Wedged between the gulf of Oman and the Al Hajar Mountains, Muscat is considered one of the smallest capitals in the world and is made up of a few towns connected along the coast to form Greater Muscat.
Once you leave the brand new airport terminal, you will immediately notice the amount of structural development which is being driven by the Sultan’s modernisation programme. The city has so far managed to sustain a mixture of traditional and contemporary – buildings can’t be higher than 8 storeys and must be white or cream. Decoration must have an Arabic motif. Despite the sprouting of western chain stores and hotels, the city is still exotic.
There are not many must see attractions – a day will do it. There are resort hotels should you wish to stay for a few days. We spent our last 3 nights at the Crowne Plaza which has its own beach area at the end of Qurm Beach.
Public transport isn’t great and taxis are expensive. If you are staying for a while then it might be worth renting a car at the airport – hotel parking is free and the city is easy to navigate. The best public option is the shared taxi. We didn’t confine ourselves to tourist areas and found the city clean and very safe.
Worth a visit? If you live in the gulf then it would make for a nice weekend destination. For everyone else, it wouldn’t offer enough on its own but is well worth including in your itinerary if you’re travelling to Oman.
We spent 2 nights at the beginning and 3 at the end of our trip and the following were my city highlights:
Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque
The seemingly plain exterior as seen from the distance belies the stunning detail of this beautiful monument. Only open since 2001 after 6 years construction and with its 5 minarets representing the 5 pillars of Islam, it can hold up to 20,000 worshippers. As you approach through manicured gardens and dazzling marble courtyards, the detail is breathtaking – and you still haven’t seen inside!
This is the only mosque in Oman that is open to non muslims. You can visit up until 11.00am each morning except Fridays. There is no admission cost but there is a strict dress code – men must wear long trousers and cover the shoulders, women must cover arms, legs and hair.
The complex includes women’s musalla (prayer hall), men’s musalla, purification rooms, an Islamic centre and a library with over 20,000 books. Built with Indian sandstone and Italian marble, it incorporates Omani, Islamic and modern design.
The walls are inscribed with Islamic art and Quran scriptures.
You can just wander and admire the painted tiles, mosaics, carved wooden doors and French stained glass windows.
The women’s prayer hall holds 750 (most women pray at home).
The main musalla holds up to 6000 worshippers.
A total of 600 Iranian women worked for 4 years on the Persian carpet. (It was the largest hand woven carpet in the world but apparently someone from the Emirates came and measured it and there is now a larger one in Abu Dhabi mosque!)
The main Swarovski chandelier has over 1000 lights and is about 8 metres in diameter. (This also held the record as the biggest in the world but has since lost the title to Qatar!)
As souqs go, the experience here is more pleasant than others we’ve visited. Originally built with mud and palm leaves, concrete shops and timber roofing were introduced in the 1970’s but this doesn’t take in any way from the authentic experience. Alleys are wide and on both our visits – morning and night time – there were no crowds. Its not very big so you can’t really get lost but even if you did stray, people are helpful and will direct you towards the exits. Yes the traders will invite you into their shops but they don’t hassle. A few items were priced but bargaining is expected.
While there is plenty of merchandise aimed at visitors, this is not a market just for the tourist. There are hardware stores selling everything you can imagine. There are fabric shops and toy shops. Women can buy colourful dresses or the long black abaya. Men can kit themselves from head to toe in Omani traditional attire – the kuma (hat), dishdasha (shirt dress), sandals and finish off the look with a khanjar (dagger).
Frankincense, which is sold for burning or for dissolving into a tea, is everywhere as well as burners. There are gold and silver souqs. There are hookah pipes, palm baskets and honey. There are thousands of scarves, shawls and pashminas of every quality and price. There are furry camels, t – shirts and other souvenirs. With the King’s Birthday coming up on November 18th, stalls were laden with white, green and red merchandise for the national holiday.
If it gets too much for you, there are plenty of options around for coffee, juice or something to eat. Back outside, you can enjoy a walk along the Corniche and enjoy the other attractions in the area – the watchtower, fort, park museum and fish market (if you’re early) and the Sultan’s ‘yacht’ in the harbour.
Beyond Mutrah corniche lies Old Muscat which is separated from the rest of the city by mountains. Until the mid 20th century, the city gates were closed 3 hours after dusk and anyone out and about after that had to carry a lantern. You can visit the National Museum here or just wander about.
This is where the Sultan built his blue and gold palace. Its not open to the public but you can peep through the gates!
The smaller Bayt al Zubair museum has lots of heritage displays and gives a good background in Omani history and culture.
You can see the original city walls.
The beautiful buildings offer shade from the sun
At the water’s edge you can see the forts built by the Portuguese during their occupation.
You can head into the hills for a panoramic view.
A supermarket you say! There was a branch of Lulu’s just around the corner from our first hotel – the Park Inn – so we found ourselves there on the Saturday night, stocking up before taking to the road the following morning.
Firstly, it was mad – imagine your big Christmas shopping – that’s what we were met with. We checked back at the hotel to see if any particular event was looming – no – seems it was just Saturday night! (In the interest of research – and more hummus and dates – we returned on the following Friday and Sunday – the Friday was just as busy – Sunday was a bit quieter).
Secondly, I don’t think I’ve ever been in a supermarket with so many massive ‘no photography’ signs everywhere. So no photos..
Ah – the produce! So many varieties of dates and hummus. Spices, fish, cheese. Breads, cakes and biscuits. Indian fruits and veg we’d never heard of – (even in India!). Massive sacks of rice and flour. Curries and stews bubbling away at the hot counter….
Shopping in here is a family event and with all the excitement and buzz you’d be forgiven for thinking you were at a Disney park. You could stand and just watch forever but obviously such intrusion is not exactly appreciated.
A few snapshots for you as I have no photos:-
As we walked through the fruit and veg we noticed a gorgeous toddler sitting in the trolley eating a pear – so impressed with his parents giving him such a healthy snack until we saw him put it back on the display – he had taken several bites out of at least 4 pears as his parents came and went putting stuff in the trolley – not a word!
Close by, a boy – I’d reckon 9 or 10 years old, was sitting in the main body of the trolley playing with a plastic bag pulled tightly over his head – again, neither parent reacted as they came and went.
At the checkout, a man watched the bag packer struggle to fit the shopping back into the trolley – as his daughter – at least 7 years old – sat in the middle and the poor guy packed the stuff around her!
A man standing beside me suddenly started stamping his foot wildly on the floor – I screamed and jumped away assuming it was a giant bug – he was trying to trap a little bouncy ball that his son had dropped! The whole family was mortified with all attention I drew upon them.
The express lanes at the checkouts were not in use so people with 3 items in their hands patiently stood in queues with shoppers who had 3 trolley loads. Nobody lost their tempers. Everyone just accepted it as I fumed on their behalf (silently of course)!
Sorry! Getting carried away here! Did I mention that the place was great!!
Friday Brunch at the Chedi
We missed out on Friday brunch when in Dubai a few years back so now we had a chance to make up for it and where better than at the Chedi – we can do posh when we try!
The hotel is impressive but not a place I’d actually be comfortable staying in. I’d have to buy new luggage and a whole new wardrobe for starters.
But the buffet! Amazing. I just wish I could have eaten every single thing. We went as slowly as we could and took very small portions but really couldn’t do justice to it.
There are 3 price categories which your waiter outlines when you are seated:
-Water and juice OMR 26 (€60)
-Prosecco OMR 40 (€92)
-Selected wines, etc. OMR 60 (€138)
We were happy to opt for water and juice. The juices of course are fabulous and I was proud of my healthy option as I gorged through the afternoon!
Needless to say, taking photos was not the done thing so I had to sneak a few at the table!
(Fabulous sushi bar)
(Mango salad, spring roll, lobster salad, prawns)
(Beef done to your liking)
(Sampling the ragouts – Snapper Chickpea and Iranian Lamb Aubergine)
(Lemon and Mint was my favourite!)
I have one question for the stunning stick insect couple who happily built their salads at the Caesar Salad Station – WHY ARE YOU IN HERE?
Grilled Fish at the Turkish House Restaurant
We were told that we really had to go to this place and order the grilled fish. About a half hour walk from our hotel and set in an alley behind a row of shops and restaurants that is well away from any tourist area, we never would have found it by chance. Our timing was perfect – at 8.30pm the place was jammed but a table became available as we arrived. Within minutes, a queue had formed at the door – a mixture of regulars and tourists.
We were unsure about what to order having assumed there would be one line on the menu stating ‘grilled fish’! There were several options – some referring to the catch of the day which was sold by weight – (that always makes me nervous!). We asked our waiter what they were eating at the next table – it was red snapper which was actually on most tables and he reckoned that for the 2 of us it would cost OMR 6-7 (€14 -€16) and is served with bread. Happy with that, we ordered a small meze and juices.
The bread arrived with the meze – at least half a metre in length and freshly baked. We barely had room for the fish when it arrived, perfectly cooked.
How was it? Well we went back a few days later and ordered the exact same thing!