Crammed between mountains and the sea, the capital of Oman is an old-fashioned slice of Arabia. Matt Warren explores the souks and promenades of the Gulf's most exotic city.
WHY GO NOW?
It is spring in the Arabian Peninsula's most enigmatic capital. Temperatures are perfect for ambling through the city's back streets, and the sea air is deliciously fresh. Unlike many cities in the Gulf, Muscat offers plenty of history, a pervasive air of tradition and, crammed between the mountains and the sea, a distinctly exotic location. This is winter sun with a twist.
The only airline with non-stop flights between the UK and Muscat is Gulf Air (0870 777 1717; www.gulfairco.com) from London Heathrow. British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com) flies from Heathrow but stops en route at Abu Dhabi. Connections are available on several airlines; Emirates (0870 243 2222; www.emirates.com) has the widest range of UK airports on its services via Dubai, with flights from Gatwick, Heathrow, Birmingham, Manchester and Glasgow.
UK citizens need a visa to visit Oman; you can get a one-month visa on arrival at Muscat's Seeb airport which costs 6 rials (Â£8.20), in cash. For the latest information, contact Oman's London embassy (0207-225 0001; www.omanembassy.org.uk). Seeb International Airport is 37km from Mutrah, the part of Muscat where tourists tend to head. A taxi costs around 7 rials (Â£9.60), or you can walk across to the main road from where there are frequent buses for around 1 rial (Â£1.40) into the city.
GET YOUR BEARINGS
Strewn for miles across a rocky coastline, the city of Muscat is divided into distinct suburbs. Most people live and work in the busy area around Ruwi, a few miles inland, which features new roads, shopping centres and mosques. However the majority of visitors will spend most time on the coast in the districts of Mutrah and Muscat - a small area which, because of its historical and political importance, gives its name to the whole capital. These areas are much more traditional, with atmospheric waterfronts and alleyways. The Sultan resides in his water-side palace (1) at Muscat, which has a paucity of hotels, restaurants and shops. Head for Mutrah, however, and you are near the historic souk (2) and the Corniche (3). The National Travel & Tourism office (4) at Ar-Rumaylah Street (00 968 24 566 046; www.nttoman.com) provides tourist information and travel agency services.
The Al-Bustan Palace Hotel (5), in the eastern suburb of Al-Bustan (00 968 24 799 666; www.ichotelsgroup.com), is the city's swankiest outfit and remains the favoured five-star bolt hole of many Muscat regulars. Doubles cost from 113 rials (Â£155), with breakfast. The Grand Hyatt Muscat (6) on Shatti Al-Qurm beach (00 968 24 641 234; http://muscat.grand.hyatt.com) is equally opulent and combines a generous dose of Vegas glamour with plenty of Arabian charm. A double Grand King room costs from 98 rials (Â£134), without breakfast. The Chedi (7) at Street No 46 in North Ghubra (00 968 24 524 400; www.ghmhotels.com) is a quieter, boutique-style hotel with a distinctly personal feel. Doubles start at 100 rials (Â£138), with breakfast.
TAKE A HIKE
Start on Mutrah's historic Corniche (3), where the day's fruits de mer are haggled over at the fish market (8) and a small-town atmosphere prevails. Head south along the promenade, stopping off at the bustling souk (2). This has all the hubbub of a traditional Arab market, and sells everything from gold and cloth to ornamental knives and bargain-basement electronics. Hard-nosed haggling is a must. It opens 8am-1pm and 5-9pm daily except Friday. Next, visit Al-Riyam Park (9) - if it is open (4-11pm from Saturday to Wednesday and 9am-11pm on Thursday and Friday). The trees provide plenty of welcome shade and you can spend hours watching the comings and goings in the nearby harbour. For those after even grander views, there is also a watchtower. From here, head about a kilometre south to the walled city of Muscat, where you can amble past Mirani Fort (10), Jalali Fort (11) and the grand Sultan's Palace (1).
LUNCH ON THE RUN
Schwarma (a meat-filled pitta sandwich) is Muscat's street-food staple. There are plenty of cheap and cheerful outlets serving this delicious snack near the Corniche (3) in Mutrah - just follow your nose.
When Prince Charles last visited Oman, he headed straight for the place that effectively serves as a national museum: Bait Al-Zubair (12) at As-Saidiyah Street (00 968 24 736 688). This is a privately-funded enterprise housed in a pretty Muscat dwelling, and serves as a repository for the diversity of Omani culture. You can learn about everything from Bedouin traditions to colonialism through its fine collection of household items, weapons and costumes. It opens Saturday-Thursday 9am-noon and 4-7pm (it remains closed on Friday). Admission is 1 rial (Â£1.40).
The Sultan's Armed Forces Museum (13) in the Bait Al-Falaj Fort (00 968 24 312 648) is another highlight of the city and explores the country's military past through an impressive array of exhibits. It opens 7.30am-2pm daily except Friday and admission is 1 rial (Â£1.40).
Alcohol is heavily restricted in Oman and only up-market hotels tend to sell it. Kahwa (coffee flavoured with cardamom) is Oman's favoured tipple.
DINING WITH THE LOCALS
Most of the city's finest restaurants are in hotels, but Mumtaz Mahal (14) at Way 2061 (00 968 24 605 907), near Qurm Nature Reserve, has one of the finest wine lists in the whole of Muscat as well as offering fabulous Indian food and a house band that plays the night away on a stage by the fountain. Main courses cost about 9 rials (Â£12).
OUT TO BRUNCH
Kargeen CafÃ© (15) at the Medinat Qaboos Complex (00 968 24 692 269) is a classic Omani coffee shop with outdoor seating, hubbly-bubbly pipes a-plenty and bags of Middle Eastern charisma. Choose from a menu featuring everything from Philly sandwiches to falafels and kebabs. Dishes cost around 2 rials (Â£2.75).
TAKE A RIDE
The sea is an intrinsic part of Muscat life. Oman Dive Centre (16), east of the centre in Bandar Jissah (00 968 24 934 0096; www.diveoman.com) runs daily dolphin-watching, snorkelling and diving trips.
The best place to buy authentic national crafts is the Omani Heritage Gallery (00 968 696 974; www.omaniheritage.com), in the Jawaharat al Shatti shopping complex close to the Inter-Continental Hotel (17). This not-for-profit shop trades with Omani artisans in a bid to keep Omani crafts alive, and offers Bedouin weavings, terracotta from the far south and hand-beaten copper. Like most commercial enterprises in Oman, it opens 9.30am-1pm and 4-8pm daily except Friday.
THE ICING ON THE CAKE
The rugged landscapes around Muscat offer a photogenic glimpse of authentic Oman. Renting a car is easy and cheap (around 14 rials/Â£20 a day for the most basic), and petrol is cheap. Better still, get some local expertise. Several companies in Oman offer tours that can last from two hours to a fortnight. One operator is Muscat Diving & Adventure Centre opposite the Radisson SAS hotel on Al Kuliyah Street (00 968 24 485 663; www.holiday-in-oman.com). As well as guided 4x4 trips into the desert (costing 43 rials/Â£59 per person per day based on two travelling), the company also organises self-drive trips for which 4x4 rental and all camping equipment costs from 45 rials (Â£61 per day).Reuse content