Muscat is the capital and largest city in Oman, but tourists will find that the mundane activity of the busy modern capital is easily forgotten among the exotic delights of bustling markets, cannon-guarded forts, ornate palaces, and the historic city harbour. The once important maritime city underwent a resurgence in the 1970s, when the Sultan Qaboos bin Said began to develop museums, mosques, and palaces. He also worked to restore relics of Muscat's history.
Muscat is made up of three cities grown together: the original walled city of Muscat (home to the royal palaces), the former fishing village of Matrah with its maze-like , and the commercial and diplomatic area of Ruwi. These areas, along with other districts further from the city centre, each have their own distinct personalities and attractions.
Although Muscat is a popular destination for sightseeing tours, many of the attractions are primarily regular fixtures of Omani life. The mosques are important religious sites, the ancient forts are still operated by the military, and the sultan's palace is the seat of Oman's government.
The beauty of the city, especially near the harbour, is what makes Muscat so alluring. The smooth, curved stone architecture is a transition from the rocky landscape to the inviting water of the harbour. Many new buildings have continued with classic Arabic architecture, further protecting the city's legacy from the ravages of the modern world. Muscat is one of the safest, most cosmopolitan and open-minded city in the entire Gulf Region, and is fast becoming a Middle East tourism hotspot.
The Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque is a new yet architecturally classic building completed in 2001, and is one of the largest mosques in the world with a capacity for 20,000 worshippers. The interior is grand and the prayer hall is home to a hand-woven Persian carpet weighing over 21 tons on the prayer floor, while an exquisite 46-foot (14m) chandelier hangs from the ceiling.
This is a religious site rather than a tourist destination so visitors need to be respectful of the rules, although English-speaking guides are available to help navigate the visit. Muslims can visit any time of the day, but tourists of other faiths, while very welcome, should only come during visiting hours. Visitors are asked to dress modestly and women are required to cover their hair.
Old Muttrah Souk is the most popular traditional bazaar in Muscat. The market is a small maze of narrow alleyways formed by adjoining stalls. Tourists can bargain with stall clerks over the prices of gold and silver jewellery, antiques, and other traditional goods. The market has a less forceful air than others, so visitors are free to wander at their leisure without overt pressure from touts. Although the Old Muttrah Souk is popular with tourists, locals shop here as well, giving authenticity to the market and mixing ornamental souvenirs in between household products and food.
Even for those without an interest in Muscat's history, the Bait Al Baranda Museum presents a fascinating if long (750 million years) story of the region. The interactive exhibitions take visitors through tectonic plate shifts to recent folk art with an adherence to detail and historical fact. Instead of simply housing artefacts, the Bait Al Baranda's dynamic exhibits often require audience participation. The museum is situated in a remodelled historic building which also periodically features local contemporary art exhibits.
The Al Jalali and Al Mirani Forts were built during the Portuguese colonial rule of Oman during the 16th Century and now are beautiful windows into that era. Situated on either side of a palace, they give a fortified appearance to Muscat's harbour. The forts are examples of traditional architecture, with Al Jalali bedecked with traditional doors, rugs, and pottery.
Both Al Jalali and Al Mirani have ancient war memorabilia such as armour and weapons on display. Their strategic position on a mountain overlooking the harbour gives tourists commanding views of the city and Arabian Sea below. Opening times can be fickle but many undeterred tourists enjoy the scenery from outside their walls.
Qasr Al Alam Royal Palace is the working office for Sultan Qaboos. Built in 1972, it is flanked on each side by the ancient Al Jalali and Al Mirani Forts, making an impressive and well-fortified greeting to ships entering Muscat's harbour. Tourists are not allowed inside the classically-styled building for obvious security reasons, but it remains a popular area to walk around and to photograph.
An attraction that offers visitors a wonderful taste of local produce is a trip to the Muttrah fish market. Every day, the market turns out a vast selection of ocean-fresh fish, squid, and crab to choose from. Visit the neighbouring vegetable market for any other fresh produce required to put together a delicious feast.
With a coastline stretching 1,060 miles (1,700km) along the Arabian Sea, it is unsurprising that Oman boasts a stunning array of sunny, swimmer-friendly beaches. As the Omani government seeks to promote tourism throughout the country, its beaches have become focal-points for this exercise, with more and more fun beach activities such as diving, kite-surfing, and jet-skiing being offered on its shores.
There has also been a huge spike in the development of luxury beach resorts up and down the Omani coastline, offering visitors an air-conditioned retreat from the blazing sun and sand. Some of Oman's best beaches include Qurum Beach, which is located in Muscat below the Crowne Plaza Hotel. It's a beach which is perfectly set up for family vacationers, featuring picnic areas and shady palm trees.
Qantab Beach, located a short drive from central Muscat, has an established local fishing trade, and tourists are strongly encouraged to take a trip out with one of the local fishermen to explore some of the area's sheltered coves and sea-caves. Finally, Marjan Beach features small coral reefs ideally suited to novice divers and snorkelers. It also boasts a lively nightlife, with several restaurants and hotels often frequented by expatriate workers in Oman.
Tourists don't need to worry unduly about the dress-code for Omani beaches: western swimwear is perfectly acceptable while you're on the beach. Just make sure to cover up appropriately when you're on your way to and from your hotel or beach resort.
Despite being on the coast, the weather in Muscat can be unbearably hot. The best time to visit the arid climate is between December and March, when the more temperate winter season provides less extreme temperatures with average highs of around 77°F (25°C). February is the coolest month. The rest of the year temperatures can be well over 104°F (40°C). Sudden rain can cause flash floods, although precipitation is unusual.
Traditional Omani cuisine is based around spiced and marinated fish, lamb, and chicken dishes served with rice, including soups and curries. Typical dishes include mashuai (spit-roasted kingfish with lemon rice), maqbous (spicy saffron-tinged meat and rice), and muqalab (tripe spiced with cinnamon, cardamom, ginger, garlic and nutmeg).
Visitors should note that many restaurants are closed during the day in the Ramadan period and plan accordingly by buying food ahead of time or making reservations at hotel restaurants that cater to tourists.
Shopping in Muscat is a rewarding experience for travellers, with a range of goods available from local (markets) and shopping centres. It is acceptable to ask for a discounts or a 'last price' from independent outlets, while supermarkets and shopping centres or malls display fixed prices. Most shops are open from 9am to 1pm and from 4pm to 9pm, Saturday through Thursday; the Sultan Centre is open 24 hours a day. The Muscat city centre is the primary shopping hub, and nearby Muttrah is also quite popular. Best buys include folk art and craft such as (carpets), wall hangings and pottery, while frankincense and myrrh are also very sought after Omani souvenirs. Silver and gold jewellery and accessories (priced by weight) are also a good buy, as well as the sought-after Amouage perfume, made at a Muscat factory open to visitors. Muscat shopping centres include the Muscat City Centre mall, the Sultan Centre and the Al-Zakher Centre, hosting big-name brands such as Zara and Gap, as well as computer shops, book stores and furniture shops. The Sabco centre is a collection of half a dozen shopping centres that are popular with locals, including a souq-like collection of shops; however the best to visit is the large one in Muttrah, considered one of the best in the Gulf region, where bargaining is expected.
Buses are the cheapest way to get around in Muscat. Modern buses travel major roads with specific bus stops. For more out of the way destinations, Baiza buses are common and zigzag through the back roads effectively, although the buses themselves are sometimes a bit dilapidated.
Taxis are widely available and an easy way to get to and from the airport. Insist that the driver uses their meter unless there isn't one, in which case agree on a price before getting into the car. Taxis are expensive but convenient when you can't find a bus or don't want to wait in the sun. There is no subway or railway in Muscat and some travellers decide to rent a car and drive themselves around, which is the best option for flexible travel.
There is no shortage of things to see and do in Oman's bustling capital. Visitors can wander the maze-like souqs of Mutrah and wonder at the massive and beautiful palaces, forts, and mosques that serve as reminders of the city's culture and history.
Along with the architectural wonders, visitors can learn about Muscat at a number of museums in the city, including the National Museum, the Children's Museum, the Sultan's Armed Forces Museum, the Omani French Museum, and the interactive Bait al Baranda Museum.
Muscat offers a number of active pursuits as well, and the numerous tour companies in the city facilitate activities like scuba diving, rock climbing, camel racing, horseback riding, turtle and dolphin watching, trekking, and night safaris.
To enjoy the natural beauty of Muscat, travellers can take a walk in any of the city's parks, ranging from small neighbourhood spaces to the enormous Qurum National Park, which boasts beautiful rose gardens and manmade waterfalls, a lake, and an amusement park. Another spectacular natural site is Wadi Shab, located about 62 miles (100km) southeast of the city and home to vivid emerald green pools with dramatic caves and cliff faces.
Bahla is an ancient city in the northern part of Oman, not far from Muscat. It was founded at an oasis for caravans and travellers to stop at and rest on their desert journeys, and was the capital of Oman between the 12th and 17th Centuries.
The famous Bahla Fort, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, dates back to 1,000 BC, and remains the city's most popular attraction. Bahla has a rich tradition of pottery, and you can still see potters working at their kilns and haggling over their wares.
The Al Hajar Mountains stretch from Muscat, through northern Oman and into the United Arab Emirates. While they initially appear inhospitable and arid, they are becoming an increasingly popular destination for adventure travel. The picturesque range offers dramatic vistas of canyons, gorges, and plateaus, while the rich colours of the igneous rock formations make for unforgettable sights.
Highway 15 winds up the mountains to the old city of Nizwa, home to an impressive 17th-century fort and an early-morning goat market. Nizwa makes an excellent base to explore the mountains from, including traditional villages and mudbrick towns, date plantations, and historic forts. There are a number of trekking routes ranging from three hours to multi-day hikes, and travellers can visit the famous rose gardens of the Saiq Plateau.
Oman's most-visited tourist attraction, the Nizwa Fort stands as a monument to architectural ingenuity, and a fascinating record of the fort-building practices of a bygone age. The fort's underlying structure dates back to the 12th century, though it was completed by Imam Sultan bin Saif al Yaarubi in 1668 as a defence against invaders looking to exploit the region of Nizwa's valuable natural resources.
The historical interest of the Nizwa Fort is significant, as it represents a major advancement in military engineering in the early days of mortar-based warfare. The centrepiece of the fort is a drum-like tower that reaches 98 feet (30m) into the air and has a circumference of 118 feet (36m), fitted with 24 openings for mortar fire.
Visitors to the Nizwa Fort are allowed to freely explore the area, which consists of maze-like stairways and corridors leading to high-ceilinged rooms and terraces which afford great views of the city of Nizwa and its surrounding plains. A highly recommended tourist sight in Oman, budget at least three hours to take it all in.
All travellers to Oman, whether young or old, are strongly encouraged to make an excursion to the desert region known as the Wahiba (or Sharqiya) Sands, a surprisingly biodiverse area of 4,800 square miles (12,500 sq km) near the country's northeastern coastline.
In addition to the area's abundant nature life, which includes thousands of invertebrate species, birds, and 150 species of native flora, the Wahiba Sands is also home to a Bedouin population that is becoming increasingly marginalised as the modern world exerts its influence over Oman.
Visitors are able to explore the Wahiba Sands by themselves. However, a 4X4 vehicle is required to navigate the dunes and summer's heat makes the months between April and October a dangerous time to get lost. Since it's no fun getting stuck in the sand, a far more popular option is to book a tour with one of the ubiquitous tour organisations based in Muscat. Typical tour packages include 4X4 transportation through the desert (although camel rides are possible) and an overnight stay in a desert camp.
Travellers who aren't looking to go off-road can also experience the Wahiba Sands on the sealed road from Al-Ashkara to Shana'a, which is still a unique and memorable desert experience.
The capital of the southern-most Omani province of Dhofar, Salalah makes for a wonderful contrast to the hot, dry desert conditions that predominate throughout the country's interior. Salalah experiences a monsoon season, known as the Khareef Season, between June and September. This sees the surrounding countryside become lush and green, surprising visitors with the sight of herds of cattle calmly grazing in verdant fields.
Its relatively cool climate makes Salalah a great family holiday destination in Oman and it is a great place to buy Omani souvenirs for friends and family back home. Known as the 'perfume capital of Arabia', frankincense trees line the roads in Salalah and it is unsurprising that most visitors to the region leave with an assortment of perfumes safely packed away in their luggage.
Notable sights in Salalah include the al-Hisn Souq, a traditional market-place brimming with great things to buy, and the Sultan Qaboos' Palace, a graceful building that commemorates the birthplace of the current Omani leader. Salalah is also home to a gorgeous coastline, offering wonderful bird watching opportunities. Swimming and diving are also possible, but only in limited areas due to dangerously strong ocean currents.