices are a bit lower and the menu more limited but the food is still good. Some of their offerings like Indian Pizza and Cheeseburger pizza are interesting to try.
Chez Joel; 12 Rue Loubnane, Gueliz
For our wedding anniversary last year MarocBaba and I went to Chez Joel for lunch. I wanted something a little nicer but still affordable. This is a small restaurant serving small plates style meals. We were able to order several items (maybe too many) and share everything. Midweek at lunch time was pretty slow, but my guess is dinners are their prime time. The owner also has a second restaurant in Chicago and I enjoyed the Americana decorations. Beyond that, the food was really good. Although we don’t drink, they also serve alcohol if you’d like a glass of wine or cocktail with your meal.
Nearly every riad in Marrakech offers lunch or dinner service on order. You should take advantage of this at least one evening. The food you will eat will be comparable to the food served in Moroccan homes as the women who work in riads cook their family recipes. It’s as close as you’ll get to eating in a Moroccan home without a direct invitation!
Still looking for more great ideas on where to eat? Read my first post on what to eat and what to avoid in Marrakech.
If you’d like to discover some off the beaten path stops where locals eat, why not take one of our Marrakech Food Tours? MarocBaba and I take visitors to Marrakech around to some of our favorite places in the medina and we’d love for you to join us!
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