Muscat feels very different from other popular Gulf cities. Dubai and Abu Dhabi, for example, are all shining skyscrapers and shopping malls, glittering temples to excess. But Muscat, the capital of Oman, stands for completely different values: tradition, history, restraint.
Although the country is far from lagging economically, it is deeply conservative and has always placed an emphasis on careful, controlled development. So Muttrah, the old waterfront part of Muscat, has been painstakingly preserved, presenting a blend of traditional architecture and rugged natural beauty that many visitors find enchanting.
Muscat couldn’t be in a more beautiful setting. The old part of the town, hemmed in by terracotta-colored mountains, spans a graceful waterfront. Its corniche is flanked by a 16th-century hilltop fort at either end, remnants of the time the Portuguese occupied Oman, protecting their trade routes to the east. As well as the cruise ships, container ships and private yachts that moor there, old-fashioned wooden dhows (sailing ships) potter around the busy harbor. Try to get up early at least one day of your visit; the sight of the mountains turning pink while the early-morning call to prayer echoes across the old rooftops is unforgettable.
Modern Muscat sprawls out behind the mountains, away from the sea, but for independent exploration, the old part of the city is easily walkable and safe; it’s there that you’ll find the winding alleys of the souk, or market. Beyond the city, there are tours into the mountains and wadis (dried-up riverbeds) for 4×4 rides along the coast to visit fishing villages or inland to explore some of the medieval forts.
The Muttrah Corniche that sweeps around the edge of the harbor is the center of all activity, especially on a Friday night after evening prayers, when locals take to the streets to promenade, meet friends, eat and drink coffee. By day, there are frequent shady places to rest, and the whole promenade is lined with cafes and restaurants, some with outdoor seating.
The breathtaking Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque in the modern part of town is a feature of every city tour. If you go independently, it’s open to non-Muslims every morning except Friday. The dimensions and the detail are awe-inspiring: 20,000 worshipers; acre upon acre of cool, white and grey marble reflecting the harsh sun; an exquisite Persian carpet in the main hall that took 27 months to hand-weave; chandeliers bearing thousands of crystals; and tranquil gardens with tropical flowers and splashing fountains. It’s essential to dress modestly to enter the mosque — women must cover absolutely everything, including their heads, while men won’t be allowed in wearing shorts or with uncovered arms.
A trip to the mountains presents a different face of Oman, bumping in a 4×4 along dusty riverbeds between towering cliffs of red sandstone, stopping to swim in deep, crystal-clear wadi pools and picnicking under shady trees at lunchtime. There are countless tour operators in Muscat offering this tour to travelers, and they all follow much the same itinerary. See 4WD tours from Viator.
Head inland and tour some of the ancient forts built by the Portuguese. Nizwa is the old capital of the interior and offers the unlikely combination of a solid, 17th-century fortress with an enormous tower and sweeping views of the desert and mountains. There’s also a new, air-conditioned souk. This is the place to buy dates, herbs and spices, silver daggers and Bedouin jewelry. It’s also the place to inspect, rather than take home, fresh fish. Viator offers various tours of the forts of Nizwa.
Oman is known for its whale- and dolphin-watching; the sea is deep and clean, with an abundance of food sources, so the chances of a sighting are good within relatively close distance of Muscat. Numerous Muscat-based tour operators offer this trip to independent travelers, but always check that your operator conforms to the guidelines suggested by the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society, which help protect the wildlife. Viator offers several options.
Separate trips feaure snorkeling on the coral reefs, combined with a spell at a beach resort. All the beach resorts are located out of town (there are no swimming beaches in Muscat itself), and a typical tour involves a boat trip with snorkeling, followed by beach time at one of the resort hotels. You can purchase refreshments from the hotels, as well. Although Oman is a conservative country, normal swimwear is acceptable on the beaches within the confines of the resorts, although sunbathing topless is a definite no.
Take a private tour to the Wahiba Sands, the desert landscape of movies: rolling dunes, green oases and camels galore. Overnight in a Bedouin camp or in a hotel. See Wahiba Sands tours from Viator.
It’s also possible, on a separate trip, to overnight at Sur, famous for its turtle nesting grounds, and embark on a turtle-watching vigil at night as the females come ashore to lay their eggs. Contact an Oman specialist like Panorama Tours for this.
Typical Omani cuisine comprises grilled meats served in a variety of ways (marinated in yogurt or buttermilk, or spiced with cardamom, onion, garlic or lime) with perfumed rice and flatbreads. Main courses are preceded by assorted salads and dips. There’s also a strong Indian influence, and Muscat has some excellent and contemporary Indian restaurants.
For a quick taste of local culture, try Omani coffee (kahwa), served strong and thick, flavored with cardamom. The bitterness is offset by the accompanying sticky and sweet halwa, a confection made with dates, honey, sugar, nuts and spices.
The corniche is lined with cafes and restaurants offering everything from traditional mathpe (barbecued meat) and rice to freshly squeezed fruit juices. High-class cuisine is available downtown, but you’ll need to take a taxi. Omanis are just as likely to eat out in a five-star hotel as in a local restaurant, and most of the hotels have numerous venues.
Kurkum offers modern Indian cuisine with Omani and other Asian flavors. You’ll find dim sum, salads, meat and vegetarian curries, fresh fruit juices and ice cream. It’s on the Muttrah Corniche, just past the souk.
Kargeen Caffe in the Madinat Qaboos area has outdoor dining in a pretty garden of tamarind trees, and it’s air conditioned inside if it’s too hot. The setting is authentic Middle East, complete with hookah pipes and oriental rugs, and food includes Middle Eastern mezes (dips like hummus and garlic bean puree), salads, barbecued meats and even burgers.Al Tanoor, at the Shangri La Bar Al Jissah Resort and Spa, is ideal if you want a bit of Middle Eastern lunch in the setting of a gorgeous beach resort. It’s 15 minutes by cab from Muscat, so you may want to make a day of it and enjoy the beach. There are numerous restaurants at the resort complex, but Al Tanoor is casual and has modern but traditional decor, like dining in a desert tent. The food mixes Omani, Turkish, Iranian and Indian flavors.
Another appealing option is the upscale Beachfront Restaurant at the Chedi, where you can enjoy seafood dishes on a patio that offers sweeping views of the Gulf of Oman. It’s perfect for a special-occasion splurge.
If you need a break from Middle Eastern food for a meal or two, consider the Western dishes (burgers, English breakfast, sandwiches) at D’Arcy’s Kitchen in Madinat Sultan Qaboos. It’s a friendly local favorite.
Shopping in Muscat
Looking for souvenirs? Terracotta incense burners with little fabric bags of frankincense from Salalah in the south of Oman make great gifts. Traditional Omani Khangar daggers or saifs (long swords) look impressive but have to be transported home by air, so make sure you can fit anything you buy into your checked luggage.
The Muttrah Souk, the old Arab market, is part tourist attraction and part old-fashioned shopping mall. You can smell the incense even before you plunge into the narrow alleys, a treasure trove of spices, artifacts, silver daggers, pashmina shawls and all manner of incense burners. It’s open until late in the evening. Compared to other markets you may have visited, the hassle is minimal; although traders by nature, Omanis are gentle and dignified people and will not harass tourists. Do not expect shopkeepers to speak English; sign language works perfectly well when haggling in the souk.
City Centre Muscat offers nearly 150 shops and boutiques in one of the city’s largest malls. You’ll find both familiar Western names (Marks & Spencer, Forever 21) and brands from the Arabic world.
For locally made jewelry, handicrafts and weavings, pay a visit to the Omani Heritage Gallery. It’s a nonprofit organization showcasing the work of Omani artisans, located in the Jawaharat Al-Shatti Complex.
–written by Sue Bryant