Oman’s capital, and far and away its largest city, Muscat offers an absorbing snapshot of the country’s past and present. Physically, much of the city is unequivocally modern: a formless straggle of low-rise, white-washed suburbs which sprawl along the coast for the best part of 25km, now home to a population nudging up towards the million mark – a quarter of the country’s total. It’s here that you’ll find Oman at its most contemporary and consumerist, exemplified by the string of opulent hotels which line the city’s sand-fringed coastline, backed up by swanky restaurants and modern malls, and honeycombed with a network of roaring, multi-lane highways. It’s also unquestionably the commercial and administrative powerhouse of modern Oman, from the stately government buildings which line the main highway into town through to the high-rise office blocks of Ruwi’s Central Business District.
Significant reminders of the city’s past remain, however. These include, most notably, the engaging port district of Muttrah and the nearby quarter of Old Muscat, spread out along a salty seafront lined with old Portuguese forts, colourful mosques and assorted traditional Arabian buildings (many now converted to smale-scale museums). These are the places where you’ll get the strongest sense of Muscat’s sometimes elusive appeal, with its beguiling atmosphere of old-time, small-town Arabian somnolence, quite different from the somewhat faceless modern suburbs to the west. Muttrah and neighbouring Ruwi also offer the city’s most interesting streetlife, and the best view of the patchwork of cultures which make up the city: Omani, Indian and Pakistani, with an occasional hint of Zanzibari, Baluchi and Iranian thrown in for good measure – a living memory of the city’s surprisingly cosmopolitan past.
Evidence of human settlement in the Muscat area dates back to at least 6000 BC, although the city’s rise to national pre-eminence is a much more recent affair. Muscat’s port was sufficiently important to merit passing references in the works of Greek geographers, including Ptolemy and Pliny the Elder during the first century AD. For much of early Omani history though, it was overshadowed first by Sohar, to the north, and then Qalhat, to the south; one of the first European visitors to Muscat, Thomas Kerridge, writing in 1624 to the East India Company, described it as a “beggarly poor town”.
Muscat suffered particularly at the hands of the Portuguese, who captured the town in 1508 and held onto it until 1650 – although ironically it was the Portuguese destruction of the nearby ports of Qalhat and Quriyat which cleared the way for Muscat’s subsequent economic rise. The town began to flourish during the early Al Bu Said era in the second half of the eighteenth century when it established itself as the country’s leading port and entrepot, while it also assumed increasing political significance during the reign of Hamad bin Said (1784–92), who moved the court to Muscat, where it has generally remained ever since. The city’s economic position was confirmed during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, thriving as a major centre for a range of economic activities including fishing, boat-building, slaving, arms-smuggling and general trade.
The sprawling metropolis you see today is a largely modern creation. Until the accession of Sultan Qaboos in 1970 the town comprised simply the old walled town of Muscat proper (or “Old Muscat”, as it’s now known), home to the residence of the sultan and other notables, and the separate port of Muttrah, the centre of the town’s commercial activity.
Top image © NAPA/Shutterstock
Diving, snorkelling and boat trips in Muscat
There are a surprising number of diving operators in Muscat offering a range of trips and PADI courses. The closest dive sites are just south of the city along the coast at Bandar Jissah and Bandar Khayran (which is also where you’ll find the popular Al Munassir wreck) and, slightly further afield, at Fahal Island (40min–1hr by boat). Euro Divers, Omanta Scuba and the Oman Dive Centre also do trips out to the Daminayat Islands, about a two- to three-hour trip by boat each way (or about half that in Omanta’s high-speed catamaran). As throughout Oman, nutrient-rich waters attract a fine array of marine life, ranging from tiny nudibranchs to whale sharks. You stand a better chance of seeing larger sea life at the Daminiyats and Fahal, since they’re further offshore. Daminiyat Diving, upstairs in the Jawaharat A’Shatti Complex in Shatti al Qurum, stocks a reasonable range of diving gear; alternatively, try the shop at Bluzone Diving.
All diving operators also run snorkelling trips to explore the coral gardens at Bandar Jissah, Bandar Khayran and Fahal Island, and most (plus a couple of other operators) also run boat trips around the coast. These include dolphin-spotting boat trips – you should have a better than ninety percent chance of seeing dolphins (mainly spinner, sometimes bottlenose); whale sharks and humpback whales are also very occasionally sighted. Some operators also offer sunset cruises, leaving at around 4.30pm and lasting a couple of hours.
Drinking, nightlife and entertainment
Muscat has far more licensed pubs, bars and restaurants than anywhere else in Oman, mainly (but not exclusively) found in hotels. There are three main options: the swanky bars found in the city’s upmarket hotels; the somewhat more downmarket English-style pubs, also found in most mid- and upper-range hotels; and the raucous live-music bars with live Arabian or Indian stage shows. Nowhere is drinking cheap, however, and the city’s fancier bars, although undoubtedly alluring, can empty your wallet very quickly.
Hanging out over a freshly pressed juice or a cup of coffee in one of the city’s local cafés offers a far cheaper and more typically Omani experience – the coffee shops in and around Muttrah Souk and along the nearby corniche are particularly attractive places to shoot the breeze and watch the world go by. It’s also worth heading to somewhere like Al Candle Café or Kargeen after dark and chilling out over a shisha and a cup of Turkish coffee. For a more upmarket variation on the same theme, afternoon tea in either the Grand Hyatt or Al Bustan are both enjoyable.
Nightlife in Muscat is a pretty low-key affair – it can often seem like the city’s two most popular after-dark activities are driving at maniac speeds up and down Sultan Qaboos Street or piling into the nearest Lulu hypermarket for late-night shopping. Western expat and tourist nightlife tends to focus around drinking in one of the city’s bars or pubs. Listings of forthcoming events are also hard to come by – have a look at the “Oman Nightlife” group on Facebook or check out wwww.muscatmutterings.com.
Quite a few of the city’s pubs have live music most nights, ranging from the accomplished international cover bands (or occasional jazz acts) which play the city’s five-star drinking joints through to the gyrating Filipina chanteuses who can be heard murdering classic tunes in the city’s more downmarket pubs. For a quintessential slice of Omani nightlife, head to one of the live-music bars found in some of the city’s mid-range hotels (such as the Marina in Muttrah, or the Mutrah and Ruwi hotels in Ruwi). The nearest you’ll get to a genuine club is either the Copacabana at the Grand Hyatt or the Rock Bottom Café – the only two places in the city which currently have a “dancing permit”, without which the Omani authorities forbid any form of disco activity.
Big-name international music acts (although think Tom Jones and Bryan Adams rather than Shakira and Dizzee Rascal) occasionally pass through the city, during which the gardens at the InterContinental hotel are pressed into service as an impromptu concert arena.
More upmarket forms of cultural entertainment are virtually nonexistent at present, although this may change following the opening of the city’s new Royal Opera House (wwww.rohmuscat.org), next to Sultan Qaboos Street in Qurum (currently scheduled to open in mid-2011). This will provide the city with a much-needed large-scale performance space – expect a mix of classical music, jazz, dance and Arabian cultural events, plus visiting opera productions.
Muscat has far and away the best selection of places to eat in the country, albeit relatively modest compared to other capital cities in the region. There’s a good spread of upmarket restaurants, mostly based within the various hotels in the city’s more modern districts around Qurum. More down-at-heel options can be found in the older parts of the city: Ruwi has the best range of cheap curry houses alongside slightly fancier restaurants, while Muttrah has the most enjoyable traditional Arabian shwarma cafés.
Muscat offers a rare chance to sample traditional Omani food at places like Kargeen, Ubhar or Bin Ateeq; you’ll also do well for seafood, most of which comes fresh out of the local market at Muttrah. There’s also a glut of good Indian restaurants thanks to the city’s sizeable subcontinental population, along with a passable assortment of Italian, Chinese and Thai establishments, plus a couple of Iranian and Moroccan joints. Most restaurants close from 3–7pm. All the venues listed below are open daily for lunch and dinner unless otherwise stated; phone numbers are listed for establishments where it’s a good idea to book ahead.
For restaurant reviews www.muscatdeli.blogspot.com has some excellent in-depth critiques of various places around the city, plus details of forthcoming culinary events.
The majority of visitors to the city do all their shopping in Muttrah Souk, although there are a few other places worth checking out. The most interesting area is the commercial district in central Qurum, around Qurum roundabout, where a cluster of old-fashioned malls harbour an interesting range of shops selling traditional arts and crafts, gold, jewellery and perfumes. Standard opening times for most shops and malls are roughly Saturday to Thursday, from 10am–1pm & 5–10pm, and Friday from 5–10pm (some places open and close half an hour earlier than this).