Awarded Best in Travel 2022
In Muscat's Grand Mosque, there is a beautiful hand-loomed carpet; it was once the world's largest rug until Abu Dhabi's Grand Mosque, in the United Arab Emirates, pinched the record. This is poignant because Oman doesn't boast many 'firsts' or 'biggests' in a region bent on grandstanding. What it does boast, with its rich heritage and embracing society, is a strong sense of identity, a pride in an ancient, frankincense-trading past and confidence in a highly educated future.
For visitors, this offers a rare chance to engage with the Arab world without the distorting lens of excessive wealth. Oman's low-rise towns retain their traditional charms, and Bedouin values remain at the heart of an Omani welcome. With an abundance of natural beauty, from spectacular mountains, wind-blown deserts and a pristine coastline, Oman is the obvious choice for those seeking out the modern face of Arabia while wanting still to sense its ancient soul.
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These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Oman.
Many people come to Mutrah Corniche just to visit the souq, which retains the chaotic interest of a traditional Arab market albeit housed under modern timber roofing. Shops selling Omani and Indian artefacts together with a few antiques jostle among more traditional textile, hardware and jewellery stores. Bargaining is expected although discounts tend to be small. Cards are generally accepted in most shops, but bring cash for better deals. The main entry is via the Corniche, opposite the pedestrian traffic lights. Distinctive items for sale in the souq include antique mandoo (wedding chests) with brand-new thumbtacks brought down from the Hajar Mountains; rope-twined muskets that saw action in the Dhofar wars of the 1970s; an alleyway of sandals that complete the men’s smart Omani costume; and another of aluminium serving dishes for the traditional Omani shuwa (marinated lamb cooked in an underground oven). The traditional coffee house at the souq's entrance is a rare relic from the past and a locals-only meeting point for elderly men. Take care not to wander into the historic Shiite district of Al Lawataya by mistake, as the settlement is walled to protect the privacy of the residents here. A sign under the archway requests that visitors keep out. Navigating the souq takes a bit of practice. You enter through a two-storey, domed gateway on the Corniche (by the traffic lights) and head slightly uphill away from the sea. If you keep turning right at each junction, you will of course come back to the sea. If in doubt, head downhill. That said, getting lost inside the souq is part of the fun. A right fork at a pedestrian roundabout and a left at Muscat Pharmacy should lead you to an Aladdin's cave of a bead shop, but then again…
Rising without competition from the surrounding plain, Jabreen Castle is an impressive sight. Even if you have had a surfeit of fortifications, it's worth making the effort to clamber over one more set of battlements – Jabreen is one of the best-preserved and whimsical castles of them all. Head for the flagpole for a bird's-eye view of the latticed-window courtyard at the heart of the keep; the rooms here have distinctive painted ceilings. Built in 1675 by Imam Bil-Arab Bin Sultan, Jabreen Castle was an important centre of learning for astrology, medicine and Islamic law and, unusually for Oman's forts and castles, there's quite a lot to discover inside the vast battlements. There is an interesting date store, for example, to the right of the main entrance on the left-hand side. The juice of the fruit would have run along the channels into storage vats, ready for cooking or to assist women in labour. The most interesting feature of this castle is the elaborately painted ceilings. Several rooms, that seem to spring illogically from different courtyards in the heart of the keep, sport ceiling timbers with the original floral motifs. Finding these hidden rooms is part of the fun – and the original defensive mechanism – of Jabreen. Try to locate the burial chambers, remarkable for their carved vaults, and the room earmarked for the sultan’s favourite horse. Jabreen's location, trapped between the mountain and a particularly arid part of the desert, roasts under a ferocious sun for much of the year, hence the falaj (irrigation channel) running through the outer courtyard, which was not used for water supply but as an early air-con system.
Quietly imposing from the outside, this glorious piece of modern Islamic architecture was a gift to the nation from Sultan Qaboos to mark his 30th year of reign. The main prayer hall is breathtakingly beautiful. The Persian carpet alone measures 70m by 60m wide, making it the second-largest hand-loomed Iranian carpet in the world; it took 600 women four years to weave. Mwasalat buses stop outside the mosque. The mosque, which can accommodate 20,000 worshippers, including 750 women in a private musalla (prayer hall), is an active place of worship, particularly for Friday prayers. Visitors are required to dress modestly, covering arms and legs and avoiding tight clothing. Women and girls (aged seven and above) must cover their hair. An abaya (full-length dress) and scarf can be hired from the mosque cafe and gift shop for OR2.5; some form of ID is required as a deposit. Tours are available.
Well-labelled and atmospherically lit at night, the ancient ruins of Al Baleed belong to the 12th-century trading port of Zafar. Frankincense was shipped from here to India in exchange for spices. Little is known about the port’s demise, but the excellent on-site Museum of the Frankincense Land charts the area’s settlement since 2000 BC and illustrates the nation's maritime strength, including its recent renaissance. The site includes several kilometres of landscaped paths and the adjoining reed beds make for good birdwatching. An electric vehicle (500 baisa per person) takes visitors on a 20-minute lap of the extensive grounds. There's also a handicrafts shop and cafe on site.
The upper plateau of Jebel Samhan suddenly ends in a vertiginous drop more than 1000 meters to the coastal plain below. Barely a ledge interrupts the vertical cliff, and it seems impossible that there should be any route down from here that didn't involve a rope and crampons. But in fact that is not the case: locals, armed with nothing more than a snake stick and a kettle, have been climbing from plain to jebel for centuries along their own hidden paths. However, this is definitely not recommended for the casual visitor. Better to sit back from the cliff edge and watch the birds (mainly crows and some large birds of prey) as they tumble over the rim or ride the thermals from plain to cliff top in search of food.
The term 'Grand Canyon of Arabia' is wholly deserved for this quintessential feature of Oman's spectacular mountain scenery. A short path leads to the edge of the limestone cliffs with a vertiginous 1000m drop into Wadi Ghul below. There are no safety barriers, but the cliff edge is stepped at the top allowing visitors to sit in safety while contemplating the view. There are other viewpoints along the Jebel Shams road, but this is the most expansive. There's a colourful carpet stall opposite selling key fobs and small rugs.
This beautiful inlet is interesting for its stone fishing villages, accessible only by boat, and for Telegraph Island, which dots the middle of the bay. Huge flocks of seabirds, particularly comorants, gulls and terns, can be seen along the cliffs surrounding the entrance to this inlet. It's best visited on a dhow cruise from Khasab.
Embellished with stalactites and stalagmites, this is the only cave in Oman developed for tourism and it's something of a gem. Sensitively lit, this beautiful cave has running water and staircases leading to key features. A geological museum at the visitors centre is a must, showcasing features that have made Oman internationally renowned among geologists, including some magnificent mineral specimens. A narrow-gauge railway runs into the cave, delivering visitors to a trailhead from where they walk the 850 meters (via staircases totalling 230 steps and an ascent of 65 meters) in a 45-minute loop back towards the entrance. Humidity is high (85%), but the cave is well lit. All year round, water runs through Hoota Cave, providing a habitat for tiny blind cave fish. Unfortunately, the streams flood frequently, putting the whole cave out of action for months at a time. If this is the case, the museum, craft shop, climbing wall (500 baisa) and restaurant offer alternative attractions on the site. About 2km from the cave in the direction of Tanuf, at the point where the underground streams emerge into the sunlight, there's a shady natural park that makes a pleasant spot for a picnic.
If you stand by the harbour wall on Mirani St, the building to the right with the delightful mushroom pillars in blue and gold is the Sultan’s Palace. On the inland side, an avenue of palm trees leads to a roundabout surrounded by grand royal court buildings and the new National Museum. Although the palace is closed to the public, you can pause in front of the gates, at the end of the colonnaded approach, for a quintessential Muscat selfie. The palace was built over the site of the former British embassy where there used to be the stump of a flagpole in the grounds: the story goes that any slave (Oman was infamous for its slave trade from East Africa) who touched the flagpole was granted freedom. The palace today is largely used for ceremonial purposes as Sultan Qaboos favours a quieter, seaside residence near Seeb.