Muscat, the coastal capital of Oman, is a historic trading port that connected the spice routes of the Far East to the Arabian Peninsula for thousands of years. The city has maintained a classic Arabian aesthetic with its architecture, traditional local dress and wooden dhows (boats) that continue to navigate the stunningly clear coastal waters.
The food, fashion and culture reflect the town’s ancient connections to South Asia, Persia, Africa and the Arab Bedouins (a nomadic people who still inhabit the deserts of the peninsula), while the ultra-luxurious hotels and well-developed infrastructure are entirely modern. Safe, clean and friendly, Muscat is an immersive, cultural celebration scented with frankincense and sea air.
Here are a few experiences you don’t want to miss on your visit to the city.
Haggle at the Mutrah Souq
Before the discovery of oil, Mutrah was the commercial heart of the city and its souq, or marketplace, was where Indian Ocean seafarers traded spices, frankincense, textiles and other goods. Today, it remains one of Muscat’s top attractions.
The covered main souq is a labyrinth of alleyways, with souvenirs and pashmina vendors hawking their wares along the central hall, and smaller shops selling perfume, oils and local textiles jutting off from either side. The gold souq is tucked away on the right-hand side of the main passageway. There, you can purchase jewelry by weight — the design of the pieces comes free.
Just behind the covered souq, frankincense vendors from the southern region of Dhofar sell their fragrant incense, and a few blocks further down, you’ll find the spice vendors. Don’t be afraid to haggle. Every price in the market is negotiable, and if one shop won’t bargain, its neighboring stalls will.
The souq is a wonderful place to explore and get lost for a few hours. The shops are open daily, but keep in mind that they close from around noon until 4 p.m. each day and are only open in the evening on Fridays.
Eat with Your Hands
Considered the national dish of Oman, shuwa is a celebratory meal of slow-cooked meat (usually lamb or goat) slathered in aromatic spices and roasted in banana leaves, typically served during the Islamic Eid holidays, weddings and special occasions.
You can try the delicacy any day of the week at Bin Ateeq, a traditional restaurant in the Al Khuwair neighborhood. The service is geared toward taxi drivers from the interior regions, so the setup is old school, with diners seated on the floor of their own private rooms and served shuwa atop a massive platter of rice.
You’ll be given spoons and plates, but we recommend eating like a local by digging in with your right hand directly from the platter.
Spend a Day at the Beach
The Sea of Oman is warm and saline, making it a destination for swimming and snorkeling. Luxury hotels in Muscat offer day passes for their private beaches, which typically include loungers, towels, bottles of water and sometimes even lunch.
Relax and enjoy the oceanside drink service at Shangri-La Barr Al Jissah Resort & Spa or Al Bustan Palace, a Ritz-Carlton Hotel on the north side of the city. Or go for a more low-key day at the Capital Area Yacht Club, a strangely named private beach with no yachts in sight, but plenty of umbrellas and beach loungers surrounding a gorgeous bay.
Visit the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque
The Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque is one of the most beautiful structures in the country. Completed in 2001, it is an architectural ode to Islamic tilework, with long exterior corridors lined with niches that feature traditional patterns from several different religious periods.
Inside, the main prayer hall is home to the second-largest Persian rug in the world, and the second-largest chandelier, bedecked in 24-karat gold and 600,000 Swarovski crystals, weighing in at 8.5 tons.
The gardens, prayer hall and library — which houses more than 20,000 volumes — are all open to non-Muslim visitors from 8:30 to 11 a.m. every day except Friday. There is no fee to visit the mosque, but both men and women should dress in clothing that covers to wrists and elbows, and ladies are required to cover their hair.
Order Freshly Caught Local Seafood
Fishermen haul in an incredible bounty from the Sea of Oman, from the mild local hamour fish — which is so popular in the region that regulations had to be enacted to protect from overfishing — to lobsters, tuna, crab and massive sweet prawns.
Buy this fresh catch at the fish market, located a few blocks from the Mutrah Souq, and just across the street, you’ll find grilled-to-order fare at a small (and aptly named), no-frills restaurant called Fishers Grilled.
If you prefer to eat your seafood in a proper dining room with accompaniments like salads and fresh-baked flatbread, then head to Turkish House in Al Khuwair. The large restaurant is owned by an Omani fisherman who still goes to the market each morning to hand-pick the freshest catch.
The waiters will help you select the right size fish for your group, which will come simply grilled and lightly seasoned. Don’t miss the monster-sized grilled prawns, which you can order by the piece.
Enjoy the Nightlife, Arabian-Style
Muscatis are night owls, and there are many different ways to get out and enjoy the cool evenings in the capital. Find a favorite local hangout along the Shatti al Qurum beach on a stretch known as “Love Street,” where cozy cafés are open late, serving tea, mocktails and fruity shisha. Overlooking the main drag, these quaint venues provide fantastic views of the sea and a prime perch to watch young locals showing off their sports cars.
Just up the street, on the second floor of Ramee Guestline Hotel (only hotel bars and clubs can serve alcohol in Oman), you will find the Arabian night club. This adults-only hangout features live Arabic music, bottom-shelf liquor and Moroccan dancers who perform nightly for a crowd of locals and out-of-towners.
For a more upscale evening, head to the Royal Opera House Muscat. This striking example of modern Omani architecture welcomes world-class musicians and dance troupes from across the region and the globe.
Go to the Mall and Taste Zanzibar in Al Ghubra
Oman Avenues Mall is centrally located in the suburban Al Ghubra neighborhood and shares a ground-floor location with Middle Eastern grocery chain Lulu Hypermarket, where you’ll find an incredible selection of dates, spices, teas, produce and local snacks (the potato chip aisle alone is worth a visit).
Skip the food court and head to Africa Restaurant and Coffee Shop in neighboring Ghubra North for dinner and a taste of history. Zanzibar was part of Oman up until the revolution in 1965, and though the East African island is now independent, the cultural influence remains evident in Oman through the kuma caps worn by Omani men and the flavors of Swahili-Omani dishes.
Try coconut-creamed spinach, fried sambusa (a savory pastry) stuffed with cardamom-scented meat, and Omani coffee tinged with cloves — an all-important import from the spice island.
Discover the Museums of Old Muscat
Up until 1971, the entirety of the city was confined to the small areas of Mutrah and Old Muscat. Since the discovery of oil, the capital has ballooned in size, but to see what life used to be like, take a stroll through the Old City.
Here you will find the His Majesty’s Al Alam Palace, the National Museum, the Bait al Zubair art gallery, as well as a smattering of smaller stops like the Omani-French Museum, the Bait al Baranda history museum and the Muscat Gate Museum, which is built inside one of the old Portuguese gates that separated Mutrah from Muscat.
Experience Street Life in Shatti Al Qurum
The picturesque oceanfront area of Shatti Al Qurum is a popular place to walk in the evenings. The manicured seaside paths weave through palm trees, public gazebos and seating areas where families gather to barbecue.
Just a few blocks up the path at the Qurum Roundabout, street vendors set up their grills as the sun goes down to serve Oman’s classic street food: mishkak. These juicy skewers of beef or lamb are seasoned with cardamom and black pepper, and served with a hearty lashing of spicy tamarind sauce. You also can find bites of bright yellow turmeric-tinged squid, and occasionally, baby quail.
Take your flame-roasted fare and find a place on the beach for an alfresco meal set to the sounds of crashing waves.
Take a Day Trip to the Desert
A vast sea of rolling golden dunes known locally as Wahiba Sands lies just a few hours south of Muscat. Experience adventure in the desert on a day trip, either by camel or a more modern pastime called “dune bashing.” Head here on the weekends to see the dunes crawling with Jeeps and ATVs racing up and down the peaks in a highly entertaining spectacle.
Overnight excursions are also available at luxury camps, such as Desert Nights Camp, which typically consist of air-conditioned tents outfitted with beds, bathrooms and electricity, and are inclusive of dinner around an open fire under the stars.