Destinations

Visiting Matka Canyon by public bus

Visiting Matka Canyon by public bus

Matka Canyon is located about 15 kilometers from Skopje, and its vicinity to the capital coupled with all of its other features makes it a very popular destination for locals and tourists alike. It is also the location for the annual wildwater kayak slalom championship, and you can see the course at the entrance to the canyon. Would probably be awesome to watch that!

Two days in Skopje, the city of so many statues

Getting to Matka Canyon from Skopje

The special Matka Canyon bus is number 60, and goes from the bus station in Skopje all the way to the parking area at Matka Canyon, where it turns around. Its location at the bus station can be a little bit tricky to find, but it’s in the section for local services behind the gas station. Look for the sign with the number 60 on it.

You need a card to travel by bus, which can be bought in special kiosks. If you board the bus at the bus station it’s also possible to buy a card from the driver. The card costs 150 MKD and that includes the return trip to Matka. Don’t forget to validate the card at the machine on board the bus!

The Matka Canyon bus does not go often, only once every two hours or so, so my best advice would be to ask at your accommodation if they can look it up for you. We took the bus that left at 10.30 in the morning, giving us plenty of time to have a long breakfast at the hotel and stroll down to the station. The trip took about an hour, which was a bit more than I expected seeing as it’s not far at all on the map. It was unbelievably crowded, some people at the end of the line didn’t even get on it. We were lucky enough to get seats as we boarded at the station.

Be prepared to walk or take a taxi back

The return journey didn’t work out very well at all. We didn’t know the times, so we asked some people waiting for the bus and they said they’d been waiting for an hour already. We went to get some food but no bus showed up, so we walked a couple of kilometers up to the road to the first village where bus 12 passes. Turns out the afternoon bus never came. But there are plenty of taxis down there, and plenty more people who need a ride, so if you’re not on a very tight budget, that’s also an option worth considering. We were quoted 3 euros per person, which is probably negotiable. If we were to return, we would definitely go for the taxi.

The hiking trail along Matka Canyon outside Skopje, Macedonia

What to do at Matka Canyon

All that being said about the journey, what about the canyon? Well, it’s lovely. It’s hard to imagine that you’re so close to the city, because it’s very calm and wild out there. Aside from the few restaurants by the water, what you can do is essentially to go along the canyon. Either on food by the side of it, or on the water in a shared boat or a kayak. The latter cost a few hundred denars per person.

We chose to hike, because we were anxious to move about after the long bus ride. It’s possible to walk along the lake for about 10 kilometers and end up by a cave. We thought that was a bit much, so we turned around after 5 and walked back. The views from the walk are mostly awesome, but in part the trail goes into the forest and you can’t see a thing. It was a little bit crowded in the beginning, but the farther along the trail you go, the less people you will see, as everyone will have to turn back at some point.

Tunnel on the hiking trail in Matka Canyon, Skopje, Macedonia

We wore light hiking shoes but regular city clothes, which seemed like a good choice. The hike is not strenuous at all, but the ground is uneven. We met a girl wearing heels and a long white dress, and while she was indeed moving forward, it surely wasn’t pleasant. You will also need to bring all the water and snacks that you think you’ll want. There are some restaurants, and we had an excellent lunch of cheese burek at one of them, but don’t depend on them for water.

A cheese burek we had at the restaurant at Matka Canyon, Skopje, Macedonia

Next time, we’ll kayak down the canyon

So the thing is, we’re walkers. When given the option, we’ll always walk. But this day was very hot, and we kept looking down at the people kayaking and that looked so awesome. It’s probably a lot cooler down there by the water. At first it seemed scary as there are also bigger boats coming, but it didn’t look like the waves got very high. No one seemed to struggle, anyhow. We also sort of wanted to take the boat trip, because then you can go and visit the caves. They are on the other side of the water from the hiking trail, so it’s not possible to reach them on foot. We were very happy with the hike, but guys, the kayaking looked NICE.

I’ve already mentioned the burek and the walk and the bus we ended up taking back, so I won’t repeat myself. We were happy with the outing, it was almost a full day trip but it was so nice to get out of the city and still not have to travel very far for this spectacular nature. Plus we hardly spent any money doing it!

Hiking, boating and kayaking in Matka Canyon Skopje MacedoniaBudget outdoor adventures in Matka Canyon Skopje Macedonia
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Two days in Skopje, the city of so many statues

Two days in Skopje, the city of so many statues

We visited Skopje for two days on a combo trip with Pristina, Kosovo. My first impression of the city, coming in by bus through the outskirts, was that it looked rougher than Pristina. We walked to the center from the bus station, and all of a sudden we were in the middle of some over the top polished tourist destination. I found it really hard to grasp what Skopje was really like.

It didn’t help that we were staying at one of the kitschy fake ships located in the river Vardar, smack bang in the center of town. I must admit that it was fun though.

Pirate ship Hotel Senigallia in Skopje Macedonia

We had accidentally booked one of the two suites at Hotel Senigallia, which still only cost us 90 euros a night, and it came with bathrobes and all that. I’m pretty sure that on another trip, I would’ve been the one sitting at the restaurant next door looking at the douchebag tourists going into the ship, but at the same price as most other options and an unbeatable location, I felt like it was worth it. Also, when did you ever stay at a fake pirate ship?

The suite at the ship hotel Senigallia in Skopje Macedonia

While the suite wasn’t super luxurious (they even charged for the water in the minibar) , the included breakfast was awesome. You can sit outside on the roof, and there’s a buffet with all kinds of Balkan and Western specialties. There was also a menu to order from, which we did, and got eggs on boat shaped plates. Nice touch.

Do the free walking tour that covers it all

The center of Skopje is not big, but there is still a lot to see. A good start is a free walking tour that starts at 10 every morning from the Alexander the Great statue on the main square. Look for the guy with the blue umbrella! He’s Zoran, a registered tour guide, who will take you around the center and tell you stories about everything you see for about three hours before you tip him and say goodbye. There is also a competing walking tour, meeting somewhere else at the same time, which is also supposed to be good.

Clock still showing the time of the earthquake in Skopje, Macedonia, in 1963

One thing we learned was that most of the city was ruined in an earthquake in 1963, which is why all of the buildings in the center look so new. It happened at 5.17 in the morning, and the clock on the old train station, which was destroyed in parts, stopped at that time and was kept as a memory. Pretty neat.

We also got some history on the current conflict with Greece, although not such an unbiased version, so you’ll still have to think for yourself.

See the location where Mother Teresa was born

Mother Teresa, mostly famous as resident of Calcutta, was born in Skopje and lived there until she was 18, when she left for Ireland and later India. The house where her family lived was destroyed in the earthquake, but the location where it one stood has been marked on the ground, along with a plaque telling her story. There is also a memorial house to Mother Teresa not far from her birthplace, with a small museum.

Location of the house where Mother Teresa was born in Skopje, Macedonia

Trying the local food and beer

As vegetarians, it’s not always easy to sample the local cuisine when traveling. Before going to Skopje, we did read about some traditional dishes that were completely vegetarian, but struggled to actually find them on the menus of the very touristic restaurants we ended up going to. Or, to be honest, we did see that one salad with all the cheese, but there has to be a limit to how much cheese you can put on top of a salad and still call it a salad, am I right?

Local beers from the Old Town Brewery in Skopje, Macedonia

On the last day, while waiting for the bus to take us to the airport, we decided to go to the brewery bar that we’d walked past many times already and sample some craft beers. And while ordering beer, we also spotted a traditional  sampler plate on the menu! So we finally did get a taste of Macedonian food at the very end of the trip. Nothing wrong with all the excellent pastas, risottos and Turkisk pizzas we had along the way though.

Sampling traditional Macedonian food at the Old Town Brewery in Skopje

The brewery is called Old Town Brewery, and they’re the first craft brewery in Macedonia. They have two locations that we saw in town, one in (guess where) the upper section of the old town near the fort, and one on the main square. The one in the old town looked a lot cozier, while the other one seemed more geared toward hipsters.

Daytrip out to Matka Canyon

We went to Matka Canyon by public bus and it cost us almost nothing. The canyon and its artificial lake are located about 15 kilometers outside of Skopje, making it an ideal destination for a break from the city life, should you need that. The nature out there is gorgeous, and you can choose between hiking, kayaking, boattripping or just drinking beers at the lakeside restaurants, pick your poison.

Boat on the river in Matka Canyon, Skopje, Macedonia

We chose to hike, and covered about 10 kilometers with many photo stops. If you don’t want to rely on the public buses to get out there, which you probably shouldn’t, we heard taxis are pretty cheap.

Visiting Matka Canyon by public bus

Stroll around the old part of town

A welcome contrast to the fake old of the new center is the real old of the old town. Just across the bridge from the main square is the start of the old bazaar, where you can walk around and get lost in the narrow alleys. Although many stores are now souvenir and handicraft shops, some are still keeping their old business. There are many jewelers, most of them in the same street like back in the days. Our guide told us that according to tradition, when a new baby is born, you’re supposed to bring something golden as a gift.

The old town in Skopje, on a day when shops were closed

There’s a fort that you can go inside without paying an entrance fee, but there’s nothing much to see except for the view over the town. Apparently it’s being restored, so maybe in the future it will be more interesting. There’s also a big mosque near the fort, as this is a more Muslim part of town. We walked past it just as it was time for the call to prayer, which is always really cool.

The old town also has a lot of restaurants. Many of them are Turkish and quite cheap, so it’s a nice place to hang out on the outdoor terraces at night. Most of them don’t serve alcohol, with exception for the Rakia Bar Kaldrma, serving all kinds of the local spirit rakia and snacks.

The old bazaar in Skopje, Macedonia, at night

Staying at a pirate ship hotel in Skopje MacedoniaTwo days in Skopje Macedonia
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Six things to do in Pristina, Kosovo

Six things to do in Pristina, Kosovo

We went for a bank holiday sized city break to Pristina, Kosovo, in combination with Skopje, Macedonia. There are sometimes very cheap flights available within Europe, and since these cities are very close to each other, we managed to get a very good deal for the combo. Be sure not to overpack when traveling with low-cost airlines though

We didn’t know what to expect, but there are plenty of things to do in Pristina for two days.

Look at the buildings and monuments

When I image googled Pristina before the trip to get an idea of what it would look like now, there were two things that appeared more than anything: the Newborn monument and the university library.

The Newborn monument was unveiled on the day that Kosovo declared its independence in 2008, and it is repainted every year. As this year is the 10th anniversary, it also has a temporary number 10 in the middle. I love typographic monuments when done well, and especially one that keeps changing! It would be fun to come back another year and see it again. This was also a major selfie spot, so if you’re into watching other people take selfies or awkward group photos, this is the place to hang out.

People taking selfies in front of Newborn monument in Pristina Kosovo

The university library, on the other hand, is no looker. It’s special alright, described as brutalist in style, with a metallic web around it and glass bulbs on top. I liked to stroll around the university grounds, where there’s also an unfinished and locked up Christian orthodox church next to it.

The university library in Pristina Kosovo

Another special piece in terms of architecture is the Palace of Youth and Sports. Built in the ‘70s, this multi-purpose sports hall has been partially destroyed by a fire, but is still mostly used for home games by the local professional basketball team Sigal Prishtina.

Palace of youth and sports in Pristina Kosovo

There’s also a statue of a 3 meters tall Bill Clinton on (guess where) Bill Clinton Boulevard, raised after the war as a little thank you. Don’t miss the Hillary bridal shop just next to him!

Statue of Bill Clinton in Pristina Kosovo

Visit a photo exhibition

We stumbled upon the Kosovo museum in the old part of town, and went in to check it out. It had no entrance fee, which was obviously awesome, and we were offered a guide which we turned down as we didn’t know how much we’d like the museum. Go with a guide, they seemed really enthusiastic about the collection!

The entrance floor had a small archeology exhibition with ancient pottery and jewelry. It was fine, but nothing really special. I suppose if you go with a guide they’ll give you some more context, because there are no signs. On the second floor, there was an exhibition of war memorabilia, such as uniforms and guns. I liked looking at the old newspapers, but most of this exhibition didn’t have signs either.

My favorite part of the museum, however, was the photo exhibition. One photographer had documented the escape from Pristina in 1999, and I found these photos along with the story really captivating. In the next room, there were portraits of regular people from the years just before and after the war.

Stroll along the pedestrian street

The weather was lovely when we were there, and it seemed as the whole city had come out to enjoy it. The pedestrian street, the Mother Teresa Boulevard, is an excellent spot for people-watching.

Pedestrian street Mother Teresa Boulevard in Pristina Kosovo

The street is lined with cafés and restaurants, little pop-up book shops, stands selling all kinds of snacks and also some street musicians.

We were there just as they were setting things up for a half marathon the following day, so if you’re a runner you might want to check that out. The finish line was just at the upper end of the pedestrian street.

Catch a sports event

When we were walking around Pristina, we saw posters advertising a game of basketball that was to take place in the arena later the same day. We didn’t have a plan for the evening anyway, so after some rest, we went down there to check it out.

We went to what we thought was the entrance, but no one was there, so we walked around the mall below the arena trying to ask people working in the sports shops how to get to the game. They had no clue there was a basketball game on. In the end, someone pointed us toward a sign for a gym, and we hesitantly climbed a staircase, and somehow entered the arena from the back. A janitor showed us to a court where some people were watching the last few minutes of a women’s handball game. Alright then, we thought, we’ll watch this instead. But immediately after it finished (Pristina lost) some tall guys entered and within minutes the basketball started.

Catching a game of basketball in Pristina Kosovo

Now, we’re no big fans of basketball. As a matter of fact, we weren’t even sure how long the quarters were or anything. But the seats filled with a cheering crowd, and there were some old dudes selling waters and spicy seeds that we chewed on forever while watching the game.

And it was really exciting! At first things really didn’t look so good for Pristina, but they turned it around and were in a huge lead at half time. Then the opponents started to catch up, slowly but surely, but in the end didn’t make it all the way.

Have excellent (and cheap) food and drink

Don’t you just love it when the food is top quality and still unbelievably cheap? This is particularly obvious when using euros, a currency I’m familiar with, just not with these low numbers. We had all of our meals out and they were all excellent. There seems to be quite a hipster community in this young capital, so being a vegetarian in Pristina is a breeze. Vegan, too, I would say.

I also really liked that most of the places we wanted to go to were located very close to each other, as the city center is so small, so we could walk around to see what we felt like before deciding.

Here are some places I would particularly recommend:

Green and protein

This was an excellent breakfast place, although a bit pricey for Kosovo, I thought it was good value. We had a huge egg sandwich and an avocado wrap, both of which were very tasty and filling, but still glanced over at the salad bowls and smoothies on the tables next to us. We could’ve returned, which we actually tried, but they were closed.

Breakfast egg sandwich at Green and Protein in Pristina Kosovo

Dit’ e nat’

This bookstore café is all vegetarian, and we tried the vegetarian burger and the ajvar pasta. While neither was outstanding, I particularly enjoyed the fusion of the local ajvar in a foreign dish. The place was also lively on a Friday night, and they serve very cheap beer which I guess was the reason.

Soma Book Station

We were seated outside, which was a bit dark but we didn’t want to move once we were seated, so I didn’t see any books. Maybe they had them, maybe they didn’t. This is a fancier place, sometimes with live music and sometimes with just an excellent playlist on. We had a risotto and a mushroom pasta, which were both excellent, and a white wine that was also very tasty. It was a bit more expensive, but our bill still ended up at like 20 euros for the food and wine for two people. Not bad.

Exterior of Soma Book Station restaurant in Pristina Kosovo

Stay in an old apartment building

We went with a hotel that had great reviews on Booking.com, called Mami’s hostel. It’s located in a regular apartment building, although it has a sign out front so there’s nothing sketchy about it, and the hostel itself is very new and clean. We almost felt like we were the first people to stay there, but I think it’s been around for about a year. And at only 35 euros a night for a double room with balcony and private bath, it was a bargain!

Interior of hotel room with balcony at Mami's hostel, Pristina Kosovo

They don’t have staff, or they do, but they’re not around much. When we booked, we got a code for the entrance, and they left an envelope for us in the reception area with the keycard to our room and some maps of the town. And when we left, we simply put our money in a box along with the card. For us this was not a problem, but I guess if you need more assistance it may not be the place for you.

Six things to do in Pristina, Kosovo Six things to do in Pristina Kosovo
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Bonus country: exploring Doha, Qatar, on a transit tour

Bonus country: exploring Doha, Qatar, on a transit tour

On our way to Oman, we had a long layover in Doha, Qatar’s capital. Since the main attraction at  the Doha airport, Hamad International Airport, is a giant teddybear that I frankly find quite creepy, we decided to take the opportinity to join a transit tour in Doha arranged by Qatar Airways especially for people in our situation, with a way too long layover in Doha. I think the tour is free if you involuntarily have a long layover, but if you’re just cheap like us, you’re going to have to pay for it. It only cost us 40 QAR (~11 USD) each for a three hour tour, so it’s still not much. To be honest, we most likely would’ve spent more if we’d stayed at the airport!

We reserved and paid for the tour in advance, and when we’d landed at the airport we simply found the tour desk in the transit area (near the teddybear) and handed them our voucher. Then a guide led us through the very efficient airport immigration and out to a bus waiting outside. Citizens from 80 countries can visit Qatar without a visa.

Now, if you’re not into government propaganda and advertisements for fancy hotels and restaurants, you’re going to struggle on this tour. Still, I think it gives a really good overview of the city, but if you want to actually go inside the Museum of Islamic Art (it sounded amazing), you should probably take your own driver. You can arrange this in advance through the tour desk to save time.

Katara Cultural Village, The Pearl and Souq Waqif

We had some photo stops around the city, the first being near the Doha Corniche outside the Museum of Islamic Art, which offered a lovely view of the skyscrapers in West Bay on the other side. The Doha skyline is really impressive.

We also stopped at Katara Cultural Village where we could stroll around for a little bit to take pictures. I really liked the examples of traditional architecture in the middle of the hypermodern new city.

Traditional buildings at Katara Cultural Village, Doha, Qatar

After Katara Cultural Village we stopped at The Pearl, which seems to be a place for the very rich to park their yachts. There were many high-end brand stores, but they were all closed for the weekend. That didn’t matter so much to us, instead we checked out the fancy boats.

The last stop of the tour was Souq Waqif, the market, which was a longer stop of half an hour. Most shops were closed as we were there on a Friday, but all the restaurants were open and we weren’t going to shop anyway. This was my favorite part, because it seemed more traditional and real than the rest of the city, which is mostly a construction site for new skyscrapers.

Restaurant at the souk in Doha, Qatar

Would I recommend a transit tour in Doha?

I would say that Doha is not for me, judging by the very brief visit. It seems to be geared toward the richer tourists rather than cheap-ass campers. I found the lack of people out in the city a bit creepy, and before we got to the souk, the whole city seemed like a movie set. Souq Waqif, on the other hand, had more of a local flavor. I’m very glad that we got some time to explore that.

That being said, if you find yourself stuck at the airport for a day, I would definitely recommend doing a transit tour in Doha. If you have more than the three hours the tour takes, you could opt for a private driver to allow for more thorough visits.

Also, while waiting for the plane, do take the time to read up on human rights issues in Qatar, for instance at Human Rights Watch or Amnesty International.

Exploring Doha, Qatar on a layoverA layover tour of Doha, Qatar
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How to travel Oman on a budget

How to travel Oman on a budget

Here’s what we spent in eight days for two people, approximately:

Car rental, a 4WD for 8 days: 200 OMR (519 USD)
Gasoline: 25 OMR (65 USD)
Accommodation, one night in a hotel and one night in a desert camp: 20 + 45 OMR (169 USD)
Food, including two meals in restaurants: around 40 OMR (104 USD)
Entrance fees: 2 OMR (less than 3 USD)

You can definitely spend a lot less than this, however. Keep reading for some tips!

Our Oman itinerary for nine days

Pitch your tent anywhere

Wild camping is legal in Oman, as long as you’re not on someone’s land or a protected area. The mountains and beaches are pretty much free for all. We stayed one night in a hotel in Muscat, because our flight got in after dark, and one night in an organized desert camp. Six nights were spent camping.

Here’s my guide to some of the best camping spots in the country

camping spot between rocks on jebel shams oman

Eat at local restaurants or cook your own meals

One of the benefits of camping is that you can self-cater to avoid having all your meals in restaurants. We only had a single meal at a restaurant, as well as some drinks and an overpriced breakfast buffet, and cooked the rest ourselves on our camping stove. The selection at the hypermarkets is amazing, and they also have a section with prepared food if you don’t want to cook.

Preparing for a camping trip in Oman: all you need to know

Hitchhiking, public transportation or car rental?

If you have a lot of time on your hands, hitchhiking is going to be your cheapest option. Bear in mind that there is not much traffic on most roads, so the wait can get long. We did see some locals hitchhiking, but no tourists. While there is always some risk involved in hitchhiking, Oman is generally a very safe country.

Public transportation is generally not a very good option. You can take minibuses to go between the larger towns, but most tourist attractions are far from any bus stop.  A combination of public transportation and hitchhiking might work, there are many tourists in big rental cars going from central Nizwa up to Jebel Shams for example.

The 4wd mitsubishi outlander we used for driving in Oman

As you can see above, the car rental is the one thing we spent a lot of money on. If you can’t afford a 4WD, a regular 2WD saloon car is probably half the price. It won’t get you everywhere, but it sure will save you some money. Another option is to rent a 4WD only for a few days and then exchange it for a 2WD when you’re done with the mountains and desert. We used Rentalcars.com to compare prices, and ended up renting from Thrifty at the airport.

Avoid tourist attractions that are overpriced for foreigners

Most of the tourist attractions we went to turned out to be free, like Wadi Bani Khalid for example. The forts we went to had an entrance fee of 0,5 OMR, which is very little. One fort, however, the one in Nizwa, had a special rate for tourists of 5 OMR which is way too much. Go to the really nice fort in Jibrin instead and save those rials.

Jibrin castle supposedly the best fort in Oman

How to travel Oman on a budget
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What we did on our one day in Muscat

What we did on our one day in Muscat

Visiting Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque

We started the day by going to Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque in the morning. It’s only open to visitors between 8 and 11 AM. The mosque was inaugurated in 2001 and has a capacity of 20,000 worshippers.

We really liked walking around the mosque, looking at the intricate decorations on the walls. I especially liked the carpet, that is done in one piece, the second largest in the world.

Visitors must be modestly dressed, which includes to cover knees and shoulders. Women must also cover their hair with a scarf. You can rent clothing if you don’t have anything appropriate, but this costs 2.5 OMR so it’s probably cheaper to pick up a scarf in the souk. Also, children below the age of 10 are not allowed in the main prayer hall.

There was plenty of parking space just outside and no entrance charge for visitors, which I always find sympathetic for religious institutions.

Souvenir shopping at Mutrah souk

From the mosque we drove back to Mutrah, in the east of the city, to visit the famous souk. As opposed to the mosque, parking was a nightmare here. The streets were narrow and crowded, and we finally found a parking spot on a residencial street after clearing some trash away.

The souk itself was lovely though. There is a large indoor area with many alleys, where you could probably get lost forever without a GPS. The souk is quite touristic in parts, but it’s still possible to make a bargain. Make sure you haggle for the goods and do compare prices! We bought some really nice scarves for 2 OMR each.

Shopping in Mutrah souk, one day in Muscat, Oman

After several hours of walking in the heat and crowds, we sat down at a small restaurant just by the souk and ordered some well deserved mint lemonades.

Strolling down Mutrah corniche

Very close to the souk is the Mutrah corniche, a relaxed waterfront promenade. From here, you have great views of both the city and the dock with dramatic mountain tops in the background. It’s a nice place to chill while the souk is closed in the afternoon.

Driving in Muscat

Traffic in Muscat was very different from that of the rest of the country. The streets are wide, three lanes or more, and the traffic is fast-paced and a little bit aggressive with overtaking on both sides. That being said, it was fine. I was really nervous about driving in Muscat since I don’t drive a lot these days, but for the most part it was okay. We missed a million exits and detoured around like crazy, but with plenty of time and a GPS you’ll get there eventually.

Preparing for a camping trip in Oman: all you need to know

Where to stay in Muscat

We only stayed in a hotel one night and camped the rest of the time, but we would definitely recommend Mutrah Hotel. It’s supposedly the first hotel in Muscat, but it doesn’t look very old at all. Everything was really clean and the staff were super nice and friendly. It’s located in Ruwi, close to buses and very easy to find off the main roads. This was a bonus for us as we arrived after dark and weren’t used to the traffic.

Our Oman itinerary for nine days

Visiting Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque in Muscat, OmanOne day in Muscat, Oman
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The fascinating Wadi Bani Khalid and Wadi Shab

The fascinating Wadi Bani Khalid and Wadi Shab

One thing you’ll read a lot about when you research Oman is wadis. So what is a wadi? Usually it’s a dry river-bed, and some you’ll drive past without noticing, but some others are spectacular ravines perfect for hiking, swimming or both.

Planning a camping trip in Oman? Here’s all you need to know

Another thing you’ll see a lot of when planning a camping trip to Oman is the warning not to pitch your tent in a wadi. I can definitely see why you’d want to: the wadis are usually lush, relatively speaking, and often seem to protect you well from the elements. But if it starts to rain you may get surprised by a flash flood, and that’s one thing you don’t want.

Looking for a safe place to pitch your tent in Oman? Here are my suggestions!

We visited two of the wadis that have been adapted to tourism but not overwhelmingly so: Wadi Bani Khalid and Wadi Shab.

Wadi Bani Khalid, the perfect oasis

We spent most of the day at Wadi Bani Khalid, arriving in the late morning and scoring a great spot in the shade beneath a palm tree right next to the poolside. There was no entrance fee or parking fee, toilets were available free of charge and there’s a restaurant on site. I don’t know what their prices are like given that there’s no competition, but this being Oman, they’re probably not overcharging.

We brought swimwear and towels, a change of clothes, a plastic mat to sit on, some books, lunch and plenty of water and sun lotion.

Swimming at Wadi Bani Khalid, Oman

The water was so refreshing, as this was our first swim (and honestly second contact with water) since arriving five days earlier, so we really enjoyed swimming. There are some spots for jumping, some for swimming, and various depths. And plenty of room for everyone, even after a lot of other visitors had arrived around noon.

One funny thing was the little fish in the water that will nibble on your feet if you put them in. They didn’t touch me when I was swimming, but with just the feet down I got one of those Asian fish pedicures free of charge.

How to get there

The road that goes to Wadi Bani Khalid is on the inland highway 23 between Muscat and Sur, a very short drive from Al Wasil where we ended up after spending the night in the desert. It’s a new, paved road but goes a bit up and down before finally ending by a parking lot surrounded by palm trees. It’s well signposted with the brown signs leading to tourist attractions. You can definitely reach Wadi Bani Khalid with a 2WD.

When we arrived in the morning it was no problem finding a parking spot, but as we left the parking situation seemed a bit more chaotic. It’s about a five minute walk from the parking lot to the pools, so make sure you bring everything you’ll need so you don’t have to go back and forth several times like we did.

What to wear

Both men and women should wear a loose t-shirt, and while men can wear loose shorts as well, women should cover the knees. We saw some tourists wearing tiny bikinis or speedos, but that’s just not okay. Be respectful to the locals and cover up when you’re swimming. Besides, it’s really nice to have wet clothes on in the heat, you’ll stay cool much longer after a swim.

sign encouraging tourists to dress modestly when swimming in Oman

A hike down Wadi Shab

Wadi Shab is supposedly Arabic for “gorge between cliffs”, and that’s not a metaphor. The wadi opening is just below the highway, which isn’t that pretty, but if you’re lucky you can get a parking spot in the shade, so that’s something. The first pool is just by the parking lot and you can’t really see much, but for 1 OMR you’ll be taken across the water in a small boat to where the trail starts on the other side. There’s one coffee shop on each side of the water if you didn’t bring food or water.

Boat ride over pool at Wadi Shab, Oman

We took the boat across the water and started walking. It’s so hot when you’re out in the sun, so cover up properly and bring lots of water. We walked into the gorge, first on a trail between little farms and then across big rocks for a bit, before it all opened up to the upper pool where lots of people were swimming.

Hiking at wadi shab Oman

We were a bit unsure about the swimming, as there are signs everywhere saying you shouldn’t do it. But loads of people were swimming, so I guess it’s alright. If you do swim, make sure you dress appropriately. We had woken up at the beach and were headed toward another beach, so we didn’t really need to go in the water. Instead, we just relaxed under a cliff for a bit before turning back.

How to get there

Wadi Shab is just off the highway between Sur and Tiwi, very close to our camping spot at the beach in Fins. There are signs on the highway, and you’ll see the wadi when you drive down. The parking is a bit of a mess, but if you arrive early it shouldn’t be a problem. If not, I’d recommend that you park along the road leading down to the parking lot instead of taking the risk of having other cars block you on the way in. You can definitely visit Wadi Shab with a 2WD sedan car, as it’s right next to the new highway.

Here’s our nine day Oman itinerary, if you’re looking for some more inspiration!

Wadi Bani Khalid, Oman, the perfect oasis for a relaxing swimHiking in Wadi Shab, Oman
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Quality time with camels at a Wahiba Sands desert camp

Quality time with camels at a Wahiba Sands desert camp

Wahiba Sands (or Sharqiya Sands, depending on who you’re asking) is a large desert in the north of Oman, where a number of traditional desert camps have been set up for tourists. We were camping for the rest of our trip in Oman, but we were feeling quite insecure about self-driving into the desert without cell reception, and a lady also needs a shower every once in a while.

Preparing for a camping trip in Oman: all you need to know

Most of the camps are very expensive, but we found that Desert Retreat Camp offered good value for money. We met up at their office at 3 PM at the Al Maha gas station in Al Wasil, to be escorted through the desert to the camp. I was really happy about not having to try to find it myself! The people who didn’t have their own 4WD car could get a ride with the guides from the camp.

Driving in Wahiba Sands

driving in the desert wahiba sands oman

We all drove together through the sand, which felt a lot like driving in snow, only dustier. It was more fun than scary, but definitely some of both. I had to really focus on the driving, which was hard, when there were baby camels by the side of the road! When we got to the camp, we were dying to take a walk and hang with the camels just outside the fence.

Upon our arrival to the camp, we were all seated in the communal area and offered fruit and some really amazing dates, as well as Omani cardamom flavored coffee. We were then assigned our tents, that were pretty large and each had an outdoor bathroom with a shower behind it. A big difference from our tiny two person tent that we had been sleeping in for the last three nights, we could even stand up indoors!

We immediately changed our clothes and went for a stroll in the desert outside of the camp. We tried to approach some camels, but they all slowly walked away from us, everyone except for one very friendly one! The camel came up to us and it seemed to be really used to people, so it just stood there posing for a hundred pictures. I was a bit scared at first, because they’re pretty big animals, but soon relaxed.

Friendly camel in the desert Wahiba sands oman at desert retreat camp

After the camel walk, we climbed the sand dunes to get up there in time for sunset. Even though the dunes weren’t that high, it took forever to climb them as we sank into the sand. I was really exhausted when I got up there! The other people from the camp were also up there and we all sat down on the dunes to wait for the sun to go down. Unfortunately, some clouds came in and we couldn’t see a thing! A bit disappointing, but still a nice evening activity.

Hit by a sandstorm!

After a much welcome shower, the first in four days, we went to the communal tent for the dinner buffet. It was not dark, and the winds picked up to a full sandstorm. I don’t know if this is normal in the evenings out in the desert, but the winds got so strong that they were pretty scary. Our tent was moving so much that I thought it was about to fall apart. It calmed down after a couple of hours, so there was no need to worry about the night though.

A tent at the desert retreat camp in wahiba sands oman

Instead, we sat down to dinner, which was excellent. The vegetarian option was a soup followed by a vegetable curry, that was a little bit spicy and really delicious after the long day. As it gets dark at 6.30 in Oman, we had been having our dinners at 6 for the last few days, so waiting until 8 was torture!

After dinner, everyone retired to their tents to try to get the sand that the storm had blown in out of the beds. We immediately fell asleep, not bothered by the hard mattresses after several days on the ground.

A slow morning

In the morning, there was a breakfast buffet with daal, bread, yoghurt and lots of different things, definitely something for everyone.

Some people took off for activities, either camel riding or dune bashing, but as we’ve done that in other desert at other times, we were content with another stroll around the desert outside the camp, looking at the camels. In the late morning, we drove ourselves from Wahiba Sands back to Al Wasil, which was a lot easier than going into the desert as all the tyre tracks lead the way. From there we went straight to take a refreshing swim at Wadi Bani Khalid, which is not far at all.

We did see some good spots to camp with a regular tent, but I would still recommend doing the organized camp if you can afford it. It was good to break off the camping with some glamping, and meeting some other people instead of just being isolated outside of the towns. And even though we didn’t ride camels, we still had plenty of time to hang with them in the desert!

The best camping spots in Oman

Are you planning a trip to Oman? Here’s our nine day itinerary

Every day is hump day with the camels at Wahiba sands desert, OmanInto the desert at Wahiba Sands oman
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Jebel Shams and the Balcony Walk

Jebel Shams and the Balcony Walk

Jebel Shams is the mountain top next to Wadi Ghul, also known as the Grand Canyon of Arabia. With spectacular views over the canyon, a cooler climate than at sea level, great camping opportunities and several hiking trails, it’s well worth a visit when you’re in Oman.

Preparing for a camping trip in Oman: all you need to know

How to get there

To get to Jebel Shams, you will need to drive several kilometers on unpaved roads up the hill, which requires a good car. We did see a few 2WD saloon cars up there, and I’ve heard some more reports from people who made it up there without a 4WD so I know it’s possible, but having seen the road conditions, I never would’ve tried. We even passed some people in Jeeps or other great offroad cars on the way up, standing by their cars with the hood up and concerned looks on their faces.

unpaved road still in good condition from Jebel Shams oman

The road is paved at first, then unpaved, then paved again at the end. I thought the drive was quite fun, but also kind of scary as we would sometimes go over a hill and not see where the road was going on the other side. Some guides drive up there way too fast, but there were plenty of places where I could just stop by the side to let them pass in a cloud of dust.

Where to sleep on Jebel Shams

We were camping, and there are such amazing camping spots up there! This is the one place we camped where we saw plenty of other campers, but the area is so big that it doesn’t get crowded.

camping spot between rocks on jebel shams oman

See our guide for driving directions to the best camping spots in north Oman, including several on Jebel Shams

There also seemed to be groups with guides camping up there, so I think you can find a tour that will provide you with all the equipment needed if you don’t want to camp for the whole trip but still enjoy waking up to these amazing views.

tiny tent and car from a distance at jebel shams oman

If you’re just not a camper, there are also two hotels up there, Jebel Shams Resort and Sama Heights Resort. We had lunch at the latter and took a look around, and they seemed to have a range of accommodation, as well as a good restaurant.

Walking the Balcony trail

Our highlight was the hiking trail W6, also known as the Balcony Walk, that goes from the village of Khateem to the abandoned village of As Sab, and then back. To get from Jebel Shams Resort and the camping spots to the start of the trail, drive on the sand road that starts at the resort until you get to a parking lot and a tiny village. The trail starts from there and goes along the inside of the canyon.

The hiking trail is well marked on the balcony walk jebel shams oman

The trail is quite narrow, two people can meet in most places but not more than that, and it goes along the edge of the cliff so you’ll have to pay attention to where you put your feet. That’s easier said than done with views like that. This is easily one of the most scenic hikes I’ve ever done.

We started just after 8 in the morning and it took us about an hour and a half to reach the old houses at As Sab, with some short breaks on the way. When we reached the end, there were already lots of people resting, and annoyingly some guides who were playing music on their phones.

On the way back, we learned that we’d slowly been going down the whole way there without noticing, and the return was so much more strenuous with a bit of a climb, a higher temperature, and more tired legs.

It was a really, really nice hike though, and I would highly recommend it. It’s not a very difficult one, but it’s not easy either, and I think people who have difficulties with their balance will struggle, both physically and mentally.

Planning a trip to Oman? Here’s our 9 day self-drive itinerary!

Jebel shams and the balcony walk goats OmanHiking the balcony walk on Jebel Shams, Oman
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Our Oman itinerary for nine days

Our Oman itinerary for nine days

Oman might not be the obvious tourist destination yet, but it’s definitely up and coming. Its proximity to Europe makes it the perfect winter destination for those in need of some sunlight, and the mix of desert, mountains and beaches in a relatively small area means that you can see many of the main attractions in just a week. Here’s our Oman itinerary for nine days spent in the north of the country. We could easily have stayed twice as long and seen the south as well!

Read our extensive guide to all you need to know when preparing for a camping trip in Oman

Our Oman itinerary

Day 1: A stopover in Doha, Qatar

The skyline at the corniche in Doha Qatar on a qatar airways layover tour

On the first day, or technically on the way there, we found ourselves with a lot of time on our hands at the airport in Doha, the capital of Qatar. We spent a few hours touring the city with Qatar Airways’ transit tour and got to see a few landmarks, as well as get a taste of the daytime temperatures on the Arabian Peninsula.

We arrived in Muscat in the evening, picked up our car at the airport and drove across town to the hotel we had booked for the night. We chose Mutrah Hotel in the older part of town, which incidentally is the oldest hotel in Muscat. I was a bit nervous about driving an unfamiliar car through an unfamiliar city after dark, so the location close to the main roads as well as a name that people we’d ask would know seemed reassuring. In the end, it all went really well. I won’t say that driving in Muscat at night is a walk in the park, but we lived.

The hotel was also really nice, the room was very large and very clean, and we were greeted with a mango juice by some very pleasant men at reception. After the long journey, the drive and finally backing the giant rental car into an awkward parking spot, I slept really well. In the morning we had the hotel breakfast buffet, which was pretty pricey at 4 OMR and honestly was nothing special. In retrospect we should’ve gone across the road to the SPAR supermarket instead.

Day 2: The roadtrip begins – Muscat to Sharfat al Alamein

Driving in Muscat in daylight was possibly more frightening than at night, but we made it to the Carrefour for the initial shopping trip before going on the roadtrip. We needed some gear, such as camping gas and something to sit on, having brought most we would need from home. We also needed a stash of food and water for the trip, which was exciting as we didn’t know at all what would be available. Turns out that store has pretty much anything you can imagine.

Just after noon we headed out on the expressway toward Nizwa. The road seemed very new and outside of Muscat there weren’t that many cars on the road. We drove for a few hours and made a quick stop in Nizwa. The souk was closed for the afternoon, so after a quick stroll around the area we got back in the car, away from the heat, and continued past Tanuf up on Sharfat al Alamein, just as the sun began to go down.

camping spot in sharfat al alamein oman

We camped near one of the viewpoints just below the top of the mountain, and in the morning we saw some spots that were possibly nicer, farther away from the road, but on the other hand windier.

The best camping spots in Oman, and how to find them

Day 3: A mountain hike, Jibrin fort, a look at Bahla and up on Jebel Shams

In the morning we had breakfast and packed up the tent. Some curious goats approached to look for things left behind, but I think they were disappointed. We were right at the start of a hiking trail that goes from the highest point of the road along the ridge, and we walked for about an hour past the viewpoints of the trail before turning back toward the road as the temperature started to rise.

The main attraction this day was Jibrin Castle, by many considered the best fort to visit in Oman. We had turned down a visit to the fort in Nizwa the day before as we learned that the entrance fee for foreigners was 5 OMR. In Jibrin, they only charged 500 baisa.

Jibrin castle supposedly the best fort should be part of any Oman itinerary

The fort in Jibrin is pretty big, and an audio guide in several languages is included in the entrance fee. We strolled around the different rooms and learned quite a bit about the former owners and the architecture. We were also lucky to leave just as several tour groups arrived, so I would recommend going before noon to beat the crowd.

In the early afternoon we started driving back toward the mountains, this time up on Jebel Shams. The road is only paved for part of the way, so we were really happy to have a good 4WD to go up the steep hills. We found a good camping spot very close the the canyon rim and had a couple of hours to admire the view before sunset.

camping spot between rocks on jebel shams oman

Day 4: The balcony hike and some relaxing time on Jebel Shams

We woke up early and went to the nearby village of Al Khateem to start the Balcony walk, a hiking trail that goes along the rim of the canyon. The views were spectacular, and I had to really make an effort to look where I was going, because the trail is very narrow and I didn’t want to fall into the canyon.

The hiking trail is well marked on the balcony walk jebel shams oman

When we got back it was around noon, and as we had decided to spend another night on the mountain, we drove down to Sama Heights Resort to have lunch. We had a look around the hotel, which looked really nice, with several different types of accommodation, ranging from tents to pretty sweet bungalows. We had egg burgers, which we really enjoyed, and they sold us some water bottles because as always on this trip, we were running out of water.

In the afternoon, we found a place to camp and set up our tent, then spent the rest of the day just relaxing.

More about Jebel Shams and the Balcony walk

Day 5: Into the desert

where the road ends and desert starts in wahiba sands Oman

We left the mountain in the morning for the long drive toward the desert. On the way, we made another stop in Nizwa to see the souk in action. What a difference! We didn’t do any shopping, but had a mint lemonade in the shade, just watching the people and the live animals of the souk.

We continued driving toward Al Wasil, our goal for the day, watching the landscape change as we got closer to the desert. We even saw a dead camel by the road! We had booked a night with Desert Retreat Camp in Wahiba Sands, and met up with our guide at a gas station in Al Wasil to be escorted through the desert out to the camp. Driving on the sand was so much fun.

A tent at the desert retreat camp in wahiba sands oman

In the evening, we hung out with the camels, climbed the dunes around the camp, and had an excellent dinner. Staying in the camp also offered us a rare chance to shower, but we were immediately hit by a sandstorm so I’m not sure it really helped much.

All about our stay in Wahiba Sands

Day 6: Swimming in Wadi Bani Khalid and driving to the coast

After a morning walk in the desert to take even more pictures of camel babies, we packed up and drove off toward the paved roads. We went to Wadi Bani Khalid, a wadi where you can swim in a really beautiful setting. We spent most of the day there, swimming and relaxing in the shade. Coming down from the mountains means the temperatures will be higher.

More on how to visit Wadi Bani Khalid

Swimming at wadi bani khalid in Oman

In the afternoon, we drove toward the coast and set up camp in Qalhat, a town near Sur that was apparently a bit more happening in the 2nd century than it is now.

Day 7: A morning in Sur and finally some beach time

In the morning, we drove back to Sur. We strolled down the corniche and saw the lighthouse, then went to visit the fort. This fort is a lot smaller than the one in Jibrin, but it barely had any other visitors, and we got a guided tour of a few rooms, then got to stroll around on our own. I’d recommend it if you’re in Sur anyway, but it’s not worth going there to see it.

We’d seen a mall on the way into town, so we went there for some air conditioning and to shop for more food. It feels weird to come inside like that after a week of living outside.

camping spot near white beach between fins and tiwi oman

In the afternoon, we drove a bit up north along the coast to the beaches between Fins and Tiwi, and found a great spot to both swim and spend the night.

Day 8: Hiking Wadi Shab and drove to As Sifah beach near Muscat

We went to Wadi Shab, quite near Tiwi, which is another wadi popular with tourists and clearly signposted from the road. It costs 1 OMR to cross the first pool in a boat, and then the hiking trail starts on the other side. We walked for maybe a half hour before reaching some pools. There were lots of people swimming but it was a bit unclear whether this was allowed, and we were happy just resting in the shade for a bit before returning. The wadi is really beautiful, it looks like the mountain just opened itself up for us to go inside.

All about the visit to Wadi Shab

Hiking at wadi shab Oman

From there we drove northward for several hours to the beach town of As Sifa, very close to Muscat, where we had planned to spend the last night. It took us some time to find a beach away from other people, but we finally did and had a last swim in the sea.

Day 9: Visiting the mosque and the souk in Muscat before going home

We left the beach early in the morning and drove into Muscat to visit the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque which is open to visitors in the morning. It’s a beautiful building, and we spent some time looking at the elaborate decorations.

Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque in Muscat Oman

After that, we went to the Mutrah souk for some souvenir shopping, since this was our last day in Oman. The souk was very busy with both tourists and locals, and we wandered around the maze-like alleys for hours. We bought some great shawls, and dates and other sweets to take home.

All about our one day in Muscat

Then the time had come to return the car to the airport and leave Oman. We never felt stressed or rushed, even though we did a lot in a short time, and I think that was thanks to the rental car that allowed us to stop and go as we liked without a schedule.

How to travel Oman on a budget

9 days in Oman a self-drive and camping itinerary
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