Beige. Bone. Sandshell. Looking down at Muscat from the Al Hajar Mountains is like comparing light-brown shades on a swatch card. The buildings seem to come from the same Pantone chart as the crumbling peaks and the deserts and beaches in the parched surrounding landscape. But things change in the city. Look around its mosques, souks and museums and a kaleidoscope of colours hit the eye, from stained glass ceilings or ornate tiled mosaics.
Unlike some of its neighbouring cities, Muscat has a traditional look and feel. Here, there’s no forest of skyscrapers, but instead an attractive city constructed from clay, with structures peaking at 16 storeys. The rows of whitewashed buildings, with their gold-leaf adornments and ornate arched windows, hark back to distant era. Yet much of Muscat is newer than it seems, with the majority of the city having been built since the Sultan Qaboos bin Said al Said came to power in 1970.
While just an hour’s rain can send Muscat into turmoil, downpours seldom happen, so to get relief from the heat, locals sip on sweet, milky masala tea in the summer months and devour ice cream in the winter. Most gravitate towards the souks, beach and harbour in the early hours or after sunset to avoid peak temperatures, with the streets remaining fairly empty the rest of the time.
With the main attractions scattered widely, Muscat is very much a car-centric city. It’s certainly worth gaining access to some sort of vehicle, as the surrounding wadis in the mountains are ripe for exploring. Heading off-road to the Al Hajar Mountains, you’ll find traditional-looking villages, with lookout points along the way, offering those dramatic beige, bone and sandshell city views. Or, for more colour, head in the opposite direction on one of the many boat tours discovering the coral reef in the dolphin-filled waters.
What to see & do
Muttrah Souk: The smell of frankincense drifts through this labyrinth of stalls, filled with Omani silver, gold and myrrh. The souk is one of the oldest on the Arabian Peninsula and visitors are encouraged to haggle for garments and antiques. After getting lost in the warren of alleyways, sip on sweet masala tea from the coffeehouse by the souk’s entrance (a popular local meeting spot).
Bait Al Zubair: It may not be as big as The National Museum or Muscat Gate Museum, but this private collection, found through intricately carved teak wooden doors, showcases Oman’s rich heritage and the history of the Al Zubairs, an influential family with close ties to previous sultans. Their former home has been extended to include an art gallery with a permanent collection and an Omani-style model village.
Portuguese forts: The imposing Al Jalali and Al Mirani Forts were both built by the Portuguese colonists in the 1580s to protect their ships from attack. They’re closed to the public but still guard Muscat bay and have a pleasing sandcastle quality to them.
Al Alam Palace: A palm-fringed avenue leads up from The National Museum to the gates of the blue-and-gold, cube-like Al Alam Palace, otherwise known as Flag Palace. In the days when slaves were brought over from East Africa, it was said that any slave who touched the flagpole at this spot would be granted freedom. Today, it’s mostly used for Sultan Qaboos’ ceremonies, but the unusually colourful exterior of the palace makes it worth seeking out.
Muttrah Corniche: Al Said, the Sultan’s 155-metre superyacht, dominates the harbour at Muttrah where it’s docked most of the year. But along the waterfront you’ll also find souks, a fish market, the Muttrah Fort and the Al Lawati Mosque. The Corniche is particularly lively in the evenings.
Al Hajar Mountains: Drive inland from Muscat to the surrounding rocky mountains, dotted with whitewashed villages and wadis. There are spots along the mountain’s road where drivers can pull over for sweeping views over the dust-covered city below — just be sure to keep off the windy road when you’re on foot.
Where to eat
Zanzibar Island Restaurant & coffee shop: This restaurant serves favourite Zanzibarian fare, like mohogo (cassava and lamb in a creamy coconut sauce) and mchicha (spinach and peanut curry), along with a wide range of tasty rice and curry dishes. The walls, meanwhile, are covered in countless portraits and artifacts.
Al Bustan Palace: Ritz-Carlton has taken over what was once a private, palatial lodging. The hotel now houses several top-class restaurants, while the 125ft-high domed lobby lounge is used as a venue for high tea during the afternoons, served to the sound of Omani harpists. Friday brunches are popular with expats.
Like a local
Beach in the evening: Meat and fish grilled over charcoal barbecue (mishkak) and served with a flatbread is one of the cheapest eats in Muscat. Some of the best places to buy it are the roadside joints along Seeb Beach (at the far end of Seeb Souq), where families and friends meet in the evening for a late dip.
Sweet shops: Shopping for traditional sweets is a popular pastime. One of these, halva (made with honey and sesame paste), is a symbol of Omani hospitality, often served with spiced coffee.
Where to sleep
Crowne Plaza Muscat: Perched on top of a cliff edge like a cruise ship that’s run aground, the Crowne Plaza features its own private bay and two outdoor pools. Rather handily, it also runs a free, twice-daily shuttle service between the Grand Mosque and Muttrah Souk.
The Chedi Muscat: Think manicured lawns, whitewashed, domed buildings and idyllic stretches of sand. A spa overlooks the hotel’s private beach and its resident crabs, while the pool is the largest in the Middle East, at 103 metres long, with an infinity edge spilling out onto the beachfront.
Royal Opera House Muscat: Although the Royal Oman Symphony Orchestra performs regularly at the country’s flagship institution for arts and culture, traditional Omani shows are a little thin on the ground; the programme largely comprises international artists.
Trader Vic’s Muscat: Cocktails, live Latin music and Mongolian barbecues draw a large expat crowd to this outpost of the Polynesian-themed bar chain at the InterContinental Muscat.
Omani Heritage Gallery: The Gallery is a non-profit organisation set up to help support local artisans and craftspeople. Prices are a little steep but they reflect the quality of the goods on offer.
Gold souk: Glitzy gold jewellery fills the shops by the Muttrah Corniche. But it’s worth strolling the alleyways to see locals selling tubs of dates and, a little further on, precious stones being sold in the tangle of streets.
Getting there & around
Oman Air flies twice daily, nonstop between Heathrow and Muscat. British Airways, Gulf Air, Qatar Airways, Turkish Airlines and EgyptAir all serve Muscat from Heathrow with one stopover, while Turkish Airlines also does the same from Gatwick.
There’s a fairly new bus service that runs in Muscat, but driving or getting taxis is the best option. Car rental is available from the airport and petrol is very cheap. Taxis booked via hotels tend to have set rates, but local taxi drivers are willing to haggle. Visitors are advised to stick to the same taxi driver when hailing a cab, as fares — although often expensive to start with — tend to get cheaper for returning customers.
When to go
Winter (December to April) is the best time to visit, with temperatures in the comfortable 20-30C bracket. June to August can get very sticky, with the mercury frequently soaring above 40C.
The Rough Guide to Oman. RRP: £9.99.
Published in the December 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)