A couple of weeks ago my boyfriend had to do a visa run, so we decided to spend a weekend in Muscat, the capital city of Oman.
Muscat is just an hour’s flight from Dubai, but feels half the world away. It was like stopping and taking a deep breath. Everything moves slower, the air feels cooler, the colours softer – the Sultan of Oman has ordered all buildings must be painted white, cream or beige. Another law prevents high-rise buildings; instead the rocky Al Hajar mountains form a protective backdrop to the city.
Omanis are known for being warm and welcoming. One taxi driver took the time to write us a list of attractions we might like to visit. Another driver gave us his number and told us to WhatsApp him if we had any questions or needed any recommendations.
Oh, and Omani men wear the most fabulous hats. Just saying.
We went with Flydubai, the budget little brother of Emirates. We booked two weeks ahead and flights were fairly reasonable at AED750 return each.
New Zealand passport holders don’t need a visa to enter Oman (winning!). If you’re not a Kiwi, you’ll probably have to purchase a short-stay visa, which can be done in advance via the new E-visa website, or on arrival at the Travelex counter. A visa will set you back OMR20.
Tip: Grab a SIM card before you leave the airport – it will be very handy when it comes to navigating the city. We picked up an Omantel Hayyak welcome pack for OMR2 with 1.5GB data.
We stayed at the Coral Muscat Hotel & Apartments, which at OMR36 a night seemed to fall in the mid-range category. It ticked all the boxes – there was a lovely rooftop pool, a gym, and an above-average breakfast buffet (they had donuts!). It’s a booze-free joint, but you can indulge in a bit of cheeky poolside shisha.
The hotel is located in Qurum, a central suburb right beside the Muscat Expressway. It was a good base for sightseeing, though there wasn’t all that much to explore around the hotel itself – a few fast food places, and a couple of sleepy shopping centres that clearly haven’t changed since the 1990s.
For some reason we were given a disabled access room, which was enormous. We found it to be clean and homely – more like an apartment than a hotel room. It had a washing machine and fully-equipped kitchenette, so it’s a good option if you’re staying a while.
To put it bluntly, Muscat is a shit of a place to get around without a car. The capital is actually made up of three towns, Muscat, Matrah and Ruwi, which have merged together to form one big city. It’s all very spread out, there’s little in the way of public transport and it’s not at all walkable.
So you have no choice but to rely on taxis, which will destroy your travel budget. Most taxis in Muscat (the orange and white ones) aren’t metered. You have to negotiate with the driver, and fares were so arbitrary it was almost humorous. We were charged anywhere between OMR4 and OMR10 for the exact same journey, depending on the audacity of the driver (although the guy that tried to charge us OMR10 ended up getting cold feet at the last minute and, in an apparent fit of guilt, said we didn’t have to pay him at all. We gave him OMR7).
Our greatest revelation was discovering Marhaba, a new taxi service for tourists (it’s only been around since March). It’s a bit like Uber – you download the Marhaba Taxi Oman app, choose your destination, and it tells you the fare. The minimum fare is OMR3 for 6km, 350 baisa/km for 12km, and anything after that is 150 baisa/km. It was a relief to have some solid rates, and in most cases worked out to be a lot cheaper than our half-hearted haggling attempts. Many drivers also insisted on giving us their numbers so we could just call them when we needed a pick up, rather than going back through the app (which sort of defeats the purpose of the whole system, but oh well).
1. Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque
If you didn’t swing by the Grand Mosque, were you really in Muscat at all? It’s the city’s number one attraction, and for good reason – it’s very beautiful, with its pearl-white walls and gleaming marble surfaces. It’s also the only mosque in Oman open to non-Muslims, but you have to time your visit carefully. The mosque is open to tourists between 8am and 11am, Saturday to Thursday. Women are required to dress modestly (arms, legs and hair fully covered), but if you don’t have anything suitable you can rent an abaya and headscarf for OMR2.5. Entry is otherwise free.
2. Muttrah Souk
The best place for all your souvenir needs is Muttrah Souk, which is said to be one of the oldest marketplaces in the Arab world. Even if you only intend to window shop, as you make your way through the dark labyrinth of shops you’ll be intoxicated by the heady cloud of frankincense, and all of those glittering tourist trinkets will suddenly seem very appealing. Look out for the store with the celebrity photo wall – past shoppers include Michael Jackson, Kate Moss and Prince Harry (though he didn’t actually buy anything, the shopkeeper confessed). The souk seems to open from 8am to 1pm and 4pm to 9pm every day except for Friday, when it only opens in the evening.
3. Bait Al Zubair Museum
Muscat is home to more than a few museums – including the flash new National Museum, which just opened last year – but there was something quite lovely about this little privately-owned museum, set in a restored home in the old town. It housed a rather eclectic mix of exhibits, including a whole room dedicated to some guy’s stamp collection, but we enjoyed the displays of traditional Omani dress, and the building itself is beautiful (unfortunately no photographs are allowed inside). Entry costs OMR2, and the museum is open Saturday to Thursday, 9.30am to 6pm.
There were two restaurants that were so good I would seriously consider jumping on a plane and popping over to Muscat for dinner. The first was a hipster spot called Copper, located a short walk from our hotel in Qurum.
This cool-as-a-cucumber eatery wouldn’t feel out of place in Melbourne, with its exposed wood furnishings and hanging light fixtures. Everything on the menu sounded dreamy, but we couldn’t look past the Copper Burger – a beef patty combined with melt-in-your-mouth BBQ brisket, jalapeno mayo and cheese custard. It was a thing of beauty. I’m not ashamed to admit we ended up going here twice over the weekend…
The other winner was Bait Al Luban, an Omani restaurant in Muttrah (near the souk). I’d seen this place mentioned in a few guidebooks, and was worried it was going to be a bit touristy, but everything about it was gorgeous.
We managed to nab an outside table on the balcony and sat sipping our frankincense-infused water as the sun set with a beautiful view of the corniche. I ordered the shuwa, a traditional dish which consists of spiced, slow-cooked lamb served over fragrant rice.
Yum. I’m sure there are cheaper and more “authentic” places to sample the local cuisine, but this was definitely a nice introduction.
So, that’s Muscat ticked off the list. I’m already eyeing up Jordan for our next trip…