Frankincense and more
Easing you into the Middle East
Muscat, the capital of Oman, is a gentle, conservative and welcoming city renowned for its intricate architecture, ancient souqs and spectacular seafood. Little over half a century ago, it was at the heart of a mostly tribal and turbulent country with few paved roads and a largely illiterate, nomadic population. However, unlike some of its brasher neighbours, Muscat’s regeneration into today’s thriving, cosmopolitan city has been handled tastefully, with scant high-rises and many traditional Arabic touches applied to buildings.
Get up to speed on the country’s swift growth, while learning about its tribal and seafaring heritage, with a visit to the National Museum of Oman. Stroll along the Corniche at sunset where you might spy the Sultan’s private yacht moored among the traditional dhows and watch the sea glitter in shades of magenta and orange.
The African island of Zanzibar was once the Omani capital and it’s bestowed a rich culinary heritage upon the city. Sample the best at Bait Al Luban, whose Shuwa (lamb slow roasted in an underground firepit) and kingfish curry are legendary. Catch a show at the state-of-the-art Royal Opera House; resplendent in Italian marble and Burmese teak, it’s home to the world-renowned Royal Oman Symphony Orchestra. Book your flights to Muscat today and be charmed by this effortless introduction to the Middle East.
Muscat holiday FAQs
Make the most of your Muscat holiday
Muscat is wedged between ocean and mountains, offering some excellent trekking in the Hajar Mountains. Try the C38 trail from Riyam Park to step back in time or explore endless expanses of desert in the Empty Quarter (Rub’ al Khali), the world’s largest uninterrupted sand desert.
What are the best things to do in Muscat?
- Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque is perhaps the most extravagant building in the Sultan’s name. This awe-inspiring structure features five minarets, Italian white marble flooring and a 50-metre-high golden dome. Inside you’ll find an 8-tonne Swarovski chandelier and a massive Iranian prayer carpet which took a team of 400 weavers four years to finish. Arrive before 09:00 to beat the crowds, and dress appropriately.
- The Muttrah Souq is one of the Arab world’s oldest marketplaces and is the perfect place to shop for an eclectic range of items, from rare vintage curios and khanjars (ceremonial daggers) to stalls piled high with frankincense, pashminas, leatherware, gold and jewellery. Haggling is practically mandatory, often sweetened by the offer of coffee and dates, though discounts tend to be modest. Bring cash to strike the best deals.
- You can spot turtles surfacing at the coastal resort of Ras Al Jinz, just under four hours’ drive from Muscat, during their annual nesting season between April and August. One of the most important turtle reserves in the Indian Ocean, it’s home to five out of the world’s seven species of sea turtle, with some 20,000 creatures burying their eggs in the sand here.
- The Bait Al Zubair Museum is a treasure trove of Omani national identity. The private museum features a wealth of items accumulated by the Zubair family including silver coffee pots, battle-worn swords, blades inscribed with Qur’anic verses, paintings, old coins, model dhow boats and plenty more.
- Take a peek at the Sultan’s palace. Al Alam Palace is one of the city’s most striking modern buildings. Although access is prohibited to this largely ceremonial residence you can still take in its splendour from the outside. Gawp at its gold and turquoise pillars and magnificent facade, stroll along the avenue of palm trees and snap a selfie at the gates.
Where are the best places to visit in Muscat?
Separated from the rest of Muscat by mountains, Old Muscat is a tiny, historic walled city dominated by government buildings – many of which, with their serene, symmetrical architecture and gorgeous horseshoe arches, are worth seeing from the outside even if you can’t go in. Two imposing forts, Al Mirani and Al Jalaili, stand guard above the grandiose ceremonial home of the Sultan – the Qasr Al Alam Royal Palace. The National Museum, which opened to the public in 2016, tells a comprehensive history of Oman. Check in at Al Bustan Palace – a Ritz-Carlton Hotel, with its impressive lobby fountain and chandelier set in a former palace.
Muttrah, Muscat’s old commercial neighbourhood, is an enticing place to go shopping. Heaps of silver, mounds of frankincense and the odd ceremonial dagger (khangar) glint among clutches of lamps and braces of pottery in Muttrah Souq, while the fish and fruit markets are just along the Corniche, ensuring local restaurants have access to the freshest ingredients – look out for freshly grilled fish on the menus. After a bite to eat, take a sunset stroll along the Corniche to enjoy the area in its best light.
Inland from Muttrah, Ruwi is the modern side of Muscat, and primarily the city’s business district. There are cafes, shops and restaurants, and sizeable Indian and Pakistani expat populations mean you can often find good curry there. The Sheraton Oman is a 5-star hotel that’s convenient for business travellers. Its smart indoor and outdoor pools and fancy restaurants are all top-notch.
With its line-up of nice hotels, a sandy beach and an elegant park, the upmarket seafront neighbourhood of Qurum is a great place to stay. Qurum Beach is a popular spot with locals in the evenings – in the day it’s quiet and well serviced by beach bars. The city’s magnificent Royal Opera House is just around the corner – it’s worth touring even if you don’t fancy its performance programme – and 20 minutes’ drive takes you to the magnificent Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque. If you want to stick around for the night, the Crowne Plaza Muscat is a hilltop hotel with a great infinity pool – or stay on the beach, at the Intercontinental Muscat with views of the sea and the Hajar Mountains.
Drive 150 kilometres out of Muscat, into the foothills, and you’ll find the city of Nizwa. Once Oman’s capital, it holds a traditional livestock market and has a historic fort. From there it’s a short drive up to Jebal Akhdar (Green Mountain). The cooler temperatures – in the low teens in winter – aren’t the only reason to stay: the luxury Anantara Al Jabal Al Akhdar is an amazing resort that lures plenty of visitors from the city. Twin it with somewhere on the coast, like the excellent Shangri-La Al Husn Resort & Spa, for two ways to experience luxurious Omani hospitality.
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