From haggling for frankincense in the country’s southernmost city of Salalah and sharing a traditional meal with Bedouins in the desert to marvelling at the world’s largest chandelier in Muscat, every region of Oman offers ample cultural opportunities. Unifying them all, however, is the nation’s open welcoming nature — it’s the people that make up the beating heart of Omani culture.
Tick off Muscat’s must-visits
About a third of Oman’s population lives in the capital, a small and charming city you can see in one (very busy) day. Muttrah Souk is a sprawling traditional market alive with shoppers haggling for incense, jewellery and other traditional goods. The vast Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque boasts the biggest chandelier in the world and opens its doors to Muslims and non-Muslims alike, while in nearby Old Muscat colonial sea forts, built in the 1580s by Portuguese settlers, tower above the harbour. In the evening, venture to the Royal Opera House for a taste of classical Arabic music.
Oman Day Tours offers an all-day city excursion visiting sights such as the main souks and the Sultan’s palace.
Stay with Bedouins in the desert
You may never get a better view of the Milky Way than in the Sharqiya Sands, and the insight you’ll get into the Bedouin culture is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. As well as watching traditional dances, feeding the goats, camels and perhaps the odd chicken or two, you’ll likely try shuwa; goat marinated in spices, wrapped in banana leaves and put in an underground sand oven to slow cook for two days. The result is meat that falls off the bone and melts in the mouth. Follow this with a cup of piping hot, sweet Omani tea. Be warned, however, if it doesn’t burn your mouth, in Omani culture, it isn’t worth drinking.
Old Muscat Tourism offers tours and overnight stays in Sharqiya (Wahiba) Sands.
Discover the Land of Frankincense
The region of Dhofar, especially around Salalah, is a major hub in the frankincense trade. In fact, the Old Testament’s Queen of Sheba supposedly made her fortune in frankincense here. UNESCO-protected Khawr Ruri probably isn’t the ruins of her palace, yet the myth lives on. At Wadi Dawkah, the sap from an ancient frankincense forest is harvested each spring, and merchants in the city’s souks hawk top-quality produce year-round. Salalah’s souks are also great places to try local dates — enormous, sweet and incredibly fresh — as well as traditional flatbread and a huge variety of spices.
Al Fawaz Tours runs various excursions around Salalah starting from around £20.
Sail on a traditional Omani dhow
The dramatic coastline of Oman’s northernmost region is a broken patchwork of coves, cliffs and clear blue waters. The best way to see these remote inlets at the Strait of Hormuz is from the deck of a dhow, a traditional wooden sailing boat. Omani fishermen have been living off this area’s bounty for centuries; a huge variety of fish frequent these waters, from enormous longtail tuna to shrimp and even several species of shark. Naturally, seafood is a speciality in local restaurants.
Khasab Tours has a number of dhows that can be hired privately for the day from £500.
Experience local life in Jebel Akhdar
The crags and canyons of Jebel Akhdar — ‘the Green Mountain’ — are known for their hiking trails. The remoteness of the Al Hajar region also ensures traditional life still thrives. In the rainy season, water flows through a labyrinth of wadis and terraces fed by ancient aflaj irrigation systems. Pomegranate, peach and walnut farming supports tiny hillside communities, and each April, the scent of rose water distillation floats on a gentle mountain breeze.
Sunshine Tours Oman do a full-day tour around Jebel Akhdar, including the famous Nizwa Fortress for £260.