The magnificent Registan Square, Samarkand. This is not just a beautiful monument, but a centre for Islamic education with three madrasas. Photo: bbsferrari
New year, new decade…it’s time to experience the top-Muslim friendly travel destinations.
Muslim-friendly travel is becoming increasingly widespread, with more destinations and options every year. We believe travel is an opportunity to discover more about yourself, and each of the destinations on this list has something really special to offer. 2020 will be the decade of exploring heritage, history and identity. Whether you want to escape the tourists and enjoy secluded sandy white beaches one day, and discover a wealth of Islamic history another, there’s something in here for everyone.
Are you ready?
1. Samarkand, Uzbekistan
The jewel of Uzbekistan and a key trading post on the Silk Road, this city has been coveted for centuries by great rulers, including Alexander of Macedon and Genghis Khan. In fact, Genghis Khan sent a diplomatic mission to Samarkand in the 13th Century, when it was a rich empire under the Khwarezm-Shahs. Genghis Khan reached out to the Shah with a proposal to become commercial partners, sending three ambassadors directly to the Shah himself. Unfortunatey, the Shah didn’t share the same enthusiasm, and sent back Genghis Khan’s ambassador without his head. The Mongols were not feared all over the Asian steppe for no reason, and Genghis Khan took vengeance by obliterating not just Samarkand, but the entire region. It took 150 years for the city to recover, and it only became a powerful state once again under the rule of the legendary Tamerlane.
Over the last couple of years, the Uzbek government has made the country more open to tourists, and is in particular working towards make the country a top Muslim-friendly travel destination in the future.
Must experience: Sunrise at Registan Square.
Must eat: Samarkand Plov.
Visit Samarkand with us in 2020, as we take you on an adventure through Uzbekistan…
2. Tokyo, Japan
This megacity already has 1001 reasons why you should visit, but in Summer 2020 Tokyo will also become host to the Olympic games. The Japanese tourism board is making arrangements to ensure the comfort of Muslim travellers, by providing halal food and prayer facilities. In between getting your adrenaline fix at the Games you can try out the latest high-tech gadgets at the Sony building in Ginza, enjoy authentic halal wagyu beef at Sumiyakiya and take part in a Samurai walking tour across the city. The Japanese are famed for their gardens, and the Imperial Palace East Gardens provide a scenic relief to the city’s bustling streets. Visit on a Sunday, when 250 free bikes are available for anyone to cycle on the palace garden grounds.
Must experience: A cat café (or even an owl café).
Must eat: Halal Ramen in Shinjuku-gyoen.
Plan your trip to Tokyo here.
3. Gilgit Baltistan, Pakistan
For some of the most breathtaking, untouched mountain scenery in the world, the northern areas of Pakistan are an incredible site to behold. Pakistan shares borders with China, Afghanistan and India, and has a rich diversity of ethnicities, traditions and cuisine. Explore the Hunza Valley, where the locals are said to have some of the longest lives in the world. It’s believed that the local Hunza apricots have unique healing properties that are the secret to the locals’ good health. Or, could it be the water? Hunza residents drink – for free – glacial melt water that is possibly the purest in the world.
Must eat: Gyal, the name for the locals’ traditional breakfast. Enjoy pan-fried wheat cakes with honey and apricot oil.
Must experience: Sunrise at Karimabad town – look south to see three of the world’s highest mountain peaks.
4. Seoul, South Korea
South Korea’s high-tech capital boasts the fastest internet in the world, probably the easiest alphabet to learn in Asia and an obsession with serving ice for dessert – but that’s not all. You might be wondering why Seoul ranks as a Muslim-friendly travel destination at all. In fact, the tourism board has spent years making the destination accessible to Muslim travellers. Not only can you find prayer facilities in various locations across the city, there is a good variety of halal food options. Seoul holds an annual halal food festival known as ‘Halal Restaurant Week’, when over 150 restaurants take part to provide special offers on halal food. We recommend trying beef bulgogi, bibimbap and spicy chicken jjimdak. If you’re curious about the Korean war, which became the ultimate battleground between Capitalism and Communism, take a day trip to Seoul and see the north-south divide yourself at the DMZ. You’ll be able to spy North Korea in the distance, one of the most secretive countries in the world!
Must experience: Rent a hanbok for around 10 000 Won (£7) and gain free entry into Gyeongbokgung Palace, where you can be a king or queen for a day.
Must eat: Kimchi and bibimbap
Here’s all you need to know about visiting Seoul.
5. Aceh, Sumatra, Indonesia
Escape the tourists and experience Indonesia’s rich heritage in Aceh, located on the northwestern tip of Sumatra Island. Islam first entered Indonesia through Aceh around 1250 AD, and its spread from here was key not just all over Indonesia, but also over Southeast Asia. Notable travellers including Ibn Battuta and Marco Polo passed through the region, and through their writings we know of the emergence and rise of Islam here. Aceh became a strong trading power over the following centuries, and by the 19th Century it produced over half the world’s supply of black pepper.
Aceh is now primarily associated with the devastating Tsunami that took almost 200 000 lives in 2004, which is commemorated at the Tsunami Museum. The tidal wave that arrived on Boxing Day brought inland a large ship – the PLTD Apung – which has been left in the city ever since, a reminder of the great power of the sea. Today the sea is best enjoyed in Pulau Weh, where the beaches on this secluded island rival those found in Bali but without crowds of tourists. Pulau Weh is best for snorkelling and diving, but if you’re looking for a bit more adrenaline then head to Lhok Nga, where you can enjoy surfing and kiteboarding.
Must experience: Sunset at Pantang Terong Hill. Bring a picnic and enjoy the sweeping views.
Must eat: Ayang Tangkap, a fiery dish of chicken fried with basil and pandan leaves.
6. Istanbul, Turkey
Explore Istanbul in a way most tourists never do, by uncovering this city’s thousands of years of history on a private tour with local guide Haktan Toursun. Haktan lives and breathes the history of this great city, and during even just a couple of hours’ exploration with him you’ll uncover many of Istanbul’s treasures. Did you know that parts of the black stone can be found here? Only a couple of mosques in the city have this honour, and unless you know where to look, you’ll probably miss it. Head over to Panorama 1453, where the story of Mehmet the Conqueror – Mohamed al Fatih – comes to life in a 3D experience. Fulfilling a prophecy left by Prophet Muhammad (saw) centuries before him, Mohamed al Fatih was only 21 when he successfully brought Istanbul, then known as Constantinople, under Ottoman rule. Whether you enjoy exploring Islamic art and heritage at Topkapi Palace, trying your hand at calligraphy with a master of the art, sipping tea by the Bosphorus or stocking up on baklawa, there is something for everyone in Istanbul.
Must experience: A day trip spent horse riding in Alp and Hatun outfits, Kayi tribe style.
Must eat: Pide from Hocapasa Pidecisi – this humble eatery serves arguably the best pide in the city!
7. Kazan, Tatarstan, Russia
The capital of Tatarstan, Kazan is an eclectic city home to a large community of Tatar Muslims. The Qol Sharif mosque is the crown jewel of the region, being one of the most unique designs for a mosque anywhere in the world. Originally built in the 16th Century, the Qol Sharif mosque was named after Qol Sharif, Imam of the Khanate of Kazan, a significant medieval Tatar Turkic state that ruled over Volga Bulgaria. The strategic importance of this region gave power to the Khanate over trade between the Arabs, Vikings and Avars. Ibn Fadlan, a 10th century Muslim traveller sent as an ambassador by the Abbasid Caliph to this region, has left us some of the most detailed accounts of the lives of the Vikings, with whom the Muslims were doing trade with at the time. Today, Kazan is still connected with its Turkic tribal roots, and you can experience this in the traditional food and dress that is enjoyed during religious ceremonies, such as the annual Ramadan iftar hosted by the Mufti of Tatarstan.
Must experience: Take a photograph dressed as a member of Tatar nobility – you’ll see many similarities with outfits worn in the popular Netflix series, Dirilis: Ertugrul.
Must eat: Horse meat – it’s a local delicacy eaten only on special occasions.
8. Khiva, Khorezm, Uzbekistan
Legend has it that Prophet Nuh’s son, Shem, founded this city. The Old Town looks like a living, breathing film set, that’s how well preserved the spectacular monuments here are. Khiva is home to Kalta Minor, a wide-barreled minaret decorated in jade tiles and Arabic calligraphy that dates back to 1851. Khiva is home to some of the great legends of Islamic history, such as Al Biruni, the man who discovered the Americas 500 years before Christopher Columbus. For photography and architecture enthusiasts, Khiva is a gold mine of beautiful monuments showcasing some of the best in Central Asian architecture.
Must eat: Shivit Oshi, green-coloured noodles served with stewed meat and potatoes.
Must experience: How Khan-Atlas silk is made on traditional wooden looms.
9. Sarajevo, Bosnia Herzegovina
Although it’s well-known by the locals that the country is rich in Islamic history, this is a well-kept secret outside of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Bosnia was actually a key province for the Ottoman Empire, and at least 10 viziers – advisors to the Sultan – hailed from the Balkans. Today you can discover the Ottoman legacy by exploring the wealth of Islamic architecture in the heart of Sarajevo; the Bascarsija. Here you will notice a clock tower that appears to tell the incorrect time. In fact, it’s the world’s last public lunar clock tower, which shows accurate prayer times. Nearby is the largest and most important historical mosque in all of Bosnia Herzegovina, the Gazi Huzrev Beg complex, which is still the heart of the Islamic community in Sarajevo to this day.
One of the best features of Sarajevo is its diversity of activities. There’s an endless list of experiences you can enjoy in and around Sarajevo. Hiking, horse riding, learning calligraphy from a calligraphy master, enjoying female-only spas and pools, skiing, sledding…the list goes on! The city is also a great place to make your base for day trips across the country, including a must visit to the city of Mostar, less than 2 hours away by car.
The best thing about Sarajevo though, must be the hospitality of the locals. With direct flights from the UK recently introduced, it’s now easier than ever to explore ‘The Jerusalem of Europe’.
P.S. It is perfectly safe to visit!
Must eat: Borek: delicate layers of filo pastry stuffed with meat, potato or cheese.
Must experience: The Tunnel of Hope, a live exhibit of how the citizens of Sarajevo survived the longest siege in modern history.
10. Al Sharqiyah, Oman
The eastern region of Oman is home to incredible geographic contrasts, offering some of the most diverse landscapes in Arabia. White sandy beaches hug the coastline against the backdrop of the imposing heights of the East Hajar mountains, while inland the sprawling desert wilderness and majestic dunes of Wahiba Sands rule the land. Sharqiyah was once a famous trading post in the Arabian Sea which, like Aceh, also attracted Marco Polo and Ibn Battuta. The region is easily accessible from the country’s capital, Muscat, through the coastal highway that reaches Quriyat and the port city of Sur. Sur is a crown jewel in the country’s maritime history, when the sultanate of Oman was a powerful empire whose influence extended across the Strait of Hormuz to the north, and as far south as the island of Zanzibar.
This region offers a treasure trove of experiences. Hire a local guide to take you down to Ras al Hadd beach, the most important nesting ground for green turtles in the Indian Ocean. If you’re lucky you may witness some turtles coming to lay their eggs. Named for the Bani Wahiba tribe, the Wahiba Sands inland are best explored with a member of the tribe who can share their history and customs with you. Whether you go camel trekking or dune bashing, the warm nomadic hospitality of this region is the star of this experience.
Must experience: A dip in the oasis of Wadi Beni Khalid
Must eat: Omani halwa, a spicy relative of the Pakistani variety made from corn flour, honey and saffron.