The Muscat Rundown
The most obvious and conspicuous plus the capital of Oman has going for it is that it seems, at first glance and upon deeper analysis, blithely atypical for the Arabian Peninsula. Consider the neighbourhood Muscat (Masqat) is in. Mere hours away, the incandescent, sci-fi skylines of Abu Dhabi and Dubai beckon. Farther afield, westward, lie Persian Gulf capitals with similar aspirational desires. Yet despite the regional peer pressure, Muscat has not made showy strides to mimic Manama, Kuwait City or Doha, let alone the United Arab Emirates.
Not that the premier Omani city is bereft of modern developments. A slate of ambitious projects, from the usual malls and resorts to Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque and the new home of the Oman National Museum, emphatically establish that Muscat is very much part of the new Arab renaissance. Yet the pervasive feel and texture of the capital city feels a lot more august than any telecommunications towers or spillover traces from the U.A.E.
In this regard, Muscat has more in common, perhaps, with enclaves across the Arabian Sea on the Indian subcontinent. The city of 1 million people, after all, is closer to Mumbai than Jeddah. Whatever the case, Muscat has a definable character; a patent byproduct of a history that exceeds 6,000 years. Traditional architecture is everywhere in the Omani capital, with overt nuances in even the sleekest new additions to the venerable cityscape. Geography plays a notable part in Muscat’s allure and, indeed, very existence as well, from the shelter of the Western Al Hajjar Mountains to the city’s two protective, natural harbours on the Gulf of Oman. All in all, Muscat is a foremost capital of culture that consistently captivates contemporary travellers.
Muscat’s Top 10
10. Museum of Omani Heritage serves up a healthy dose of eclectic, historic artefacts.
5. Mutrah Fort is a late 16th century Portuguese citadel that offers terrific views of the sea.
9. Bait al Zubair is a heritage house with exhibits of pristine period furniture, handicrafts and various household items.
4. Sultan’s Armed Forces Museum is much more than a cold repository of military relics and propaganda.
8. Oman Natural History Museum unveils impressive displays of endemic flora and fauna.
3. Al Dhalam Suq in Muttrah is the capital’s traditional marketplace par excellence.
7. Qurm Park is a magnificent oasis and pulse point in Muscat.
2. Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque is impressive by any standard. The enormous temple complex can accommodate up to 20,000 adherents at a time.
6. Omani-French Museum is a handsome joint effort by Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said and late President of France François Mitterrand to chronicle historic relations between the two nations.
1. Oman National Museum is the best museum in the capital, thanks to a major overhaul in 2011.
- Al Jalali Fort and Al Mirani Fort - Originally built as prisons in 1580 during the Portuguese occupation.
- Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque - This third-largest mosque in the world has the second-largest handmade Persian carpet in the world.
- Qasr Al Alam Royal Palace - This beautiful palace overlooking a natural deep-water harbour is the office of the Ruler of Oman.
- Bait Al Baranda Museum - The history museum showcases Muscat’s history.
- Old Muscat Walls and Gates - Although Muscat has modernised over the last four decades, its old walls and gates are still preserved as heritage.
Muscat Art & Culture
- Bait az-Zubair Museum - This museum showcases Omani social history.
- The Cornice - This pedestrian-friendly area has shops, mosques, lots of street arts, beautiful views, hotels and many shady rest areas.
- Sultan’s Armed Forces Museum - This museum will give you an insight into the political and military development of Oman.
- Muscat International Airport - It is being designed as the largest and finest airports in the world.
- Enlightened Water Fountain - Located halfway between Mutrah and Old Muscat, this picturesque fountain is a romantic site, especially in the evening.
- Mutrah Souq - The traditional market is quite interesting and covered with roof overhead to protect from heat.
- Muscat City Centre Mall - The biggest and best shopping centre that houses 144 retail outlets and 20 restaurants.
- Muscat Duty Free Shop - This is the best-stocked shop in the world with the widest range of perfumes, jewellery, food, chocolate and several other items.
- Carrefour Shopping Centre - This is a big shopping centre in the Seeb area with big Carrefour supermarket and many branded shops.
- Bhaja Shopping Mall - This is a new shopping mall with three floors of shops.
Gay & Lesbian Muscat
- Al Ghazal Pub - The best bar in Muscat visited by a large number of expats and quite a few locals.
- Shangri La’s Piano Lounge - It has a fancy indoor area housing a huge bar and live piano performances.
- John Barry Bar - Great decoration, wooden covered floors and magnificent piano performance accompanied by a saxophone player and excellent drinks and food.
- Copacabana - Nightclub that meets international standards with a variety of music from hip-hop to Arabic to African.
- Shati Al Qurm - The place to enjoy champagne cocktails, dancing and music.
- Kalbuh Bay Park - Nice place for an evening stroll by the sea full of sardines.
- Bahla - This is the ancient town near the picturesque village of Al Hamra.
- Jebel Akhdar - The picturesque terraced villages are worth a visit.
- Mirani Fort - Hiking and walking to this fort can be fun.
- Watch Tower - Walk over the track around the hill to get to the watchtower.
- Dive in the shallow waters off Bandar Al Jassa dive sites.
- Jog or run along Al Bahri road when it’s not too hot.
- Enjoy snorkelling or dolphin watching at one of the beaches.
- Head to yacht clubs for scuba diving.
- Rent a jet ski at Shatti Qurum beach and enjoy jet skiing.
The capital of Oman contains several districts of note.
Ruwi is the principal commercial and business node of Muscat. The old neighbourhood has made way for myriad new developments over the last decade and is a vital core precinct in the city.
Muttrah is technically a separate city of 150,000 people within Muscat province. Few make the distinction, however, as it resides a short distance from Ruwi and the capital proper. Before Oman’s oil boom, Muttrah was the de facto commercial nexus in the country. The seaport area is laden with scenic, corniche charm and exotic Incense Road aromas waft in the old suq and bazaar. Muttrah is Oman’s primary maritime hub and trade link with the Persian Gulf, South Asia and East Africa.
Other coastal suburbs of Muscat include Al Qurum Heights, Al Khuwair, Al Seeb. Darsait, Mina Al Fahal, and Ras Al Hamar.
Muscat Eat & Drink
The culinary landscape of Oman is a rich, spice-laden fusion of foods familiar to the Asian and Middle Eastern palate. Restaurants in the capital evince the best of Omani national cuisine and, indeed, continental European, South Asian and East African tastes as well.
D’Arcy’s Kitchen (Shatti Al Qurum) serves a mean English breakfast and has enviable digs near the beach. Very popular with the expat set.
Al-Boom (Muttrah Corniche), across from Muscat’s vibrant Fish Market, is a perpetual breakfast hangout for fishmongers and tourists alike.
Automatic Restaurant (various) is a no-nonsense Lebanese chain with affordable, delicious staples like kebabs and falafel.
Mumtaz Mahal (Way 2601, Qurm) commands a dramatic view over the Al Qurm Nature Reserve and probably serves the best Mughlai cuisine in town. Live sitar performances and authentic décor completes the experience.
Khargeen Café (Madinat Al Sultan Qaboos) is a breezy Arabian coffeehouse with a convivial vibe and tantalizing list of sweet and savoury snacks.
Restaurant (Al-Ghubrah Chedi Hotel) is one of the most sophisticated, multilayered fine dining options in Muscat.
Meknes Restaurant (Al-Khuwair Slip Rd) delivers a memorable Moroccan-inspired tajine fix.
Kurkum (Muttrah Corniche) is a branché bet for elegant Indian.
Tche Café (Shatti Beach, Qurm) charges a premium for singular seafront views but delivers on the food and beverage front.
Al-Kiran Terrace (Al-Bustan) is a must for a delectable and generous Friday brunch.
Muscat has a humble array of annual events above and beyond the holidays and festivals on the Islamic calendar.
The Muscat Festival dominates the cultural scene in the city and, indeed, in Oman as well. Held in January and February, the festival celebrates Omani culture, history and heritage. A parade of colourful events highlight the international showcase, from concerts to fashion shows, workshops to arts and crafts markets.
The Dubai-Muscat Regatta takes place in January and draws international competitors to the Straits of Hormuz.
Sinbad Classic is the premier sportfish event in the Arabian Peninsula. The IGFA Offshore World Championship qualifier lures some the best anglers in the world to Muscat’s Bandar Al Rowdha Marina every October.
A wide range of extreme, adrenaline rush competitions take place in rugged Oman throughout the year, from the cycle-run endurance test of Oman Adventures to the Oman Desert Express rally race.
In December, the Muscat sky is brilliantly illuminated courtesy of the Oman World Fireworks Championship. Held in the lush confines of Al Qurm Nature Reserve, the event features world class pyrotechnics choreography.
Eid al Fitr marks the end of Ramadan in the Muslim world and falls in either August or September.
On November 18, Oman celebrates National Day, which coincides with the birthday of Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said.
Essential day trips outside of Muscat include a trio of superb Omani UNESCO World Heritage Sites: Bahla Fort and the Oasis of Bahla, the Land of Frankincense in Dhofar Province, and the Archaeological Sites of Bat, Al-Khutm and Al-Ayn in the Al Dhahira region.
When To Go
With conditions that rarely permit temperatures of less than 60°F (17°C), climate-wise Muscat is easily one of the most punitive and ferocious national capitals on the planet. To call Muscat summers hot is a comical understatement. The city is the epitome of a torrid, arid urban environment, with token amounts of precipitation over the course of any given year. In fact, the annual average rainfall is in the 10 mm range, which makes Dubai look like London.
Protection from Muscat’s incessant, year round solar intensity is absolutely critical. The best counsel is to avoid the months of April, June, July, August, September and October altogether, when daytime highs of 93°F (34°C) to 104°F (40°C) are the norm.
There is a reason most state visits and major festivals in Muscat take place in December, January and February. With a temperature range of 63°F (17°C) to 81°F (27°C), conditions are downright balmy - by Oman’s furnace-like standards at least.
What To Miss
Aside from the worst effects of a merciless, inhospitable desert climate, visitors to Muscat need not worry too much about personal safety or security. On the whole, Oman is very hospitable as a tourism destination on the rise and evinces none of the infamous troubles or political volatility of neighbour Yemen, for example. As a nice balance between traditional and progressive, Muscat is a city where visitors who respect local culture and customs can feel comfortable and at home.
The Muttrah suq is a fun place to visit but, as is the case with any busy marketplace anywhere in the world, caveat emptor. Some of the goods on display may not be native-made Omani products. Be especially careful with handicrafts, frankincense and jewellery. When a particular item strikes your fancy, do not haggle for it in a rude, dishonest or arrogant fashion. Manners and decorum matter in Muscat, especially in business transactions. Another suq tip: the merchants within the deeper recesses of the market offer the best deals.
Many tourists stay in Muscat for a week or more and rent a vehicle to get outside the city and see Oman. If you do so, go with a local rental company in the capital and not one at the international airport. Visitors who forego a rental car in favour of a tour operator should be vigilant as well. Rates for popular, otherwise easy, do-it-yourself day trips can be borderline astronomical.
Muscat International Airport, formerly Seeb International Airport, is the only global hub in Oman and the headquarters of domestic carrier Oman Air. The airport is about 30 km from Muttrah and offers service to a host of major destinations in South Asia, the Arabian Peninsula and East Africa, in addition to London-Heathrow.
ONTC, the national bus company, provides regular and comfortable intercity transport within Oman, as well as to and from Dubai and Abu Dhabi, from the central station in Ruwi.
In Muscat, baisa buses/minivans offer affordable, omnipresent transport. Single female tourists should not, as a rule however, climb aboard, as it violates Omani social mores. Without any viable public transport system, taxis rule the road in the capital. Negotiate fares in advance but do so with respect in order to avoid total banishment (drivers tend to know each other and gossip about boorish traveller behaviour). As lunch is the main meal in Oman and because of the intense midday sun, the roads in Muscat clear out in the afternoon. It may be more difficult to hail a cab between 1pm and 4pm as a result. Furthermore, few taxis cruise the streets after 11pm.
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