Muscat is the capital of Oman, a traditional, culturally-rich country that lies in the heart of the Middle East. With topographical diversity which ranges from gorgeous blue waters of the Arabian Sea, miles of golden sand desert, myriad wildlife, fjords, mountains, green forests and streams, Oman offers something for everyone. It is only recently that the country started to attract tourists, most of them still from other Middle Eastern countries, but if you plan a trip to this conservative yet immensely beautiful country, there's so much to do and see that it can be difficult to choose. The capital city is the perfect place to start your journey and here are the top things to do in Muscat.
#1 Visit Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque
Out of all the things to do in Muscat, this features on the top of my list. It is the only mosque in Oman that is open to tourists and is an incredible one in terms of its architecture. Almost as awe-inspiring as the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi but built way before that one, Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque boats of equally stunning interiors with an intricate hand-woven carpet and a gorgeous chandelier made of Swarovski crystals (both of which are former Guinness World Record holders) adorning its prayer hall. Traces of Egyptian, Omani and Persian architecture make for an intriguing sight, with four minarets surrounding the courtyard that encompasses the prayers halls.
As with all other mosques, one must ensure to keep their legs and arms covered (women must also cover their heads) while entering the mosque.
#2 Shop in Muttrah Souq
A labyrinth of narrow alleyways with shops selling a colourful and eclectic collection of Omani souvenirs such as high-quality frankincense, pashminas, silver jewellery and khanjars, spices, pots and pans, Arabic lamps and many other accessories, a visit to Muttrah Souk is a treat for the senses, both visual and olfactory. An ancient yet vibrant market, you'll find a lot of unique artefacts here which are related to Oman's history and culture as well as exhibits brought to Oman from the far east countries such as India, Pakistan, Nepal and China.
The entrance to the souk is on the corniche, one of the most popular and lively areas, frequented by tourists and locals alike. The souk itself is covered with a high ceiling, so you're spared from walking under the scorching heat of the sun. You can spend 15 minutes to 1.5 hours exploring the winding maze of thousands of shop, which are not easy to navigate because of the wide area they're in. You're sure to have a fascinating experience, hard to find anywhere outside the Middle East. And yeah, Do not forget to haggle!
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#3 Stroll along the Corniche
Muttrah Corniche is one of the most crowded and popular areas of the city and one of the top things to do in Muscat is a stroll along the promenade, where you will see locals and tourists enjoying some family time during the sunset and night time. This 2-km stretch along the coast provides nice views of Sultan's yacht and the Muscat Fort and comes alive with a vibrant atmosphere every evening. As you walk past the Portuguese Muttrah fort, you can climb the 100-odd steps to the top of an old restored watchtower and enjoy beautiful views of the city from the vantage point. Several restaurants and cafes line this waterfront boulevard and you can also see dhows anchored on one end, with fishermen going about their daily business.
#4 Visit the Historical Old Quarter
Just like most other destinations, I always recommend a visit to the ancient walled city as one of the top things to do in Muscat. Guarded by 2 ancient forts (Al Mirani & Al Jalali) perched on the hilltop on either side of the historical centre, this charming area is also home to several museums such as the National Museum of Oman. One of the intriguing architectural sites here is the Al Jalali Fort and although it is closed to the public for visitation, you can still admire this fortified 16-century monument from a distance. Built by the Portuguese, the fort was used to keep an eye on the port of Muscat, an important trading centre at the time.
One of the most interesting museums to visit here is the Bait Al Zubair. Home to ethnographic artefacts that reflect the lifestyle of the Omanis in ancient times, it was actually the residence of Al Zubair family before it was converted into a museum and the exhibits here were once privately owned by the family. The museum provides a window into Oman’s rich heritage and culture and also has a gift shop where you can buy several souvenirs.
Another interesting place to visit in the Old Quarter is the Al Alam Palace. This blue-and-gold building stands in stark contrast to most other buildings in the old city and is the ceremonial palace of His Majesty the Sultan. Sultan Qaboos doesn't live here anymore and the palace is not open for tourists to visit but a photo stop right outside is recommended and considered as one of the top things to do in Muscat.
#5 Admire the architecture of Muscat Gate
One of the most photographed ancient monuments of Muscat, Muscat Gate is the entrance to the old city from the relatively newer and modern part of Muscat and is now a photographic museum that tells the history of Oman. The museum is located on top of the gate and offers great views of the rugged brown cliffs, Portuguese forts and bustling old town area of Muscat. Even if you do not plan to visit the museum, a photo stop to admire the intriguing architecture of this archway is recommended!
Click here to read the Oman Destinations Guide to learn more about planning a trip here.
#6 Board a dolphin-watching cruise
Muscat's pristine waters are home to wild dolphins and several species of whales, especially the endangered blue whale. Cruises usually depart early morning and last for 2 hours. Several companies provide a hotel pick up and drop off along with snorkelling gear on board, for those willing to jump into the crystal clear waters and observe the sea life and swim with the turtles. Some popular companies conducting the dolphin and whale watching tours in Muscat are Coral Ocean Tours & Sidab Sea Tours. Boarding a cruise to watch the dolphins in the beautiful blue seas is one of the top things to do in Muscat.
#7 Take a day trip to historic town of Nizwa
One of the top things to do in Muscat is to take a short road trip to Nizwa (1.5 hours), the old capital of Oman in the 6-7th century. Located at the foot of the green mountains Jabal Akhdar, it is considered a cultural centre because it was the first city in Oman to convert to Islam. The city is famous for Nizwa Fort and it's old Islamic architecture, which reflects the lifestyle of the local people between the 9th - 17th centuries. Inside the fort, you can see several prisons, prosecution grounds and several methods of defence used in the olden times. A cylindrical tower, which is also the highest in Oman, is its key feature and the fort also has artefacts and exhibits displayed in the rooms. There's also a gift shop for buying Omani souvenirs.
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Another interesting place to visit in Nizwa is the Nizwa Souq. A good place to buy Omani silver jewellery and khanjars, you'll also see a lot of fruits and vegetables here, pots and pans, local craftsmanship and spices. Men in their dishdashas, haggling for food or sitting and enjoying some tea and conversations is a common sight to see here. The cream coloured walls of the souq in the backdrop of the rugged brown Hajjar Mountains make for an intriguing picture-friendly place to visit.
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#9 Drive up the green mountains (Jabal Akhdar)
A part of the Al Hajjar Moutain range, Jabal Akhdar or the green mountains as they're called, are best accessed from the Birkat Al Mawz village, which is a 45-minute drive ahead of Nizwa. You're recommended, however, to take this road trip in a 4WD as only those vehicles are allowed beyond the check-point. A steep climb to viewpoints which provide fantastic panoramas of the dramatic mountainous scenery and terraces, especially that of the Saiq Plateau. It might be a great idea to watch the sunset or spend the night in one of the best resorts here - Alila Jabal Akhdar, a 5-star luxurious resort, with its modern Arabic architecture and excellent hospitality.
The resort is located right on the edge of the cliff, with unparalleled views of the gorge below and the highlight is their Jabal Terrace, a cosy majlis with superb views or the swimming pool located at the edge of the cliff, the perfect place to relax with a sundowner and watch the sunset.
However, don't expect to see a lot of 'green' (a slightly misleading name so to say!). The mountains are more rugged brown than lush green, although some vegetation can be noticed on the watered terraces. At 2,000m above sea level, it is definitely cooler here than in the city below and one of the top things to do in Muscat (rather around Muscat) is to spend some quiet time away from the desert heat, amidst peaceful surroundings.
#10 Watch the sunset (or sunrise) at Jebel Shams
Another mountain peak located in the Al Hajjar Mountains is Jebel Shams, also known as the Grand Canyon of Oman. A very rugged landscape greets you on your drive to the top of this peak, which is also known to be the highest in Oman at 3009m. The views of the Wadi Ghul below, which plunges steeply into nothingness, makes for the perfect spot to camp for the night and capture lovely sunset/ sunrise pictures from the edge of the cliff. If you're not the camping sort of person, there are several low key hotels and accommodations located on the plateau near the canyon rim. The drive from Nizwa to Jebel Shams is about 2 hours and you're recommended to hire a 4WD for this road trip. During the winter months (November - March), make sure to carry warm clothing as it can get very cold after sunset.
#11 Relax in a luxurious beach resort
Not known to many people, Muscat has some of the most luxurious beach resorts in the region. My favourite three resorts here are: The Chedi Muscat (the most expensive of all and also, perhaps the most opulent), with a prime location on the waterfront, offering chic and stylish rooms, a gorgeous infinity pool, beachside bars and lounges and the perfect contemporary oceanside retreat. However, it costs upwards of $500 per night to stay here.
Slightly less pricey options include Al Bustan Palace Hotel (A Ritz Carlton brand), yet another chic hotel located on the beachfront, with a more traditional feel to it as compared to the modernistic style of Chedi. Set in the backdrop of Al Hajjar Mountains on one side and the blue ocean on the other, Al Bustan Palace Hotel costs about $400 per night and offers gorgeous views and a brilliant experience.
A lot less pricey than these two options above is my favourite resort, Shangri La Bar Al Jissah Resort which has two separate hotels under the brand name: Shangri La Al Waha and Shangri La Al Bandar. Al Waha is a more family-oriented hotel whereas Al Bandar is more for couples. The resort is spread out over a large area, connected with a lazy river and a massive stretch of the coastline. Staying here costs almost half as compared to the other resorts ($ 250 a night) and the facilities offered are equally good! If you're in the city for a few days, one of the things to do in Muscat is to spend a night or two in one of these amazing resorts.
Shagri-La Bar Al Jissah Resort and Spa
#12 Go diving in the gorgeous blue waters
There are several popular diving sites around Muscat because of the water being Plankton-rich and attracting several species of fish such as rays, various shark species and the occasional whale shark, and turtles. Visibility is usually high and the marine life is diverse and plentiful, making scuba diving one of the best things to do in Muscat. The most popular diving area is the Daymaniyat Islands, where the best time to go diving in from April - October because of the high visibility and plenty of sea life including whale sharks. Most diving trips depart from Marina Al Bandar, however, it is advisable to arrange for your diving trip beforehand as the companies organise hotel pick and drops. You may even want to spend the night at the Oman Dive Centre Resort where you can stay in beach huts right by the sea. Comfortable and spacious rooms, a restaurant and a beach club are the facilities offered here apart from, of course, the diving centre.