Compared to flashy Emirati neighbours like Dubai and Abu Dhabi, the capital of Oman is a breath of fresh, Persian Gulf sea air. Muscat is famous for dazzling souks and superb seafood, but its terrain brings the biggest thrills. This middle east port city is a great place to trek deserts at dawn, spot dolphins at sundown, and enjoy plenty of Omani hospitality. Here is why you need to visit Muscat, Oman.
This article is inspired by our Rough Guide to Oman — your essential guide for travelling in Oman.
Muscat’s Muttrah Souk is a labyrinth of commercial activity. You'll find here ceramics, jewellery and camel-themed souvenirs. The best buys are butter-soft llama wool pashminas, leatherware and exquisite gold jewellery.
Most stalls are open to bartering, but there’s less wiggle-room on jewellery (which is sold by weight). If you’re a haggling novice, start with an offer of around 40–50 per cent of the vendor’s opening price, and aim to meet somewhere in the middle.
During 45 years of rule, Oman’s Sultan Qaboos has lent his wealth and name to many of Muscat’s finest constructions. But the most remarkable is Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque.
This mosque gleams from the tips of its four minarets and 50m-high gold dome right down to the white marble flooring. The men’s prayer hall (visitable by both sexes) is especially stunning, with vast Persian carpets and chandeliers the size of dune buggies. However — non Muslims should be sure to be appropriately dressed when visiting this mosque.
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Swords and daggers are fundamental to Oman’s heritage and culture, even enjoying pride of place on the national flag. Only Oman’s well-to-do wear the khanjar (traditional dagger) these days, but the craftsmanship remains revered.
See an array of historic weaponry at the Bait Al Zubair National Museum, from pearl-embossed straight swords to beauteous blades inscribed with koranic verses.
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While grilled meats, hummus and flatbreads are heaped onto many a restaurant table, Muscat is primarily a city of seafood lovers. The stand-out dish is kingfish curry. Chunks of fresh fish simmered in a broth of coconut, turmeric, ginger and garlic.
Dine on the catch of the day overlooking the swaying yachts at the Blue Marlin restaurant in the marina. Even the most ravenous travellers will be satisfied by platters heaped with grilled tuna, prawns, kingfish and a whopping lobster.
A natural starting place to gaze at regal architecture is Al Alam Palace, a resplendent gold and blue royal residence.
Next, discover the Royal Opera House, an admirable blend of Omani and Italian-imported marble and Burmese teak. It’s even worth poking your nose inside certain luxury hotels: the Al-Bustan Palace Hotel has an atrium the equal of many a museum, 38m high with a blend of art deco and lavish Arabian stylings.
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Applaud the mid-air acrobatics of spinner dolphins on a boat tour around the Gulf of Oman. As their name suggests, these little dolphins are known for dizzying mid-air pirouettes, as they hunt for tuna and sardines.
Ocean Blue Oman has regular two-hour coast cruises, with great chances of seeing these playful cetaceans frolic in the water.
Muscat offers access to epic desert trekking. This capital is backed by the dramatic Hajar Mountain region.
Lace up your walking boots for the rocky C38 trail from Muscat’s Riyam Park into the hills. Rewards for this two-hour exertion include bird’s-eye views of the port and fortresses and blissful mountain solitude. Hiking is at its best from October to April.
Try sweet-toothed temptations
Guests to Omani homes are welcomed with cardamom-scented coffee and sticky dates. There are 35 varieties to enjoy, from caramel-like Khalas dates to darker, less sweet Farth dates.
Browse for your favourites at the fruit and vegetable markets at Sultan Qaboos Port. Another snack guaranteed to strike fear into your dentist’s heart is Omani halwa, a gelatinous treat boiled down from sugar, wheat starch and saffron (find it in Muttrah Souk).
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West of Muscat is the world’s largest uninterrupted sand desert. It extends across the Arabian Peninsula and is a tourism hub. It is covering not only parts of Oman but neighbouring Saudi Arabia, Yemen and the United Arab Emirates.
Rub’ Al Khali (the ‘Empty Quarter’) is an estimated 583,000 square-kilometres of uninhabited dunes. Photographers are spellbound by the play of light on these rippling hillocks of sand, solitude-seekers venture here to camp under the stars. Additionally, it’s increasingly a destination for adventure travel.
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Muscat’s popular promenade winds from Sultan Qaboos Port east along the waterfront, following Al Bahri Road. One side of this picturesque path bypasses glittering shopfronts and sky-blue Al-Lawati Mosque. On the other, dhows (traditional sailing boats) sway in the Gulf of Oman.
Spot bulky sixteenth-century Mutrah Fort along the walk, and a lookout tower in the shape of a giant incense burner, towering over verdant Riyam Park. Strolling along the Corniche is spectacular around sunset when the sea glitters in hues of magenta and orange, and the Islamic call to prayer soars from minarets.
High above the waters at the far eastern end of Muttrah harbour sits the modest Muttrah Fort. It’s more facade than fort these days: a single high wall with a round tower at either end, balanced precariously atop a craggy ridge.
It’s particularly dramatic when illuminated after dark. You can climb the rough concrete steps up to the top for sweeping harbour views and a closer look at the crumbling fortifications. Visiting the Muttrah Fort is one of the best things to do in Muscat — in fact, in the country of Oman.
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Drive up the country’s highest peak for spectacular mountain scenery and stomach-turning views looking down into Wadi Nakhr – Oman’s “Grand Canyon”.
The mountains to the northwest of Nizwa are much less developed than those on the Saiq Plateau, which makes for more continuously spectacular scenery. The highpoint (in every sense) of a visit out here is the drive up the flanks of Jebel Shams (3009m), the highest mountain in Oman. This is one of the best tourist attractions of the arab world.
West of Qurum Heights stretches the attractive Shatti al Qurum (Qurum Beach), a fine swathe of golden sand which extends west to the neighbouring suburb of Hayy as Saruj and beyond, with views of the rocky Fahal Island (also known as Shark Island, one of the city’s leading dive sites) offshore.
If you want to sunbathe, you’re better off sticking to the areas of beach around the back of the InterContinental or Grand Hyatt hotels, where the number of other sun-worshipping Westerners on the sands guarantees relative anonymity and hassle-free relaxation; elsewhere on the beach, female visitors may attract unwanted attention.
A kilometre south of the marina, now somewhat ignominiously beached in the middle of the roundabout at the entrance to the Al Bustan Palace hotel, lies a famous wooden dhow, the Sohar. The dhow was constructed in 1979–80 using traditional Arabian boat-building techniques (including the unusual method of “stitched” construction: literally sewing planks together using coconut twine) and then sailed to China by a team led by redoubtable British adventurer Tim Severin – a fascinating adventure described in his The Sindbad Voyage.
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This list could truly go on. There are countless fantastic things to do in Muscat. Ready to start planning your trip? Check out the Rough Guide to Oman. If you travel further in Oman, read more about the best time to go and the best places to visit in Oman. For inspiration use the itineraries from our local travel experts. A bit more hands on, learn about getting there, getting around the country and where to stay once you are there.
If you prefer to plan and book your trip to Oman without any effort and hassle, use the expertise of our local travel experts to make sure your trip will be just like you dream it to be.
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Top image: The decorated roof of the old Souq, Muscat © Robert Haandrikman/Shutterstock