TASTEscape: Muscat

TASTEscape: Muscat

by Heather Duncan 30 June 2016

The capital of Oman is a celebration of everything fantastic about Arabian culture, with stalls filled with sparkling jewellery, fragrant food and stunning scenery. Local girl Heather Duncan gives us the inside scoop on the must-visit spots in the city.

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Heather blogs about life in Muscat and seeks out the best activities, restaurants and sights on offer.

Heather blogs about life in Muscat and seeks out the best activities, restaurants and sights on offer.

Often referred to as 'the jewel of Arabia', Oman is certainly not a holiday spot to be overlooked. From the high mountain peaks of the Hajar mountain range to the low-lying Wadi Valleys bursting with life, it is a country rich in natural beauty and heritage.

Often overshadowed by its big, brash cousin Dubai, Oman's capital Muscat is more traditional and humble, preferring low, traditional-styled buildings instead of skyscrapers. Though it is more modest than its neighbours, it certainly oozes Arabian charm and style at every turn. Throughout the city you are constantly dazzled by modern twists on traditional Arabian architecture. Opulently decorated mosques dotted throughout the city give you a real feel of how proud this Islamic country is of its faith.

Life in Oman can be very slow-paced and easy going, with the emphasis on quality family time rather than rushing and stress. The local Omani people are warm and welcoming and make it obvious why Oman is world-famous for its hospitality. Before you know it, you will be ushered into someone's home and served with coffee and dates. As you explain how you wound up in Oman there is a chorus of oohs and aahs as the whole family hangs onto your every word. This is part of the fun and experience of Oman – just relax and go with the flow.

Muscat: A video travel guide
The Corniche runs along Muscat's seafront, offering a wealth of small, independent shops to browse through and discover
Muttrah Souq
The Souq is arguably the most famous landmark in all of Muscat, and is home to incredible fabrics, jewellery and spices

Magical Muttrah

Muttrah acts as the commercial centre of Muscat and is home to winding alleys, awe-inspiring buildings and vast bazaars. Be sure to make the most of this fascinating area of the city.

Browse the stalls in the Muttrah Souq

Located at the shipping port is the famous Muttrah Souq, a traditional Arabian marketplace. Dating back hundreds of years, it was a bustling place to trade spices and exotic items between countries. To the present day it still retains the chaotic hustle and bustle bringing in hundreds of visitors, both local and foreign, every day to browse the exotic items.

Through the labyrinth of small passageways stores are piled high with trinkets and novelties. Each shop owner will vie for your attention to lure you towards their store of brightly coloured items. Although the stores are open throughout the day, the most fun happens as the sun goes down and the locals come to haggle prices.

Discover beautiful fabrics in the Corniche

Strolling along the Muttrah Corniche (seafront), you may be lucky enough to see the Sultan's yacht, named Bin Said, in the port, or the giant statue of a frankincense burner located high on the Muttrah hillside above Riyam Park. But it’s the little shops such as Rozna that make the area truly unique. With the finest material bought from the Souq, owner Salama Alkubaici embroiders intricate designs and beautiful images onto fabric and displays other artists’ works that capture Muscat’s culture perfectly.

Soak up the view at Muttrah Fort

Muttrah Fort stands proudly on a high hillside overlooking the ancient trading port. Built by the Portuguese in the 1580s, it is currently undergoing renovation work to restore it to its original glory, so even though you cannot enter it it’s an amazing piece of history to see with your own eyes. Located close to the mouth of the port is the Fort's watchtower. With an amazing vantage point at the top, the climb up the steep stairs may leave you out of breath, but you won't be disappointed by the views on offer. Situated inside the watchtower is a canon dating back hundreds of years – a nice authentic touch after the climb.

For a relaxing walk whilst looking out to sea, you can't do better than the Corniche
Meshan dates
Meshan dates are some of the best in Oman, and are treated like artisan chocolates
Shuwa – goat meat slow-cooked in a pit until meltingly tender – is one of Oman's most traditional dishes

A taste of Oman

Omani cuisine is heady, aromatic and delicious, with plenty of fragrant spices and luxurious ingredients. Get a taste for Muscat by dining or drinking at the city’s most popular venues.

Enjoy delicious dates at Meshan Cafe

Dates are big business in Muscat, and are offered to any guest who enters an Omani home. Some of the best in the city come from four sisters – Waad, Ahed, Wafa and Shatha – who decided to start turning the dates into delicacies in the same way a chocolatier presents chocolate. Visit their shop, Meshan, to enjoy some of their finest creations alongside some traditional Omani coffee, made with mountain rosewater.

Try Omani shuwa

For a traditional Omani meal head along to Al Luban Restaurant to try shuwa – a traditional dish of either lamb or goat seasoned and marinated, wrapped in palm leaves and slowly cooked in a pit dug in the ground to make a delicious, tender dish that’s served with rice. If you don’t fancy eating it the traditional way, then head to Shuwa Diners, in Shatti al Qurum, where the chefs have shaken things up by creating fun fusion dishes such as the shuwa burger. Local Omani artwork hangs on the walls and the sounds of Omani music play throughout the restaurant, making it a place that tickles all the senses and offers a fun, interesting experience of all things Oman.

Take afternoon tea at the Al Bustan Palace Hotel

Afternoon tea is a luxurious treat for any visitor to Muscat, and the Al Bustan Palace Hotel is one of the best and most splendid on offer in the Sultanate. You can relax in the opulent atrium lobby whilst enjoying the traditional scents of Omani incense, before your afternoon tea is served with a selection of delicate cakes and delights made by the in-house chefs.

Bimmah Sinkhole
The Bimmah Sinkhole is worth the hour's drive to reach – dip your feet in to cool off in the midday heat
Dhow boat
Dhow boats are a common sight on Muscat's shores, and are still used to transport goods today

Muscat from the sea

Oman boasts over 1,500 kilometres of stunning unspoilt coastline and an abundance of exotic marine life. Whether you prefer a snorkel under the water, a relaxing spot next to the water or a boat cruising along the water’s surface, then Oman's coastline has something to please everyone.

See Oman’s dolphins up close

There are twenty species of dolphins living in the waters around Oman and you’re almost guaranteed to spot some of them on a dolphin-watching trip. It also gives you a chance to explore Oman’s shoreline, taking in all the tunnels, caves and beautiful cliffs that surround the coastline. The Jebel Sifah resort runs some of the best in Muscat.

Take a trip on a Dhow boat

See the coastline from the water and experience the culture from the comfort of a traditional Omani Dhow boat. The symbolic wooden ships have been sailing on these waters for centuries, and many offer sunset cruises which give you a front row seat to the most incredible views.

Test the waters at the Bimmah Sinkhole

The natural wonder of Bimmah Sinkhole, located in the Hawiyat Najm Park, is around an hour drive from Muscat. Geologists say this forty-metre-wide, twenty-metre-deep waterhole was created when a limestone cavern collapsed, but many of the locals would disagree and tell you that a piece of the moon fell from the sky and made the giant hole. The beautiful clear water can be particularly inviting as the sun beats down in the day. If you do give into temptation and dip your toes in the water, you might just be treated to a free pedicure from the tiny feet-nibbling fish.

The beautiful clear water can be particularly inviting as the sun beats down in the day. If you do give into temptation and dip your toes in the water, you might just be treated to a free pedicure from the tiny feet-nibbling fish.

Heather Duncan

Royal Opera House
The Royal Opera House is a pristine building that reflects the Omani sunshine beautifully
Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque
The Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque is breathtakingly vast, and well worth exploring thanks to the expert craftsmanship found throughout

Still have time to spare?

– The Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque is 'grand' for a very good reason. Located in the heart of the city, it is an iconic building to the Omani people as it was gifted to them by their beloved Sultan. With intricate details and expert craftsmanship, it's understandable why this mosque took six years and four months to complete. After exploring the extravagant prayer halls and the surrounding grounds, you will be warmly welcomed into the Information Centre by the charming volunteers who will serve you traditional coffee spiced with cardamom and a selection of Omani dates. Remember to cover up if you visit – they’ll politely request for your whole arms and legs to be covered and, for women, take a scarf to cover your hair.

– Situated in the heart of the city is the Royal Opera House. Playing host to some of the world’s most famous operas and ballets, this is a building full of grace and elegance and has quickly become Oman’s hottest spot for arts and culture. Sign up for one of the daily tours to see inside, or visit the box office to catch a show.

– Showcasing a wide selection of contemporary Omani art, Ghalya’s Museum gives you an authentic peek into modern Omani life. There are also older works, giving an insight into traditional local customs, and room after room of expertly curated exhibits means it’s one of the cultural highlights of the city, located right at the end of the Corniche.

Discover Muscat and the Arabian Coast in nine or fourteen nights with Celebrity Cruises.