Sitting quietly on the Eastern tip of the Arabian Peninsula and flying well under the radar whilst boasting incredible natural beauty, is The Sultanate of Oman – one of the Middle East's most welcoming and rewarding destinations. It's front door – Muscat: an extremely clean and safe world class capital that is manageable in size, cosmopolitan, yet, highly exotic.
My time in Muscat was spent strolling around old neighborhoods, gazing at beautiful Islamic architectural icons and enjoying its welcoming ambiance. Unfairly overshadowed by some of its neighbouring Gulf capitals, Muscat is a rewarding and easy-going destination that should not be missed.
A safe haven, surrounded by "turbulent" neighbors
The recent political happenings in the Middle East, along with the constant conflict affecting most of the region has shamefully removed the region away from the travel map of many tourists. It seems that these days the old exotic and somewhat romantic idea of visiting "The Old Arabia" feels like too much of a risk to take, and understandably so.
But those digging a little deeper, and doing a slightly more thorough research will find that Oman differs a lot from its neighbours, and is in fact one of the safest countries a traveller could visit anywhere in the world. Nearly unaffected by the "Arab Spring" revolution, Oman is a remarkably tourist friendly part of the Gulf, where traditional cultures can still be experienced in perfect safety.
Thanks to the strategic mentality of its Sultan, Oman is the single country in the region that maintains amicable relations with all of its neighbours, from Iran to Saudi Arabia. It doesn't attract too much attention to itself, remaining rather neutral and peaceful. Not nearly as developed as the UAE, but also fairly open to Western cultures. Not as restrictive as Iran, but traditional. Certainly not as fundamentalist as Saudi Arabia and not as turbulent as Yemen, but cultural understanding and respect are aspects of which to be aware.
And to make things yet easier, visas are available on arrival to most nationalities, on a rather stress free and fast procedure. A diverse land, filled by Wadis, incredible mountains and a mix of traditional old mud brick villages with big metropolis, the country surprised me in a very positive way.
Muscat - an introduction
Home to over 1.2 million inhabitants (with a rather high percentage of expat residents), Oman's capital and largest city immediately looks rather different that its fellow Gulf capitals. As soon as I left the airport, I was shocked to see that instead of massive skyscrapers right, left and centre (such as in Dubai, Doha, or Abu Dhabi), Muscat's architecture was filled by low rise buildings, a few high rises, houses and small villas, which immediately made it seem like a friendly and less intimidating city.
Muscat itself is a combination of a few small cities, that connected, form Greater Muscat. And although the areas are rather apart from one another, the city is manageable, and with a few days to explore it, travellers should be able to get a good taste of it.
Another interesting thing that immediately caught my attention was to notice just how many Omanis could be seen going on about their day, including taking part of the work force of regular jobs – from car valet to taxi drivers, always characterized by wearing their national outfits. This might seem like something that should have been expected as it is what is normal in most places in the world, but in Gulf countries such as Qatar, Kuwait and the UAE, this is not easily observed, which is why it caught my attention. I was also pleased to notice that most Omanis spoke at least some English, and were rather open and friendly towards me.
One of the poor points about Muscat is its lack of public transport system – something often much needed by travellers. As a matter of fact, as a whole, public transport is scarce in Oman, and even for long distance trips, there are not much more than a handful of bus routes offered. Many travellers opt to rent a car, which is affordable, but for moving around Muscat in itself, one can easily get by with the shared taxis, that connect most of the city's tourist attractions with neighborhoods containing hotels, or even private taxis – a luxury unexpectedly affordable. (Let's face it: Petrol isn't exactly being sold at a high cost in this region!)
Most of Muscat is surrounded by the beautiful waters of the Arabian Gulf, but in order to enjoy sunbathing and swimming at pristine beaches, one should go a bit further from the city. Mountains can be observed everywhere – something that initially impressed me, until I got used to it – as well as buildings with arabesque style doors and windows, as well as rather larger mosques.
Architectural jewels not to be missed
Speaking of which, Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque, is one of the largest and most beautifully decorated I have ever seen (and I am proud to say I have visited some truly splendorous mosques in the Middle East). It is said by proud Omanis to be the third largest mosque in the world, but such statement seems to be controversial.
Non-Muslim visitors wearing respectful clothes are allowed to visit it daily before 11 in the morning, and such visit should not be missed by any means! Aside from the striking modern Islamic architectural design and its beautifully kept gardens found all throughout the mosque's grounds, inside is where my jaw actually fell in amazement, as I carefully observed the details of its gigantic Swarovski crystal chandelier, right above what is said to be the world's second largest Persian carpet ever made.
Before heading into the old part of the city, I spent sometime visiting the neighborhoods around the Grand Mosque. The Embassies quarter is extremely beautiful with its nice gardens and villas, and not too far from it, one can find Muscat's second great architectural marvel: The Royal Opera House. Although I didn't have a chance to visit its interior, it is internationally acclaimed around the world as a great venue for performing arts. At night, when lit up, it is yet more beautiful.
Old Muscat – Forts, palaces and markets
The neighborhood called Mutrah was by far my favourite area of Muscat, as it exhales a true Arabian atmosphere. Along with Old Muscat, not too far away, this historical area encompasses almost everything a visitor to this region may wish for: a great seawall promenade along the beautiful Arabian gulf, medieval forts, gates and palaces as well as exotic markets.
My visit started at the Sultan's Palace. Although the inside of the Palace is closed to the public, the grounds surrounding it are impressive, filled by beautiful gardens, courtyards and palm trees.
I continued my walk around the area, admiring the old houses and their displays of avid nationalism (Omanis are extremely proud of their leader, and his picture can be seen all around the country, literally everywhere). I then reached the Corniche area, and continued my pleasant walk until reaching the imposing Al-Jalali Fort, - a fort built during Portugal's occupation of Oman in the late 1500's, which now houses the Omani Museum, displaying Omani cultural heritage.
Still by the Corniche promenade, I walked towards the centre of the Mutrah neighborhood, where its most visited sight can be found: Mutrah's Old Souq (Old Market). There, I managed to lose myself among the many typically Middle Eastern shopping stalls, selling everything from gold, to perfumes, to scarves and furniture. Although I wasn't exactly shopping for anything in particular, I was pleased to notice just how friendly and non-aggressive the sellers were, which can often be the case at many Middle Eastern markets.
Shopping Malls and entertainment – It is a Middle Eastern metropolis after all
My third and final day in Muscat was spent in a more modern side of this city: visiting shopping malls. Certainly not as big in size (but fairly good in variety) as some of the malls in the U.A.E, I found Muscat's malls to be less daunting and intimidating, which in my opinion is a rather important aspect for shoppers. Most big name brands could be found there at affordable prices, but one could visit most shops without having to spend hours walking around. Qurum City Centre and Muscat Grand Mall are both very manageable in size.
Al Qurum is the area where most of Muscat's nightlife and top hotels can be found. Drinking is only allowed at licensed bars, and those are usually attached to resorts or hotels. There are a few nightclubs and pubs spread around town, but just like most nicer restaurants and cafes, the Al Qurum beach area is where more establishments can be found. Due to the large number of British expatriates and other foreigners residing in Muscat, the gastronomy selection here is great.
A cozy and inviting metropolis, with lots of nearby activities to be enjoyed
Muscat left me with a great first impression of Oman, as all capitals should. It provided me with the opportunity of getting a good introduction to the Omani culture as well as with a good idea of what to expect from the rest of the country. It is near many interesting spots worth visiting for a few days or on short day trips, which I will further elaborate on a separate posting.
Compact in size, but boasting great hospitality, it is a perfect city for anyone looking to organize the rest of their exploring pursuits in Oman, or simply to take a breath of fresh air and get away from other too-large-to-handle Gulf capitals.