VISITING MUSCAT: WHAT TO SEE, EAT AND READ
Muscat, capital city of the Sultanate of Oman, is often overlooked by travelers who prefer visiting its glitzier neighbors Dubai and Abu Dhabi in the UAE. However, Muscat is a magical place with an air of calm and peace. Instead of the glamorous and flashy skyscrapers, Muscat's low whitewashed buildings are nestled in a valley surrounded by rugged mountains and the emerald sea. Oman intends to highlight the simpler and more authentic version of Arabia. It is a beautiful place to visit not only for its natural beauty and stunning architecture, but also for its kind people, rich culture and delicious food.
HISTORY IN SHORT
For centuries Muscat was a thriving trade centre. In the early 16th century this attracted the attention of the Portuguese, who conquered the town. The Portuguese were overthrown in 1650 when the city fell to the Ottoman Turks. The Omanis regained control in 1741 and this marked the start of their Golden Age. Oman became an important naval and economic force with its empire stretching down the east coast of Africa all the way to Zanzibar. The empire crumbled after some tribal and regional division. A new era began for Oman in 1970 when Sultan Qaboos bin Said ascended to the throne and Oman became a prosperous and modern nation.
MODERN DAY MUSCAT
Just like in the neighboring Gulf countries, oil revenues have allowed Oman to develop their infrastructure and economy. Muscat is also a major port. The city has all the designer stores and five star hotels, but still retains a delightfully old-fashioned atmosphere. Here you have the old souks and coffee shops where people have time to sit and watch the world go by; a beautiful, modern opera theatre as well as 500-year-old city walls; traditional dhow boats as well as oil tankers and cruise liners in the port. Omanis are a proud, calm and friendly nation with a unique culture and heritage. No wonder it has become a popular tourist spot. Here are some things to know if you are visiting this charming country and its capital Muscat.
Visitors to Oman must obtain a visa prior to travel. Visas can be obtained online and they are valid for a period of 30 days.
Apply for the e-visa on the Royal Oman Police website here: https://evisa.rop.gov.om/
The local currency is Omani riyal. One Omani riyal is divided into 1,000 baizas. Notes are in denominations of 50, 20, 20, and 5 riyals. Baizas come in 100 and 500 notes as well. One Omani riyal is approximately 2.6 US dollars.
Prices are on the higher side when it comes to hotels and tours but you can still find bargains in the local markets and food is inexpensive unless you are eating in a five-star hotel.
WHAT TO WEAR WHEN VISITING MUSCAT
Just like in any other Muslim country, dress code is modest. Non-Muslim women can wear slacks, jeans, skirts, dresses, t-shirts as long as their shoulders and knees are covered. There is no need to cover the hair. If you are wearing clothes that give you enough coverage, there is even no requirement to wear an abaya in the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque, but take a scarf with you to cover your hair. For men, short sleeves and long pants are just fine in Muscat. In resorts, feel free to wear clothes that you would wear in any other resort in the world.
Local Omani women wear abayas and head scarves, and men wear thobes. Omani men also wear a special embroidered cap, kumma, that is sometimes wrapped in a scarf. The Omani thobes have a small, sometimes perfumed, tuft attached to the collar.
GETTING AROUND IN MUSCAT
Muscat is stretched out along the coast with a highway going through the city. It takes about 20 minutes to get from the airport to the city center and 30 minutes to the Al Bustan Palace Ritz-Carlton. The airport taxis have meters and it costs around 20 riyals to get to the city.
Mutrah and the city center is walkable, while the opera theatre and the grand mosque are further away. Rental car or a taxi is a good option to get around since there is no good public transport service. Most taxis that wait for passengers in the city center do not have meters but the prices are reasonable. The roads are in excellent shape, clean, and lined with beautiful landscaping.
WHERE TO STAY WHEN VISITING MUSCAT
If you are visiting Muscat only a couple of nights and want to do a lot of sightseeing, you may consider staying in one of the city center hotels. The Grand Hyatt, the InterContinental, and the W are just a few options. The most renowned luxury hotel, the Al Bustan Palace Ritz-Carlton, is a little further away but close enough, about 15-20 minutes by car from Mutrah. Read more about the beautiful resort here:
WHAT TO SEE IN MUSCAT
SULTAN QABOOS GRAND MOSQUE
The Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque is an iconic site in Muscat and should be on the top of your list when visiting Muscat. The imposing structure is a fine example of modern Islamic architecture and took six years to build. The mosque was inaugurated by Sultan Qaboos in 2001. Sultan Qaboos was the longest-serving leader in the Middle East who seized power in 1970 and held it until his death in January 2020. The stunning grand mosque was built to celebrate thirty years of his reign. Read further here:
THE MUSCAT ROYAL OPERA HOUSE
If there is a show on during your stay, take the advantage and enjoy a ballet or an opera. If luck is not on your side, you can take a tour of the beautiful opera house. Not only is the opera architecturally impressive, it is also one of the most technically advanced opera houses in the world. The stunning venue is an elegant mix of traditional Arabic and contemporary design and was the first opera house on the Arab peninsula.
Spices, pashminas, silver jewelry, Omani caps, gold - going through the alleys of the Mutrah souk is an exciting experience. The souk is one of the oldest in the world and a great place to meet locals. Bargaining is encouraged, and you will find it hard to leave empty-handed. Buy some frankincense--there are piles and piles of bags sold everywhere for only a couple of riyals, its musky scent floating in the air. Omani frankincense is of the highest quality. The beautiful hand embroidered Omani caps are great buys and so are spices. This is the place to buy some tangy dried black Omani limes, or loomis, to elevate the flavor of your soups, stews, and braises.
WHAT AND WHERE TO EAT IN MUSCAT
Oman's former position as a vast trading empire between Asia and Africa, as well as at the caravan routes to the eastern Mediterranean, is reflected in the diverse food scene of Muscat. Trendy fusion spots and traditional Omani family restaurants are serving a mash-up of Bedouin meat and rice and African and South Asian curries. Some dishes are similar to those in the other Gulf countries, such as shawarma, harees and machboos, but dishes like madrouba and shuwa are distinctly local.
Madrouba literally means beaten rice. It is a soft porridge of overcooked rice, fragrant with spices and topped with chicken or fish.
Shuwa is the most iconic of all Omani dishes, considered the national dish, and often cooked for special occasions and Eid. This slow-roasted lamb dish takes several days to prepare because it needs to be first marinated and then cooked in an underground firepit, wrapped in banana leaves or palm fronds.
Halwa is a traditional dessert made with brown sugar, cornstarch, egg, and ghee. The gelatinous sweet can be flavored with saffron, frankincense or rose water and topped with nuts.
A great place to try these local dishes is the Bait Al Luban Restaurant, only 10-minute walk from the Mutrah souk. It may be bit touristy but the traditional decor makes you feel like you are visiting a local village, greeted with a shot of water infused with frankincense, and followed by authentic Omani food.
WHAT TO READ BEFORE VISITING MUSCAT
Celestial Bodies by Jokha al-Harthi
Jokha Alharthi was the first Arabic-language writer to win the Man Booker International Prize with her novel "Celestial Bodies." She was also the first Omani author ever to have her novel translated from Arabic into English.
The book explores the hopes and frustrations of three Omani sisters, disillusioned by marriage. Mayya, the eldest, prefers not to challenge the parents and marries Abdallah, a son of a wealthy merchant and a textbook upper-class patriarch, whom she does not love. Asma, the second sister sees marriage as "her identity document and a passport to a world wider than home." She marries Khalid in hopes that this will help her pursue her dreams of education. But Khalid is a self-obsessed artist, a modern man whose constant talk about class and inequality masks the internal misogyny. Khawla's husband, her first cousin Nasir, is her childhood sweetheart, who spends most of his time with his lover in Canada and brings "fancy clothes from Canada for his children but never in the right sizes because he did not know how old they were."
The book is a look into the emancipation of women, the social structure of the traditional Omani society, the country's struggle with tradition and modernity, and its history of slavery, which was only abolished in 1970.
Earth Weeps, Saturn Laughs by Abdulaziz al Farsi
In "Earth Weeps, Saturn Laughs," the story takes the reader into the life of an Omani man who is going back to his small home village after returning from working in the city. The village is looking for a shift in leadership from the conservative old to a more progressive youth. The majority of people seem to be conspiring against others, have guilty secrets and only a few are happy. The author mocks the extent of the racial prejudice, religious bigotry, hypocrisy, and petty-mindedness.
The Food of Oman: Recipes and Stories from the Gateway to Arabia by Felicia Campbell
"The Food of Oman" a wonderful book about the flavors, culture, and history of this little-known cuisine.