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City guides

Muscat city guide: Where to stay, eat, drink and shop in Oman’s enchanting capital

Between the Hajar mountains and gem-clear waters of the Gulf of Oman, this ancient city combines a striking setting with a wonderful balance of traditional and modern – Hazel Plush shares how to get the best out of a trip

Friday 06 October 2023 08:28 BST
Meander through Muscat to uncover centuries-old city walls, crumbling watchtowers, and fascinating museums
Meander through Muscat to uncover centuries-old city walls, crumbling watchtowers, and fascinating museums (Getty)

Amid the sky-scraping, gold-obsessed cities of the Gulf, Muscat is a breath of fresh air – literally. Here, Oman’s mighty Hajar mountains, the highest range in the Arabian Peninsula, meet soft-sand beaches where wild turtles nest, and a 200-year-old souk promises treasures galore. Yes, Muscat loves a little glamour – just look at its glittering Al Alam Palace – but this is a city that takes pride in its traditions, its hospitality, and its rich maritime history. Prepare to be dazzled for all the right reasons.

There are countless ways to delve into Muscat’s culture, whether in its many museums or by exploring the old town, but this city isn’t stuck in the past. From star-studded concerts at the magnificent Royal Opera House Muscat to spotting wild dolphins on a sunset cruise, these are the best things to do in Muscat, including where to eat, drink and shop during your stay.

Best time to visit

From October to March, Oman enjoys abundant sunshine (20-30C), though prices are at their highest, especially during the Christmas, Easter and half-term holiday periods. Rates fall in summer, but temperatures peak at 35-45C from June to August.

Read more on Middle East travel:

Best things to do in Muscat

Step into ‘old Arabia’

For centuries, Muscat had one of the most sought-after harbours in the Middle East – an accolade that attracted riches and invaders aplenty. On the cliffs of its Old Town, you can see graffiti daubed by visiting crews across 500 years (it’s dubbed the “Sultan’s visitors book”), while Britain’s own Horatio Nelson docked here in the 18th century.

An afternoon’s mooch around the Old Town also reveals centuries-old city walls, crumbling watchtowers, and several museums in notable houses – including Bait Al Zubair, with its fine collection of traditional dress, weaponry, maps and curios. Tickets cost 3 Omani rial, or OMR (£6.30).

Pop into the Zafran Cafe for a mint lemonade before heading over to the nearby National Museum of Oman (free entry), where you can pore over ancient coins, priceless calligraphy, and a bounty of jewellery, amulets and headdresses.

Catch a star-quality show

Go behind the scenes of the Royal Opera House Muscat (iStock/Travel Faery)

Check what’s on at the Royal Opera House Muscat during your visit; from soul-stirring Omani folk music to world-renowned singers and orchestras on tour, this concert venue has it all. You can also snoop behind the scenes on a guided tour (from 3.15 OMR), and explore the Middle East’s musical roots in the Exhibition of Musical Arts (3.15 OMR).

Spot dolphins from a dhow

The warm, gem-clear waters of the Gulf of Oman aren’t just a swimmer’s delight. They’re also rich in wildlife, such as hawksbill turtles, dolphins and whale sharks. Gulf Divers Oman is a respected PADI-affiliated dive school based in Muscat, which runs day trips to the reefs and wrecks within a short trip of the city. Meanwhile, Star of the Sea offers sunset jaunts in traditional wooden dhow boats, dolphin-watching cruises and snorkelling trips.

Tour fearsome forts on the Corniche

Stroll the Corniche of Mutrah (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

To really get to know Muscat, you should walk its corniche. This long, historic waterfront runs between the fish market in the west and Riyam Park in the east, though you should keep strolling all the way to the old town (around 5km total). You’ll spy royal yachts bobbing in the harbour, Mutrah Souq, Mutrah Fort and the Muscat Gate Museum – ending with the gold-trimmed Al Alam Palace, and the twin sea-facing forts of Al-Mirani and Al Jalali.

Where to stay

Aloft Muscat hotel opened in early 2023 (Aloft Muscat)

Clean, contemporary and excellent value, Aloft Muscat is a well-placed base for exploring the city, less than 10 minutes’ drive from Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque. It also features a splash pool, cocktail bar and all-day dining restaurant.

Enjoy five-star service and a party atmosphere at W Muscat (W Muscat)

On Shatti Al Qurum beach, W Muscat blends city energy (it’s around a 15-minute drive from Mutrah Souq) with fly-and-flop decadence. Expect a vast infinity pool, five-star service and a party atmosphere on weekends.

Around a 20-minute drive from the Old Town, in the bay of Bandar Jissah, Jumeirah Muscat Bay combines a peaceful beachfront location with plentiful holiday perks – including three swimming pools, a kids’ club, plus five bars and restaurants. Activities range from SUP yoga to hiking trips in the Hajar mountains.

Where to eat

With delights such as spicy chicken salona curry on pillows of steaming rice, lamb shank roasted for six hours in an underground firepit, and fresh seafood still sizzling from the grill, the menu at Bait Al Luban is a delectable primer in Omani cuisine. Located on the corniche, it’s modelled on an old Muscat house – think twinkling lanterns, hand-carved tables and waiters in national dress.

For a fine-dining spin on shuwa – slow-cooked marinated meat, such as lamb or goat – book Al Angham, at the Royal Opera House Muscat, where delicately spiced curries and cardamom-infused halwa (a sweet dessert) make a memorable pre-show supper.

Meanwhile, Mumtaz Mahal has been scooping awards for its Mughlai and Punjabi cuisine in Qurum since 1984. Vegetarians are well-catered for, with the likes of tandoor-charred aubergine and slow-simmered tomato paneer.

Where to drink

Alcohol is only served in Oman’s hotel bars and restaurants – and even then, many establishments remain teetotal. But for sea-breezy sunset cocktails, the terrace of Zale Club and Lounge is a lively spot, and its happy hour offers include mai tais and mojitos from 2.5 OMR, daily from 6-8pm. At Blu Pool and Garden Bar you can sip champagne, fine wines and “mango mule” mocktails on the beach with views of the coastal cliffs beyond.

A few steps from the millionaires’ yachts in Marina Bandar Al Rowdha, Fresco Al Marina serves fresh fruit juices and smoothies, while Cafe Bateel in Al Mouj will kick-start your day’s sightseeing with qahwa, Arabic coffee grown in the Yemeni mountains.

Where to shop

For fashion, technology and holiday essentials, hit City Centre Muscat or Oman Avenues Mall: the latter features 3,000 brands under its roof, with Middle Eastern designers and high-street names alike. For Omanis, shopping is an evening pastime – between boutiques, they’ll stop for dinner, meet friends over coffee or catch a movie in one of the multiplexes. The malls are buzzing from 8pm onwards, especially on weekends.

Head to Mutrah Souk for a traditional shopping experience (Getty Images)

For a more timeless experience, visit the 200-year-old Mutrah Souq – the cavernous, frankincense-scented warren on the edge of Mutrah Harbour. Its eastern section sells wholesale products, while the western part is chock-full of retail treasures, from elegant silver coffee pots and gem-studded khanjar (traditional daggers) to Omani dates and camel-milk chocolate – remember to haggle hard. It comes to life after dark, so visit 5-9pm (all week) for the best experience, though shops are also open 8.30am-12.30pm from Saturday to Thursday.

Best beaches in Muscat

With its palm trees, soft sands and gentle waves, Qurum Beach is an oasis in the heart of the city. It’s free to visit, and is clean and safe for bathing. To rent jet skis, boogie boards and kayaks, visit the beachfront watersports centre at the Crowne Plaza Muscat hotel.

There are several glorious private beaches to the east of the city (a 20-30-minute drive), at the likes of Al Bustan Palace and Shangri-La Barr Al Jissah, Muscat – which are also frequented by nesting wild turtles. If you’re not a hotel guest, day passes for the beach, pool and facilities are available; the latter is priced from 20 OMR per adult, which includes a 15 OMR dining credit.

Architectural highlight

Head to Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque for divine architecture (iStock/Sharrocks)

Every inch of Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque is a work of art, from its soaring white-marble archways, all deftly carved with intricate patterns, to the vast crystal chandelier in the main prayer hall, which was made especially by Swarovski. It is a place of worship but non-Muslims are very welcome, too, with free entry (open Saturday to Thursday).


What currency do I need?

Omani rial.

What language do they speak?

Arabic, though English is widespread.

Should I tip?

There’s no obligation to tip in hotel restaurants but elsewhere 10 per cent is always appreciated.

What’s the time difference?


How should I get around?

Taxis are plentiful, cheap and easy to hail – but always ensure the meter is running when you hop in. Oman’s app-based taxi firms include Otaxi and the government-owned Mwasalat.

Muscat is not very pedestrian-friendly. To tick off multiple attractions in one day, the Big Bus Tour – from 26 OMR – is very convenient. If travelling outside the city, consider hiring a car. The roads are excellent, and rental companies can deliver vehicles to your hotel.

What’s the best view?

If you’re taking a taxi or tour, ask the driver to call at old Muscat city view (it’s marked on Google Maps), where the elevated vista over the old town encompasses Al Alam Palace, traditional-style houses, mosque minarets, and the harbour fortresses and sea beyond.

Insider tip?

Whether you’re haggling for souvenirs in Mutrah Souq or checking into a new hotel, thanks to Oman’s deep-rooted hospitality, you will likely be offered a cup of spiced Arabic coffee, as an age-old sign of welcome. If you’d like a refill, gently “waggle” the cup when the coffee pot is offered again; to refuse, cover the cup with your hand. Your host will appreciate your cultural smarts – which could be useful when haggling.

Getting there

Oman Air fly direct between London Heathrow and Muscat International Airport several times a week. The flight duration is seven hours, and the drive from the airport to Qurum takes 20-40 minutes.

Want more inspiration? Read our reviews of the best hotels in Dubai

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