Top Things to Do in Muscat

About Oman

Pre 1970

Dating as far back as 5,000 BC Oman was the center of the frankincense trade.  Before the 7th century, during pre-Islamic times, it prospered through the trade of copper.  Later, Oman came under the leadership of the Bani Nabhan Dynasty which lasted 500 years where it suffered many civil wars between the tribal factions and the Sultan’s forces.

During this time of unrest, its main coastal cities were conquered by the Portuguese who ruled for the next 150 years before the Omanis took back control.  From the 17th to 19th centuries, the country was settled and unified.  Oman controlled parts of the African coast, including Mombasa and Zanzibar as well as parts of India and Pakistan.

Upon the death of 19th-century Sultan Said, Oman was divided between his two sons.  One Sultan ruled Zanzibar and the African coast, while the other Sultan ruled Muscat and Oman.  The division cut Muscat off from its most lucrative domains and the economy stagnated.

As a result, there were rifts between the coastal areas ruled by the Sultan and the interior ruled by the Imams (religious leaders).  With the help of the British, the Sultan was able to regain control of unrestful areas and reunified the country by 1959.

Unfortunately, the Sultan was very protective of his country, and he kept it from modernization.  The result led to poverty, illiteracy, and high infant mortality rates and ultimately a rebellion.  The Sultan’s son took over in 1970 after a bloodless coup.

1970-Present

Prior to the takeover by Sultan Qaboos, Oman had no secondary schools, only two hospitals, and about 10 km of sealed road.  Since then, Oman has been eased into modernity.  Now highways extend across the country where new communities with houses, a school, and hospital have been created with land provided by the Sultan. 

The large concrete houses of mostly monotone colors pop up in the middle of expansive dirt patches on free plots available to anyone over 23-year old who registers on the 7-10 year waiting list.  Along with free land, higher education is provided to those who earn good marks in school and health care is only 1 OMR a year, about $2.50.

The healthy economy and friendly Omani culture makes Oman a wonderful place to visit.  Stop in Muscat for a few days before exploring the rest of the magnificent country.  Beware that most places are closed on Fridays as well as every afternoon from approximately 1-4, so plan accordingly.  See my post on Tips for Traveling to Oman for more information.

About Muscat

In the 14th and 15th centuries, while only accessible by water, Muscat was an important freshwater staging post which grew to a trading post used by merchant ships bound for India.  The growth attracted the Portuguese who conquered the town in 1507.  Despite being protected by mountains on three sides and two Portuguese forts on the water, the Omanis retook Muscat in 1650.  The conquest subsequently ended the Portuguese reign in the Gulf.

Muscat became the capital of Oman in 1793 and remained a seafaring empire.  It wasn’t until 1970, under Sultan Qaboos that Muscat and Oman were opened to the outside world.  Now, the city of 1.5 million is a sprawling metropolis with concrete, marble and limestone buildings that reflect a traditional Arabic feel unlike other Middle Eastern cities with high-rises galore. 

There are a variety of things to do in Muscat.  Below are a few options.

Top Things to Do in Muscat

Shop at Mutrah Souq

The Mutrah Souq is a maze of shopping stalls which feature all sorts of products from key chains, to fabrics, to scarves and kumas, to silver knives and jewelry.  Off the tourist track there are even Kumasi, traditional attire worn by the women.

The friendly Omani or Indian vendors (all legal as they send illegals back) wave you in their store with a “come, come” in hopes to make a sale. Because cruise ships dock nearby, they take the US dollar, euros and the local currency as well credit cards, though local currency will invite the best deal. 

mutrah souq in muscat

Next to the souq, there are a few waterfront restaurants with outdoor patios which attract many tourists. Upstairs from these restaurants in the Corniche Café.  What a lucky find!  The tiny restaurant with only six to eight tables served the best hummus and falafel we had all week. Fortunately, we wandered in just before it filled up around 11:30am.

Wander Through the Fish Market

I love seeing the markets in other countries, and the harbor and fish market in Muscat is worth a look.  The contrast between the small fishing boats, military patrol boats, the two boats owned by the Sultan that look like small cruise ships, and the regular cruise ships is remarkable.

fishernan in muscat

The fish market includes all sorts of fish and crustaceans from crab to tuna to shark, along with a few fish, despite being a SCUBA Diver, I have never before seen. 

Next to the fish market, is the vegetable market which is another interesting stop to see many varieties of the 123 types of dates from Oman and a few unfamiliar pieces of produce.

the vegetable market in Muscat

Visit Old Muscat

Old Muscat, a walled city only 1.5km by 1 km, is located at the end of the Mutrah Corniche.  The coastal city nestled below jagged hills features the Sultan’s Palace which is situated between two old Portuguese forts, Al Jalali and Al Mirani. 

Since these landmarks may only be viewed from the outside, Old Muscat is a good place to visit after spending the morning at Mutrah Souq and the fish market, as many of the restaurants and shops close during the heat of the afternoon.

Sultan's Palace in Muscat

Also in the area, are the National Museum and Bait Al Zubair.  To appreciate the Omani culture and to get a break from the hot sun, stop in one of these museums which are open in the afternoons on Thursdays through Sundays.

Take a Whale or Dolphin Tour

At the end of the year, during the fall and winter seasons, take a whale or dolphin watching tour.  We visited in February, so the whales had already migrated, but after an hour of zooming through the Gulf of Oman on a speed boat with powerful, twin engine motors we finally spotted a very large pod of dolphins.

While it is always fun to spot wildlife, we enjoyed seeing the massive oil tankers and the tiny wooden fishing boats whose owners could pull in a 150-pound tuna with just a fishing line, no pole!  The coastline is also spectacular, and along with the mountains above, it is the best way to view Old Muscat.  Had we known we’d have to travel so far to see the dolphins, we would have asked to just motor from harbor to harbor.

old muscat

Walk the Qurum Beach

The Qurum Beach begins almost where we stayed at the Ramee Guestline Hotel in Muscat and extends around 1.5 miles to the W Hotel.  Along the beach is a board walk which parallels the road dotted with a handful of restaurants.  A popular area to cruise in the evening among the locals, we took a morning stroll before it got too hot on our way to the Royal Opera House Muscat.

qurum beach in muscat

Tour the Royal Opera House Muscat

The Royal Opera House Muscat was constructed in the shape of a fort in 2007, and it is the only opera house in the Middle East. The venue, which took four years to build, is made of Omani and Italian marble which keeps it cool during the summer heat of Muscat. Accompanying the marble is decorative teak and 24 karat gold as they are both long lasting materials. 

royal opera house muscat

The opera house holds 1,200 attendees and features several international productions a year.  It was a gift to the people from the Sultan Qaboos who loved music. Each seat has a translator screen for English, Arabic and the native language of the show.  No performances were scheduled while we visited Muscat, but it was still possible to take a tour.

The Opera House holds tours twice an hour on the 20 and 40 mark.  The ticket price is a bit high for the short tour, but the building is very pretty, and it is interesting to one of many things the Sultan Qaboos did for his country before he passed away in January. 

Interestingly, we arrived in Muscat during the last week of the 40-day mourning period for the Sultan’s death.  While the flags hung at half-mast, music and dance was restricted.  Some events such as the Muscat Festival 2020 and the Tour of Oman were cancelled.  It made me wonder if any of the performances at the Opera House were cancelled as well.

Admire the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque

The Grand Mosque was built on the order of Sultan Qaboos from 1997-2001 and accommodates up to 20,000 worshippers. The main prayer hall holds 6,500 men and the smaller women’s prayer room holds 750.  The overflow is accommodated outside between the five minarets constructed for the five pillars of Islam. 

The main prayer hall with the second largest chandelier and rug in the world is absolutely spectacular. The handmade, one-piece Persian carpet measure 70×60 meters, has 1.7 billion knots, weighs 21 tons and took 600 women four years to weave. 

Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque

The Imam delivers the khutbah from the minbar every Friday.  After addressing the congregation, he descends through a secret door to the mihrab, a niche which indicates the direction of prayer, toward Mecca in the West.

Along with the Friday service, Muslims pray five times a day. They must cleanse themselves both spiritually and physically before entering the mosque. In the washrooms, they complete a specific cleaning ritual beginning with washing out their mouth three times and ending with washing their feet three times, always starting with the right limb.

Visitors are allowed in the mosque from 8-11am Saturday through Thursday. We arrived to an empty parking lot between 8-8:30 and enjoyed the mosque with few other tourists. By the time we left, at least 10 tour buses lined the curb and the parking area filled quickly.  Go early!

Eat Dinner at Kargeen

Upon meeting our guide, Sami, in Muscat for a week-long adventure tour, we asked him where we should eat.  We did not want some place touristy.  He suggested Kargeen

It turns out, the restaurant was in our travel guide, but it was very good and frequented by locals as well.  We sat on the enormous outdoor patio lighted with hanging lanterns as we indulged in a platter of hummus, baba ghanoush, tabbouleh, along with a few lamb dishes, in particular the shuwa.

kargeen cafe in muscat

Picnic at Riyam Park

Riyam Park is a nice green space up on a hill next to a building which looks like a mejmar. A mejmar, or mabkara, is an instrument for burning incense.  The park includes a children play area, bathrooms, some shaded picnic tables, and nice views of the interesting structure.

view of the mejmar from Riyam Park in Muscat

Take a Day Trip to the Wadis

The eastern coast, just 1.5 hours from Muscat, features some of Oman’s main natural attractions.  While we took a week tour of the wadis, the desert, Oman’s grand canyon and more, Wadi Shab is an easy daytrip for those just in Muscat for a few days.  Be sure to contact Sami at Wadi Shab Adventures, as he grew up in the area and is a fantastic guide.

The trail gradually climbs through the canyon to some aqua pools that can be reached in hour.  The frigid pools are a nice relief from the warm temperatures, and it is great fun to wade and swim to a cavern with a waterfall.

wadi shab

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Beth Bankhead

Former public finance professional turned travel photographer and blogger.

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