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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