Oman: Not just a desert

“Oman? What’s there to do in Oman? Are you just going to the desert?”

Those are the questions I got every time I told someone where I was going for winter break. An overlooked travel destination, Oman is undoubtedly one of the Middle East’s best kept secrets. It was featured on the New York Times’ 52 Places to Visit in 2015,  though it was still amazing in January 2016.

Oman is an extraordinary travel destination because of the outstanding variety it provides to tourists, from the second biggest mosque in the world to a secluded wadi (valley) cave for swimming to a 400 year old fort.

Here’s what I did while I was in Oman.

Map of Oman
Map of Oman. Creative Commons License.

Day 1: Muscat, the capital

The Grand Mosque

Surely, the most impressive piece of architecture in Oman is the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque. Named after the current Sultan of Oman, the mosque took just over six years to build. The mosque features a main minaret, which towers over all of Muscat, a 70 by 60 meter carpet that was sewn on site and a massive 14 meter tall chandelier.

Muscat - Grand Mosque
The main hall of the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque. Photo by Linton Atlas.

Muttrah Souq

The Muttrah Souq is a traditional Arab market which sells artifacts, textile, hardware and gold, among other things. At a certain point, most of the shops become indistinguishable from one another; however, the souq is still worth going to for the few hidden gems. While I was there, I discovered the biggest bag of popcorn I’ve ever seen and what was apparently a 500 year old shipwreck ‘coin.’

The center of the Muttrah Souq. Creative Commons License.

Al Alam Palace

This is the Sultan’s palace and official residence, but he usually isn’t home. Visitors must enjoy the view from outside the gate. On a nice day, the palace is a great place to walk around and take photos.

Al Alam Palce
Street view from the front of the Sultan’s palace. Creative Commons License.

The Royal Opera House

Another beautiful piece of architecture, the Royal Opera House was built at the Sultan’s request. With a capacity of 1,100 people, the Opera House is open to the public.

Muscat - Opera House
The main entrance hall of the Royal Opera House. Photo by Linton Atlas.

Day 2: Out of the city and into the wadis (valleys)

Bimmah Sinkhole

First stop on day 2 was the Bimmah Sinkhole. Positioned uniquely between the mountains and the ocean, the sinkhole mixes salt and fresh water to create a spectacular brackish, swimmable turquoise pool.

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Wadi Shab

After a 45 minute hike up to the wadi, or ravine, you’re rewarded with a great little swimming area and lots of places to jump off into the water. But there’s more to this wadi than meets the eye. At the top, there’s a well hidden cave, waterfall and pool you can swim in.

Wadi Shab 1
The area you hike to at Wadi Shab. Creative Commons License.

Turtle Watching

A bit of a drive from Wadi Shab, the Ras Al Jinz Turtle Reserve is a great spot to go turtle watching. After dinner, people venture out to nearby beaches to witness turtles laying their eggs. If you’re lucky, like we were, you might even get to see a baby turtle. Remember, when you’re out looking at the turtles, absolutely no lights or flash photography (unless you’re a guide).

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Day 3: Into the desert

Wadi Bani Khalid

Much like the first wadi, this one has a nice swimming area and more places to jump in (it’s also a bit more “touristy”). But Wadi Bani Khalid does have two special features: one, fish that eat the dead skin off your feet, and two, a cave you can hike up to and explore.

The lower pools of Wadi Bani Khalid. Creative Commons License.

Desert (Sand Dunes)

After a drive into the desert, you can spend the afternoon and evening drinking coffee with bedouins, watching the sunset, dune bashing, dune sledding and plenty more. On a side note, I’m pretty sure this was the first place I’ve ever seen camels with one hump. Awesome.

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Day 4: Spent solely in the mountains

Hajjar Mountains

There are numerous hikes through the mountainside, each one taking you in and among local villages. A clear day reveals amazing views of the valleys below. After a day of hiking, take your pick of the hotels in the area for a great place to stay overlooking the mountains, valleys and terraces below.

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Day 5: The city of Nizwa

Nizwa Souq

This souq only happens once a week, on Fridays, and is a MUST-see. The highlight is the animal market, in which men parade their goats, cows and sheep around, yell at each other, and try their best to sell. It’s quite a spectacle. Stay out of the way, though – sometimes the animals can run amok. When I was there, two cows got into a head butting match. The souq also features a variety of birds, a vegetable market, guns and plenty more.

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Nizwa Fort

After checking out the market, you can take a short walk over to the Nizwa fort. Have a look at the various defense methods (such as hot date syrup pouring), history of the fort and the views from the top of the main barrel.

Nizwa pano
View from the top of the Nizwa Fort. Photo by Linton Atlas.

Day 6: The coast

Dolphin Watching, Snorkeling/Diving

After a long but worthwhile trip through the various landscapes of Oman, it’s time to relax for a day. Hop on a dolphin-watching boat and go snorkeling or diving along the way.

Oman dphins
A school of dolphins jumps out of the water. Creative Commons License.

Oman’s natural beauty and diverse landscapes make it a great place to visit. If you don’t mind driving and having an adventure, this little country in the Arab Gulf should be high on your list of places to go in 2016.

Author: Zack Atlas

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