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Tastescape: What to eat and see in Muscat, capital of Oman

The city is a celebration of everything fantastic about Gulf Arab culture, with bazaar stalls, historic sights and stunning scenery. Resident Heather Duncan knows Muscat’s must-dos

Heather Duncan
Friday 06 October 2017 10:23 BST
Souk up the sun: the newly restored 17th-century Nizwa Fort completes a picturesque coastal setting
Souk up the sun: the newly restored 17th-century Nizwa Fort completes a picturesque coastal setting (The Great British Chefs)

Often referred to as “the jewel of Arabia”, Oman is certainly not a holiday spot to be overlooked. From the peaks of the Hajar mountain range to the low-lying wadis (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. Omanis 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 in the country, there is a chorus of oohs and aahs as the whole family hangs onto your every word. This is part of the fun – just relax and go with the flow.

Magical Muttrah

For a relaxing walk while looking out to sea, you can’t do better than the Muttrah Corniche. It 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.

Eastern promise: the Muttrah Corniche (GBC)
Eastern promise: the Muttrah Corniche (GBC) (The Great British Chefs)

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. It retains a chaotic hustle and bustle, attracting 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.

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.

The Muttrah Souq is packed with exotic goodies (GBC)
The Muttrah Souq is packed with exotic goodies (GBC) (The Great British Chefs)

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. Omani artworks hang 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. 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 while 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.

Dhow and then: traditional Arabian sailing boats add a timeless feel (GBC)
Dhow and then: traditional Arabian sailing boats add a timeless feel (GBC) (The Great British Chefs)

Muscat from the sea

Oman boasts a thousand miles 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.

See Oman’s dolphins up close

There are 20 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 dhow, the traditional Omani sailing vessel. 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’s drive from Muscat. Geologists say this 40-metre-wide, 20-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.

Still have time to spare?

– The Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque is called “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 the whole of your arms and legs to be covered, with headscarves expected for women.

– 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 of Modern Art 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.

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