Districts & Suburbs
Only recently has Oman been divided into 11 governorates, each with its own major town. The Musandam peninsula, bordering the United Arab Emirates, contains some of the country's most intriguing aquatic landscapes. Travel the majestic Fjords of Arabia on a traditional dhow, passing timeworn fishing villages and pods of playful dolphins on your way to Telegraph Island – a remnant of the British Empire's reach, now a popular snorkelling and fishing spot.
Khasab is the major centre in Musandam and easily accessible from Muscat via high-speed ferry, the journey taking around five hours. Perched on the well-travelled Strait of Hormuz between Iran, Oman and the UAE, Khasab has become a launching point for holidays in Oman. Like much of the country, Khasab has a handful of historical sites to take in, including the Portuguese-built Khasab Castle, tribal Alkmazrh Fort and prehistoric rock art in the nearby village of Tawi.
Curving around the Gulf of Oman are the regions of Al Batinah North and South, the former home to the what was once the capital of Oman, Sohar. Sohar is shrouded in ancient legend, recognised as the hometown of the legendary sailor Sinbad. Still a major trading hub, Sohar's sizeable deep sea port is undergoing a major facelift which will no doubt have a positive influence over the already popular Sohar souk.
Other sites of significance include the so-called "bread basket of Oman", Nakhal, at the foothills of the rugged Hajir Mountains, and Rustaq, a beautifully restored town pre-dating Islam where natural hot springs continue to lure visitors with their therapeutic benefits. Al Batinah's boundaries extend out to the Al-Dimaniyat Islands Nature Reserve, where sea turtles flock to nest and scuba divers scour colourful coral gardens surrounding the nine islands.
One of the smallest governorates of Oman is also the most important. The enigmatic region of Muscat is the heart and soul of the country, sometimes referred to as Masqat to distinguish it from its capital city of the same name. The city of Muscat is actually three smaller towns whose borders have blurred over time: Muscat proper, Muttrah and Ruwi. Dozens of smaller districts line the Sultan Qaboos Highway, leading to attractions like the opulent Grand Mosque, the Al Jalali Fort and Al Mirani Fort and the cafe-laden Corniche zone.
The Muttrah Souk is a Muscat institution not to be missed, where Omani culture comes to life in a whirlwind of spices, silverware and strident selling. A mix of old and new, the garden-lined streets of Muscat are packed with beautiful Arabian architecture, fascinating museums, international and boutique hotels and lovingly restored relics of times past.
Al Dhahirah (also known as Ad Dhahirah) is a central coast region at the crosshairs of Saudi Arabia, Oman and the United Arab Emirates. A former "caravan town" due to its practical location, Al Dhahirah's Ibri once attracted cohorts of traders and pilgrims from across the Hajir mountains and the sprawling sands of the Rub' al Khali desert. Nearby is the Heritage Listed historic town of Bat, the most complete known site dating back to 3000 BC. The rudimentary yet complex beehive-like stone towers are a mysterious sight, revealing great depth about Oman's Bronze Age.
Central Al Dakhiliyah is perhaps the second most known region outside of Muscat, famous for the lofty fort that towers above the city of Nizwa. Nizwa also had its turn as the country's capital in the 6th and 7th century, today standing as a modern city with strong historical roots, as seen in the traditional architecture throughout and the bustling local marketplace.
The small oasis town of Bahla is just half an hour from Nizwa and renowned across Oman for its handcrafted pottery made using clay unique to the region – you can peruse and pick up your own unique piece at the Nizwa markets. Bahla's other claim to fame is the Heritage Listed Bahla Fort, while celebrated natural attractions are also within arm's reach including the Jabel Akhdar (Green Mountain) and the Jabel Shams (Mountain of the Sun).
The Ash Sharqiyah North and South governorates are primed for intrepid travellers, with valleys, rivers and colourful canyons galore. Two hours southeast of Muscat is Ash Sharqiyah's regional capital Sur, best known as the manufacturing hub of the traditional wooden ships "dhows". Sur is also the gateway to the four-wheel-drive playground, Wahiba Sands – the sprawling dunes are the quintessential landscape that springs to mind with the mention of Arabian deserts. With nothing but golden sand as far as the eye can see, the dunes attract adventurous locals and visitors as well as the desert-dwelling Bedouins. Cooling things down a little, the azure waters of the Wadi Shab and Wadi Tiwi are idyllic oases waiting just outside Sur, winning the affections of all who visit.
Possibly the most rugged and arid of all regions is Al Wusta, dominated by what is deemed the Empty Quarter. The ceaseless sands of this no man's land are not inhabited, but can be traversed from the comfort of an all-terrain vehicle for those seeking a journey well off the beaten track. Coastal Duqm is the main centre in Al Wusta – a humble fishing village and port that is working its way up Oman's tourism food chain one new hotel at a time.
At the far southern end of Oman is Dhofar, the largest governorate in the country bordering Yemen. Dhofar exists in stark contrast to the rest of the country, the monsoonal rains drenching the landscape in lush green to the joy of livestock and farmers. Dhofar's main city is the stunning Salalah, also referred to as the Sultanate's southern capital. Apart from being the birthplace of the reigning Sultan Qaboos, Salalah boasts pristine beaches and a thriving, colourful city centre.
Many Arab tribes take residence in Dhofar, as do expatriates who enjoy the tropical climate. After exploring the sights of Salalah, the smaller towns of Mirbat and Taqah offer archaeological hot spots, rich Omani history and beautiful surrounding scenery with their own unique stamp of approval.