The capital of Oman is not a city itself rather is is a group of cities and towns which make up the ‘Municipality of Muscat’ or the ‘Capital Area.’ These towns and cities border the Gulf of Oman . Muscat is one of the oldest cities in the Middle East and it has been historically associated with the trade of frankincense and myrrh. The actual epicenter was an area the Greeks used to call ‘Khouri Rouri’ and it lies 500 miles south of Muscat near the city of Salalah.
The Portuguese captured Muscat after the famous explorer Vasco de Gama arrived here en route to India. In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries it functioned as a Portuguese naval base and they built the forts of Jelali and Merani. These medieval forts coexist with the bustling and modern structures of Muscat today and stand witness to its historical past. After the Portuguese the Persians tried to establish their rule in Oman as did the Wahabis of Saudi Arabia. Even the communists tried to grab it in the late twentieth century but the attempt was repulsed by the Omani, British and Iranian forces. Prince Qaboos bin Said established the modern Sultanate of Oman by way of a coup in 1973 . Its long and often violent history as well as its importance as a center of trade ensured that Muscat developed with Portuguese, Persian and Indian influences.
Getting to Muscat
Seeb International airport is the gateway to Muscat. It is located 25 Km from the residential sectors of Muscat and is one of the three headquarter of the Gulf Airways airline. Gulf Air flies to other areas in the Middle east as well as on routes in Europe and the Indian subcontinent. Many other airlines come into Seeb International Airport from India and other countries in Europe and Asia.
Located in the Middle east it has a hot summer from March to October when the temperature ranges from 31C( F) to 40 C( F) . The winter months are milder and due to its location near the sea humid too where temperatures range from 15C(F) to 23C(F)
The best time to visit the sultanate is in January when it stages a cultural and sporting festival with the camel races being organized all through out Oman..
Though Arabic is the main language, English is widely spoken. Persian, Swahili and languages of the Indian Subcontinent Hindi and Malayalam are other prominent languages of the governorate. Once again, this highlights its role in global trade over the years as well as the various historical influences which have helped shape modern Muscat.
The people of Muscat are largely native Omanis but it like other states in the Gulf it has a considerable expatriate population made up of people from other parts of the Middle East as well as folk from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh . Apart from the majority of the populace being Ibadi Muslims, Hindus and Christians are also present and are allowed to practice their faith. Muscat has two temples dedicated to the Hindu deities Shiva and Krishna. In the city of Ruwi which is part of the municipality there exist two Churches to cater to the spiritual beliefs of the Christian.
Muscat like other modernized Gulf cities is well served by roads and highways though development of public transportation has not been a priority in this oil producing nation. The Oil Industry is the largest employer in Oman.
Buses called “Baiza” buses ply on the major roadways between the cities of Oman and within Muscat as well. These buses do not have predetermined stops and pick and drop passengers at their whim. They are relatively inexpensive. There are also the red and green public buses in Muscat. These are more expensive and ply on specific routes between Muscat and other cities.
Taxis, unlike in other cities in the Middle East where the taxi drivers come from the Indian subcontinent here they are exclusively the domain of the Omani drivers. The Taxis are white and orange colored and do not follow a meter. It is always wise to ask your host or the hotel for the approximate fare to your destination before hailing a taxi. Haggling for the correct fare is the norm in Muscat. These Taxis are happy to take a tourist outside the city environs even as far as Dubai.
Rental Car agencies such as Hertz rent a car and Avis as well as local rental agencies are present in Muscat.
The Al Bustan Palace hotel forms a part of the Intercontinental group and this magnificent structure is well known all through out the region .However the hotel is undergoing extensive renovations until December 2007.Other prominent hotels are the Muscat Intercontinental, the Grand Hyatt and the Sheraton Oman at Ruwi the commercial hub.
Things to do and Sights to see
Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque
It is the largest mosque in Oman with a capacity for 20,000 people. It was built in 2001 as a gift to the people by Sultan Qaboos and is open to non Muslims as well. Non- Muslims are permitted in the mornings between 8-11am. It is a magnificent structure with a high dome and minarets which are typical of Islamic architecture.
The palace which is the ceremonial abode of the Sultan is located between rocky hills and affords a magnificent view especially at night. The Sultan though prefers to reside at another secluded palace close to Seeb .
The old medieval forts of Al Jalali and Al Mirani are close to the Al Alam Palace .They are the remnants of the Portuguese conquest of Muscat . Muscat was once a walled city surrounded by a wall this has been replaced by a stone moat called Al-Hasn. The evidence of this wall is seen at the three main access gates to the city, the Greater Gate, the Lesser gate and Ban al Matha’eeb. Other restored forts exist at Jabrin, Rustaq and Niwas . Jabrin Fort has spectacular friezes and carved verses from the Quran which are worth exploring.
Gorgeous white sand beaches provide a wonderful locale for a picnic. Some of these beaches are Qurum Beach, Bandar Al Jissah and Yeti.
Dhow Trips and Dawn with the Dolphins tour
Trips in a traditional Arabian sailing vessel in Muscat bay are organized by local operators and have to be experienced to get the feel of the traders who came to Muscat to trade their wares. Tours are also organized to see the antics of the spinner dolphins that inhabit the Muscat bay. The sight of the dolphins somersaulting and leaping through the waves is heartwarming and a must see on a trip to Muscat. The Dawn with the Dolphin trips typically last two to three hours.
Muscat is a well laid out verdant oasis in the Arabian Peninsula where the climate can be unforgiving. Qurum Naural Park is one such park which has recreational facilities such as boating. The aesthetic beauty of the park is enhanced by water fountains. It has in its environs Funworld which is an entertainment center for children. Yet another park is the Riyam Public Gardens situated along the Corniche, it affords spectacular views of the Harbor and also has a children’s recreation center with many rides. Kalbouh is yet another public park which is a beach park leading up a hilly area and is a favorite amongst people who like to walk and go fishing.
Desert Tours can be organized for visiting the Omani desert called Wahiba Sands. One is driven into the desert in a four wheel drive for an overnight expedition. In the desert one can see how the Bedouins or the nomadic desert people live. Driving through the swirling sand dunes is an experience in itself.
Bait Al Barandah
A relatively new museum close to the Muttrah Souk is worth exploring as it exhibits displays with many aspects of life in Muscat.
Bait Al Zubair Museum
Originally a home and built in 1914 it houses much evidence of Muscat’s historical past. It is the newest museum and it has displays of weapons and artifacts relevant to the history of Muscat.
The Childrens Museum
Close to the Quram Natural Park it has interactive displays which are very popular with children. School field trips are organized to the Children’s Museum.
The Museum of Natural History
It houses the skeleton of a whale which was washed up to Oman’s shore 27 years ago as well as displays highlighting the flora and fauna of Oman.
The Omani French Museum
Originally the French Embassy called the Beit Al Fransi it houses the photographs of early French diplomats and evidence of the close ties that the Sultanate shared with France.
Muttrah is located on a spectacular Corniche encircling a charming bay and is the jewel in the crown of the Muscat Municipality. The Corniche warrants a trip itself especially at night with the water reflecting the lights of the homes that are located on the promenade.
On the western end of the Corniche is the Lawatiyah Quarter. Entrance to this enclave is limited to locals and foreigners are not permitted into this area inhabited by the Lawatis who are wealthy merchants. The Lawatis are Shia Muslims who came and settled here from Kutch in Gujarat,India. They own some of the most magnificent homes located on the Corniche.
Just behind the Corniche is a maze of old streets leading to the Souq. Entering the souq is like being transported into an Arabian Nights fairytale. It is the oldest market place in Muscat and consists of tiny stores selling frankincense, spices, dates, old rolex watches, fabrics, electronic goods and even Barbie dolls. There are tailoring and barbers shops in the Souk. The pathways of the Muttrah Souq lead to the Gold Souq where much of the ornaments on sale come from India and hence are made of 22-24 karat gold. Again in the Souq bargaining is the norm and therein lays the charm of shopping in the Souq. The Souq is open from early in the morning to late in the evening. Money changers are located in the Souq for the convenience of tourists and it is useful to remember that a better price is obtained while paying cash rather than credit card.
A more traditional Souq is the site of the cattle market on Friday where cows, goats and sheep are traded. The Souq also features local handicrafts such as wool carpets, baskets, pottery and wall hangings.
Similar to the Nizwa Souq as it too has a cattle market ,some shops do sell old Bedouin silver jewelry but they are not easy to locate.
Exclusively for women and held on Wednesday mornings. It features products to capture the female fantasy as well as the female wallet. Stalls here sell perfume, fabric, cosmetics, powders, henna and other products which make up a women’s toilette.
Shopping is a way of life for the locals as well as the expatriates who live in Muscat and there are many gargantuan air-conditioned shopping malls in Muscat. These are located mainly in the Qurum commercial area and in Al- Khuwair. Al Arimi Complex in Qurum has fashion stores selling European and International designs, stores selling electronics and computers as well as stores selling local hand-made furniture and woven rugs called Kelims. The Sultan is a patron of local arts and crafts and encourages their survival. Al Harthy Complex also in Qurum is a children’s favorite owing to its amusement arcade and Sinbad play city. It has over a 100 stores. Capital Commercial Center, Al – Khamis Plaza, City Plaza,Muscat City Center and As- Sarooj are some of the other shopping malls in Muscat. Most shopping malls have added attractions such as cafes, food courts, play areas and amusement arcades to attract the populace.
Omani cuisine is similar to the rest of the Middle East. One must try the slow cooked fragrant with spices meat called Shuwa. Kahwa is a tea drunk after a meal spiced with cardamoms and is another must try as is Halwa a desert made with dates, honey ,brown sugar ,spices and often garnished with nuts. Oman being a Muslim country there is no nightlife as such and bars exist only in the ritzy hotels .Shopping is the main past time of the locals and foreigners .
Islamic work week
Oman like the other Gulf countries follows the Islamic work week and business is conducted between Saturday to Wednesday with Thursday and Friday being the weekend.