- Travel Info
What is the commonly spoken language in Oman? Can I get by using only English?
Most locals can understand English at least in the Muscat area. In the interiors, it is best to use the services of a guide/ interpreter. Ensure that you purchase a good guide book, available in most bookshops in the city.
Is there a strictly enforced dress code?
Oman is among the liberal countries in the Middle East where it is alright to dress as you please. Still, please be conservative in your style of dressing especially when you visit the interiors. It is best for women to cover their arms and legs. Dress codes are mentioned and strictly enforced in public functions.
Is it easy to travel with small children?
Oman is well provided with all the facilities to make your stay with your child most enjoyable. Most brands of popular baby food are available as well as the services of qualified pediatricians. Most large shopping malls have play areas for children.
Is it OK to consume alcohol in public?
No, it is not. Please refrain from consuming alcohol in public places. This is strictly against the law. Alcohol is bought and sold only against a permit. Alcohol can only be consumed in licensed pubs and bars. At duty-free outlets, alcohol is limited to a bottle per person.
Can the elderly visit Oman in comfort?
Oman is a haven for elderly visitors with its leisurely parks, pretty beaches, and long winding smooth roads. Parents of expatriates frequently visit and go back well-rested.
How efficient is the local transport?
For long distances, the ONTC or Oman National Transport Company is a good choice. All major hotels offer luxury coach services. To visit the interiors it is best to hire a car and to travel in groups. Within the city feel free to use the taxis or cabs.
What can I eat?
Oman offers all kinds of cuisine thanks to the cosmopolitan nature of its expatriate population. Apart from the local food, you can savor authentic Italian, Greek, Mexican, Japanese, English, American, Chinese and Indian cuisine.
Travellers entering Oman may not carry with them or in accompanied baggage any firearms, narcotics and ammunition, or pornography; all are subject to seizure if found. No more than one bottle of liquor is permitted per non-Muslim adult. Unaccompanied baggage and household goods are also subject to inspection. Books, videotapes, and audiotapes may be reviewed prior to being released to the owner. A copy of the packing list is required to clear effects through customs.
Certain plant materials and food items can be subject to inspection at the quarantine office located at the airport.
Personal effects are exempt from duty.
It’s not advisable to bring pets while on holiday, as there are strict quarantine rules.
Pets entering Oman require an import permit from the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, Department of Animal Health, before shipment. Forms may be obtained from the Ministry through a sponsor and must be submitted with a copy of the pet’s rabies vaccination record and a health certificate. Vaccination against rabies is required no less than one month and no more than six months before the travel date. There are additional vaccination requirements for dogs and cats less than 30 days old. A second health certificate dated 48 hours before the pet travels is also required. Pets may be subjected to a six-month quarantine, although this is usually not required when importing the pet from a rabies-free country. Pets must be manifested as cargo on an airway bill when transported by air.
A scent of adventure in Arabia
What, I wonder on my first morning in Muscat, would devotees of showy Dubai make of a holiday here in neighboring Oman?
The Sultanate of Oman, alas, does not much go in for glitz. Instead it serves up sunshine with a dash of old Arabia and exhilarating desert scenery rooted in an astonishingly rich history.
Easy-going Emirate: Oman is not at all like its neighbour Dubai
In Muscat, the mountain-encircled capital overlooking the sea, I make my way along spotless new highways, past the gleaming Royal Opera House and Sultan’s Palace and down to the fortress-guarded dhow harbor at Muttrah.
From there I wander through the shady souk where old men in flowing white robes sit cross-legged in close-packed stalls selling everything from fruit to frankincense.
Back at my hotel – the minimalist chic Chedi – it’s time for a frosted lunchtime beer (although Oman is devoutly Muslim, alcohol is available in most places where tourists stay). Then I’m snorkeling through explosions of yellow grunts and pink-and-blue parrotfish on the offshore reef.
India rests across the Arabian Sea, where the Omani coastline splinters into cobalt bays, sandstone arches and glinting nowhere else in the Middle East – and nothing like the almost dead waters of the Persian Gulf.
Adventures of Oman
Stretching from the lunar-like Hajar Mountains in the north to the lush and temperate city of Salalah in the south, the Sultanate of Oman — with its year-round sunshine and a stable economy — is one of the lesser-known treasures of the Arabian Peninsula.
Oman is hollowed out with incredible natural underground playgrounds, including the second largest underground chamber in the world, called Majlis Al Jinn, or ‘spirits’ meeting place’. Although currently shut indefinitely to the public for redevelopment, there are plenty of others that are suitable for beginners and experienced spelunkers.
Al Hoota Cave, located near Jabal Shams mountain near the northeastern town of Al Hamra, is the only cave that has daily organized tours that are suitable for all adults and older children (book in advance). Al Hoota is a two million-year-old complex comprising two lakes (one an impressive 800m long) and a series of huge underground caverns. Oman’s underground world teems with life, and you will be sharing the depths with more than 100 species of animals including bats, hunter spiders, and water beetles, as well as a rare type of blind fish called. The 45-minute tour whisks you around 10% of the 4.5km below your feet.
If a guided tour is too time, Hoota Cave is a 2.7km tunnel also near Al Hamra that runs under the Hajar Mountains. There are two entrances, Al Fallah and Al Hoota; access to the former is reached by a 20 minute fairly easy hike to the large entrance beneath the Hajar cliff’s overhang, while the latter should only be attempted by experienced spelunkers who have a guide, safety gear, and other climbing equipment. Once inside you will need torches and a sense of adventure, the hardest part is getting there. The tunnel, whichever way you get there, is worth the scramble. The rock strata, stalactites, and stalagmites below reveal the ancient history of the area, through their distinctive red, yellow and pink colored bands, formed as different sediments settled over the millennia and compressed into rock. Eager explorers can continue 1km on through the tunnel to a huge underground cavern called ‘Cairn Hall’, said to be full of bats.
Despite Oman being arid most of the year, the country is pockmarked with wadis (river beds) which can flood very quickly when it rains. To see some of the country’s serious water power up close head to Muqal Cave at Wadi Bani Khalid A’Sharqiyah near Sur in Muscat. This is one of the area’s greenest wadis, with plenty of natural pools and waterfalls to cool off in. The entrance to the cave is a small lateral slit in the rock face; make sure you take torches to see the underground rivers and falls that lie hidden inside the actual cave. This is an easier cave to explore than Hoota Cave, but still difficult to find without a guide.
For a more relaxed experience, Ettein Cave, around 10km from Salalah, is made up of two enormous chambers and is the largest and most well-known cave in the southern region of Oman. The entrance is an easy walk halfway up a hillside off the main Salalah-Ettein road. Anyone who is relatively fit should be able to attempt this one, and once inside the gigantic cave expect to see the colossal stalagmites.
Food in Oman is mainly a question of eating to live, rather than living to eat. The country’s culinary traditions offer an interesting blend of Arabian and Indian influences, although the stuff served up in most local cafés and restaurants generally consists of a predictable selection of shwarmas and biryanis, with maybe a few other Middle Eastern meze and grills or Indian curries. Honorable exceptions exist, of course, but outside Muscat, good places to eat are few and far between.
There are plenty of places to eat in Oman, although few have any airs and graces. The basic eating venue is the café. At their simplest, these can be nothing more than a functional little room with plastic furniture and a strictly limited range of food and drink – perhaps one type of shwarma and one kind of biryani, washed down with cups of Lipton’s tea. Better places will have bigger menus offering a range of Arabian- and/or Indian-style dishes, perhaps along with with with with with with some fish, plus a few simple European dishes such as a burger and chips. You can usually get a filling meal at any of these places for around 1.5 OR, although culinary surprises are rare.
Restaurants are relatively thin on the ground – and the vast majority are located in hotels. These might have slightly fancier decor and a somewhat wider range of cuisines (including Indian, Chinese and European dishes) at inflated prices, although culinary standards are often no higher than those in local cafés – and often worse.
Cafés and restaurants do well enough for both lunch and dinner, although the only reliable source of Western-style breakfasts is hotel restaurants. More upmarket cafés may be able to rustle up some eggs or an omelet plus toast, although otherwise you’ll probably be limited to traditional Indian-style breakfasts of dhal and bread.
Restaurants and cafés of all standards tend to close during the afternoons from around 3 to 6 pm.
Most of the food served up in Omani cafés and restaurants comprises a mix of Arabian standards (shwarma, kebabs, and meze) alongside the ubiquitous biryani and other lackluster Indian and Pakistani-style fare.
Arabian (aka “Lebanese”) food is based mainly on grilled meats. If you want to eat cheaply and well in Oman, your best bet is the humble shwarma, spit-roasted chicken and/or beef carved off and served wrapped in bread with salads – the Gulf version of the doner kebab (also served laid out on a piece of bread on a plate with chips and salad – the so-called “shwarma plate”). A simple shwarma sandwich usually goes for under 0.4 OR, and two or three make a satisfying light meal. The fact that the meat is being spit-roasted in public also means that you can see what you’re getting and how it’s being cooked.
Other Lebanese- and Turkish-style grilled kebabs are also reasonably common and often as good as anything in the country – places styling themselves as “Turkish” cafés/restaurants are often the best for this sort of food. Common dishes include the Lebanese shish taouk (chicken kebabs served with garlic sauce) and Turkish-style kofte (minced spiced lamb) kebabs. Most kebabs are served with Arabian-style flatbread (khubz) and a bowl of hummus, while some places also offer other classic Lebanese mezes.
Along with the shwarma, the other staple of Omani cooking is the biryani. This doesn’t bear a great deal of relation to its fancier Indian and Persian cousins, usually being little more than a leg of chicken buried in rice flavored with a few whole spices and bits of roasted onion. As a staple dish, it’s usually good value and often quite tasty. Other similar biryani-style dishes you may encounter include the Afghan-style Kabuli (or tabouli), the Saudi kabsa (kebsa, kibsa – also known as maqboos or machbus) and the Yemeni mandi. In theory, each of these regional variants has its distinct character and manner of preparation (the meat used in kabsa and mandi, for instance, is traditionally slow-cooked in a tandoor oven dug in the ground, although obviously, this is unlikely to be the case in your local Omani café). In practice, however, these dishes are prepared in so many different ways that it’s impossible to generalize about exactly what to expect, beyond a basic combination of meat and rice, mildly spiced.
A lot of cafés also offer various another pseudo Indian and Pakistani dishes – anything from Pakistani-style meat curries through to Indian vegetarian classics like mutter paneer – although these (the vegetarian dishes especially) can often be astonishingly bad, and it’s probably best avoiding ordering curries except in proper Indian restaurants.
Traditional Omani dishes provide an interesting, lightly spiced blend of Indian and Arabian culinary cultures, although they only rarely make it to restaurant menus. The nationwide Bin Ateeq chain is doing its best to revive local culinary traditions, while in Muscat places like Kargeen and Ubhar serve up old-fashioned creations like harees Laham (lamb with wheat in cow ghee) and shuwa (slow-roasted meat cooked in a clay oven).
Chicken (dijaj) is the staple ingredient in most biryanis, kebabs and curries, although various other types of meat are also available going under the name laham (literally “meat”), which usually means beef or lamb, but might also conceivably mean goat or, in Salalah, camel.
There’s lots of top-quality fish available along the coast, although to see it done justice you’ll have to shell out for a meal at one of Muscat’s upmarket seafood restaurants – or go to Dubai, which is where a lot of the catch ends up. The local kingfish (kenadh), shark (samak al qersh) and lobster (sharkha) are particularly good.
Outside Muscat and Salalah, vegetarians are likely to struggle. Your most reliable chance of getting fed is to find a café serving Indian vegetarian food, although a fair few Lebanese-style mezes are also vegetarian. Alternatively, you can always put together some sort of a meal out of a bowl of hummus, a plate of bread and some salad.
The classic Omani dessert is halwa, the local version of the much-traveled sweet which is made, in widely different forms, across Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. Omani halwa is wheat-based, which gives it a quite different taste and texture to the nut-based halwas made in Eastern Europe, Greece, and Turkey. It is traditionally made from semolina, ghee (butter), sugar and rose-water, flavored with cardamom and almonds and slow-boiled over a wood fire. You’ll see halwa for sale all over the country either in traditional ceramic bowls or in more functional plastic tubs stacked up in the fridges of cafés and grocery shops. It’s worth a try, although something of an acquired taste: a rather sickly mush, somewhere in texture between porridge and blancmange.
Dates are another Omani staple, traditionally served with coffee – the national symbol of hospitality. Dates come in a wide range of varieties both from Oman and neighboring countries, with subtle variations in taste, size, and color.
Perhaps the most distinctive local drink is traditional coffee (gahwa) – although this doesn’t bear much resemblance to European coffee. Arabic coffee is traditionally served in tiny handle-less cups, without milk and sugar but flavored with spices usually including cardomon and/or cloves – intense, aromatic and slightly bitter. The serving and drinking of coffee is an important element of traditional Omani hospitality, and it’s not uncommon even now to enter a hotel lobby or other public place and see a coffee-pourer wandering about with a traditional metal coffeepot (dallah) and a tray of dates. If offered coffee in a social situation, it is considered polite to accept one cup as a symbol of accepting the offered hospitality, even if you don’t want it. Your cup will be refilled whenever you empty it, although it’s considered impolite to take more than three cups. When you’ve finished, shake the cup gently from side to side and say “Bas, shukran” (“Enough, thank you”).
More conventional coffee, often described as Nescafe (or “Nescoffee”), is also available, as is tea (shay; usually a Lipton’s tea-bag). Fruit juices are also often good, especially in local shwarma cafés and other Lebanese establishments. You may also come across laban (buttermilk).
Alcoholic drinks are relatively difficult to come by outside of Muscat, and often punitively expensive; the whole of Salalah, for instance, the country’s second-biggest city, boasted just three functioning licensed venues at the time of writing. Beer is usually a stereotypical selection of European lagers (Heineken, Carlsberg, Amstel, Tuborg and so on), either canned or on tap. A 50cl can of beer usually costs around 2 OR, or 3 OR for a draught pint – significantly more in upmarket places. Wine is available at the country’s upmarket hotel restaurants, although at a predictably hefty price.