Nestled between Dubai’s over the top glitz and glam culture and Saudi Arabia’s tightly controlled conservatism, Muscat, Oman is a breath of fresh Middle Eastern air. Surrounded by the Hajar mountains and the Gulf of Oman, the city seems to hover between land and sea. Elegant mosques, smart cafes and pearly white buildings line the streets harmoniously. The smell of fresh seafood, imported incenses, ground coffee and cardamon fill the air. But there’s more. Not far beyond the city center, rugged deserts are balanced by coastal beaches where turtles sunbathe and lush green mountains. Whether you’re the adventure traveler, the historian, casual explorer, shopaholic or foodie, this jewel of a city is sure to make your Arabian dreams come true. While the possibilities are endless, here are a couple things you should definitely aim to do.
Explore Arabian Architecture
Scouting the city center is a must. Though a simple walk around Muscat will quickly reveal the beauty of Arabian buildings, the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque is an incredible display of Muscat’s Arabian architecture. Built in 2001, the mosque is the only one of it’s kind open to non-muslims. Adorned with Persian carpets, marble floor, chandeliers the size of small dune buggies and a golden lattice dome, it’s hard to not stand in awe of the mosque’s exquisite style. The Royal Opera House, made with Omani and Italian marble is also revered for its stunning designs. But Muscat’s markets are just as alluring.
Browse the Souqs
Unlike markets in Dubai and Morocco, shopping in Muscat is fairly easy-going. A port city, the city is full of hidden treasures. Muttrah Souk combines the steady bustle of a traditional Arabic market with the class of a modern city. Houses under a timber roof, the souk is like a Middle Eastern mall with a flea market feel. Visitors can purchase anything from textile to jewelry to souvenirs to antiques. Perhaps the best part of Muttrah souk is its prime location. Located in Muttrah Corniche which is right along the water, the souk is a wonderful place to unwind and grab a cup of Omani coffee as the sun sets upon the city’s white buildings and Arabic lattice domes.
Eat like a Sultan
A port city, Muscat is known for its superb seafood. While hummus, flatbread, and other culinary dishes are readily available, Muscat is for seafood lovers. Curry kingfish, one of the city’s most prized dishes, is a combination of grilled fish mixed in a coconut broth with turmeric, ginger, and garlic. While there are plenty of restaurants to choose from, Kargeen Cafe with its open air or courtyard dining style and Afro-Arabian Omani Food at Zanzibar Island, with its Arabic and African fusion flavored foods are highly recommended. Last but certainly not least, be sure to stop pick up some hawla before returning home. The delectable gelatin-like dessert, comprised of sugar, cornstarch and rosewater and saffron flavored ghee is sure to transport your taste buds to heaven and back.
That’s right. On top of everything else Muscat has to offer, you can go dolphin gazing too on a boat tour on the Gulf of Oman. Courtesy of Ocean Blue Oman, sit back and watch spinner dolphins hunt for food as they leap in and out the water. Small in size, these tiny creatures love frolicking in the water and are known for their acrobatic capabilities.
Campout in the Crisp Desert Air
Whatever you do camping out in Muscat’s desert is a must. One of Oman’s best-kept secrets is that it’s 100% legal to wild camp in the country. Simply put, you can pick a spot, any public spot whether it’s near the mountains, by the coast, or on the beach and pitch a tent. It’s a nomad’s dream. Not only is this a wonderful way to explore Oman’s vast range of terrains, but it is a wonderful way to meet natives as well. Whether sharing a cup of qahwa or coffee or bartering at the souk, the people of Oman are its greatest asset. They’re friendly, open-hearted and eager to not only share their history but learn yours as well. What better place to make a friend than 3,000 feet high in the Hajar mountains?
Though steeped in Islamic tradition and culture, Oman is not a place bound by restrictive traditions. It’s modern, open-minded and laid-back. It’s a place that hovers in between the mountains and the sea. It’s a place for learning, eating, shopping, hiking, swimming, gazing and even camping and if it wasn’t in your travel plans, it most certainly should be. Who hasn’t dreamed of wild, adventurous Arabian nights under the stars?
Sharita Hanley is an emerging writer with a passion for Middle Eastern Cultures. A self-dubbed Modern Scribe, her writing encompasses everything from travel writing to healthy food entries to ethnographic narratives to personal essays to poetry to blogging to case studies to business proposals to random musings.