In May I had the chance to visit Oman, a country on the Southeast corner of the Arabian Peninsula. Oman is enchantingly mysterious, rooted in its heritage and traditions, proud of its culture yet inviting to everyone. I really enjoyed Oman and together with Jordan, it is one of my favorite countries in the Middle East. Oman and Jordan is where you can truly see the wonders of the region, experience the culture, history and traditions as well as meet some of the nicest people on Earth (contrary to Western portrayals). Furthermore, they are more authentic than Qatar or the UAE where, despite the awe and glamor, everything can at times feel artificial (because most of the time it is!). Oman is a nation that has something for everyone. Amazing food, culture and history (whether it been camping with Beduins or seeing an opera at the Muscat Opera House), outdoor adventures (scuba diving, sailing, fishing, sand duning, hiking, you name it).
Oman is also one of, if not the most, peaceful nation in the region. There are no conflicts within its borders and it is really not that involved in the conflicts outside its borders. Oman is friends or friendly with its neighbors and large Western allies that continue to exude their power and control in the region. All this makes for a very safe, welcoming and friendly country to visit. When I asked my day trip guide why this is, he attributed it to a few factors. First Oman has its roots in trade, its strategic location made it a prosperous sea trade empire that spanned all the way to Zanzibar, Tanzania (which today still see plenty of Omani influences). While less of a major trade hub today, it still thrives on those seafaring roots. Another modern influence, is the current Sultan. Sultan Qaboos bin Said al Said took over his father’s rule in the 1970s in a friendly coups after a lesser-known Omani Civil War. The Sultan is credited with bringing Oman into the modern age whilst maintaining its traditions, culture and roots as well as maintaining cordial relations with all its neighbors and foreign relations. My guide also noted that in many ways its also the Omani spirit. Omanis are very welcoming, friendly and for a majority Islamic country, open-minded people (but yes, its still a male dominated society). According to my guide, education up to high school is state funded, there is universal healthcare, women can drive, own property and business, buildings cannot be taller than 10-12 stories and various industries (small oil and natural gas producer, small manufacturing sector, large copper trade).
Oman is majority Islam, and most are Ibadi Islam, which is different than Sunni or Shiite, the two more commonly known sects in the West. I was there during Ramadan which presented some logistical challenges but over all it was still a great trip and the biggest bonus was that few people, including tourists, were out and about during the day and taxis during daylight hours were cheaper than usual as drivers needed patrons and would take you anywhere for basically any amount. The biggest downside of course was that no restaurant (local ones) or shops were open during the day. Museums, on the other hand, were mostly open during normal hours with some sites having special Ramadan hours. Furthermore, it is a dry country but alcohol is allowed to be served to foreigners. That being said, they are inviting and understand you do not adhere to the same values, so it is ok to drink water/ juice or have snacks or meals. I just would not do it in public during daylight hours. In terms of dressing, covering knees and shoulders is a must for both genders, but shorts are allowed, and for women it is advisable to bring a scarf or shawl of sorts to cover up when visiting a mosque or more local area.
Many citizens, including U.S., need a visa to enter Oman. Nowadays you can get one online via the Oman Police’s website. Its easy and you can choose for a one time or multi-entry visa (90 day window). My 90-day multi-entry tourist visa was 20OMR ($USD50). This is the recommended way as upon arrival you take your printed visa document and head straight for immigration, nonetheless they still have visa on arrival booths.
Oman’s main gateway is Muscat International Airport which just opened its brand new terminal in March of this year. Oman Air is a great airline, and they fly to many European and Asian cities. Otherwise you can fly Turkish, Emirates, Qatar Airways, Etihad via their regional hubs or take Swiss or KLM. Oman has a few domestic airports as well, which if you have time I should think you’d want to go explore the other regions of this vast and geographically diverse nation.
Oman has a rather strong currency, 1OMR: USD2.60, which means Oman is a tad bit of an expensive country to visit. Major credit cards are accepted at most places however at food stalls/ stands and some local restaurants, it is cash only. For 1.5 days I got around 75OMR (USD$200) in cash, and it was more than enough (paid with card at most museums and restaurants).
Getting around the country is a bit more challenging and can be expensive. Muscat has taxis, the ones from the airport are metered. My 20 minute, no traffic, ride from the airport to my AirBnB was 17 OMR (USD$44). Elsewhere, taxis can be hailed fairly easily and they also gather at major areas, most of these cabs require negotiated rates. I am not sure how much it would be normally but I had a whole range when I was there due to Ramadan. I got into one cab that told me they take me for any amount for a short 4KM ride, I ended up overpaying 5OMR (USD$12), because later another taxi took me back to the airport from my AirBnB for the same amount! There are about 2-3 bus lines in Muscat, you pay upon boarding and I believe its around 100-200 Baisa (USD$0.5). The buses hit major attractions but run about every 20-25 minutes. I did not ride a bus during my time. The best way to get around is to rent a car. The roads are well paved and easy to drive, and the rush-hour traffic isnt too bad.
There are many hotels in Muscat. There are a few that are world-famous including the Al-Bustan Palace Hotel, a Ritz Carlton hotel. And there are many more sprawling up. However, there are few hotels in the historic areas of Muscat as most are either on a beachfront of in the central business district. My recommendation is to go with an AirBnB. My two night stay at an AirBnB in Matrah came down to around USD$130. I booked an AirBnB in Matrah, Muscat, a historic harbor neighborhood with Muscat’s famous Corniche and Matrah Souk. I highly recommend this AirBnB with host Mohammed if you are solo or two people (max capacity). Wonderful local location and Mohammed is by far one of the nicest and most hospitable hosts I have ever come across (knowing nothing was open he made me breakfast every morning during daylight hours when he himself was fasting!).
My Trip (Muscat, Nizwa, Jabal Shams, Al Hamra, Bahla)
I went over Memorial Day weekend and had a total of just over 1.5 days. Upon doing some research I realized Oman has so much to offer and there is a lot more than just the capital city of Muscat. I decided with the time I had to book a full day tour of Jabal Shams, the Grand Canyon (second largest in the world) in Oman, a three hour drive from Muscat. I booked through Arabica Orient Tours. I would recommend going through them, they are only a couple bucks more than Viator but offer a more private and insightful experience. Due to Ramadan, I ended up being the only person on my tour and it was a brilliant time with just me and my English-speaking guide, Nabil. And because I was the only one, the itinerary became quite flexible. My full day tour was 88OMR (USD$220) and last about 9 hours, including the drives. The guide, tips, 4×4 vehicle and water was all included. The next day I spent exploring old Muscat.
- Arrived at around 10PM in Muscat.
- Went through customs and immigration very easily and quickly, hopped on a cab at the taxi stand and headed for my AirBnB in Matrah.
- Woke up to the soothing sounds of morning call to prayer, after which with jetlag it was a bit hard to fall asleep.
- I asked my host where I might try my luck at getting breakfast during Ramadan, to which he responded that he’d whip something up for me and bring it (AirBnB apartment is top floor of Mohammed’s house). He brought Khubz (Omani raised breakfast pancakes) served with Date Syrup, and Chai. Delicious.
- At 8AM I met guide/driver Nabil at a nearby hotel. And off we went on my tour of Oman.
- About a 20 minute drive later we arrived at the stunning Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque. This rather new mosque was designed by the Sultan himself, apparently and uses materials from all over the world. It is mainly made of marble and sandstone. The mosque is massive, and is home to what was once the largest (now second largest) Persian rug and Crystal Chandelier. There is even an outdoor courtyard that is used as overflow prayer area during peak prayer times on Fridays, and it has a retractable roof that comes over to block out the intense Omani sun. Definitely worth a visit.
- After visiting the mosque, we were off on to the highway towards the historic and former capital city of Nizwa.
- First stop was the Cylindrical Nizwa Fort and its adjacent Nizwa Castle. Before the Sultanate, Oman was ruled by many Imams and Nizwa was no different that is who the castle belonged to. The Castle and Fort are stunning examples of Omani architecture. Next to the complex is the Nizwa Souq, here is where you can find large amounts of Omani silver crafts as well as a variety of other gifts, including the ubiquitous Omani dagger.
- Afterwards we headed towards Jabal Shams (Mountain of the Sun), the grand canyon. Along the way we stopped for a quick view and photo of Nakhr, an ancient stone house village on the mountainside, where residents have since moved across the wadi (dry riverbed) to modern concrete houses, a common and sad (in my opinion not the residents) situation throughout Oman.
- We weaved our way up the windy roads and soon the paved roads gave way to dirt off-roads. We finally arrived at the top of one of the peaks, you cannot visit the highest peak as it is a military base. It was incredible to be the only people as far as the eyes could see. The Grand Canyon was spectacular and worth an excursion to visit. Nabil even pointed out some small isolated villages in a variety of valleys throughout the canyon.
- From there we made a quick stop at the Jabal Shams Resort to use their bathroom, but here is also where you can choose to stay or have a meal along the way. It is a relaxing environment and at the heart of Jabal Shams.
- I had mentioned I wanted to explore some Omani Mud Houses and Nabil said the best place to see them would be the over 400 year old town of Al Hamra at the base of Jabal Shams. We drove through Date Palm Plantations in a Wadi with the region’s impressive and historically significant Aflaj Irrigation System. We then arrived at the historic part of Al Hamra. Sadly most of the mud-houses have since been abandoned and are in a state of disrepair. Mud-houses are high maintenance as natural elements quickly erode the structure and most residents, especially with the younger generations now at the head, chose to abandon and move to the newer side of Al Hamra in concrete houses. Both Nabil and I find this a little disappointing. Nabil hope people recognize the importance of preserving Oman’s heritage as well as the potential to attract visitors and businesses if residents were willing to put in the effort and government offer to assist in rebuilding and maintaining the houses. Regardless, Al Hamra was one of the highlights of the day. As the only two people around, besides a few residents popping out, it felt surreal and I felt transported to the famed literature series “Arabian Nights.”
- Nabil was fasting and nothing was really open along the way, but oddly I didnt feel overly hungry, I just ensured I hydrated, something that Nabil couldnt do himself. Along the way we stopped for a snack at a convenience store, some packaged Omani donuts, a mildly sweet donut shaped bread.
- On the way back to Muscat, Nabil insisted we stop at Bahla Fort, one of the largest and oldest forts in Oman, built before the time of the Prophet Mohammed. Unfortunately due to Ramadan, it was not open in the late afternoon so we marveled at it from the outside. I am glad Nabil showed me this fort as it really is quite beautiful. I got more context and understands of these sites the next day when I visited the National Museum.
- By 5PM we were back in Muscat. It was an excellent tour and being the only person was incredible as I basically became friends with Nabil and felt like I was being shown Oman by someone I knew well.
- With jetlag and being in the sun all day with minimal food, I returned to the AirBnB and took a nap before heading out again during sunset, a time during Ramadan when the country begins to come out from their homes.
- Just down the street from where I was staying was a hole in the wall no frills restaurants, Fishers Grilled Restaurant. Because it was before sunset, they could not serve me but allowed me and other patrons to place orders for after sunset. I ordered a Sultan Red Mullet with Omani bread and salad and asked for light spice (which I should have just said normal spice). The fish are grilled here. I ordered for 8:30PM.
- I then walked along the Corniche and arrived at the end to view the sunset. I wanted to climb up the Matrah Fort, but it was closed, during regular times, this would be an ideal place to see the sunset. I then walked to the Matrah (Mutrah) Souq. I did not buy anything, but this is a great place to shop for gifts and souvenirs of all sorts, and rest assured it is also where locals come to shop. I did, however, stop at the first food stall on the left-hand side for some Sambusa, Omani samosa filled with onions and spices, cheap and delicious (couple hundred Baisa, around USD$1 for 4 sambusas). This stall had the best ones of the ones I had. Omanis all around bring food to communal tables set up along the streets to have some Iftah (breaking fast) snacks together after evening prayer. Nabil had encouraged me to try to join one, but it felt a little intrusive so I did not, nonetheless common snacks were Sambusas and chai, which I myself had at two different stalls along the corniche. But it was great to see the country come alive during Ramadan as people of all ages were out and about, eating, shopping and just having a good time.
- From there I walked back to Fishers Grilled and went next door to buy some fresh squeezed Pomegranate juice. My meal at Fishers Grilled was 5OMR ($USD12). And it was delicious, simple yet fresh and flavorful.
- Before arriving in Oman I had made a reservation at Bait Al Luban, a restaurant housed in a traditional building serving Omani cuisine. It was visited by the late Anthony Bourdain. Here I ordered Omani Shuwa, marinated lamb baked in the ground for 6 hours or more, Omani date bread, rice and ginger/mango drink. Followed by an assortment of Omani Sweets, including Halwa (almonds, rose water, sugar, saffron, cardamon). Followed by complimentary Omani dates and Arabic Coffee (the secret to Arabic coffee is that it is made with rosewater!). Besides a large variety of spices, common ingredients in Omani cuisine are rosewater and dates. After my meal I was offered some rosewater to wash and freshen up my hands, a common Omani tradition. The meal was 16OMR (USD$41), which really was not too bad given that this is a higher-end restaurant in Muscat.
- After stuffing myself with 2.5 dinners (had to because none of these places were open during their normal daylight hours during Ramadan), it was surely time for bed).
- I woke up at sunrise hoping to see some action at the famous Matrah Fish Market, where every morning fisherman bring in their catches of the day and auction to buyers. Unfortunately it was Ramadan so the market was not as busy and did not fill up until later in the morning. I returned to Mohammed’s house where he brought me some Omani bread eaten with Omani cream cheese and jam with chai. I then returned to the market at around 8AM and it was now a little busier with people buying fish, but still not as bustling as it normally would be. I then walked through the next door fresh market and saw all sorts of dates being sold.
- I then decided it would be wise (it was not) to walk along the Corniche from Matrah to Old Muscat, it was about a 3-4KM walk in the heat and humidity of Muscat. It is not terrible per se, but make sure you have water and perhaps a change of t-shirt. It was not a nonstop walk as there were some small sites along the way and I even spotted some stingrays in the harbor! I also stopped by an old watch tower and wanted to visit the Matrah Fort again but it was still closed.
- After a nearly 30-40minute walk I finally arrived at the Jufaina Gates to old Muscat. Old Muscat consists mostly of government buildings and a few museums as well as Al Alam Palace, the Sultan’s beautiful and sprawling official palace (not his residents). This area was the original settlement of Muscat and is where the Portuguese set up shop when they made Muscat their port city (did not exactly colonize the country), it was then transformed into the main area of the city until the 70s when the current Sultan expanded the city. There was basically not a single soul out and about and minimal traffic as well. At one point I was the only soul in the palace plaza.
- I first stopped by Al Mirani Fort, one of two forts flanking the bay where Al Alam Palace sits, neither are open to visitors but you can walk along the base of Al Mirani but Al Jalali Fort is completely closed to visitors as it is part of the palace grounds.
- I am not sure if the palace has select visiting hours, but it was definitely closed when I visited, nonetheless you can walk around the walls and gates and get a sense of the vastness of this palace and the main hall has beautiful columns. Across from the palace past the ministry of Finance is the National Museum. Entry is 5OMR ($12), and is quite worth it. The museum is not large but I still spent about 2 hours here, partly to cool off in the AC. The museum is split into a few areas depicting key components of Omani heritage, history and culture. There is also a short film the briefly walks you through the country’s entire history. It was very informative and added lots of great context to the sites I had visited the day before. It also has a section dedicated to modern day Oman and explaining how Sultan Qaboos modernized the country (no worries, did not feel overly propaganda).
- Afterwards I walked a couple minutes to Bait al Zubair museum, with a 2OMR entry, it houses a private collection in a former residents. The private collection walks you through similar things as the National Museum. The coolest exhibit here was the stamp collection, featuring stamps from all over the world as well as Oman spanning a variety of eras). And a photography exhibit alongside furniture from the original house showcasing the family’s life in Oman. Otherwise if you had to choose only one museum, I would go with the National Museum.
- I walked to the main bus stop and thankfully a taxi drove by and stopped and took my back to Matrah. Here I visited Ghalya’s Museum of Modern Art, housed in a traditional Omani Home, showcases elements of Omani house and has a Modern Omani art gallery. Quirky and a nice look into a regular Omani household. Entry was 1OMR.
- It was time to try my third luck with the Matrah Fort, to my relief, the guard was on duty and after paying a 5OMR fee, he opened the gate for me to explore. It was the perfect way to end my trip with panoramic views of the Corniche and Matrah from this historic fort and me being the only visitor there.
- It was around 2pm by this point. I decided to return home and take a nap before heading to the airport for my 7PM flight. NOTE: unless you are at a hotel, there is no cold water during the day in Oman because the water tanks get heated by that sun! But just be grateful you have running water in the desert.
- At 4PM I hailed a cab and headed to the airport.
There is a lot to do and see in Oman and I am sure the experience would be even more incredible than it already was on my trip when its no Ramadan. But traveling during Ramadan also offered unique insights into local life and culture and like I said a big bonus was few visitors and cheaper taxi fares.
I highly recommend visiting Oman, and while most visitors head to the canyons, mountains, and beaches, dont overlook Muscat, as it has its charms and is beautiful, if you stick to the historic parts. I am definitely returning to this wonderful country and next time I hope to do some camping as well as scuba diving.