Unlike neighboring countries where glitzy cities compete for bigger, better, taller everything, Oman has managed to retain some of the charms of the Arab world as it must have been years ago.
Nestled amid impressive limestone and volcanic rock formations is the capital city, Muscat, where low-rise buildings (the tallest is 14 stories high) and villas are painted in shades of ecru and vanilla, and at night the lights of its most impressive structures—the Grand Mosque, the Royal Palace, and the Opera House—twinkle like diamonds in the rough. Proud of their rich Bedouin heritage, Omanis possess a strong sense of identity, and are genuinely warm and welcoming. In Oman, women and men are impeccably dressed in beautiful robes and hand-embroidered headdresses, the scent of frankincense is thick in the air, and the country’s natural beauty—pristine coastline, wind-sculpted desert, vertiginous craggy mountains—is within easy reach. Here are eight reasons why you should start planning a trip to Oman now.
A Country Steeped in Tradition
Your first stop should be the Bait Al Zubair Museum, where the privately owned collection of artifacts showcases highly specialized skills that have been passed down through generations. You’ll see intricately carved jewelry, coins, swords, knives, and Bronze Age household items that defined Oman society. Perhaps the most interesting are the traditional dress styles and accessories that highlight regional variations. Wander the Souk and the Corniche and you will encounter men dressed in dishdashas, the elegant but simple long gown, and women in beautifully embroidered dresses and headscarves in dazzling colors.
The Grand Mosque
Constructed of marble and Indian sandstone, the stunning Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque can accommodate some 20,000 worshippers within its musallas (prayer halls), courtyards, and passageways. But you’ll hardly see another soul if you arrive in the morning—as early as 8:00 a.m.—to avoid the heat. The prayer hall features the world’s second largest handwoven carpet, a single piece that incorporates classical Persian design traditions and took skilled artisans four years to produce. Don’t forget to wear modest attire and a headscarf. Alternatively, the mosque rents abayas, a black robe-like garment that covers everything but the face, hands, and feet.
The Muttrah Souk
Side-by-side stalls inside this modern bazaar hawk traditional textiles, spices, antiques, frankincense burners, leather sandals, and much more. Omani women have a penchant for yellow gold and you’ll see them trying on rings and necklaces at the myriad jewelry shop counters. Don’t leave without picking up some frankincense essential oil or a packet of resin, which you can burn back at home to perfume clothes and hair. Stop at Al Ahli Coffeeshop for a cup of Omani coffee or fresh pomegranate juice.
The Royal Opera House
Yo-Yo Ma and Placido Domingo are just two big names who have performed at the Royal Opera House in recent years. The season runs from September to May and tickets start at around $10. Guided visits to the opera house can be booked year round.
A Hotel for Couples
Set on 21 meticulously landscaped acres is The Chedi Muscat, arguably the city’s most romantic hotel. Thirty-eight spacious villas are tucked away in a maze of manicured gardens, sparkling fountains, and reflecting pools. Villas feature king-size beds in the bedrooms, a separate living area with a fully stocked complimentary minibar, and the kind of bathrooms you dream of for your home: marble everything, terrazzo sunken bathtubs, and separate rain showers. The Chedi also features a Balinese spa, six distinct restaurants, and three swimming pools, one of which is the longest infinity pool in the Middle East.
A Hotel for Spa Fans
Luxurious and sophisticated, the 250-room Al Bustan Palace Hotel is located on a gorgeous beach surrounded by dramatic limestone and volcanic rock cliffs. Book a Lagoon Room, featuring private terraces from which you can jump straight into the pool. Yoga, snorkeling, and other activities are scheduled throughout the day for both adults and kids. But don’t forget to enjoy a few treatments at the hotel’s recently inaugurated Six Senses Spa, a 33,000-square-foot facility designed in the style of an ancient Arabian fort, complete with arched walkways, domed ceilings, and falaj (water channels) reflecting pools. Housed on three levels, the spa features a relaxation area, steam rooms, saunas, infrared saunas, an ice shower, a yoga and fitness studio, a juice bar, and a ladies-only private beach.
Hotels for Families
Saddled between the mountains and the Sea of Oman are three distinct hotels that make up Shangri-La Barr Al Jissah Resort & Spa. Inspired by Old Muscat, the 198-room Al Bandar Hotel is designed like a small village, with ornate buildings of varying heights painted in shades of sand, ocher, and rust. There’s the exclusive, adults-only Al Husn Hotel, where royal Arabian palaces inspire the decor and original Omani artworks and Islamic design are on view in rooms and public spaces. And at Al Waha Hotel, which features 262 rooms with patios or balconies, an on-site kids club offers complimentary activities (henna tattoo tutorials, shell arts and crafts, movies) throughout the day. Beach volleyball, guided snorkeling tours, tennis, diving, dolphin tours, and endless other activities keep both kids and adults entertained. There’s even a lazy river that snakes through the resort’s sprawling grounds and connects Al Bandar and Al Waha. Located between the three hotels is Chi, the Spa, an oasis of calm and relaxation. Don’t miss the Frankincense and Rose Wrap, a rich marine wrap with essential oils that helps improve circulation and rejuvenate skin. The three hotels have a dozen or so restaurants and cafés, and guests can move easily between the 124-acre resort via an air-conditioned shuttle service.
1.5 Hours Away: Once home to Oman’s esteemed imams, the ancient town of Nizwa features a 17th-century fort and is surrounded by rugged mountainscapes and date plantations.
2 Hours Away: Every year thousands of sea turtles migrate from nearby shores of the Arabian Gulf and the Red Sea to the Sultanate’s shores. Peak season is July to October, when four species of turtles lay an estimated 50,000 eggs on Oman’s beaches. Witness the nesting process of endangered green turtles at Ras Al Jinz Turtle Reserve.
3 Hours Away: Go camel riding or dune driving in a 4×4 in Wahiba Sands, where golden dunes sculpted by the wind rise to 300 feet.
4 Hours Away: The Al Hajar Mountains feature a network of underground passageways that are accessible to the public. Check out the Seventh Hole, one of the largest caves in the Middle East.
5 Hours Away: Paragliding, diving, mountain biking, and cruising on a traditional dhow boat are a few options for guests at the stunning Six Senses Zighy Bay, which is located in the northern Musandam Peninsula.
Photos: Celeste Moure