Oman wasn’t a country I immediately liked or loved. It took time and a trip to the countryside to win me over. And it did! Would I go again? Definitely! Would I do something different? Absolutely! Curious why? Read on.
Muscat isn’t a city with a clear city center. It’s more a couple of different little dispatched towns grown together, which itself, don’t have city centers either. It’s a very interesting concept I’ve never really seen anywhere else and it confused and amazed me to equal parts. To get to the different parts and sights it’s best to have your own car. Oman is an easy self-driving country, the roads are in excellent shape and except from Muscat, there isn’t that much of traffic. We used the maps.me app with offline maps to navigate, which was such a game changer!
What to see in Muscat
The sights I considered to be interesting were in fact very limited but there are some you shouldn’t miss. My highlight from Muscat was the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque. The mosque is on a ground that covers 416 hectares and it was built on 1995. The clear centerpiece is the men’s prayer room. It’s 74,4 x 74,4 m big and houses the world’s biggest chandelier. The chandelier weights over 8 metric tons and has over 1’200 lamps. It hangs from a richly decorated ceiling and above the world’s second largest carpet, which is made of 17 billion knots and weights over 22 metric tons! The carpet is so big, it would’t have been possible to make it in one piece. So they had to make the different pieces and bring them do Muscat to piece it all together in the prayer room. It took 600 women worked in 2 shifts during 3 years to finish this piece of art. Incredible, isn’t it?
Opening hours for non-Muslims are Sun-Thur from 8.00 – 11.00 am and it’s best to come as early as possible. You need to be there super early to have the place almost toyourself (which is so worth it!). The crowds of the cruise ships start to pile in soon after 9 am and you’ll thank yourself for getting up early once you see those groups coming!
Then there’s the fish market, which is interesting to stroll through in the morning as well. The fishermen were friendly and explained to us what they caught in the sea that night (which actually made me question if I wanted to swim in there)
The Corniche and Souq are also worth strolling through, if you’re already there anyway. But honestly, don’t bother going when you’d need to do a detour. I’ve seen more interesting markets and nicer coastal areas, with more life to it.
Then there’s the Sultan’s palace (the one he only uses for representative purposes). You can only see the palace from the outside and it looks a little bit like they used very fancy vuvuzelas (remember the World Cup in South Africa?) for their entrance. Once again, there was no life there, but it made for some interesting photo opportunities.
Other than that, Muscat seems to be made of malls. Tons of American style malls and it seemed like the Omani really like to shop and spend their time in malls.
Since we weren’t in Oman to spend our time in malls, we’ve looked up some day-trips around Muscat and decided on a trip to Nizwa and Wadi Shab. Both destinations didn’t require a 4 WD car and were reachable within a 1.5h drive.
Nizwa is known for its fort from the 17th century and the Souq there. The Souq is open from 8 am to 1 pm and then again from 4 pm to 10 pm. The old outdoor souq apparently got torn down and in its place there are a couple of small buildings housing the different markets for meat, fish, dates, vegetables and fruits. It’s a nice and picturesque area and prefect for a stroll before the crowds from the cruise ships (once again) start to take the place over. A side note to the amount of tourists to expect in Oman: There are generally so few tourists that you start to greet each other should you encounter other tourists. That is if not busses full of cruise passengers arrive. I know that everyone has to decide for themselves, but please read about what impacts cruise ships have on tourism destinations and the environment.
Nizwa Fort is a large castle that was built in the 1650s and it’s Oman’s most visited national monument. The main bulk of the fort took about 12 years to complete. The fort can be visited from 8am to 6pm (Sun-Thurs) and from 8:00am to 11:30am and 1:30pm to 6:00pm on Fridays. From the round tower in the middle you have a fantastic view of the surrounding date plantations and mountains.
The entrance fee seemed to have increased immensly since the beginning of the year. It used to be 0.5 OMR (~ 1.30 USD), now it’s 5 OMR (~ 13 USD), which seemed to be a bit overpriced.
Oman won me over with a trek in Wadi Shab, which was our highlight. A trek in Wadi Shab involves light hiking, swimming and adventure. You can easily drive to Tiwi, where you see signs to Wadi Shab. Park your car underneath the bridge and pay OMR 1/person to a fisherman to take you across a little lake.
From there you’ll start your trek. You’ll first walk through some lush little gardens deeper into the Wadi. Soon the path will get rockier and you’ll have to start climb over rocks to find your way. The path will lead you to the right side of the valley, where you can walk on a little way above the water. After about 30 minutes or so you will come to a little lake. Your adventure begins there, as you will leave all your things there and get into the water. We left valuables in the car and brought a drybag plus a waterproof case for our phone. Out of respect you should consider keeping your clothes on and since you will need to walk further after the first swim, you might want to bring waterproof shoes. We went in with our sneakers and I wore Shorts and a T-Shirt over my bikini. You’ll be able to let yourself dry on the stones of the valley afterwards, so you don’t necessarely need to bring an extra set of clothes. We went on a Thursday at around 10 a.m. and we were almost all by ourselves. When we walked back out almost 3 hours later there were maybe 20 to 30 people in valley, but it never felt crowded. I heard it’s a different story altogether if you chose to go on a Friday or Saturday, when it’s everybody’s weekend.
Swimming in Wadi Shab: The first natural pool you’ll have to swim through is only a couple of meters long. You’ll need to get out of the water there and walk upstream. From there you reach a second pool you’ll have to cross and then get out and hike over some rocks. The third pool is where the fun begins. You’ll want to swim all the way to what looks the end. You’ll see a small crack between two rocks at the right side. It’s so narrow that you will have to swim sideways and only your head is able to fit through. You’ll have to swim like that for a couple of meters, before it openes up to a small cave with a little waterfall. So much fun! There’s a piece rope next to the waterfall where you can climb up. You can climb through a narrow hole on top of the waterfall to reach another landing, but to my knowledge, you can’t go any further than than. So you’ll have to turn around, jump down the waterfall and swim back out.
On the way to or on the way back from Wadi Shab you can make a quick stop at the Bimmah Sinkhole.
The Bimmah Sinkhole is around 20 metres deep and 50 metres across and was caused by collapsing rocks opening up a cavern in the ground. What makes it such a surprising place, is not just the fact that it’s hidden metres below the surface, but its contrasting location in this dry desert surrounding it. Unless you knew it was there you would never find it.
You can swim in the sink hole (dress modestly) but you can also just hold your feet into the water and wait to see what happens next. If you keep still, you’ll soon have little fish nibbling on your feet – it’s a free fish spa!
To get to the Bimmah Sinkhole, you’ll need a driver or your own car.
Wadi Mayh and Bandar al Khiran
We had one day left in Oman and because we liked Wadi Shab so much, we tried to go to another Wadi. Turns out, you’ll need a 4 WD for pretty much every other valley within reasonable distance from Muscat so we ended up driving to the little known Wadi Mayh. This valley turned out to be completely dried up and dreaded to become a complete flop. It got saved by these fellows we encountered on the way.
We had the best time with them and Oliver was so sad to leave them behind. We continued our way towards the village of Yiti and on to Bandar al Khiran, which is a nature reserve at the beach. While it is colored in green on the map, it’s all dusty rock desert, but the ocean is a dream! We found what was called «bikini beach» on the map (because it’s a secluded little beach strip where you can swim without a Burkini) and were able to swim in the marvellous turquoise sea.
Where to stay
I feel like there’s not one neighborhood you should absolutely stay at. You will need a taxi or your own car to go pretty much everywhere. The restaurants are also generously distributed across town. We stayed at the Levatio Hotel at the Al Ghubrah neighborhood and were very close to the Muscat Grand Mall and within a 2-4 Minute drive to restaurants.
Where to eat
Oman isn’t known for a specific type of cuisine. So we ended up going to Turkish and Indian Restaurants. I can recommend all of them – our food was very tasty.
Turkish House Restaurant
The Taste of India
To sum things up: Oman is not about Muscat – it’s about the countryside. I regret not having had more time and a 4WD car to discover more of the country. I would love to come back and discover more places like Wahiba Sands, Salalah, Wadi Bani Khalid, and so much more! Maybe one day, in sha allah…
The people are all very friendly, we always felt very safe and it’s really no big deal to travel to a muslim country as a woman. Dress modestly (I wore long, light cotton pants and T-Shirts and shorts/T-Shirt for swimming) and cover yourself when visiting religious sites. It’s all about respect.
With this I’ll leave you to it and say, see you next time!