Cultural things to do in Oman

Oman is rich in historical and cultural sites – here are some of the highlights to add to your to-do list

If you want to start your trip by learning about Oman’s rich history, head to one of the country’s many museums. An obvious place to begin is at the National Museum, which houses many thousands of artefacts that help tell the nation’s story, from its pre-Modern Islamic architecture and culture, to its role in East Africa during the colonial era and economic resurgence since Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said came to power in 1970.

From here, it’s only a short hop to Bait Al Zubair Museum, a cultural estate that’s home to art galleries, a historic house, a museum, a mosque, and an exhibition hall. Bait Al Bagh is the main museum building, with exhibits that tell the story of the Al Busaidi dynasty while six galleries on the ground floor exhibit everything from the khanjar (Omani dagger), to antique jewellery, musical instruments and more. 

If the kids are seeking something a little more interactive, Oman Children’s Museum, near Qurm Park, is sure to keep them amused. More like a natural science museum, its hands-on displays help bring scientific principles to life.

A performance from the Royal Opera House Muscat, Oman

The opening of Royal Opera House Muscat in 2011 was a proud moment for the whole country, since it gave the nation a spectacular building that houses a 1,100-capacity auditorium and concert theatre as well as landscaped gardens, a cultural market, 50 shops, and a plethora of restaurants. Many international stars have graced the stage, but if your trip doesn’t coincide with a show then you can still take a guided tour of the venue.

One of the main reasons to visit Oman is for its stunning natural sites of interest. Beginning with a literal high point, Jebel Akhdar, located around 150km inland from Muscat, forms part of the Al Hajar Mountains and is one of the highest points in eastern Arabia. It’s visually stunning, in part thanks to the greenery, and the higher altitude that allows for more rainfall than most of the country. Even in the summer, temperatures don’t rise much above the low 30s. The area had little to offer in the way of roads or tourist amenities until the last 15 years. That’s changing now and there are some decent places to stay – including Anantara Al Jabal Al Akhdar Resort. Its careful development goes hand-in-hand with a bid to protect the area’s outstanding natural beauty, with it being designated a nature reserve back in 2011.

From rugged mountains to clear waters, the falaj irrigation system has been used for centuries in Oman – and a collection that have become known as the Five Falajs have made it onto the UNESCO World Heritage list. Falaj Daris comprises two branches and is one of the biggest falajs in Oman. Falaj Al Khatmayn is known for the precision with which its water flows, and also for the fact that its course runs through Bayt Ar Rudayah, one of the country’s most famous castles. Falaj Al Malaki is fed by a whopping 17 branches and is located in Wilayat Izki. Falaj Al Muyassar features a particularly deep waterway. Finally, there’s Falaj Al Jaylah: a centuries-old but still-functioning piece of Omani history. How’s that for longevity? 

Aflaj Irrigation system

From water to concrete – or more accurately, mud brick – Oman’s atmospheric forts are well worth a visit for the insights they give into the days when tribal politics held sway over the entire region. The oldest in the country, Nizwa Fort, is perhaps also its most distinctive thanks to its circular shape, and the fact that it’s home to seven wells. Located in the historic city of Nizwa, 140km inland from Muscat, the form you see today took 12 years to build in the mid-17th century. 

Bahla Fort, Oman

As impressive, in terms of its years, is Bahla Fort, which was built in the third millennium BCE and has also gained UNESCO World Heritage recognition. But there is more to this fort than meets the eye: as well as a defence building, it’s home to a souk and ancient mosques. 

You’ll find Al Jalali Fort in old Muscat, overlooking the sea. Comprised  of two towers connected by a wall punctuated by holes for cannons, the building is completely isolated so while you can’t venture in, you can still admire its beauty from the outside. 

If you want to get to grips with Islamic architecture, Al Hazm Castle in the Al Batinah region is a prime example. With a ceiling supported entirely by grand columns, 3m thick walls, huge wooden doors and cannon openings, it’s sure to have been a superb stronghold – as its existence today proves. 

Another window into Oman’s past can be seen through Qalhat, which was added to the country’s list of UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites in 2018. The country’s first-known capital before the advent of Islam, a ruined Bronze Age city that later developed as a major port on the east coast of Arabia between the 11th and 15th centuries CE, during the reign of the Hormuz princes, until it was devastated by an earthquake. What you can still see today, though, is Bibi Mariam’s Shrine, thought to have been erected in honour of a woman who reportedly built a mosque. One relic that won’t fail to impress you during this trip is the Hasat Bin Salt – a rock citing inscriptions that are estimated to be thousands of years old. 

While it may sound morbid to some, the Bat Tombs have proved an intriguing day trip for many. A collection of graves can be found here dating as far back as the third century BCE, the styles of which hint at the number of bodies buried beneath. Look out for the beehive-looking structure which would have signified up to five tombs. 

Another trip worth taking is the Frankincense Route, unravelling the background behind the country’s huge and thriving frankincense trade. Located north of Salalah in the southern part of the country, it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2000. Here you can not only wander round the Land of Frankincense Museum, but see the resin-bearing trees up close, which parade all the way around the Wadi Dukah and the Al Shisur Oases. 

This trip should also include a visit to Ubar, the legendary lost city in the southern Arabian sands. A 1992 book, Atlantis of the Sands – The Search for the Lost City of Ubar by Ranulph Fiennes, drew attention to its discovery through satellite technology. 

Tiled resting area at Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque in Muscat, Oman

Last, but not least, when you head back to Muscat, check out Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque. Some 300,000 tonnes of Indian sandstone were used to create it, making space for some 6,500 worshippers. The pièce de résistance has to be its spectacular central dome, which pierces the skyline at 50m high and is illuminated by a gold chandelier that weighs a whopping eight tonnes. 

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