Set at the crossroads of three continents and four seas, Oman is hemmed by the Gulf of Oman and the Arabian Sea and protected by the jagged Al Hajar mountains and the Rub' al Khali (Empty Quarter) desert. Drawn by its strategic location at the Strait of Hormuz at the mouth of the Persian Gulf, the Portuguese briefly occupied Oman’s coastal areas and set up forts, but were finally expelled in 1650. Oman’s seaside capital Muscat, with its craggy coastline, still bears these historical traces blending Arabic tradition with modernity, besides ample avenues for entertainment.
Wherever you go in Muscat, it’s hard to miss the royal stamp of Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said, the present ruler, who propelled the Bedouin nation into a developed country. The first thing you notice as you enter the city from the airport is the dome of the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque gleaming like a jewel; its 90m high minaret and spectacular dome are flanked by four outer minarets that mark the cardinal directions. In the main prayer hall, the German-made chandelier hangs above the world’s second largest hand-woven carpet.
Continuing down Sultan Qaboos Street to the city you reach Muttrah Corniche where Muscat’s trio of seaside forts—Muttrah, Al Jalali and Al Mirani—stand proof to the Portuguese presence in the Gulf. Muttrah Souk was also first developed by the Portuguese. A labyrinth of shops, the area between Al-Lawatia Mosque and Khour Bimba is called Al Dhalam or Market of Darkness as the shops are so tightly packed, even sunlight does not pass through during the day! Nearby Qasr Al Alam, one of the six royal abodes of the Sultan, is the Al Alam Palace which is closed to visitors, but the blue and gold building in contemporary Islamic style can be admired from the grilled fence. It’s a good idea to have a Muscat map handy with you, so that you can tick off attractions on your list as you are done visiting them.
There are many places to visit in Muscat. Just across is the new National Museum of Oman with a standout maritime gallery that features beautifully crafted scale models of ancient boats. Also worth a look are the exhibits on pre-history, forts and irrigation technology. Nearby, the Omani French Museum and Bait Al Zubair are exceptional treasure troves of Omani heritage. The latter is a residence of the ministerial Zubair family, converted into a private museum in 1998 and is decorated with colourful Arabian oryx sculptures leading to the museum where weapons, jewellery, attire, coins, stamps and household articles are displayed. In the garden are replicas of a barasti (palm frond hut), falaj (ancient water distribution system), a souk, Bedouin stone houses and various types of boats.
Muscat has plenty of small but interesting museums – Ghalya’s Museum of Modern Art, Bait Al-Baranda (great if you’re into geography) and the Natural History Museum that showcases topography, geology and more. At Sultan’s Armed Forces Museum, once a royal fort, soldiers double up as guides explaining Omani military history. The Oman Oil and Gas Exhibition Centre too has a wonderful museum that deconstructs the whole business of oil and gas in two sections: Petroleum Development and EcOman, on the Sultanate’s eco-friendly push. If you are a history buff, visit the Muscat Gate Museum to learn more about the glorious past of the city.
And if you love the outdoors, there are sandstone cliffs for hiking, wadis to swim in, desert for sand boarding and dune bashing, stunning seaside views at Seeb and the Omani Dive Centre near the harbour. With a 1600km long coastline, Oman is perfect for swimming, kitesurfing, diving and sport fishing. The coastal highway from Muscat whizzes southward past old towns like Qalhat to the ancient dhow-making town of Sur and Ras al Jinz where the annual nesting of green turtles takes place between July and October.
Most of Muscat’s party scene is confined to bars and lounge-restaurants in five-star hotels. Club Safari, themed like a jungle safari park, is one of the most popular nightclubs in Muscat. Located in the Grand Hyatt at Al Khuwair, Thursday and Friday nights are packed. On the hotel’s ground floor is Habana Sports Bar with billiards tables, table soccer and large-screen TVs. If you like beer and whiskys, head straight to O'Malley's on the ground floor of Hotel Radisson Blu in Al Khuwair—an Irish style pub with a nice wooden bar counter.
Trader Vic's is a popular tourist bar in Hotel InterContinental in Qurum that has good live music and signature cocktails. The gardens serve as a concert arena for big international acts. Left Bank in Qurum, an expat favourite, has great drinks and excellent pub grub. Zouk the nightclub and lounge at the Crowne Plaza Muscat is another premier party spot with a busy event calendar. Rock Bottom at Ramee Guestline Hotel is a bar that doubles up as a discotheque and serves the best steak in town.
The Roof Top Club at the Golden Tulip in Seeb has a great view of the airport with two bar areas with drinks and food that won’t bust the bank. There are plenty of live-music bars in mid-range hotels as well such as the Marina in Muttrah, or the Mutrah and Ruwi hotels in Ruwi.
For centuries, frankincense, dates and perfumes from Oman have been traded far and wide to distant lands and even now, it’s a great place to pick up these specialties. The first stop for any shopper should be the historic Muttrah Souk by the waterfront. Here, one can buy silver trinkets, Turkish plates, Moroccan lamps and traditional souvenirs like Omani khanjars (ornamental daggers). Vendors hailing from India, Bangladesh and Pakistan offer to tie a keffiyeh (checked scarf) over a kumma (embroidered Omani cap) into a neat turban for a selfie. Others offer little dabs of perfumes. Visit the Amouage Factory to pick up exclusive perfumes and to understand how the world’s most expensive fragrances are made as each ingredient is beautifully deconstructed. Pick up a bottle or two from the factory or at the duty-free shops at the airport. Grab Omani halwa, camel milk chocolates and the best quality Khalas dates from LuLu Hypermarket. Or drop by for some retail therapy at Oman Avenues Mall and Muscat Grand Mall, the largest in town.
A great way to see Muscat at an easy pace is the Big Bus Muscat Hop On Hop Off Tour. Royal Opera House Muscat (ROHM), Oman’s premier performing space, is only the second opera house in the Middle East after Cairo; it opened in 2011. It showcases traditional Omani arts, ballets, musicals, military brass bands, flamenco and jazz artists! Muscat has some great seaside haunts like Qantab, Qurum and Seeb beaches. Yiti beach is beautiful with clear waters, clean sand and a small fishing village located by the beach, often frequented by locals for barbecue parties; it’s also a great location for photography. Take an off-road drive and hike to Wadi Al Aribeieen with a shallow pool and a deep end where you dive from a small cliff. Another interesting day trip in a 4X4 past mountains, beaches and bays takes you to Bimah sinkhole at Wadi Shab. Enjoy a sunset dhow cruise along Oman’s rugged coastline with some dolphin watching. Or head two hours out of Muscat to Marjan Beach, home to small coral reefs and a large variety of fish, which entice snorkelers to explore its waters. Also known as Turtle Beach, for the seasonal phenomenon of turtle breeding, a time when thousands of turtles hatch on this beach before crawling slowly out to sea.