The Three Wise Men could have stopped off in Muscat to get a few gifts on their way to see the baby Jesus in Bethlehem. On the ancient Frankincense Trail - now UNESCO-listed - Oman is the originator of the incense made from the sap of local trees, and Muscat's old souk is possibly one of the best places in the world to barter for some, alongside gold jewellery and fragrant myrrh.
The city is the main gateway to Oman's sunny delights but it would be a mistake to bypass it on the way to its alluring beach, desert and mountain oases. The manicured capital mixes ancient heritage and modern luxury and has plenty of classic sights and cultural experiences to warrant a few days exploration.
A seaside city of low-rise khaki buildings criss-crossed by modern roads and malls, with parks, waterfront walkways, public beaches and an interesting old quarter where the city was originally founded, Muscat is really visitor-friendly and perfect for strolling and people-watching. The smart new Wave Muscat development with shops and cafes spilling onto open-air plazas by the sea is a pleasant place to stop for lunch, while locals gather along Azaiba Park's walkway and beach at sunset.
Aside from the glowing mosques and minarets, the city's most visible monument is a strange round structure like a James Bond villain's lair placed on top of a high bluff beside the coastal road. Apparently this is a giant model of a frankincense burner - one of Oman's emblems - but unfortunately it's doesn't work. The national produce - warm peppery frankincense - is the defining aroma of the city, wafting through souks, coiling from burners in hotel lobbies and even flavouring drinks.
For sightseeing in the city I wore light linen trousers and a t-shirt to keep cool in the humid heat and respect the local customs of covering shoulders and knees at the same time. I also took a scarf and cardigan for my visit to the Grand Mosque, although I later found out they can kit you out in a natty hijab and cloak if need be, making for an interesting photo op.
Aside from wandering along Muscat's waterfront corniches and sitting with locals in dazzling white dishdashas and embroidered hats sipping cardamom-spiced coffee, here's my round-up of the best things to see and do on a first-time trip to Muscat…
Classic sightseeing spots
Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque
With shining white exterior, five tall minarets and an enormous golden dome that can be seen from all over Muscat when it's lit up at night, the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque is a celestial building of grand proportions. It was the sultan's gift to the people - a vast shrine to god surrounded by an oasis of landscaped gardens specked with kashir and bottlebrush trees.
Around the main prayer hall, serene arched walkways lead off to marbled courtyards, but the interior is obviously the main attraction. Bejewelled alcoves and hand-inlaid panels of blue, topaz and gold adorn the inner walls of the mosque. Beneath the dome dangles a dazzling chandelier draped in thousands of Swarovski crystals, while the floor is carpeted in the world's second-largest hand-woven Persian rug.
Royal Opera House
The graceful Royal Opera House framed in gleaming white marble is a surprising highlight of Muscat - not only for its beautiful Arabian architecture and intricately-decorated interiors, but because it is a real one-off in the Middle East where dedicated music venues are forbidden under Islam. The grand dimensions, intricately-carved wooden panels featuring the opera house's sunflower emblem, as well as the latticed soundproofing of the foyer are all impressive enough but the collection of antique instruments is a nice addition. The mother-of-pearl inlaid guitars and painted horns in the shape of serpents date from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and were all gifts to the sultan, who is a self-confessed music lover.
The auditorium is a nod to the traditional scarlet panelled Victorian theatre with tiered circles and boxes overlooking a wide stage and an enormous church organ just beyond. Alongside lavish operas, it has become the capital's chief music venue hosting everything from Andrea Bocelli to Buena Vista Social Club. If you can't get tickets to a show, you can take a guided tour during the day.
The Flag Palace
Close to the old Muscat area, I made a quick stop to view the sultan's flashy ceremonial Flag Palace (Al Alam Palace) with cone-shaped columns of dazzling gold. You can't go inside, but it's worth visiting to gawp at its opulence. Apparently Sultan Qaboos no longer lives in the palace but lets his security guards stay there instead.
A dish-dash of culture
Bait Al Zubair Museum
Muscat's small Bait Al Zubair Museum gives curious tourists a window on the nation's rich heritage and history. It's also a good orientation on a country that's a similar size to the UK, breaking it down region by region, as well as having exhibits on traditional Omani and Islamic dress, and Oman's long seafaring history when its trade routes stretched from Zanzibar in the south right across the Indian Ocean.
Upstairs the collection of antique hand-written and bound Korans is fascinating, while the exhibition of cute regional postage stamps recalled days of stamp-collecting as a kid. Outside, I enjoyed the oasis model village mimicking the appearance of a real-life watchtower on a clifftop above, and toying with my sense of perspective. The reconstructions of traditional barasti thatched huts made from woven palm fronds and branches with baskets full of dried local spices added a nice interactive element. The main barasti hut is furnished with cushions and rugs making it a nice place to stop for a quick rest, though the air-con blowing through the sides is obviously not part of the original design.
There's a new state-of-the-art National Museum opening in Muscat in July next year, which will likely draw attention away from this little museum, but it has a pleasant authenticity which will likely be missing at the modern supersized equivalent.
Muttrah Souk is one of the Middle East's oldest markets, and getting lost in the frankincense-scented maze full of textiles, curly slippers, lanterns and coffee pots, is all part of the fun. If you are a fan of bling, there's an area of the souk dedicated to fine gold jewellery, and apparently you can pick up fragrant myrrh here too, although I didn't see any on my jaunt through its labyrinthine lanes. I was offered a sample of amoutage - the world's most expensive scent - while wandering about, but my guide told me it must've been a fake version.
Unlike some other Arabian souks, the haggling is low-key and the vendors give visitors little hassle - so it's a good place to buy scarves and textured hats. It's a regular stop for the cruise-ship crowd making some items abit overpriced, so start with a low offer, stay firm and be prepared to walk away if you feel like you're paying too much. It's also a good place to sample some local street food such as samosas and falafel from a little bakery in the wall.
Bait Al Luban Restaurant
Tucked away in an alley beyond Muttrah's waterfront corniche, Bait Al Luban is a restaurant on the upper levels of a traditional Omani house with home-cooked local cuisine and an authentic atmosphere. I stopped there for lunch and was treated to a frankincense drink to start, before tucking into Indian and Middle eastern-influenced food such as yellow lentil daal and date bread, marinated meat and rice biryani, chocolate halva and cinnamon balls accompanied by a lovely watermelon smoothie. As I left I was handed a refreshing cloth soaked in pure rosewater from the distilleries of the hefty Hajar mountains, topping off a truly aromatic experience.
Out on the water
The Sea of Oman is a favourite stomping ground for large pods of playful dolphins, who turn up without warning to perform jumps and spins in the wake of passing boats. Local seafarers say they spot a pod roughly five out of seven days a week, so there's a fairly high chance of seeing them if you go on a two-hour boat tour.
The surprisingly-sleepy Sultan Qaboos port, to the north of the city, is the departure point for Star of the Sea's early-morning dolphin-watching tours aboard a small passenger boat. Unfortunately my first attempt at finding them failed. We scoured the sea for hours but all we saw was a floating watermelon. However, on a later voyage with Oman Sail a group of around thirty dolphins appeared and frolicked in the water close to the boat for around 15 minutes.
Sunset dhow cruise
In the dockyards of Sur, wooden dhow sail boats are still made the same way they have been for centuries. One of the most pleasant ways to see Muscat is from out on the water on a traditional Arabian dhow, sailing along the seafront of corniches, harbours and bays at sundown. And what a sunset! Just south of the Tropic of Cancer, in Oman the setting sun swells into a giant yellow fireball as the clear desert sky is streaked in vibrant purple, pink, orange and red.