Top 6 traditional attractions in Oman

Modern mosques, lively souks and creaky cruises on old-style dhows – these are just a few of the traditional, authentic experiences to have while you're travelling through Oman
Omani man with his goat in Nizwa market
Omani man with his goat in Nizwa market. Photo: Shutterstock

There's more to the Middle East than sky-high towers and artificial islands. Oman is home to centuries of fascinating, rich history and culture. Here are the best ways to experience it for yourself

1. Souks and Friday Market shopping, Nizwa

Oman's interior is rewarding, especially at the long-time regional capital Nizwa. East of the city's iconic fort, you'll find the East Souk (open in the morning), arguably the most atmospheric in the city, and the only one to have escaped restoration. It looks slightly ramshackle now compared to the surrounding buildings, but provides a much clearer idea of what Nizwa formely looked like, with fine shops clusted beneath crumbling mudbrick arches and a makeshift corrugated-iron roof propped up on weatherd old wooden beams. 

At the eastern end lies a much-photographed miniature square usually stacked full of quaint displays of Bahla pottery; you can also see a short section of the old city walls here. South, lie the more functional food and wholesale souks, with different areas devoted to fish, meat, fruit, vegetables and dates.

Further south still, the open-air Goat Market is home to Nizwa’s famous Friday Market where hundreds of traditionally attired locals come to trade goats, cows and other livestock – a lively, smelly and quintessentially Omani spectacle. The market starts at around 7–8am and finishes at around 11am in time for Friday prayers. Travel with a local expert and guide on a trip with Insight Guides: submit a trip request today to begin creating your Oman holiday itinerary.

2. Marvel at the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque, Muscat

The suburb of Ghubrah, in Oman's capital city, is home to the majestic Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque. Opened in 2001, this is one of the largest and most spectacular mosques in the Gulf, constructed in a minimalist modern Islamic style and dressed in vast quantities of white and red-brown marble. Inside, there is room for an estimated 20,000 worshippers in the two prayer halls and surrounding courtyard, with towering minarets at each corner. Compared to the rather chaste exterior, the interior of the main prayer hall is a riot of opulence. The carpet on the floor is the world’s second-largest (it took 400 female weavers from the Iranian province of Khorasan four years to make, measures over 60 metres / 196ft square and weighs 21 tonnes). The huge Swarovski crystal chandelier in the centre of the hall is a staggering 14 metres (46ft) tall and was often claimed to be the largest in the world until the construction of an even bigger chandelier in Qatar in 2010. You can tour the mosque with a guide, uncovering the site's history as you go; add this to your Insight Guides trip itinerary with the help of our local experts. 

This is also the only mosque in Oman open to non-Muslims; visitors are required to dress conservatively (no shorts or bare arms), while women will be given a scarf with which to cover their hair. Unfortunately, the mosque’s popularity and limited opening times for non-Muslims mean that it tends to get overrun with tourists. Arrive early in the day for maximum tranquillity.

The Grand Mosque Gate in Muscat. Photo: ShutterstockThe Grand Mosque Gate in Muscat. Photo: Shutterstock

3. Get lost in the ancient Jabrin Fort

Further east of Nizwa, lies Jabrin Fort, arguably the country's most interesting. Built in 1671, the three-storey rectangular building has 4-metre (13ft) thick stone walls with north–south towers. In the high-ceilinged rooms with Moghul-style arches are traces of what must have been a sumptuously decorated palace, tastefully restored in 1983. Swirling Islamic inscriptions in the plaster walls are cut as delicately as hand-embroidered lace. Rosettes cover the pine-carved ceilings, while astrological designs in what is called the Sun and Moon Room have no parallel in Oman. In contrast to the splendour are the small, plain cells used by students off the third-storey courtyard. Go up a final flight of steps to the top of the fort for a view of the jabal quivering in the heat haze.

4. Meander through the capital's most interesting museums

Occupying three airy traditional houses set around a garden, the Bait al Zubair museum displays an excellent selection of weapons, jewellery, costumes, household items and old photographs, while the grounds contain a recreation of a typical Omani village, complete with falaj system. Next door to the museum is the Bait Muzna Art Gallery, a former royal home that has been turned into a gallery showcasing modern works by international artists.

Sur, Al Ayjah in Oman. Photo: ShutterstockSur, Al Ayjah in Oman. Photo: Shutterstock

5. Tour traditional dhow workshops in Sur

Sur, a major trading port with East Africa until the 20th century, is still the biggest traditional port in Oman. While this may sound gritty and unglamourous, Old Sur and the small suburb of Al Ayjah continue to provide visitors with a pastel-coloured cameo of the past and are a must on your trip itinerary. 

Sur’s most interesting sights are the traditional dhow-building yards, the only surviving example in Oman. The yards lie on the edge of the creek, some 4km (2.5 miles) east of the town centre. Access to the yards is free, and the workers, mainly Indian, do not mind being photographed. You can learn more about the town’s maritime heritage at the Maritime Museum, located in the Wilayat of Sur.

Old merchant-style houses line the creek in Al Ayjah, a short drive over the bridge near the dhow yards. The little whitewashed community was founded in 1928 by rebellious sheikhs from the dissident Bani bu Ali, who established an independent customs post and ran up their own flag which took the Sultan, aided by the British Resident in the Gulf, two years to remove. At low tide the view of Al Ayjah from Sur crosses extensive mudflats and beached bumboats, which in the evening are bathed in rose-coloured sunlight; at high tide this is one of the most charming corners of Oman.

6. Explore the Women’s Souk, Ibra

Southeast of Muscat stretches Al Sharqiyah (the East) province, one of Oman's most diverse and colourful areas. Bustling Ibra is the main town of the region. There’s another bustling souk here, also popular with local Bedu, although even more interesting is the famous women’s souk held on a Wednesday from 8am until noon. Run solely by women, the souk caters to women’s needs, with as many as dozens of local Bedu selling bolts of silk and satin brocades, jewellery, kohl, sandalwood, kitchen goods, spices and other produce.

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