The ancient soul of Arabia
When it comes to the Arab world, Dubai is probably the first place that comes to mind. With its excessive wealth and many of the world’s ‘biggests’, it comes as no surprise that the desert city effortlessly steals the spotlight from its neighbours.
Most of us probably know little about Oman, a country that borders the United Arab Emirates in the northwest. Oman is a popular weekend getaway spot for expatriates living in Dubai as it is only a six-hour drive or an hour flight away. However, it’s the traditional charms and rich heritage Oman retains that makes it much more than just a city escape. Whether you are seeking adventure in the wadis (valleys in Arabic), looking for an authentic cultural experience or simply wanting to spend a few days in the Arabian desert with the Bedouin (nomads), Oman is the perfect gateway to engage with the Arab world.
Here’s a beginner’s guide to solo travel in Oman:
Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque
Did you know that Muscat’s Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque once boasted the world’s largest rug (of Persia origin and took four years to complete), before Abu Dhabi’s Sheikh Zayed Mosque pinched the record?
Regardless of the superlatives, the Grand Mosque is a must-visit for any travellers in Oman. It is a beautiful example of Islamic architecture and the only mosque in Oman open to non-Muslim visitors at 8am – 11am everyday (closed on Fridays). Try to get there early as you could easily spend an hour or two exploring.
A few things to keep in mind:
– Entrance is free and cameras are allowed
– While it is acceptable for both male and female foreigners to wear short sleeves in Oman, women must be fully covered from head to toe before entering the Mosque. You can rent an Abaya at the souvenir shop at the entrance of the Mosque for five Omani Rial (US$15)
– If you have time, pay a visit to The Islamic Information Center inside the Mosque where Arabic coffee and dates await you. It’s a place where you can meet Omani people, learn and ask questions about Islam.
Starting from the entrance, you will pass through a lush green garden and a maze of arches and halls before reaching the main Prayer Hall. Expect to marvel at the massive, elegant chandeliers while walking around on seamless Persian rugs. The intricate interior designs makes the Mosque not only a place for worship but also an architectural masterpiece in contemporary Arabia.
No trip to Muscat is complete without a visit to the incredible Mutrah Souq, one of the oldest marketplaces in the Arab world. The souq is not only a shopper’s heaven but also a delight to the senses. The scents of Frankincense awaits as you enter the narrow alleys and merchants would offer to put perfumed oil on your wrist as you pass by (go for it, it’s free!).
The Mutrah Souq is the best place to buy traditional gifts and souvenirs from Oman. Here, you can find beautiful scarves, khanjar (Omani dagger), incense burners with a wide variety of scents (sandalwood, frankincense, rose… you name it), kumma (traditional cap worn by Omani men), Omani coffee pots, spices, and pretty much anything you could imagine.
You will find that certain types of stores tend to cluster together. That means all gold shops are in one place, textiles in another, antiquities in yet another, and so on. The prices for most items are negotiable and haggling is expected so take your time to hunt for the best bargain. Even if you don’t buy anything, the 200 year-old souq is worth the visit to see the lifestyle of a bygone time.
Mutrah Souq is located on Muttrah Corniche, a lovely seafront perfect for an evening stroll. Look out onto the Port of Muscat as you sip traditional Omani coffee at one of the cafes along the harbour.
Tip: The souq is open in the morning and has an unofficial, extended lunchtime closing from 1pm to 4pm due to the high temperature during the day.
Nizwa, Bahla and Jabrin:
Nizwa Fort and Goat Market
The historic town of Nizwa is only two hours away from Muscat and it serves as a good base for exploring interesting sites nearby.
Nizwa itself does not have many tourist attractions except the Nizwa Fort, which gives you a beautiful view of the town and the Hajar Mountains surrounding it as you climb to the top. There is a souq next to the Nizwa Fort, which has a Goat Market a traditional that happens every Friday.
For curious travellers, this unique weekly livestock market is often considered to be one of the highlights in an Oman trip. To really appreciate the action, it is worth getting there early (before 7am) to watch the trading going on in a manner pretty much unchanged for centuries.
Around 30 minutes away from Nizwa is Bahla Fort, the only fort in the country to be inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List. Inside Bahla Fort, you will find many rooms, towers, mosques and wells. Although Bahla Fort has been open to public since 2012, there is limited information to give context to the history and design of the fort with the lack of audio guide or signage in place. However, it adds a mysterious charm and authenticity to those who love to wander around and explore – it feels a lot more like an untouched town left with ancient ruins.
Jabreen Castle is one of the most beautiful and well maintained historic sites in Oman. The ground level of Jabreen Castle might not appear to be very interesting at first. But as you move up the castle through mud brick stairs and walls to rooms that serve different functions, you will find intricate interior designs featuring decorated windows, arches with inscribed Arabic calligraphy, and breathtaking ceiling artwork. The dim, maze-like interiors are designed to minimise the harshness of the sun (you’re in the desert, after all). For those who can brave the heat, the rooftop takes in a stunning panorama sweeping across a small oasis of dusty palm trees and towards the end of the Akhdar mountain range.
Oman has many gorgeous wadis but the most famous ones among tourists are Wadi Shab and Wadi Bani Khalid. Wadi Bani Khalid is great for a photo stop or a coffee break as there is a restaurant inside but the downside is that it is relatively touristy compared to Wadi Shab. Wadi Shab is truly a hidden gem of Oman and requires a lot more trekking, climbing and swimming, especially if you want to reach the cave at the end of the wadi.
No words can describe how heaven-like the cave is — you have to see it yourself. You don’t need a guide to explore this wadi. Just put on some trainers, pack your swimming suit and sturdy waterproof footwear and you are in for a great adventure. First, you start with a 45-minute trek deep into the wadi, which will lead you to a natural pool, where most people stop to relax in the shade of the cliffs and bath in the cool, turquoise water. For those ready for the challenge, follow the crystal clear water, keep swimming and start walking on the rocks. At one point you will have to climb along the cliff edge and jump off from the cliff into the pool. You are not far from the cave once you have made the jump. The entrance of the cave is under a huge rock – it is a hole big enough for your head to squeeze through – it is totally a different world once you are inside. I will skip the spoilers here.
1. Meet locals through Airbnb
Hotels in Oman are expensive and Airbnb is not only a great budget option but also the best way to meet locals. I couldn’t recommend Muscat Mini Hostel enough as it is the only hostel in Oman that offers shared dorm rooms. Oman is not the most backpacker-friendly country but with Airbnb you will get to make friends with Omani hosts and meet other travellers.
2. Limited public transportation
Oman is not a cheap country to travel at all. That said, you get to travel in a place that’s pleasantly free of massive tourist crowds and you will definitely find the well-preserved natural sights well worth your extra cash. Self-driving is an obvious option for many travellers as most public transport systems do not extend to remote areas (like the wadis, deserts or mountains). If you are not comfortable to drive abroad or can’t drive, you could either hire a driver or make friends with your Airbnb hosts who (in my case) are willing to show you places.
3. Desert tour
Who says solo travellers can’t experience the desert? For an authentic encounter with the Bedouin and to get a taste of life in Bedouin camps in Wahiba Sands, Nomadic Desert Camp organises the best desert tours suitable for any kind of travellers. Everything is taken care of – from accommodation, meals to camel ride and sand dune safari, your tour guides are real, friendly Bedouins who are there to show you their hospitality and the beauty of the Arabian desert.