The best way to discover the beauty of Oman is to get in a car and drive!
Oman is really one of the world’s hidden secrets. With an understated beauty, it delivers a perfect combination of beaches and deserts, through to mountains and wadis, all without the mass development you see elsewhere in the Middle East.
It really is like taking a step back in time to absorb more of “the real Arabia”. You can feel yourself escape from the rest of the world when you visit Oman and have a truly unique and educational family experience. This guide will take you through how to plan your first visit to Oman.
In this post we cover:
- How to plan your Oman road trip
- Getting your itinerary right
- Distances between major cities
- Driving information for first timers
- Hiring a guide or driver
- Practical things to know ahead of time
- When to visit Oman
- What to wear in Oman
- Currency in Oman
- Opening times
- E visas & Border crossings
- What attractions to include in your Oman Road Trip
- Accommodation options
This post is part of our Middle East family travel series. Don’t forget to check out our detailed guide of Things to do In Muscat with Kids, our detailed itinerary for an Abu Dhabi to Muscat road trip and advice on camping in the north of Oman
How to plan an Oman road trip
Getting your itinerary right
Whether you are starting your adventure flying into Muscat or taking on this popular road trip from one of the UAE land crossing, the best way to see Oman’s major attractions is to get in a car and just drive!
Most of Oman’s major tourist attractions are concentrated on the east coast to either side of the Hajar Mountains – but very spread out! You can really pick your number of days – squeezing in the absolute highlights only you might be able to manage a 3-4 days itinerary, but you need to allow at least a week to do Oman any justice.
For how long to include in each location, pop below to our “What attractions to include in your Oman road trip” section below and work backwards from there, bearing in mind opening times that we discuss below.
Distances between major cities and attractions in Oman
Muscat to Sohar: 210kms – 2 hours
Muscat to Nizwa: 160kms – 1.5 hours drive
Muscat to Sur: 200kms – 2.2 hours drive
Nizwa to Sur: 295kms – 3.5 hours drive
Jebel Shams to Nizwa: 90kms – 2 hours drive
Dubai to Sohar: 210kms – 2.5 hours drive (+border crossing)
Dubai to Jebel Shams: 405kms – 5.5 hours drive (+border crossing)
The two big outliers from the east coast that you will be unlikely to fit in a short trip are the Musandam Peninsular and Salalah.
Musandam Peninsular to the north is actually an enclave of Oman separated by the United Arab Emirates. You can still drive to Musandam across the UAE, or by flying into Dubai or even Ras Al Khaimah airport and then driving. There are also two daily flights with Oman Air that fly direct to Khasab, the regional capital. We are yet to visit Khasab but here’s a good guide we found to road tripping Dubai to Khasab.
Salalah is on the southwestern coast of Oman, a good 1000kms from Muscat (about 9 hours drive time), close to the Yemeni border. Salalah’s claim to fame is the Khareef – a summer monsoon that brings lush greenness and cooler temperatures over July and August, making it an attractive destination for Middle East residents looking to escape the heat.
The easiest way to reach Shalalah is by air, again Oman Air has regional flights from Muscat, or budget airlines FlyDubai and Air Arabia. Flights here, especially during the Khareef, are not cheap!
Oman driving information for first timers
- You drive on the right
- Most hire cars have an automatic transmission
- You can hire cars at the airport. A standard 2WD car will get you most places, but a 4WD will be handy if you want to explore deeper into the wadi’s or desert
- If you are planning to hire a car in Dubai/Abu Dhabi and drive it over the border to Oman you must make sure you have the vehicle owners permission and insurance.
- Road signage is in English and Arabic
- Download maps in advance there are several points you will not have signal
If you are used to UAE driving, you’ll find that although the traffic can be erratic, it’s nowhere near as fast. There are fewer tailgaters and headlight flashers there to stress you out. On the whole, drivers are calmer, more forgiving and don’t drive at excessive speeds. Most highways have a 120km limit for cars, but as most roads are windy, you probably don’t want to go too much faster!
Still not confident to road trip it alone?
That’s completely understandable. Especially if you are unfamiliar driving on the right or in foreign places, let someone else do the hard work! There are loads of tour operators who can take you on day trips or overnighters from Muscat. We recommend using a reputable booking agent such as Get Your Guide.
Oman practical information to know before you go
When to visit Oman
Situated on the southeastern tip of the Arabian Peninsular, the best time to visit Oman is in the cooler winter months, October through to April.
Summer temperatures can be stifling at over 40c. That said, there are reasons to visit in the summer months too. As mentioned above, Salalah to the south-west offers a fabulous summer break to experience the Khareef and the months of May through September are best for turtle spotting at Ras al Jinz (more on that below!).
The Holy Month of Ramadan may not be the best time to visit as many attractions are either closed or have variable opening hours. You can find when Ramadan falls each year here.
What to wear in Oman
Conservative is best. For both men and ladies, out and about wear something that covers knees and shoulders at the very least. It is not strictly enforced just the polite thing to do.
For ladies, if you are entering the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque you must be completely covered to ankles and wrists and over your head (there’s an option to hire an abaya there – see more here).
Keep things covered and flowing; tight, revealing clothing is not respectful. You will be ok to wear shorts but do keep them a reasonable length and expect looks in some places like busy markets.
Children are free to wear as they please but from puberty onwards should be treated like adults. Our daughter prefered wearing leggings for all the scrambling in castles and forts.
Don’t forget your hats and sunscreen when you’re out and about!
Be aware of Opening Hours in Oman
A very important part of planning your Oman itinerary is to be conscious of opening hours.
Like most Middle East countries, Friday is the holy day and many attractions are either closed or only open 8am to 11am Friday’s. Many businesses also take a middle of the day break every day.
Plan your opening hours very carefully! We highlight below in our suggested itinerary where we know hours differ.
Currency in Oman
The currency in Oman is Omani Riyals
1OR = 2.6 USD or roughly 10AED. The currency is currently pegged to the USD.
The tricky part of the currency to then work out is Biasa (also abbreviated bz)! There are 1000 Biasa to the Rial so you will either see this as a decimal or with the ’00s eg 7.5 or 7500. Clear right?
There are frequent cash exchanges available or ATM’s, credit cards were widely accepted.
Other useful bits for visiting Oman!
- Plugs are the standard UK square pin socket.
- Arabic is the language spoken but you will find most signage also in English. You will find, however, that English translations can vary significantly! If you are struggling to find somewhere on your GPS try it with a different spelling.
- If you have fussy eaters, most major towns had shopping malls with the usual array of chain stores such as McDonald’s, Pizza Hut etc. Not part of the authentic experience I know, but children need to be fed at some point…..
All visitors will need a tourist visa. At the time of writing, UAE residents could pay only 5OR (about 50AED / $13USD) for the 30-day tourist visa.
All other tourists must pay 20OR (200AED / $52USD). There is no longer a 10-day visa option.
You can now apply for an e-visa in advance if you are from one of 68 countries permitted visa on arrival which should speed up your progress through border control.
Border Crossing UAE to Oman – How it’s Done
Please note this is based on our last experience crossing the UAE road border into Oman in October 2017. As with any government process here in the Middle East be very aware that systems and rules can change without notice – or even depending which staff member you deal with on which day!
There are two stages to crossing the border;
Firstly you must exit the UAE through three stops.
- At window number one we had to state how many in the car and confirm we were owners of the vehicle – though their clever camera system already showed this information to the border official. The first window prints you off a statement in Arabic.
- Next, we need to pay our departure tax by credit card only (if you were going by air this is already included in your airline ticket). This window also stamps your passports.
- At the final stop the document we were given at the first window is handed over – no questions….
- There was a further police check immediately after the UAE stop but we are waved through here.
Next up is the Oman border point. Where we crossed out of the UAE at Kathm al Shakla, the Al Buraimi crossing is in fact about 30kms or so after the border.
- Here your passports are checked, then non-GCC citizens need to park up and go inside the immigration office if you do not have an e-visa in advance.
- An immigration form is needed for all passengers and they must all be present in the office for the immigration officials to see. A tourist visa is then issued.
- You present this stamped bit of paper at the police checkpoint, they were randomly inspecting some vehicles but not all.
What attractions to include on your Oman road trip itinerary
A stop in the beautiful heritage city of Muscat is a must – jump over to our Top Places to see in Muscat post for an idea of what there is to see and do in the capital but make sure you get out of town too to discover the country’s true beauty.
Where to stay in Muscat
I think this depends a lot if you are coming for a luxury retreat or plan to spend most of your time exploring.
At the luxury end of the scale, there are several acclaimed resort hotels including Shangri La Barr al Jissah, it’s slightly further around the coast from the old city but has extensive family-friendly facilities. Another beautiful option on the coast is Al Bustan Palace (Currently closed for renovations) or a couple’s favourite we are eyeing up The Chedi Muscat (see babymoon review here by Wandermust Family).
In the Qurum area, we suggest you try the Intercontinental or Radisson Blu both have great views and several bars and restaurants attached as well as beach clubs. The Crowne Plaza also comes highly commended with some stunning views as does the Grand Hyatt.
With several kiddies, we find the easiest option to be serviced apartments. We chose Muscat Oasis Residence (adjacent to Panorama Mall). Other convenient options include the Millenium Executive Apartments (above the Grand Mall and adjacent to Oman Avenues Mall) or very newly opened Coral Muscat Hotel & Apartments.
Oman Tourist highlights; Nizwa & the Mountains
This is all about discovering Oman’s ancient past. Kids can really get their little explorer on here! There are over 500 Forts apparently in Oman so you might want to pick your forts carefully or you’ll get a little fort fatigued, but they have done an excellent job at restoring some of these buildings. Here’s our selction of just a few you might like to try;
Nizwa Fort & Souq
The bustling center of the old town is a must-have experience. Much work has gone into restoring these buildings and to this day they continue to be an important meeting place for locals.
Nizwa Fort Opening Times: Daily 9am to 4pm, Friday’s 8am-11am (after this time it gets hard to find anything open other than the modern new shopping malls).
Entry fee: 500bz for adults. Kids 6-11 100bz
One of the oldest and biggest in the country, this historical fort at the foot of the Djebel Akhdar highlands is really quite extensive! Guides are on site looking for a few extra bz to give you a guided tour. Kids will be fascinated by the bats that call the fort home and there are sorts of stair cases and nooks to explore.
Bahla Fort Opening Times: Daily 9am to 4pm; Friday’s 8am to 11am
Entry Free is 500bz for adults; Kids 6-11 years old 200bz
Jabreen Castle (also called Jibreen Castle, Jabrin Fort)
Situated about 20kms from Bahla, this is one of the most beautifully restored and ornate. Originally built in the 17th century for the Imman and his family, its a favourite for many (definitely mine!) with its charm, historical information and plenty of staircases and rooms for the kids to explore. Audio guides provided.
Jabreen Castle Opening Times: Daily 9am to 4pm; Friday’s 8am to 11am
Entry Fee: 500bz adults; Children 6-11 100bz
Al Hoota Caves
Definitely a highlight and worth the drive high into the foothills of Jebel Shams to check out this fascinating natural wonder deep in the hillside. A small train (not operating the day we went!) should take you the 500m into the entrance of the cave, then a 45minute walking tour takes you around the 2 million-year-old cave!
Involves a fair bit of stairs and walking for little ones. There is a small cafe here and play equipment. Not no photos allowed in the cave itself.
Al Hoota Caves Opening Times: Daily 9.30am to 12pm and 2pm to 5pm. Friday’s 9.30am to 11am then 2pm-5pm.
Entry: This is a limited ticket attraction you NEED TO PRE-BOOK on their website.
Al Ayns Beehive Tombs
One we ran out of time for but would love to find these 5000-year-old UNESCO listed tombs just beyond the small township of Al Ayn – take the Amlah-Kubarah exit from the E21. There’s no formal entry here. We are reliably told to park your car at the nearby mosque and walk 10 minutes towards the mountains, you can’t miss them!
Where to stay near Nizwa
Top Luxury Pick: Stay in the mountains at the Anantara Al Jabal Al Akdhar Resort for a true luxury experience, includes extensive kids programs and infinity pool with a view to die for! (Reviewed by Rachel at Life on the Wedge)
Oman tourist highlights; Jebel Shams and the north
Also called the Grand Canyon of the Middle East the drive alone to Jebel Shams is worth it for the spectacular views. Its a popular spot for outdoor enthusiasts with several hiking trails.
If you’re travelling from Nizwa direction, don’t miss on your way the little mountain village of Misfat Al Abreyeen, approx. 6kms from Al Hamra. You will get some great views from here back to Al Hamra village and see the agricultural spoils of the falaj irrigation system that is still working to this day to bring fresh produce to the region.
The other major regional town situated on the northern coast of Oman is Sohar. Previously the capital it is now a bustling. Although far less well known than the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque in Muscat, its counterpart in Sohar is equally as stunning from the outside. We did not realise at the time that non-Muslims were also permitted to enter from 8-11am as the pictures of the interior look just as stunning as it’s Muscat counterpart. Lit up at night it was truly majestic (as we did circle work of the freeway system looking for a place to get the kids dinner!)
There is also a fort in Sohar (of course!) but its currently closed for renovations. Popular nearby Wadi’s that can be explored from Sohar include Wadi Al Jizi and Wadi Salahi.
Where to stay near Jebel Shams
We’ve heard mixed reviews about “resort” accommodation in Jebel Shams so not feeling brave enough to actually recommend somewhere to stay here, but there are also camping options which are popular with weekend trippers coming from Dubai to Oman.
Where to stay in Sohar
You will find a few nice resorts that can break up a road trip particularly on the Muscat to Dubai/Abu Dhabi route. We recommend you try Radisson Blu for a luxury retreat. Or if looking for a cheap but clean and acceptable overnight stop we stayed at Sama Suhar Hotel Apartments for less than $100 for a 2-bed apartment.
Oman tourist highlights, the desert and to the south
We are generalising a lot here calling it the south as it covers a big expanse of area! We’ll break it down by the coastal parts and inland to the desert.
Bimmah Sinkhole – also called “Hawaiyat Najm” (the Falling Star)
This beautiful natural waterhole is approximately 1 hour 20 minutes drive to the south of Muscat (between the coastal villages of Dabab and Bimmah). Do-able as a day trip but you may want to keep driving and stay in one of the south coastal areas like Sur. The sinkhole is 40m wide and 20m deep with an accessible pathway so you can get down into the waterhole to swim. Also built next to the sinkhole is a park area for kids to run around
Raz al Jinz
The Ras al Jinz turtle reserve is home to the the endangered green turtle (Cheloniamydas). These beautiful giant creatures come in and nest on the shores here from the Indian Ocean from May to September. As well as visiting their museum and laboratory, guests can also stay on site.They limit daily numbers so you will need to book this part of your trip in advance.
For a true taste of the beautiful desert and in stark contrast to the mountainous regions you must head into the vast Wahiba Sands. Best tackled with a 4WD, you can join an organised tour or tackle it alone! See this beautiful insight on Wahiba Sands by Mummy Travels.
There are no shortage of Wadi’s in Oman! (For those unfamiliar, these are mountainous ravines that fill after heavy rains, though many in Oman have water year round).
Some of the most popular include Wadi Shab with its underwater caves (only accessible after a hike, may not be suitable for young children), Wadi Bani Khalid well set up with a BBQ area and public toilets – though can get crowded especially on weekends and Wadi AL Hawqayn with its waterfall.
(More to come on Wadi’s in a future instalment. In the meantime check out this guide to Wadi’s my Oman tourism, there were a lot more than we first thought! )
Where to stay in the South
Near Sur: This pretty coastal town has a lot of accommodation options, though not many you’d class as luxury! It does make a good stop over point for exploring the southern regions. With a pool and great view you can get a good deal for families at Sur Plaza Hotel or Zaki Hotel Apartments for your larger groups.
Coastal Hotels: As mentioned above you can actually stay on the turtle reserve Ras al Jinz Turtle Beach Reserve in a room or one of their special eco-tents
And the Rest of Oman
As we mentioned in the introduction, Musandam Peninsular and Salalah are quite separated from Muscat and the rest of the tourist highlightsof Oman.
We have them in our sights so will cover them on the blog in due course. Stay tuned by signing up for our monthly newsletter and we’ll inform you when we will undertake these adventures!! (Musandam coming end of November 2017!)
For a full 2 week itinerary around Oman we found this useful guide from Phenomenal Globe detailing how they fit it all in and also has a really handy guide as to when you might need a 4WD vs a standard car.
Have you ever done an Oman road trip? Are there any must-see places we should add or advice to other travellers with kids you would give?
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