It would be difficult not to romanticise Oman’s capital city, Muscat, before setting foot on the ground. I know I did. My vision went something like this: Wandering in and out of souqs, stopping every now and then at a delightful outdoor cafe before venturing down to the shoreline to watch the dhow boats pulling into harbour. Of course, the Muscat I conjured up out of the nearest things I had available – vague memories of Marrakesh and Andalusia – was, in reality, pretty wide of the mark.
For starters, Muscat isn’t exactly a walking city. In fact, it’s less like a city at all and more like a collection of neighbourhoods, each with its own attractions, spread out over a large area and connected by a sequence of vast, intimidating six-lane highways. A car is a necessity in Muscat – I couldn’t imagine doing it without your own form of transport.
Another curious thing about Muscat is that almost everything is hidden indoors – which makes sense, given the high temperatures and unforgiving sun (it averaged 40 Celsius during our stay in September). A notable exception is the Muttrah area, which comes alive after dusk.
Two full days is enough time to take in Muscat’s highlights, and any extra time you have should be devoted to the many day trips you can easily make from the city (check out our recommended 10-day itinerary for some inspiration).
Here’s how to spend your time in Muscat, Oman…
BRUNCH AT KARGEEN CAFE
Muscat has a sizable expat population, and most of them will point you in the same direction if you’re inquiring about weekend brunch: Kargeen. We were pleasantly surprised to have the cafe all to ourselves on our first Sunday morning in Muscat. The word kargeen means ‘little wooden cottage’, which alludes to the character of the cafe’s main dining room. From the fragrant puff of frankincense that greets you at the door, to the beautifully embellished bread baskets and the tea ritual that takes place at the table, everything about Kargeen screams of Omani tradition.
I recommend ordering the Omani Breakfast set: generous helpings of Rukhal bread (served with cheese, zaatar and honey), Omani-style eggs, more eggs dripping with sweet date syrup, chickpeas masala, and Omani tea or coffee. One serving is more than enough to share between two. Don’t leave before walking through the gardens and admiring the outdoor kitchen where the flatbread is cooked over an open fire.
SULTAN QABOOS GRAND MOSQUE
The spiritual centre of Oman, a visit to Muscat’s Grand Mosque should be at the top of your to-do list. The main hall houses the world’s second-biggest chandelier and second-largest carpet (as one person put it, Oman isn’t as showy as its neighbours in the UAE and perfectly content with coming in second). The marble architecture is stunning and particularly beautiful when seen sparkling in the midday sun.
Don’t miss the intricate woodwork or the tile mosaics in the main prayer hall. Make sure you walk the perimeter of the complex to see all the various angles of Muscat and the Jebel Shams mountains framed by beautiful stone archways.
THE NATIONAL MUSEUM OF OMAN
Having just opened in July 2016, the National Museum is a relatively new addition to Muscat’s impressive museum and gallery scene. If you only have time for one museum, I recommend this one: it’s a one-stop shop for learning about the fundamentals of Omani culture and history. Detailed exhibits on frankincense (pictured above), dhow building and traditional Omani costume are among the highlights. The Museum is a little pricey, but well worth the cost of a ticket. Free halwa and coffee included.
MUTTRAH CORNICHE & SOUQ
Muttrah is best-known for its expansive souq (marketplace), which takes in a vast labyrinth of undercover stalls and a seemingly endless swathe of outdoor shops that fringe the main market complex. The whole Muttrah area – with its charming corniche, ocean views, fortress (which was unfortunately closed when we visited) and rambling residential laneways – is probably Muscat’s prettiest area, and the only neighbourhood that’s suited to exploring on foot.
It would be redundant to list all the various wares you can buy at Muttrah Souq – basically any sort of souvenir or local product you can think of is available, plus a huge array of antiques. My favourite shops weren’t the touristy ones, but the cramped stalls selling glittering ribbons, notions and trimmings for garments.
Muscat’s best beaches are all associated with the city’s big hotels; but despite this, most are open to the public and free to visit. Intercontinental Beach, as it’s known, has a wealth of cafes, restaurants and cheap eateries on the shoreline, making it an ideal spot for dinner. Arrive early to watch a football game on the sandbanks as the sun glides over the gulf in a vivid Arabian sunset.