Things to do in Oman with kids or without
If you know the Middle East and the Arabian love of building skyscrapers in the desert, then Muscat may come as a surprise to you or a delight. There is only one building in the whole city of more than nine stories. As if in penance for its 14 storey faux-pas, the Sheraton stood unused from 2007 for over ten years. Yes, Muscat is a very mellow place in comparison with its Emirati neighbours.
The modern city of Muscat runs parallel to the coast between the Airport and the “Red Headland” of Ras Al Hamra. Cross the ridge here where Oman’s Hajar (literally Rocky) Mountains approach the Indian Ocean. Then follow the coast, and you come to the old port and souq at Muttrah. A couple of kilometres farther, and you enter the gate of the ancient town of Old Muscat.
Until 1970, the gates in the walls surrounding this tiny town were closed at night. There was no radio station, and the whole country of Oman was served by only 10km of blacktop roads. Today, inside the new city gate which faces Muttrah, you can see much of the town as it has always been. Two ancient forts sit on rocky headlands on either side of the palace, and little houses follow winding streets up and down over the steep terrain.
There are also new buildings, and the latest of all is the National Museum. It is a crisp modern showcase for much of the ancient and modern culture of the nation, concentrating on Oman’s 1970 “Renaissance.”
Another museum in old Muscat is the private Bait Al Zubair. It forms a good foil to the glossy modernism of the National Museum.
It is unusual to see a modern port from the land. In most places, they are surrounded by high-security walls and vast storage yards. In Muttrah, however, you can gaze across the bay from the sea wall to see ships in the harbour and beyond them modern industrial cranes. A beautiful brand-new fishmarket by Norwegian architects Snøhetta graces the margin between the town and the port. Along the inland side of the corniche road, the ancient facades of the town soak up the sunshine. Behind them is the tangle of shaded lanes and alleyways of Muttrah Souq. The souq is a great place to take shelter from the heat and wander around at random in the company of many more locals than tourists. Find here the products of local craftsmanship, especially spices (Frankincense of course) fabrics and intricate jewellery in silver and gold. Muttrah souq is closed between 1 pm and 4 pm and then open until 10 pm every day except Fridays when it stays open all day.
The Modern City of Muscat
The modern city is the new economic and commercial hub of the nation, where you will find most of the international restaurants, city hotels and shopping malls. The city runs parallel with the coast, and except for some private stretches in the diplomatic area, the beach is accessible everywhere. Go for long walks along palm-fringed white sand. In some places, there are lawns and barbecue areas. In others, fishing boats are kept, and you can watch the brutal spectacle of a catch brought into the shore. Old Land Rovers and Jeeps assist the crews of tiny wooden boats in hauling their enormous nets onto the beach. For an hour they sort their catch into refrigerated boxes and load them onto the backs of pickups. Then the tide may have time to wash the bloodstained beach before it becomes an evening football pitch for the local youths.
The two biggest modern tourist attractions of the new city are the Grand Mosque and the Royal Opera House. Both are impressive landmarks visible from the main highway, and they are approachable for free through public gardens.
The Grand Mosque has or had several “biggest in the world” elements including its chandelier and carpet. It is open for non-Muslims every day 8 am to 11 am except Fridays. Entrance is free. Cover your arms and legs, and women must cover their hair.
The Royal Opera House is, of course, open for public events, and it also opens for visitors during the day whenever there are exhibitions in the foyer. There is an attached up-market shopping mall called the Galleria with expensive shops and chic restaurants.
Newer and larger Shopping Malls are opening every few years, to satisfy the demand for air-conditioned space to wander. Muscat’s latest addition is the Mall of Oman, by the same developers as Mall of the Emirates over in Dubai.
Read 10 Best Things to do in Muscat.
Go see Bull Fights
Every second Friday in winter, starting about 4 – 5 pm you can see bullfights in the open air bullring in Barka. These bloodless bullfights are contests between bulls, not between bulls and men. Nonetheless, they are fascinating to watch and sometimes a little dangerous for those spectators who choose to stay within the bullring itself. There will be more than fifty bulls in the ring. All but two of them are tethered around the edge. Inside this ring of bulls a doughnut-shaped crowd of local onlookers stand or sit, on bales and deckchairs. In the centre, two bulls push each other, head to head as their owners encourage and pull them with ropes secured to their legs. As soon as one beast proves himself the stronger one, the contest is over and the winner announced. Now for a moment, the real fun starts as one of the bulls will occasionally run around out of control. Locals scatter from their seats, and the owner will follow in hot pursuit, his dishdasha perhaps now not so sparkling clean.
Outside the bullring, there are a few tiers of amphitheatre seating from where you can watch the whole spectacle in safety. Entrance is free. There is a similar open bullring in the town of Seeb. Ask a local where and when the bullfights will be in any particular fortnight.
Go see Camel Race …
Or Camel Beauty Contest. If you lucky with timings you can see Camel Race or even Camel Beuty contest. they are happening in Barka and for timing you need to refer to local newspaper – Times of Oman. Location of the Camel Race Course in Barka
Visit Nizwa Market
Nizwa is a two-hour drive from Muscat. It’s best to plan your trip for early Friday morning – you need to be in Nizwa well before 8 am to find a parking spot and to watch the local livestock market. It’s a fantastic sight to see Omanis dressed in white dishdashas carrying goats for sale, or wrangling a stubborn camel. The earlier you come, the more you will see. If you arrive after 8 am, you will mostly see tourists and few animals.
After visiting the livestock market, wander past the other live animals and birds for sale. Then go on past the food produce halls and stalls selling real antiques and modern crafts. Take a hearty breakfast in one of the coffee shops next to the fort – we always visit the Nizwa Fort Coffee Shop
After that, go inside Nizwa Fort with its fearsome staircase designed to trick and trap attackers. There is also an old but interesting display on Oman’s geology.
On Fridays, Nizwa castle stages shows with Omani dances, crafts etc. Entry costs 5 OMR ($13) for adult foreigners but it’s worth it.
Explore Misfat Al Abriyeen
Misfa is a delightful hill village high on the southern slopes of the Hajar Mountains. It owes its existence and character to a generous spring which provides enough water to grow banana trees as well as the more usual date palms. Both the town and the agriculture are fascinating, but it is the beautiful walks out from the town along the irrigation channels that make this place truly magical. Read more about Misfat Al Abriyeen
Check the Roses and Pomegranates of Jebel Akhdar
Our favourite place to visit during summer was Jebel Akhdar. At an elevation of more than two thousand metres, Jebel Akhdar claims temperatures at least 10 degrees lower than Muscat. So when Muscat is scorching hot, Jebel Akhdar is the perfect getaway. You can visit the place for a day to hike in the old villages around the gorge or stay for a night – either camping or in one of the hotels. There are a couple of new very swish luxury hotels on top, but our favourite was the Sahab which is perfectly sited and clean but unpretentious. https://goo.gl/maps/iwnmTxXmcCSHcLUL6
The Magic of Jebel Akhdar lies in the combination of a stunning natural site together with the terraced field system which clings to the edges between the plateau and the sides of the chasm. In May, the green terraces in Jebel Akhdar become studded with pink flowers of the rose flowering season.
Jebel Akhdar means Green Mountain. The water engineering systems for irrigating the terraces and supplying the villages is a wonder in its own right.
Camp On Top of Jebel Shams
At a touch over 3,000 metres, Jebel Shams is the highest mountain in Oman. The drive up to it offers stunning views. At the top, you are greeted with an even more fantastic sight as you look down into a vast natural cleft. This is a crack in the surface of the planet, formed when these very young mountains slipped upwards in the collision between the Indian Tectonic Plate and the European one. There are two places to stay on top of Jebel Shams, similar to each other; both are enclosures with permanent chalet campsites inside. Go at the new moon if possible. the stars up here are wonderful
Go camping or Glamping on Al Sifah Beach
Oman is lovely to explore with children with so many opportunities to spend time in its harsh but beautiful natural environment.
Camping on the beach is very popular here, and the best beach for camping near Muscat is Al Sifa.
This beach, a 40-minute drive from Muscat, has something for everyone. Firstly – a long clean sandy beach with dunes behind and ringed by mountains provides the ideal spot for beach camping. You can enjoy the camaraderie as other campers help dig and pull you out of the sand when your 4×4 gets stuck.
If you prefer to turn up to camp when someone else has already erected your tent, then there are a couple of Glamping places too. We tried one once but prefered to rock up on the public beach with our cheap tent from Carrefour and pitch it ourselves. The beach is a friendly place, and as night falls, all the barbecues and campfires make a happy scene.
The beach is cleaned every morning by the municipality but remember to be a good tourist anyway and leave behind nothing but footprints.
There is also a modern hotel a few kilometres to the south with a marina a golf course and a with a great bar.
Go see Turtles in Ras Al Jinz
Oman is birthplace to most of the world’s green turtles. Ras a\Al Jinz just south of Sur is one of the few places in the world where you can see baby turtles almost every day. The Turtle Reservation has exclusive access to protected beaches. You can come to watch these huge beasts digging holes, and then in the morning, see them drag themselves down to the surf and disappear.
Meanwhile, tiny hatchlings emerge from other holes dug some weeks earlier and also crawl down into the Indian Ocean. The males never come to land again in their lives. The females that survive will return twenty years later and lay their eggs in the same beach. Green turtles hatch all year with the peak season in July-August when you can see perhaps a hundred turtles on the beach.
If you want to learn more about turtles, read our article about Turtles in Oman
Spend a Night in the Desert
When we mentioned that we lived in Oman, all our friends imagined deserts. And yes, over 80% of Oman is sand desert (not counting another 15% covered with equally arid rocky mountains). Oman, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and the Emirates share the greatest area of sand desert in the world – Rub’ al Khali, the Empty Quarter. Oman also has a smaller sand desert called the Wahiba Sands which is easier to visit and has a comparatively comfortable climate (especially in the winter.) There are even some luxuries – when it comes to some of the desert night camps. We stayed at the http://www.nomadicdesertcamp.com which is run by an amiable Bedouin family and which offers probably the most authentic experiences of barasti huts. You will also take an evening tour out onto the dunes and enjoy a morning camel ride.
Our girls love the desert. They thought that the best part was sliding on plastic trays on the dunes. They tobogganed here on sand years before they first saw snow. The second best thing in the desert are of course, dung beetles.
Visit Wadi Bani Khalid
It’s the perfect wadi to visit on the way between a visit into the desert and the turtles at Ras Al Jinz. Swim there and wash away the sand from your ears and other important little places.
After a half hour, fairly level trek past lakes, you come to the place where the watercourse emerges from the mountain in a beautiful channel carved by the stream through white stone. Here is the ideal spot to bathe, and there is a restaurant nearby.
Serious trekkers can walk over the mountains to the waterfall cave at the top of Wadi Ash Shab.
Visit Wadi Shab
Wadi Ash Shab is probably the most famous Wadi, especially if you are travelling down the coast road towards Sur and Ras al Jinz. It is just an hour from Muscat. Park under the flyover in Tiwi and cross the watercourse by a small ferry at the bottom of the wadi. Then trek up through the beautiful valley to the ravine. Here you can easily climb into the rocks and carry on again to several pools. At last scramble over the rocks and swim a final pool to find the beautiful hidden waterfall cave at the head of the wadi.
The full trek from bottom to cave and back again takes about three hours but don’t be late for the ferry which stops at 5 pm. We missed it once and had to wade across – the water was waist high, and we were carrying small children. It was an adventure, but we managed to get out safely.
Top Tip for Wadi Shab is to take plastic shoes which you can wear both to swim and to scramble over rocks. Many people take life-jackets for the kids since the trek involves alternate walking and swimming.
See the Boatyard in Sur
Combine this with a trip to see Turtles. Right next to the river mouth in Sur is an old boatyard which you can visit and watch the ancient craft of constructing wooden Dhows. You would miss it if you didn’t know it was here (behind a wall)
Go lush and spend the night in a posh hotel, or just go there for lunch.
There are several lovely hotels in and around Muscat. Our favourites were:
Pure Class – the Chedi with its 100-metre lap pool, exceptionally classy spa and beautifully elegant gardens. They also have an excellent restaurant which you can also go to for an unforgettable Friday Brunch
Family Fun – The Shangri La – a little down the coast at Barr Al Jissah is a great place to take the kids with a long beach several pools, camel rides and a lazy river. It also has an internal play park for young children, a spa and several great restaurants. You can get a day ticket for all the facilities or stay the night. There are three hotels on the site (all part of the same complex,) the most child-friendly one is also the cheapest, Al Waha. Get a ground floor room if you can, and jump straight into the pool before breakfast.
City Smart – The Intercontinental Hotel is in the heart of the new city. It serves excellent food and has several pools. Try the Tomato poolside Italian restaurant.
It’s pretty essential to hire a 4×4 if you spend any time in Oman. Get a cheap tent ánd a barbecue for a few rials from Carrefour and explore the wilderness. The people in this country are wonderfully friendly and helpful.
The dangers are natural. In the occasional torrential rains, the water finds no soft ground to soak into, and wadis can become death traps within a minute or two. The other danger is the sun. Protect yourself from it and take plenty of water to drink.
Our favourite off-road drive was between Al Awabi (on the old road between Nakhl Fort and Rustaq) to Al Hamra on the other side of the Mountains past Snake Canyon and Balad Sayt. For this, you need a good map, a decent 4×4 and a strong heart. The views are stunning.
Explore beyond Oman
Go to Al Ain Zoo
If you get bored with exploring Oman you can go to neighbourhood Emirates and see the highlive of Dubai. But on the way there dont miss Al Ain Zoo. Al Ain is one of the Emirates and city of Al Ain is on the border between Oman and Emirates.
Al Ain has an amazing Zoo with Safari.
Go to Dubai
Disclaimer: We have experienced and researched facts stated here as far as practicable, but please check anything critical before committing your time and money. We do not claim any special knowledge or expertise, and we are not consultants for our readers.