Nestled between imposing mountains and the sparkling Gulf of Oman sits the country’s capital – often referred to as the Pearl of Arabia. Indeed, Muscat is a historic jewel thanks to its strategic port location, and, although it is clearly embracing the 21st century, this picturesque city, adorned with sparkling minarets and forts, is rooted in tradition. The city is the ideal and relaxed setting for holidaymakers wanting to experience Middle Eastern culture with bustling souks jostling for attention beside grand mosques, green parks, fascinating museums and vast beaches.
Although many of the attractions can be taken in by foot, taxis are essential if your clients want to take in all the sights. If 24 hours is all they have, here’s a packed programme that ensures they make the most of it.
8am: not only is the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque an exquisite example of Islamic architecture, it is also one of the few mosques in the world that allow non-Muslims to enter. The décor is lavish, resplendent with 35 crystal chandeliers, a massive Persian carpet and a floor entirely paved in marble. Tours take place between 8am and 11am from Saturday to Wednesday. This is an enlightening and memorable experience – but remember to dress and behave appropriately in order to gain access.
Now jump in a cab and head for Muscat’s prime attraction.
10.30am: arrive at Muscat’s famous (and chaotic) covered market – the Mutrah Souk. This is the place to rummage for collectibles, textiles and souvenirs (see box below). It’s easy to spend hours within this warren of lanes so when refreshment calls head for one of the city’s renowned fruit bars - Al-Ahli Coffeeshop is in the middle of the souk. It serves thirst-quenching juices such as pomegranate, apple and mango.
12.30pm: escape the heady aromas of the souk for some fresh sea air. The Corniche – the path that runs for more than two miles beside the harbour – provides a pleasant, scenic stroll. At the northern end is the bustling fish market but if you turn right out of the souk then the imposing Mutrah Fort makes a prime photo opportunity and the leafy Riyam Park is an ideal picnic spot, home to a massive ornamental incense burner that offers great views from the top. After a break continue to the end of the Corniche, either on foot or grab a taxi to the Old Town.
2pm: with camera at the ready, admire the impressive Al Alam Palace, the Palace of His Majesty Sultan Qaboos. Built on the waterfront it is distinctive by its gold and turquoise exterior. It’s flanked by the 16th century Portuguese forts Mirani and Jalali – which are still used by the authorities, hence are rarely open to the public. For an insight into Oman’s colourful history, visit the excellent Bait Al Zubair museum. Don’t miss the exhibition of photographs portraying life in Oman from the 1920s.
4pm: time for a break. Take a taxi to the infamous Al Bustan Palace InterContinental Hotel and indulge in its legendary high tea. It’s worth the visit just to see the enormous domed atrium and the beautiful grounds.
5.30pm: now do as the locals do and head for the beach. It’s almost a daily ritual for the entire population to meet at Qurm at this time of day, whether to stroll on the vast sands, play football or take a paddle.
7pm: since the Arabian Sea constitutes a major part of the city, make the most of it with a dinner cruise. Some of the best sights of Muscat are seen from the water looking back to the shore. Take in the views while dining on Arabic delights and listening to gentle Arabic melodies.
10pm: for those keen to burn the midnight oil, you may find Muscat thin on the ground when it comes to Western-style licensed nightclubs. However, they are beginning to open up, particularly in hotels. Widely agreed as the city’s most happening nightspot is Copacabana in the Grand Hyatt.
Spotlight: The Mutrah Souk
Under the timber roof of this traditional souk, clouds of burning frankincense waft in the air and combine with the sweet aroma of sandalwood, sweet jasmine, natural oils and strong local coffee. Take a deep breath and then enter the dark, intriguing labyrinthine of narrow lanes lined either side with matchbox-size shops. They are crammed to the hilt with everything from Arabic antiques and pashminas in every conceivable colour to dazzling silver wear, Omani khanjars (traditional daggers) and even general household goods – which means it’s a great opportunity to shop side by side with the locals.
Bargaining is de rigueur here and all part of the fun. Most of the shops open from 9:30am to 1pm and 4:30pm to 7pm daily, but are closed on Friday mornings.
Did you know?
In the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque, the central chandelier is 14m high and eight metres wide and is made up of more than one million Swarovski crystals.
About this blog...
I set up this blog to reveal what real life is like here in the UAE - the good and the bad. I'll chat about what I've been up to, Dubai news and developments, my thoughts about expat life here (and in general) and reports about my holidays and adventures in the region (travel is my bag after all).