One of the most common travel questions we get asked is: What do I wear?! This is especially common for travellers visiting Africa and the Middle East. People want to be respectful of the local culture and dress appropriately for the climate, but they’re often not sure where to start. Thankfully, it’s not all that confusing! We’ve put together our guide on how to dress in Africa and the Middle East, so you can enjoy your trip in comfort and style while embracing the local culture. You’ll be packing your suitcase with confidence in no time at all!
What to wear in Africa and the Middle East
While you don’t need to wear exactly what the locals are wearing everywhere in Africa and the Middle East, it’s important to dress modestly and follow the traditional dress code. Since there are dozens of countries across this region, all with different cultures and dress codes, it can be difficult to pin down exactly what to wear. Here are some general rules for both men and women on how to dress in Africa and the Middle East.
What men should wear
Men should wear long trousers or jeans, and a t-shirt or button-down shirt that covers at least your shoulders. It’s better if you can cover your full arms. If you want to wear shorts, make sure they are knee-length.
What women should wear
Women should wear long, loose trousers, skirts or dresses that cover the legs. They should also wear long, loose shirts that cover the chest, shoulders, midriff and nape of the neck. Although you might think these clothes would feel very hot in places like Africa and the Middle East, it’s actually better than wearing shorts or crop tops. It protects you from the sun and loose clothing is actually more comfortable in the heat. Dressing modestly will also save you from receiving unwanted attention, and the locals will be appreciative of your modest clothing choices.
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Do women need to cover their hair?
It’s common for women to cover their hair in many countries in Africa and the Middle East. However, it’s usually optional for foreign visitors. The exception to this is mosques. All women, whether foreign or local, must completely cover their hair in mosques.
Many female travellers also recommend covering your hair when visiting Islamic countries, to be respectful of the local culture and to blend in more easily. While you don’t need to wear a full veil or burqa, you may choose to wear a headscarf. A pashmina or scarf is essential for any trip to Africa and the Middle East. Even if you don’t use it to cover your hair, it’s great to wrap around your shoulders for extra modesty or to protect you from the heat or cold.
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Dress codes for different regions in Africa and the Middle East
There are general customs about what to wear in Africa and the Middle East, but the rules and conservatism may vary depending on where you go. It’s always best to check the customs of your destination before arriving (or ask our friendly team for help if you’re not sure!).
For example, all women in Iran must wear loose-fitting clothes and cover their hair. These rules take effect as soon as your aeroplane crosses into Iranian airspace and they are strictly enforced. Meanwhile, in places like Dubai, foreigners aren’t required to cover their hair and can wear what they like at resorts (but should dress modestly in public).
Here’s a quick breakdown on the different dress codes across Africa and the Middle East.
You should always dress conservatively in African countries, especially when travelling to rural areas. It’s especially important to cover your arms and legs in North African countries like Morocco and Egypt. In big cities like Cape Town in South Africa, it’s okay to dress more ‘westernised’ and just cover your shoulders and thighs. As for the beach, it’s okay to wear a bikini or your usual swimwear, but be sure to cover up before you leave the beach. It’s never okay to walk around in swimwear, especially in Zanzibar in Tanzania, where you will be asked to respect the local culture and cover up.
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The Levant region covers countries like Jordan, Israel, Lebanon and Turkey, and the dress code varies between each country here too. While women aren’t required to cover their hair, many locals do, and everyone should dress modestly and cover most of your arms and legs.
However, you will find some exceptions. For example, what you wear on the beaches of Turkey or in the clubs of Tel Aviv, will be very different to what you wear in a Bedouin village in Jordan or an ultra-Orthodox Jewish town in Israel. The best advice is to pack enough modest clothing and follow the lead of the locals (or ask your Trafalgar Travel Director).
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Most countries in the Gulf, like Qatar, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia are very conservative and extremely hot. You’ll always need to pack long, loose clothing for a trip to the Gulf, plus warm layers for the chilly desert nights. Women generally aren’t required to cover their hair, except Saudia Arabia and Iran. In Saudi Arabia, local women are legally required to wear an abaya (loose, robe-like dress) and cover their hair. Although foreign women aren’t legally required to do so, you’ll feel more comfortable wearing one and blending in.
Dubai is the exception to the conservative rule for the Gulf. It’s the most commonly visited city in the United Arab Emirates, and you’ll find plenty of tourists, beach bars and nightclubs. You’ll likely see women wearing everything from full abayas to bikinis on the beach. While you may think that anything goes here, you should still respect the local culture and dress modestly in public by covering your knees and shoulders.
Quick dress tips for Africa and the Middle East
- Wear loose, light clothing in the heat and bring warm layers for cold desert nights and freezing air-conditioning.
- All women must cover their hair when visiting religious sites, so carry a scarf to be prepared for anything.
- In general, rural areas are more conservative than cities, so make sure to cover up completely if you’re heading to the countryside.
- Bring a comfy pair of sandals or slip-on shoes. It’s customary across Africa and the Middle East to take off your shoes when entering homes and religious sites.
- Different rules apply to different countries, so learn about the local culture before you visit.
- You should be extra respectful and conservative if you are travelling during the holy month of Ramadan.
- Different rules apply to Western resorts and hotels, so even if you’re wearing a bikini in your resort, be sure to cover up everywhere else.
Do as the locals do
The bottom line about how to dress in Africa and the Middle East is simply to follow the local customs. All you really need to do is cover up, while women should bring an extra scarf in case they need to cover their head. When you respect and embrace the local culture, you’ll end up feeling more comfortable and you’re more likely to connect with the locals as they appreciate your efforts.
Even if you do get it wrong, as long as you’re polite and willing to remedy the situation, you will be just fine. And remember, when you travel with Trafalgar, you’ll have your local Travel Director with you every step of the way, and they can help with any cultural questions. So what are you waiting for? Pack your bags and get out there!
Are you dreaming of a trip to Africa or the Middle East? Let us know in the comments below!