Sweeping around a beautiful seafront corniche, MUTTRAH (also spelled Mutrah or Matrah) is the city’s old commercial centre, and still far and away the most interesting part of the city. The area retains much of its mercantile importance thanks to the presence here of the large Sultan Qaboos Docks, the city’s Fish Market and the enduringly popular Muttrah Souk, as well as reminders of its past in the form of the old Portuguese Muttrah Fort.
The main draw in Muttrah is the famous Muttrah Souk, probably the single most popular tourist attraction in the country. This is Muscat at its most magical: an absorbing labyrinth of narrow, perfume-laden alleyways packed with colourful little shops stacked high with tubs of frankincense and bukhoor, old silver khanjars, Bedu jewellery and other exotic paraphernalia – one of the few markets in the world where it’s possible to buy gold, frankincense and myrrh all under a single roof. You could spend many enjoyable hours here, haggling over handicrafts and attempting to make sense of the maze, especially if you venture away from the heavily touristed main drag into the tangled backstreets beyond.
The souk can be somewhat deceptive at first acquaintance: it’s a lot larger, and a lot more confusing, than you might initially suspect. Heading in from the main entrance on the corniche it’s possible to walk across the souk in under five minutes, following the main thoroughfare which bisects the area from north to south. This stretch – at its liveliest after dark – is where you’ll find the souk’s most touristy (and expensive) shops, lined with neatly restored old buildings under a fine wooden roof and thronged with an eclectic mix of robed Omanis and camera-toting coach parties.
In fact, this is just a small part of the overall complex, which continues for a considerable distance to either side, especially to the west. Turn right off the main drag and, if you know where you’re going it’s possible to work your way back to the Muttrah Gold Souk building which fronts the corniche a couple of hundred metres west of the main souk entrance, passing through a fascinating series of alleyways stuffed with gold and silver jewellery en route. Further alleyways head off in every direction, lined with increasingly run-of-the-mill shops and eventually shooting you out of the souk either back onto the corniche or into the tangle of narrow backstreets and tiny alleyways which honeycomb the area behind Sur al Lewatia and the Naseem Hotel – a fascinating, if disorienting, walk.
Pretty much anything and everything of Omani provenance can be found for sale in Muttrah Souk, including vast quantities of frankincense and bukhoor, herbs, halwa, spices and crushed rose petals and rose water from Jebel Akdhar, alongside traditional perfumes, pashminas and Omani caps, robes and turbans. Many shops also sell old Bedu silver jewellery and khanjars, including museum-quality pieces which retail for hundreds of dollars alongside pieces of “Omani silver” (which might mean anything from antique jewellery and Maria Theresa dollars through to worthless modern junk) heaped up in tubs and sold by weight. The Gold Souk area is packed with shops selling gold and silver jewellery in a range of Arabian and European designs.
It’s difficult to generalize about prices, although for more workaday items you’re likely to pay significantly more here than in less touristed parts of the city. A tub of bukhoor, for example, which might be found in local supermarkets for less than a rial, usually goes for around 2.5–3.5 OR, while some rogue traders might try to sell you an equivalent for as much as 10 OR. It goes without saying that it’s best to shop around, while virtually all shop-owners are amenable to bargaining.