The main sites are all fairly spread out, but – fear not – you can see them all…
Muscat is large. So large in fact, that’s not even really one city – it’s three. What is today known is Muscat is really three towns that have merged together over time. So that at least explains why the place is so spread out.
Basically, you only need to know of ‘Old Muscat’ (Mutrah/ Muttrah/ Matrah depending on which sign you see) and ‘New Muscat’ (the commercial centre, and where you’ll find most of the new hotels). Because all of these sites and areas are so spread out, it’s advisable to have a car or take public transport. If not – be warned: the taxi fares are going to sting.
* Read more on Oman: Dubai road-trip: to Jebel Shams, via secret pools and a UNESCO site
Arguably the highlight of many a tourists trip to Mutrah, this is as true of a souk as you’ll see in the Middle East (far removed from the hawkers comparing your pale-faced, blonde-haired friend to Angelina Jolie in Dubai’s sorry excuse for a souk). However, if you show up at 4pm don’t wander through wondering what the hell all the fuss was about and give up after seven minutes of listless wandering around the empty halls.
Opening times are between 8am and 1pm, and 4pm and 10pm – and at all times of the day it’s a throbbing, manic, sweatshop of human activity – in the best possible way. Sure, people on all sides of you are going to be insisting you enter their shop, or try on their scarves, or buy their wares – but if you’re easily annoyed or offended by this, get out of the damn souk. It’s an assault on all of the senses – and yes, that’s absolutely a good thing.
Al Alam Palace
The ceremonial palace of Sultan Al Qaboos is one of his six residences, but arguably the most photogenic. The front of the palace may be guarded by several wrought iron gates, but its bright blue and gold facade is nonetheless picturesque, as is its surrounds.
The palace is guarded by Mirani and Jalali Forts, built by the Portuguese in the 16th century, so a great thing to do around here is to climb one of the craggy outcrops for a sweeping panorama over the area. We wandered a couple of metres back into town and up the side of an easy-to-scale rock/ hill, and no one yelled at us, so I’m assuming it’s a done thing?
It does what it says: the Muttrah Corniche is a beautiful waterfront promenade that’s really had some work put into it. It wraps around the front of the Muttrah beachfront, taking in the souk, the landscape, a number of hotels and museums, some super yachts that would dwarf other super yachts, the lighthouse and a number of bays.
A good walk is from the souk out to the decaying lighthouse, where you can drag yourself up the steep stairs for a good viewpoint out over the city and its bays. There and back will take you an hour and a half.
Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque
Basically the only thing we went in to the city for, though I’m sure there’s plenty more to see and do in the vicinity. It’s important to note that the mosque is only open for tourists between 8.30am and 11am – so you need to ensure you visit within that timeframe. Also, unlike the UAE, you won’t be given abaya at the door so dress RESPECTFULLY. This means women need to be covered from head to toe, including an overskirt if you’re wearing tight pants like exercise pants, and have a scarf or similar covering their hair. Men need to be in pants, but a t-shirt is okay. While you can pay to borrow an abaya from the gift shop, or from one of the ‘helpful’ bystanders outside who will drag one out from the boot of their car for one riyal or so, it’s advisable to just come prepared.
If you don’t, you might end up in yesterday’s sweaty gym gear, a nice dress that does not look nice under the circumstances, a thick sweater not at all conducive to the 30 degree heat, and a beach towel wrapped around your head. Yes, this was me, and this also probably explains why photos of me in them that day are hard to come by.
Bait Al Luban
At first glance, it’s a tourist trap just waiting to happen. And by all accounts, it pretty much is; but it’s a tourist trap with some damn good chow. Bait Al Luban is a short skip from the Mutrah Souq, meaning it’s a hotspot for travellers – and that’s probably reflected in the steeper-than-expected prices. Sure, when you’re looking at a meal for 6 riyals, it doesn’t seem like much, but we were (perhaps naively) expecting local food to be somewhat cheaper.
But if you are on a budget – you’ll be glad to know the portions are hefty to say the least – a veritable mound of food near toppling sideways off your plate. If you were only wanting a light dinner, you could easily get away with having one main between two. Nonetheless, light dinners are not in our repertoire, and we ordered the shuwa (OMR6.5), makbus dijaj (OMR5.5) and pakora to start (OMR3.5). All of the above were divine, with emphasis on the shuwa and pakora.
While all the seating options are fantastic – the traditional floor seating nooks are cosy and the tables inside are atmospherically superb – the balcony is where the magic happens, where you can take a seat overlooking all the hubbub going down on the main streets of Mutrah. If you choose the latter, it probably helps to not be a person irked by tooting.
Budget: Mutrah Hotel
Sure, it’s no Crowne Plaza – but Mutrah Hotel is a good option if you’re literally looking for a place to drop your bags and sleep for eight hours, rather than spending time enjoying the facilities of your accommodation. The rooms are about as retro and basic as they come – a double bed, TV, decent (slightly leaking) ensuite and a few other bits and pieces – but it’s a big space and the staff are fantastic. Don’t get excited about breakfast – it’s a stretch to call it a buffet and you’ll mostly be dining off cold hot food and warm cold food – but you’d be paying the same elsewhere without breakfast. Besides, there’s a decent bakery just down the street willing you to eat pastries, anyway.
One thing to note: there’s a mosque fairly close on the backside of the hotel, and the walls don’t exactly guard against the noise.
Price: If you’re crafty and use booking.com, 22 OMR with all taxes. Yes, a veritable bargain.