Sur is a coastal city two hours south of the capital of Oman, Muscat. Very much a product of its serene location by the ocean, the town was an important trading port and is still known for making traditional wooden dhows in its shipyards. When approaching Sur, the turquoise-coloured sea and golden beaches invite travellers to get off the highway and relax into the friendly native ambience. Local expert Erin Coyle introduces us to this maritime gem.
After a visitor arrives in my city, I always recommend going straight to the watchtower in Al Ayjah because, from its elevated vantage point, visitors can see the city with its white square homes, the main bridge, and the wooden dhows in the water. Sunset is one of my favourite times to go, because there’s something so calming about the sun setting while hearing the call to prayer from a dozen mosques.
Another place to visit in the area is the lighthouse. You can walk from the tower to the lighthouse because it is also in Al Ayjah, one of the oldest neighbourhoods. It should take about fifteen minutes or less to get there.
The best time to be here is between November and January. That’s when the winter months are cooler, with daytime temperatures averaging 20-25 degrees Celsius, making it pleasant for walking around. This time of the year is the high tourism season for Oman, but Sur itself will be more relaxed, so there will only be a few crowds. It is still fine to come in other months, but keep in mind that June-September temperatures will be over 40 degrees.
I tell first-time travellers to dress modestly and that they will not have to worry about safety. Dressing modestly is essential for those planning to swim in wadis (pools of water). Locals will appreciate it if guests have their shoulders and knees covered. Oman is one of the safest countries, so if you leave your belongings at a table, they will still be there at the end of the day. I also tell them to avoid taking pictures of people without their permission.
People from here know better than to ignore visitors and not say hello. Instead, they would rather greet guests in a friendly way by saying ‘Salim Alikum’ and welcome them to Oman.
The best museum to start your journey and get a good sense of this city is Fatah Al Khair Centre with its traditional Omani ship, because it highlights Sur’s oceangoing history. The old fishing vessel, said to be hand-built without using any nails, is dry-docked in the Al Qanjah Boat Yard, as part of the Sur Maritime Museum.
Parents should take their kids to the nearby Dhow Factory because they can see the building of these traditional wooden boats, with a mix of modern and traditional techniques. It will only take about fifteen minutes to walk around the factory itself, but do leave some time to soak up the atmosphere along the way and browse the shop afterwards.
However, if the kids aren’t into woodcraft, go to Al Batah Beach for a boat ride. The boats are to the left of the Khor Al Batah Bridge. Visitors can go to the boats around 4 pm to wait for a ride (there is no number to book ahead). They go out for one hour and along the way, passengers will get a view of the watchtower, lighthouse, and glimpses of the marina.
This area also has kayaks for rent. For information or to book, contact Marine Sports Company at +968 9932-6046 or Elite Sports at +968 9945-1149.
Food From The Heart
Among the food (or dishes) my city is most proud of, shuwa, goat meat cooked underground, is an absolute must. I like to go to Star Raidan to really enjoy it. Order rice with caramelised onions to accompany it.
When we get together to celebrate finishing a walk, enjoying the cooler weather, or meeting friends after a long time, Omani coffee or karak is what people here traditionally drink (karak is black tea with condensed milk and sugar; some places add saffron or cardamom). I like to gather my friends and go to Tea Time or any tea or coffee shop across the street from the corniche.
When I eat completely local, I will go to Al Bait Al Suri restaurant. I know the food here is tasty and fresh. I recommend qabouli, rice with chickpeas and caramelised onions with chicken or beef.
Other classic, iconic restaurants include a real locals’ spot; a fish restaurant near the marina. The nameless sign says ‘restaurant and coffee shop’, but to give you more of a steer, it’s next to Elite Sports. Sometimes, they have kingfish (a type of white fish), tuna curry, or shark. They also have vegetable sides, such as dal.
Also suggested is Zaki. In addition to Omani food, they sell Chinese and Indian dishes. If there is a mixed group of men and women visiting, the restaurant will accommodate by having diners eat upstairs in the family section.
The place where locals come for traditional food is Al Hawash. The restaurant is on the water and has an excellent lighthouse view. I recommend their seafood grills and Arabic breakfast, which includes dishes such as ful (fava beans).
As my city is known for making traditional wooden boats, visitors can buy pocket-size or slightly bigger replicas at the Dhow Factory’s shop. The shop also sells wooden decorative items, such as bowls, carved turtle figures, and doors.
One of the best snack shops in Sur is Golden Luqaimat. Luqaimat is fried sweet dumpling-like dough resembling a doughnut hole. They come plain, with drizzled honey, or stuffed with cheese. This shop makes them fresh, and you’ll encounter locals also buying them. 500 baisa (around $1.3) will get you about eight pieces.
The best markets for things like everyday household items and crafts are Global Village and Sur Gift. To buy real, local souvenirs I always take visitors to the souq; the products are good quality and the vibe is lively at night. Visitors can purchase bahour, a type of incense, and gold and silver. The souq is open from 9 am to noon and 4:30 pm to 11 pm. And we know to avoid buying seashell bracelets because they are overpriced.
Getting Deeper Into Sur
There are only a few books in English about Oman, but ‘Memoirs of an Arabian Princess of Oman and Zanzibar,’ by Emily Said Ruete, is for those who want to learn more about the history of when Oman ruled Zanzibar. This princess of Zanzibar eventually marries a German trader, but she describes palace life, customs, and other happenings.
Most people know about the Dhow Factory but Sunayslah Castle should also be visited because the landmark was once a defence fort with three watchtowers. While there is not any information on display about the castle, it’s enjoyable to walk around and take pictures of the outside storage rooms and towers. Sometimes it’s closed in the afternoon, so I recommend going in the morning between 9 am and noon.
My city is a place people are attracted to because of the sea, the bridge, and the atmosphere. When tourists and locals visit, they comment on how relaxed and peaceful the city is. The bridge is the only suspension bridge in Oman, and at night, the changing colours of red and blue make for some great photos.
To celebrate my city at its best, come in mid-November when the 18th marks the country’s National Day. Some people paint their cars white, red, and green — for the Omani flag — and you may see some traditional dancing inside Carrefour or around Al Ayjah. Even if there is no dancing, November is a cooler month, and it is enjoyable to walk around the city.
Most people think of my city as a place to pass through, but really this is a destination to recharge for a few days. Visitors soon realise this quieter town is a special place to explore in its own right.
This is one of the best places in the world to experience hospitality. Locals are proud of that because they are always friendly and approachable. I have been to weddings, have had Iftar meals in friends’ homes, have celebrated Eid with locals, and have had home-cooked meals.
Getting Around The City
One thing you should know about getting around my city is that there are no buses. However, it is easy to park the car at the corniche and walk around this area and Al Ayjah.
The best way to travel in my city to have as little impact as possible is to drive a car if planning to explore other areas, such as Al Bar, Shiya Beach, and Murtafa, all of which are about fifteen minutes in either direction from Al Ayjah.
Luckily this method of transportation also allows me to stop and investigate when I find something interesting, such as camels walking around.
Outside The City
To get away and into the outdoors, I like to drive 25 minutes to Wadi Tiwi (read more here to find out what makes it unique).
For a day trip just beyond my city, I like to drive along the coast, going south toward Al Ashkara. The sea views on one side, with dunes on the other, make the drive enjoyable. Sometimes, my friends and I will barbeque on the beach at Asilah, about an hour and 20-minute drive before Al Ashkara.
Many people will head to Fins Beach or Wadi Shab, but locals know to go to other secret beaches and wadis that require a four-wheel vehicle. No one else is here, so you can enjoy it with no crowds.
I really enjoy the view of my city from the watchtower because I like seeing the panorama it presents, from the buildings to the bridge to the sea.
Connecting With Locals
When I want to have fun and celebrate being out in my city, I get together with friends for a walk or a meal.
The best resource for finding out what’s going on around town is asking locals. While few organised events may be happening, sometimes a hiking group sets up a local walk or nearby hike (check out Quick Challenge on Instagram for information). To watch the locals play football and volleyball, you’ll find Al Batah Beach busy with activity after 4 pm, making it a fun place to spectate and people watch.
The Rahmani traditional drum is my first choice for music because of the deep sound. And when I want to watch the locals dance, I go to a horse or camel show in Jalan, about an hour and 20 minutes away. The dances can seem like a short story with how they sway and jump around.
Finding Solitude In Sur
When I want to go somewhere to sit and relax in my incredible city, I go to the beach in Al Bar to watch the waves and sometimes read a book.
What makes me proudest of my city is the abundance of fresh seafood. I like going to the fish souq at the marina to buy the day’s fresh catch that’s just come off the boats.
When I want to enjoy my city without spending much (or any) money, I like to walk around and take pictures of traditional wooden doors.
When The Seasons Change, This City Shines
Oman does not experience four seasons. There is summer and winter, then there is Khareef — the rainy season.
I always recommend visitors do whatever’s on their list before 10 am in the summer (March to September/October) because it is too hot to walk around outdoors later in the day.
The winter (November–February) is a great time to be outside and enjoy the cooler weather. More people will be on the beaches having picnics and barbeques in the afternoon and evening.
Khareef season in Sur (June–August) is when locals and tourists can experience the rainy season and the greenery it encourages. Visiting is more expensive during this time, and hotels and guesthouses fill up fast, so book early.