Nizwa is one of the oldest cities in Oman, and it was the country’s capital in the 5th and 6th centuries. Located at the base of the Western Hajar Mountains, it is strategically located at the crossroads of routes linking the interior of Oman to Muscat and Dhofar.
Nizwa, once a center for trade, religion, education, and art has benefited significantly since 1970 with the reign of Sultan Qaboos. The modern city of 77,000 is now connected to Muscat with a two-lane highway, resulting in an increase in tourism. Along with a hospital, the Royal Oman Police academy, and three universities, Nizwa now boasts four hotels.
Nizwa, with a handful of interesting attractions as well as amazing natural scenery within a two-hour drive, warrants a visit. We spent a night here during our week-long tour of Oman with Sami, our awesome guide.
Where to Stay in Nizwa
Aldiyar Hotel is located just two miles from the ancient town of Nizwa and features all the creature comforts of home including a pool, air-conditioning, wifi, restaurants, and a hot shower (once you turn on the heating switch). It clearly caters to all the tours from Muscat as the breakfast room accommodates at least 100 people.
With the cattle call atmosphere, particularly at breakfast, I can’t say it was my most favorite place to stay, but after a night in the desert sand, it was a comfortable place to clean off.
Small tour groups or individuals should try Nizwa Heritage Inn, despite its lower rating on Hotels.com due to only has 2 guest reviews thus far. This recently renovated guest house is walking distance to everything to do in Nizwa. Though I understand the rooms are small, what you give up in comfort is gained in convenience and ambiance.
Where to Eat in Nizwa
If I were to return, I would likely book a more traditional place like this. I noticed it after we ate lunch at Bait Al Aqr which coincidentally is also a hotel and ranks very highly on Booking.com. Its restaurant serves a buffet and definitely caters to the tourist with the best toilets around.
The buffet offers the usual Omani cuisine…goat, chicken, rice, salad, lentil soup, and bread, though I’m told by Sami, we had a different goat or chicken dish every day due to either the way it was cooked or the spices included. I’m no chef, so I personally could not tell the difference.
While lunch was fine. Dinner was better. Sami took us to Al Masharef for Turkish Food. It is just a 5-minute drive from Aldiyar Hotel toward Tanuf and is ranked #2 on Trip Advisor for restaurants in Nizwa. Both tourists and locals frequent the place for tasty food and the quick service.
Shop at the Nizwa Souq
The Nizwa Souq as with the city, is one of the oldest in the country. It is housed in several buildings behind a piece of the old city wall. The fish market is at the southern end, and though it was over by the time we arrived around 11:30, the odor still lingered.
Next to the fish market is what I would call the house of dates. This building includes an assortment of dates from both Oman and other Middle Eastern countries along with tahini, honey, date syrup and more. Nizwa is the center for date growing in Oman, so be sure to visit the date market and taste the countless different varieties.
Just north of the date market, we visited the next covered building which housed Halwa, the national dessert of Oman. The gelatin like substance made of starch, ghee, white sugar, water and brown sugar and flavored with saffron, cardamom, nuts, and rose water is typically served to guests with Qahwa (Omani Coffee).
After tasting so many dates, just a bite of this sugary sweet is all I could muster, but it was interesting to watch the “How It Is Made” video. Our long drive from the desert and resulting late arrival, left of little time to spare before the 12:30-4pm afternoon closure, so we didn’t stick around long before we carried on to the vegetable market.
I always love visiting the vegetable markets in any country. As usual, there were a few products I had never seen. One interesting item for sale were the seed shoots for date palms. Farmers climb the date trees and insert the shoots in the top to fertilize the female palms.
Upon exiting the vegetable building, we reached the souq of everything else which ranged from clay pots, spices and nuts, disdasha, and silver. With the exception of the dishdasha store which mostly had reams of fabric, it was definitely the touristy side.
Dishdasha are the white robes which the men wear along with their kuma (hat). The decorative stitching on the kuma tends to match the tassle, used for perfume, on the dishdasha. While white is the predominant dishdasha color, other muted colors are also worn.
We stopped here so my friends Mike and Ruth could bring back one as a Halloween costume for their gay friend. Sort of ironic given same sex relationships are not allowed in Oman.
We also stopped in a few silver stores as the artisans in Nizwa are known for their silver making which has been passed down from one generation to the next. The intricately engraved khanjars (curved daggers) are quite impressive (and expensive)!
Explore the Nizwa Fort
Just northwest of the souq, is the Nizwa Fort which should not be missed. Oman’s most visited national monument, it is a perfect place to explore during the 12:30 to 4pm afternoon break when most shops and many restaurants have closed until the evening. Tickets for non-Omani adults are 5 OMR or $13.
The structure, located next to the renowned Friday Mosque, includes both a fort and a castle. It was constructed during the Yaruba dynasty which ruled Oman for over 100 years between 1624 and 1742 after expelling the Portuguese.
The fortress protected both Nizwa’s natural wealth and vital trading routes. It overlooks an oasis of date palms fed by Falaj Daris, a World Heritage Site and the largest irrigation system in Oman. The subterranean stream beneath the fortress and its date storage rooms ensured ample supplies during a prolonged siege.
The citadel’s main feature is its immense circular tower. Measuring 30 meters high and 36 meters in diameter, it is the largest in Oman. I recommend visiting this part first as it requires a lot of stair climbing and should not be missed. I mistakenly visited it last when I was tired and running out of time, but I am glad I mustered up the energy to see the top.
The fort and tower are located up and to the right of the ticket counter. The entrance through the small doorway leads to a dark and twisting staircase which used to be armed with gaping pits covered with wooden planks. During attempted invasions, the planks were removed, and the enemies fell to their fate.
The stairwell also had many large doors. At the top of each were shafts called murder holes where hot oil, water or date syrup were poured on the invaders. Yikes! Fortunately for us tourists, we did not have evade such hurdles to make it to the top of the 360⁰ view. Only lots of stairs interfere with the journey.
After returning from the tower, be sure to visit the adjoining castle. The top of the castle stairs offers lovely views of the circular tower and mosque. In addition, the castle features several exhibit halls. Not much of a museum goer, I expected to whiz in and out of each room, but instead the old guns, coins, watches, locks, pottery and more captured my attention.
Upon exiting the castle section, don’t miss the gardens. I almost overlooked the shade of the date palms and wished I had a few more minutes to enjoy them. Our group had allotted 1.5 hours for the fortress which is ample time assuming proper time management. I just got side tracked by all the nooks and crannies.
After the fortress visit and lunch at Bait Al Aqr, it was time for the souq to open again so our group (not me) could finish shopping. I just like the photography aspect of markets. Speaking of which, the cattle market which takes place every Friday morning is a great stop for photographers.
Watch the Goat Auction
We rose very early to see the cattle market (better named goat market) whose auction begins at 7am each Friday. We got front row parking at the 6:20 sunrise which seemed great up until we tried to leave shortly after 7am. Who knew we’d need our four-wheel drive to get out of the parking lot through a wadi!
I really enjoyed the cattle market which featured about five cows and 100 goats, though I did feel a little bad about eating goat after seeing them bleat while they waited to be auctioned off. Goat owners from all over drove them in the bed pickups to sell at the market.
Dressed in their dishdashas which remained amazingly clean, men led or carried the goats to posts where they secured them with ties they purchased from the “rope guy.” The goats came in all shapes, sizes, and colors! We particularly liked one with long ears, but I don’t suppose that warranted an extra price as most were being purchased for Friday meals.
At the auction, the goat owner tells the auctioneer what price he would like, and unlike auctions in the USA, the auctioneer starts at a high price and then drops it down to try to get the amount the owner wants. The goat auction got a late start while we visited, so we didn’t get to see the purchasing in action, but we did get to a the vibrant and social scene very important to Muslims.
Take A Side Trip to Birkat Al Mawz
While we enjoyed all the in-town attractions Nizwa offered, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention some amazing places outside of the city.
The first, Birkat Al Mawz, was not even listed on our itinerary, but Sami really wanted to show us this village whose name translates to Banana Pool. We did not know what he was talking about when he said, “I want to take you a place that means banana pool and has lots of date palms.”
Given he had yet to steer us wrong regarding the natural beauty of Oman, we just shrugged and followed along. What a surprise! We ended up on a rocky, dirt road which overlooked a falaj and an oasis of date palms that stretched the length of several football fields. On the hills above stood an old fort and village ruins.
After admiring the view, we drove down into the community where we strolled the shady streets and ultimately ended up climbing an old staircase to the top of an arch with a water channel.
The falaj systems in Oman are fascinating. The water is first transported to the watch towers that protect the village, then the mosque, and finally the community. The water is allocated to each family on certain days and times where they collect what they need for drinking and irrigating their crops. Though short, visiting Birkat Al Mawz was an enjoyable stop.
Hike in the Grand Canyon of Oman
The second side trip which should not be missed is to the abandoned village of Al Khatim which is the beginning of the world-famous Balcony Walk located in the Grand Canyon of Oman. This hike is included a book called the 50 Best Hikes in the World and is how I learned about Oman and KE Adventures.
The undulating, rocky trail skirts the edge of the canyon with Jebel Shams, the tallest peak in the Middle East, off in the distance. Though the terrain isn’t difficult (even for those afraid of ledges), the path begins around 8,000 feet, so the altitude may challenge those folks coming from sea level.
The path leads hikers downhill with views of the canyon to the east which is best photographed upon return in the afternoon with the sun in the west. Not to mention it is a good excuse to rest as the return is uphill.
After about 2.5 miles, visitors will find ruins of an abandoned village clinging to the canyon walls. These types of places always intrigue me as I can’t imagine the effort it took to get food and water to such location, must less to build the homes in the first place.
Just past the village is a shaded area and ancient terraced farmland. It is a good place to stop for lunch or a snack, if climbing the last half-mile via a moderate route to the small lake proves difficult.
Continuing on leads hikers to a beautiful emerald pond which is tucked beneath ledge that adventurous souls abseil down. On the cliff above is a via ferrata. What I would have given to do that…so cool!
Though I suspect the overall route with abseiling and the via ferrata is much longer, our jaunt to the lake and back was around six miles and took 3-4 hours. Maybe closer to 4 because according to our driver Mohammed we were hiking “sololi.” Or at least that is the Arabic word I thought he was saying. I had no idea what he was talking about until I learned he was saying SLOWLY!
The hike, coupled with a two hour drive one way from Nizwa, and a slightly shorter drive to Misfat al Abriyyin, our next stop on the itinerary, took all day, but it was worth every minute. To be continued…ETB
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