The Ultimate Travel Guide to Muscat, Oman
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Maybe it’s the first time that you plan to travel to a Middle East country. If so, there is no better place to experience Arab culture – and color- than the delightful capital of Oman, Muscat. And if you are a seasoned Middle East traveler, you might find something new in Muscat.
According to Forbes, it’s the best place to visit in the Middle East right now, so let’s get started.
Located in the Northeast corner of Oman, on the Gulf of Oman, Muscat is far less flashy than Dubai. For one, by law, no building can be higher than 40m (8 stories) and all have to be white or cream colored and decorated with Arabic motives. The highest building is the Sheraton Oman Hotel. There are other hotels and commercial buildings in the business district of Ruwi/Muttrah but otherwise, the urban landscape is dominated by low white buildings. Many of them may not be very high and unassuming from the outside, but they nevertheless ooze wealth in a discreet way.
Since 1970 the Sultanate of Oman is ruled by Sultan Qaboos bin Said whose palace and mosque are two of the most outstanding buildings to visit in Muscat.
Muscat’s dramatic coastline is best observed from the water which you can do by way of several different boat trips. Fabulous beaches such as Azaiba Beach, Shatti Qurum Beach and, of course, Al Bustan Beach allow you to combine a beach vacation with visiting a fascinating city with plenty of museums and historical sites.
Always remember that you are in an Arab country and that Oman is more traditional than Dubai. Behave accordingly.
In this Muscat Travel Guide blog, we listed helpful DIY travel tips and advice on how to get there, get around, things to do, restaurants, best hotels, travel packages and more.
Best time to visit
Oman is a very hot country but in the summer it is also very humid. Avoid April to October, the rest of the year is the best time to visit. Rainfall is scarce but there can be heavy unexpected showers.
How to get there
Muscat’s international airport serves many airlines. It’s located approx. 25km from the city center. To get to your final destination best use one of the orange and white taxis. Taxis are not metered, so you must agree on the price in advance.
Muscat has an ample network of roads and dual carriageways and a rather new bus system of modern green and red colored buses. Locals prefer baizas, smaller buses which stop at the request of passengers. However, given the language difficulties you might encounter, stick to taxis and agree price in advance. Hotels offer guests a large variety of tours, in group or individually and also transport into town or the shopping district of Ruwi or the Mittrah souk.
Money, language, and behavior
The currency is the Omani Rial. Make sure you have plenty of cash as you need it for tips, taxis or to pay in restaurants and for any purchases you might make in the souk. Hotels will accept major credit cards.
The official language is Arabic but English is widely spoken. All drivers you contract through your hotel speak English fluently.
WiFi is available in all hotels but not outside.
Alcohol is sold in licensed hotels, bars and restaurants but it’s strictly forbidden to consume or even carry alcohol in the street or other public places.
I happened to visit at the end of Ramadan. Eating, drinking and smoking in public is strictly forbidden during the fast hours, whether you are a Muslim or not.
To avoid any problems at the airport with your medication, make sure you have a valid prescription at least in English, preferably also translated into Arabic, from your doctor.
Oman is far more traditional than Dubai and the following rules apply particularly to women. Running around in town in shorts and a halter top is a no-no. Men and women need to remove their shoes and cover up when visiting a mosque.
On a private hotel beach, women can sunbathe and swim in a bikini. Not so on public beaches. Wear an at least knee length T-shirt over your bikini, even in the water.
Adhere to the local rhythm of life, dictated by the heat. The busiest time when people go out to shop, visit restaurants or just walk about is in the evening when it’s cooler and there is a slight breeze from the sea.
Places to stay
You are well advised to stay in one of the many beach hotels in Muscat rather than in the town center which can be quite noisy.
Al Bustan Palace, A Ritz-Carlton Hotel
Address: Al Bustan St, Muscat, Oman
This 5-star Ritz Carlton Hotel and resort, located between the Sea of Oman and the Al Hajar mountain range will re-open in October 2018 to offer guests, even more, luxury and comfort than it already did. It’s originally a palace, converted into one of the most splendid and glittering hotels you can imagine. You can only reach the hotel by taxi or prearranged transport from the hotel.
Crowne Plaza Muscat
Again, this 4star hotel will re-open on the 1st of September. I loved the private beach and lovely gardens leading down to the water. The rooms are huge and comfortable and the hotel bar and restaurant are very good. For Eid, they laid on an incredible feast.
The hotel provided me with a private SUV and driver for a day trip to Nizwa, two boat trips, and transport to the Mittrah Souk and to the Corniche and back.
It’s not on the beach but in the center of the old town, close to the Corniche and Muttrah souk, the fortress and the park with the frankincense pot. Rooms are comfortable and come with free wifi. There is even a fitness center and a restaurant with a wide range of food from Arabic to Chinese.
Best places to eat
Oman is home to many nationalities which in turn reflects a great spectrum of cuisine.
Bait Al Luban Omani Restaurant
Address: Al Mine Street
Of course, you’ll want to sample Arabic dishes with a great variety of lamb, fish, and vegetables. To do so in elegant surroundings head for the Bait Al Luban Omani Restaurant right opposite the old fish market.
Address: 18th November Street Al Ghubra.
If you want to eat fresh fish by the sea, visit The Beach Restaurant at the Chedi.
Whilst waiting for my driver to take me back to my hotel after a visit to the Muttrah Souk, I happened upon the Fastfood n Juice Centre, right next door to the entrance.
I had excellent lamb kebabs and fresh mango and pineapple juice. The service wasn’t all that fast but it didn’t matter because I could watch the shoppers streaming in and out of the souk. You are sitting outside on somewhat rickety tables and chairs but it’s a fun experience and cheap to boot.
Things to do and see
Muscat has been a battleground for centuries and many civilizations from the ancient Persians to the Portuguese and more because of its strategic position as a seaport for trade. Visit the two Portuguese castles and fortresses Mirani and Jalali opposite each other.
Not far is the sultan’s palace, Al Alam, a vision in turquoise tiles and gold leaf, for once not adhering to the general white or cream scheme and built in 1972. You can get quite close and even visit the gardens.
Head for the Corniche and Muttrah port, spy the sultan’s yacht amongst more modest dhows, enjoy the park at the end and climb up to Muscat’s landmark, an enormous frankincense pot.
As you are already close, enter through the massive arch to the Muttrah Souk, meander through the tiny alleys, breathe frankincense which is burned everywhere and acquire some for yourself together with spices and silver. The shopkeepers are very friendly but not overly pushy which makes for a nice walk around.
If you want to experience local life, head for the old fish market rather early in the morning.
Not to be missed is a superlative: the white and gold Grand Mosque Sultan Qaboos with its enormous Persian carpet and unbelievable Swarovski chandeliers.
Then of course, you must enjoy the water. Go for a boat trip leaving from Muttrah port which takes you way out into the Gulf of Oman to watch dolphins frolicking in the water.
Come evening, the most romantic thing to do is a sunset trip on a traditional Dhow. Not only is being on the dhow nice and relaxing, you also get to see the incredible volcanic rock formations, some black, some white which line the coast for miles. Silhouetted against the setting sun it’s a sight you will never forget.
Culture fans find several museums like the Omani Heritage Museum or the Aquarium, my favorite, however, is Bait Al Zubir.
It’s a private museum totally funded by the owners with an amazing collection of traditional clothes and typical Omani silver daggers. In addition, it’s a cultural center which also stages events.
Talking about staging: Muscat even has an opera house. It opened its doors in 2011 and is the venue for opera, ballets and, recently, even a flamenco show.
Best places to shop
For souvenirs, and those from Oman are worth having, go to the Muttrah Souk. If you want modern shopping malls, you’ll find everything you need and more in the Muscat City Center Mall just beyond the airport.
Take your time in Muscat, even if you intend to travel further into the country to Nizwa or Sallalah, either enjoying the desert or the mountains. Muscat is really the Arabian dream.