Oman has been showing up on a lot of Where to Go Now lists, and for good reason. It’s easily accessible from Europe, it has an incredible culture, it has a unique desert landscape and it’s safe. So if it’s on your list and you’re ready to book a trip, where exactly should you go?
I’ve visited Oman twice now the past few months, the first with my 10-year-old daughter on our around-the-world trip, and the second on a photography expedition with National Geographic. I haven’t gotten everywhere, but I’ve seen enough that I can provide preliminary guidance! Here are my highlights.
There’s so much to do in Muscat that it deserves its own blog post. The new National Museum is extremely well-designed and fascinating. Be sure to check out the ancient artifacts from all around Oman including ancient stone spear points made by the first modern humans as they journeyed out of Africa. From there walk over and see Al Alam Palace – not accessible, but more colorful than just about any other building in Oman. Spend an hour exploring the Mutrah Souq and then walk along the water (the Corniche). You’ll find far more locals than tourists – always a good thing!
And explore the fishing culture a little. I enjoyed spending time in the early morning at the main fish market and at the docks as the fish were being unloaded from small fishing boats. This group of fishermen was extremely friendly and welcoming (despite a major language barrier) as they expertly extracted fish after fish from their nets. And we traveled to the nearby fishing village of Qantab twice, wandering around the town and beach, meeting locals and having dinner.
Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque
Muscat’s Grand Mosque, the 11th largest mosque is the world, is well worth seeing. I actually enjoyed it more than Abi Dhabi’s larger, more-famous mosque, as there were fewer people and far fewer restricted areas. If you arrive early you’ll pretty much have the site to yourself. The main prayer hall is amazing with the second-largest carpet in existence and the impressive chandelier, but for me the visit was more about the architecture – the domes, arches and hallways surrounding the prayer hall. Definitely take a camera – my favorite photos from Oman are from the Mosque.
The Musandam Peninsula up north, separated from the rest of the country by a portion of UAE, is really all about one resort, the Six Senses Zighy Bay. My blog post on everything we did at Zighy Bay is here. Head to the resort for a few days of relaxation and activities, but also explore the peninsula and its canyons.
Misfat al Abreyeen (Misfat al Abrieen, Misfat al Abriyyin)
We explored three mud-brick villages around Oman, all in various states of neglect. I enjoyed Misfat al Abreyeen the most, roughly two hours from Muscat, with its passageways, stairs, views and café. Explore everywhere, but be aware that some families are still living there so try not to wander into someone’s house!
Half an hour south of Misfat al Abreyeen is Bahla Fort, a 700-year-old UNESCO Heritage Site. In any other country it would be overrun by tourists, but we only had it virtually to ourselves. I purposely included a photo below a kid playing – this is a perfect place for kids to run around and get rid of a little energy. Give yourself half an hour or so to explore, and be sure to check out the towers.
Jabreen Castle (Jabrin Fort)
Jabreen Castle is technically a fort, but really it’s closer to being a palace, with carved walls, spectacular archways and intricate details throughout. There’s even an old date cellar with bats lining the walls. It’s not as large as Bahla Fort but it’s more beautiful. Don’t miss the Sun and Moon Hall.
Al Ayn Beehive Tombs
How many places can you park, walk for 10 minutes and be at a 5000-year-old UNESCO World Heritage Site devoid of other tourists or even a ticket window? The Al Ayn Tombs are completely unprotected, which so far seems to have worked out ok since the burial chambers are still standing. The view is stunning as well.
Salalah / Dhofar Province
While there are several places in Oman that I haven’t traveled to yet, the major missing destination is Dhofar and its largest city Salalah, close to the border with Yemen. I asked my friend Maggie, who’s an expert on Oman, why people should travel there:
It’s a hidden tropical oasis with coconut palm trees, long white sandy beaches (awesome waves) and camels running free, and they have a modern airport with direct flights to Dubai. It’s the home of frankincense and you can actually visit the Wadi Dawkah forest and see how it is harvested. They have baobab trees there and the weather is a lot milder than in the North. In summers it’s grey and drizzly due to the Monsoon (Kharif). The best time to visit is between November to March.
It is also home to Mahri People, a tribal population with their own language and very gentle attitude, as well as the Shahri and Jebali. From a historical/archeological perspective it is pretty much the first stop on the highway out of Africa for the modern human. Don’t miss the incredible iron age site called Sumhuram or Khor Rori. And visit Wadi Darbat, straight from the African bush.
It’s a perfect spot to visit the Rhub al Khali, the Empty Quarter Desert – the biggest sandy desert in the world. I’ve slept in a beduin camp in the desert, 100km into the sands, with no light pollution, beautiful dunes, amazing sunsets and sunrises and a night sky to kill for. The food is excellent as well.
Where to Stay
I’ve stayed at several hotels around Oman and two stood out as exceptional.
Six Senses Zighy Bay (Musandam Peninsula)
Six Senses Zighy Bay is one of our favorite resorts in the world. First, there’s an option to paraglide in to the hotel to check in. My 10-year-old loved it! Second, the property is amazing, with a gorgeous beach, perfect sunrises, several pools, private pools at each villa, and authentically Omani architecture throughout. Third, the activities for kids and adults alike are extensive. And the food is excellent. We particularly liked the bicycles that are included with each villa (including kid-sized bikes). We went in the heat of the summer and had a great time, so don’t stay away because it’s hot. And rates are lowest in the summer anyway.
Al Bustan Palace (Muscat)
When you’re done exploring Muscat for the day, the Al Bustan Palace is a perfect oasis to retreat to. I loved the pools, the beach and the view from our room. And the lobby is the most impressive that I’ve seen anywhere in the world. I’ve been unimpressed with other Ritz Carlton properties, but this one is worthy of the name. One caveat: the food is excellent but very expensive.
Logistics / Getting Around
All of our travel was expertly coordinated by Maggie Rose, a Polish expat who knows Oman and the UAE very well. She’s at email@example.com. Otherwise it’s one of the easier countries to book yourself. Simply rent a car and explore. The roads are modern and in great shape.
Have you been to Oman? What did I miss?