Oman’s sprawling capital welcomes an increasing number of visitors each year, drawn by its dramatic coastal setting and marriage of ancient and modern lifestyles
While Muscat has seen plenty of modernisation over the last couple of decades, it has deep roots in its Arabian and Islamic heritage. Set in the east of the Arabian Peninsula, with over 3,100km of coastline, Oman is also very much a country sculpted by the sea – and its capital city’s busy ports and lively fish markets are testament to its long maritime heritage. Meanwhile, on craggy ridges and cliff tops, you can see ancient towers and forts overlooking the city. Whether you want to dive into that history, check out the shopping opportunities in a mega mall, or simply relax at a five-star seaside hotel, this weekend destination has something for everyone to discover.
The last six years have seen an array of international artists perform at Royal Opera House Muscat often with short-but-sweet runs as part of international tours. As well as opera, this grand space hosts ballet, jazz, musicals and concerts of almost every kind. Before the end of 2017, it will host L’occasione Fa Il Ladro, an opera by Gioachino Rossini, and Cinderella performed by Ballet de l’Opéra de Lyon.
The stats surrounding the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque (it’s one of the largest anywhere in the world) do little to convey the sense of awe that comes with standing inside it. Over 20,000 worshippers can visit during prayer time, but more often it’s open for guided tours and solo visitors. Opened in 2001, it looks and feels altogether more ancient.
Few attractions are quite as old as they appear in Muscat’s harbour district, but the bay has been used for centuries and has almost always been at the heart of the city. To that end, Bait Al Zubair aims to gather some the key elements of Muscat and wider Omani history in a beautifully presented museum. There are six separate buildings in total, all filled with fascinating Arab artefacts. Onsite Gallery Sarah is part of the complex and features works from local and international artists.
A few kilometres east from the heart of Muscat, Al Bustan is an easy trip for people looking to escape the city. The bay is tended to Al Bustan Palace, A Ritz-Carlton Hotel (currently under refurbishment and reopening next year), but the craggy clifftops in the background are all Mother Nature’s work.
Located just west of Muscat’s main headland, Qurum is one of the most popular beaches within the city limits. A number of hotels and restaurants back onto these long, golden sands, which, alongside an enormous palm-fringed promenade, lend a proper seaside feel.
Although not technically a beach, Mutrah’s Corniche is probably the most impressive part of the coast. A rocky headland fringed by clifftop forts and crashing waves, it’s as dramatic as it is beautiful. While the exposed headland doesn’t have any sand, there are a number of scenic picnic spots to enjoy.
Separating Omani food from wider Arabian cuisine isn’t easy, but Ubhar does its best with what it describes as Omani fusion food. This consists of classic dishes, such as biryani, with a regional twist, in this case camel meat. You can be as adventurous or conservative as you like – their menu is huge.
Sip on complimentary water infused with frankincense while looking out to sea at Bait Al Luban. Local women prepare meals at this quaint restaurant that’s set in a renovated guesthouse that was built more than 100 years ago
It’s hard to imagine a better setting for seafood specialist the Blue Marlin. Located in the Marina Bandar Al Rowdha, it makes the most of its proximity to the Indian Ocean with a menu heavy on locally caught treats. If it comes from the ocean, there’s a chance you’ll find it here.
For fine fare head to The Chedi Muscat and try The Restaurant. It has lavish brunches every Friday, but every day the service and setting are spectacular. The à la carte menu highlights include Fine De Claire oysters served with Omani lime.
WHERE TO SHOP
Like many great cities across Arabia, Muscat is home to a labyrinthine souk. In keeping with other bazaars across the region, you can expect to haggle in narrow alleys while the aroma of cooking food and burning incense compete in the air, knowing that this, or something very like it, has been happening here for millennia.
Stop by the Amouage factory and visitor centre to learn about this luxury fragrance house. Perfumes are made with many traditional ingredients such as agar wood, incense, musk and rose
There are mega malls dotted around Muscat. The enormous Avenues Mall (omanavenuesmall.om) is spread over five floors and has everything from a theme park to a bowling alley to a gym to a spa… And that’s before you even start looking at its 72,000 square metres of retail space. The equally sprawling City Centre Muscat (citycentremuscat.com) impresses with more than 200 stores, a VOX Cinemas and more.
OK so you might not buy a single thing while you’re there, but for a sense of old Arabian trading and a chance to laugh with the gregarious stall holders, check out the city’s lively fish market. With the Indian Ocean as a backdrop, it’s no surprise that the Omani capital has been awash with weird, but more generally wonderful, seafood for centuries.
Ye olde capital
Muscat may feel like an historic city, but in the 6th and 7th centuries the Omani seat of power was instead in Nizwa. A little over an hour from the modern capital, this scenic mountain and market town has retained more of its traditional lifestyles than Muscat. Although it’s a functional city, a trip to the souk here feels like a trip back through time.
The green mountain
Not far from Nizwa stands the mighty ‘green mountain’ that is Jebel Akhdar. Closed for years to tourists, the last decade has seen it become one of the most popular emerging destinations anywhere in the Arabian Peninsula. Led by either Alila Jabal Akhdar or Anantara Al Jabal Al Akhdar Resort, you can experience activites such as canyon walk, village tours and high-end luxury – all at the top of this incredible 2,000m-high mountain.
If you’ve made it to Nizwa, a short journey further west you can explore the remarkable Jibreen Castle. Built in the 17th century, it is probably the country’s most complete fort and is open to visitors all year round
Oman au naturel
Adventurous visitors can sign up for a multi-day visit to the legendary Wahiba Sands, a few hours’ drive south from the capital. For those with less time, take a day trip to the stunning Wadi Shab, a turquoise gully cutting through the ochre cliffs of the Omani coast. There are several tour companies based in Muscat which can arrange your journey.
WHERE TO STAY
The Chedi Muscat
Spread across 21-acres, this dream locale offers a world of manicured-gardens, courtyards with burbling fountains and glistening, white Moorish-style buildings. Highlights include the 103m-long swimming pool and the spa, where floor-to-ceiling windows, framed by dramatic Omani arches, offer spectacular Arabian Sea views.
Shangri-La Barr Al Jissah Resort & Spa
Choose from three hotels at this picturesque resort that engulfs a bay and sits beneath a mountainous backdrop. Al Waha hotel is ideal for family travellers while stylish Al Bandar is popular with foodies. A stay at the opulent Al Husn is like much like taking up residence in a palace.
Located in the heart of the city’s residential, government and diplomatic quarter, this hotel is close to the Grand Mosque and the Amouage factory.
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