Despite its booming economy, Muscat doesn’t share the Gulf region’s obsession for immense superstructures. Instead, flying to the capital of Oman will reveal a charming city rich with tradition and culture, where the skyline is dominated by mountains and minarets. But that doesn’t mean the seaside city isn’t also comfortably modern, with luxury hotels, chic entertainment venues, and contemporary art galleries nestled seamlessly between traditional souks, mosques and other historic monuments.
The National Museum is a good starting point for learning about Oman’s history, with spacious, well-lit exhibition halls emphasising quality artifacts and curation over quantity. Meanwhile, the Bait Baranda collection delves a little deeper into Muscat’s history, and even prehistory, while the Bait Al Zubair provides further insight into Omani heritage through its wonderful selection of traditional handicrafts, coins and more. It recently added a contemporary art gallery to its grounds as well, but it’s also worth seeking out the Ghalya Museum of Modern Art, which houses more art exhibits than its tiny building has any right to.
If you’re more interested in the area’s natural heritage then check out the quaint Natural History Museum, which boasts a fascinating collection of fossils in addition to information on the area’s geology and environmental protection efforts. Culture vultures, meanwhile, should head to the Royal Opera House, which opened in 2011 and has already been graced by multiple international stars of the stage.
People and Traditions
In Muscat you’ll find many apparent contradictions between traditional and modern life. The people are welcoming but protective of their privacy. One of the challenges for visitors in Muscat is navigating the divide between tourist-friendly and local-only areas. The traditional coffeehouses at the entrance to the Old Muttrah Souk, for example, are reserved for elderly male locals, and visitors to the souk must also be careful not to wander into the walled Shiite district of Al Lawataya.
Muscat rarely gets cold, with winter temperatures seldom dipping beneath 15ºC from December to February, with highs averaging in the mid-20s. From May to September, however, temperatures regularly climb into the 40s and even the nights can be expected to average around 30ºC. Rainfall is usually scarce, but recent years have seen heavy showers become more common.
The Arabian peninsula is home to many beautiful corniches, but Muscat’s must be one of the most elegant. The Muttrah district’s traditional seafront buildings provide charm where you might expect little else but glitz and glamour. Many places of interest are located here, such as the city’s lively Fish Market and Al Riyam Park, which is popular as both a picnic spot and for its small funfair on weekends. You’ll also be able to hop on a boat and set sail for a dolphin-watching or snorkeling adventure.
The Corniche is also home to the Old Muttrah Souk, a labyrinth of traditional market stalls and shopfronts where confident hagglers will find bargains galore on all sorts of items and souvenirs. The Gold Souk is definitely worth seeking out – and you can even find Frankincense and Myrrh quite easily.
Muscat offers day-trips out to the desert, whether bashing dunes in a 4x4 or enjoying a relaxed camel ride, but your visit won’t be complete without trekking up the city’s surrounding mountains. One of the most picturesque and easily accessible mountains is the Wadi Al Arbeieen, but the Green Mountain is also worth a trip, partly for the historic city of Nizwa and its impressive 17th-century fort nearby.
Muscat has many must-see sights, including the colourful Sultan’s Palace, the Grand Mosque – one of the finest examples of modern Islamic architecture around – and the enormous Parliament building. Equally worthy subjects of your holiday photos are the city’s historical sites. The 16th-century Al Jalili Fort is the most obvious, rising as it does from a hill by the Old Harbour, but there’s also the Bait Al Maqham – a fortified plantation house close to the city’s last remaining sand dunes in the Bashwar suburb.