First time in Muscat? 9 things to do on your trip to Oman
The first thing that struck me about Oman was how no one seemed to have anything bad to say about it. When people asked where I was going on my next trip, I'd say Muscat, and they'd typically respond with a wistful "Ah, Oman is lovely." I heard "It is wonderful there - make sure you go to see the dolphins!" and "Oh, it's beautiful... I proposed to my wife there," and "The people are so friendly." No "watch out for this" or "it's nice except for..." Just a nod and a smile, as though I'd made the right choice. Now, having visited myself, I think I may join the group of people singing Oman's praises.
Located on the north eastern corner of the Arabian Gulf, the Sultanate of Oman is a country with so many extremes within its borders. There are rolling sand dunes, groves of palm trees nestled in deep ravines, jagged mountains, brilliantly blue rock pools and quaint seaside ports.
Muscat, its capital city, has hundred year old forts, decorative street lamps and walled city gates alongside a gigantic royal opera house and a majestic mosque surrounded by rows and rows of pink roses. It all comes together beautifully.
Muscat is a popular escape for residents of the Gulf region, whose countries may not be as green and provide the same scope of outdoor activities. If you're considering a trip to the city, remember to pack some comfortable walking shoes -- you'll be on your feet exploring its streets, beaches and mountains for much of your trip.
It's my first time in Muscat! What should I expect?
Palm trees, mountains, seaside hangouts and friendly locals. Muscat is much more laid back than nearby Dubai and Doha, and is without the legions of futuristic skyscrapers and fantastical man made islands that populate its flashier neighbours.
Yes, there are palaces, malls and mega attractions like the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque, but you'll also see quaint blue and white homes, shabby-chic curbside cafes and restored watch towers perched on mountain tops. The city seems thoroughly in touch with its historical and natural roots, embracing its spot in one of the greener areas of the Arabian Gulf.
That's not to say Muscat is not a modern city -- you'll find your western chain stores, luxury hotels, flat whites and free wifi. But it's served alongside a helping of character, cultural heritage and a distinct Omani breed of hospitality. Muscat is easy to navigate by taxi or rental car (yes, it's worth paying extra for the GPS) with an incredibly well-maintained road network that stretches far into the desert.
The tourist hot spots are well-signposted in Arabic and English and even the ones located further from the capital city are easy to find. A word of advice if you're Google Mapping it around - some Arabic words don't have a standard English translation, so you may have to try a few different spellings (Bima, Bimmah, Bimma, etc) to find what you're looking for.
Visitors are well looked after with a number of international hotel chains and organized tours, and 10-day tourist visas are available on arrival for a number of nationalities for a small fee at the airport.
Tourists who haven't travelled in the Middle East before will need to keep some of the standard regional rules in mind. That means modest clothing in public areas (covered shoulders and knees for the ladies), limited alcohol sales and no over-the-top public displays of affection for couples.
Ready? It's time to explore Muscat! Here are my suggestions on what to do on your trip:
Visit the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque
I'm not even going to try and bury this one further down the list - it's one of the main attractions in Muscat for a good reason.
This stunning mosque was built by Oman's ruler, Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said, and opened to the public in 2001 to mark 30 years of his reign. It's an exquisite example of modern Islamic architecture, featuring intricate ceilings and decorative niches you could spend hours staring at.
When it opened, the Grand Mosque housed the world's largest chandelier (a magnificent Swarovski creation that cameras can't seem to capture effectively) and the world's largest carpet (a stunning work of art that took Iranian weavers four years to produce by hand). The "world's largest" title for both features has subsequently been taken by Abu Dhabi, but they're still magnificent to behold.
Unlike many of its contemporaries in the region, the Grand Mosque is open to non-Muslim visitors. Cover yourself to your wrists and ankles (and ladies, grab a headscarf), and you can wander around the main prayer hall, women's prayer hall, the gardens and the external corridors at your leisure.
There is no charge, but entrance can vary depending on religious holidays and prayer times, so check before you head out.
Swim in Bimmah Sinkhole and hike to Wadi Shab
If you're seeking mountain pools and incredibly blue water, take a day trip south of Muscat.
On the road to the coastal town of Sur, you'll pass through rocky landscapes that look almost Martian, before seeing signs for Hawiyat Najm Park (Falling Star Park). Take the turn off and you'll arrive at one of Oman's natural wonders, called Bimmah or Dibab Sinkhole.
The water-filled crater was formed due to the gradual erosion of the surrounding rock, although the legend of a meteor strike is much more intriguing (if factually inaccurate).
With turquoise waters and tiny fish who have a tendency to nibble your toes should you stand still for too long, this is a stunning spot to take a swim on a hot day.
Head back on the highway, continue south from the sinkhole and you'll reach Wadi Shab, an oasis in between the folds of mountains.
Take a boat trip across the river (seriously, remember to bring OMR 1 to pay or you'll be trekking through the mud) and hike along the cliff face and river bed until you reach another swimming area.
It takes around 45 minutes to get there, and you'll have to navigate some sheer drops and small streams, but anyone who has decent footwear and reasonable fitness levels can manage it.
The area is a popular picnic spot for local families, so if you visit on a weekend or holiday, make sure you head out early to miss the crowds and avoid hiking in the midday heat.
After your hike, you can head to nearby Sur, which has a gorgeous old town area complete with watch towers and a lighthouse.
Watch dhows (boats) go down the river, climb to the top of a lookout tower, head to the souk (market) or just wander its side streets before heading back to Muscat.
Walk around Muttrah's corniche and explore the souk
If you've seen any photos of Oman, chances are they were taken in Muttrah. The area has a stunning corniche (promenade) with quaint white buildings which give way to jagged mountain tops.
It's a lovely space to take a walk on a lazy afternoon, or watch the sun set over the waters of the Gulf. The paved promenade curves around the bay, dotted occasionally by sculptures of sea life and shaded rest spots located under artful domes.
In the evenings, you can head for the souk, which is a bustling nest of shops set along spiraling alleyways. It's a good spot to pick up souvenirs, from pottery to incense and scarves, and practise your bartering skills. There are often multiple vendors selling similar wares, so take the time to explore them all if you're looking for something specific at a decent price.
Learn about Omani history at Bait Al Zubair Museum
The Bait Al Zubair Museum (House of Al Zubair Museum) in Muttrah is a great way to escape the heat and learn more about Oman's history and culture. The buildings that make up the museum include gallery spaces, a miniature replica of an Omani town, a café and a gift shop.
Exhibits cover everything from traditional Omani dress to jewellery, pottery and weapons, giving you a better understanding of the country's different tribes. You can walk around a typical Omani home, and learn more about the Sultan's family and the country's history.
Everything is clearly explained in Arabic and English, so you can wander around at your own pace without a guide. The museum is also interspersed with contemporary artwork, from painted goat statues to graffiti.
Stop off at the Sultan's palace
While you're in Muttrah, head to the Sultan's ceremonial palace for a wander and photo stop. Although Oman's ruler is rarely there (if he is, the flag will be up) and visitors can't enter, Al Alam palace is worth a look through the gates.
The palace is set in manicured gardens and flanked by courtyards with government buildings, and surrounded by ever-present watch towers on the nearby mountains. Further down the corridor is the large, imposing building that houses the National Museum, conveniently located for a visit or quick snap.
Head out to sea for dolphin-watching and snorkeling
Want to meet the local aquatic life? Grab your swimsuit and sunscreen and hop on a boat.
There are multiple companies offering affordable group tours - for example, Sidab Sea Tours offers daily ocean adventures that include dolphin watching and snorkeling, with all equipment (fins and goggles) supplied, along with snacks and drinks. I opted for this combined one, and it was one of the highlights of my trip.
It's thrilling just speeding past Oman's jagged coastline, with its sheer cliffs and hidden coves, but the real attraction lies a few kilometers out to sea.
They're hard to spot at first, but if you're watchful and lucky, you can see pods of dolphins jumping out of the water before quickly diving underneath the boat. It's a bit of a blink-and-you-miss it activity, but on a good day, you can get within meters of the sea creatures.
The tropical waters around Muscat are also home to an array of tropical fish and coral, tucked away in quiet, shallow bays. It's easy water to explore, even if you've never snorkeled before. Strap on your flippers, jump off the boat and less than a meter below you, you'll see a busy underwater world.
It feels as though you are swimming through a fully stocked aquarium - the sheer array of fish living in the reefs is fascinating to observe. Drift along the surface and you'll feel as though you are in another world, even though the boat is just meters away ready to take you back to shore.
Take a day trip to the mountains and Nizwa
The mountains are an ever-present fixture on the horizon in Muscat - but if you want to get closer, a day trip to Jebel Akhdar (the Green Mountains) is a must. The town of Nizwa is about an hour and 20 minutes by car from Muscat, set in a valley filled with palm trees that is fringed by barren cliffs.
The main attraction is the 17th century Nizwa Fort, one of Oman's oldest, which has been restored and turned into a museum. It features exhibitions detailing traditional Omani life, clothing, homes and historical events.
Ascend the tower and you'll be presented with panoramic views of the town of Nizwa and its surrounds.
Head out from Nizwa and you can climb the winding mountain roads and ascend higher into the range. You'll need a 4x4 vehicle (or a tour guide with one), as the roads are incredibly steep with sharp turns and drops.
Once you hit the mountain tops, there are multiple picnic spots to sit and take in the incredible views. Buy a fresh pomegranate from one of the vendors and sit overlooking a canyon, and try not to think about the fact that the sea is 2000 meters down from where you are.
If you're thinking about a day in the mountains, I would recommend looking into organised trips, such as the ones offered by Sunshine Tours. While you can get around in your own car and there are run-off areas to catch you if your brakes fail, some of the roads are incredibly tough on even the fanciest 4x4s and best navigated by a local who is familiar with them.
Sample the local cuisine and cafés
Muscat offers a range of culinary options for its guests, from jelly-like halwa and street food to exquisitely crafted desserts and English breakfasts. If you're looking for traditional Omani cusine, Ubhar is a great first stop. The restaurant offers a mix of local delicacies and fusion dishes (like frankincense ice cream) that will please cautious and adventurous eaters alike.
If you're in the Muttrah area, Bait Al Luban (House of Frankincense) is a great spot for a celebratory dinner. Book in advance, ask for a seat on the balcony, then sit back and enjoy some delicious local food in a stunning setting.
Once you've had your fill of karak and dates, Woodlands is a good spot to satisfy any Indian food craving. The restaurant offers a wide range of vegetarian dishes on its menu, served in a cosy environment.
If you're looking for a breakfast spot, I'd recommend D'Arcy's Kitchen. There are two branches (one in a garden setting and another near the beach) but both offer well-made comfort food and great vegetarian options (yes, we were so impressed we went to both).
The laid-back vibe and cute décor will remind you of a sweet old lady's house, albeit one where you can order strong cappuccinos and deluxe vegetarian burgers.
Relax on Shatti Beach or in Qurum Natural Park
Need some time by the sea? Head for Shatti Beach -- lined with palm trees, it feels like you're on some remote island paradise instead of a few hundred meters from the nearest Starbucks.
Take a dip in the ocean or watch the sun set over the waves.
Another option for a natural escape within the confines of Muscat city limits is Qurum Natural Park, a massive garden with winding paths, a lake and decorated courtyards. Have a picnic under the trees, or burn off last night's date cheesecake with a brisk walk around the area.
Bonus! Travel with me to Oman video
Have you been to Muscat? What sights, tastes and activities would you suggest for first time visitors? Let me know in the comments!
Only have a weekend to spare? I highly recommend taking a look at Yokomeshii's guide, which inspired a lot of my Omani explorations.