Oman is a powerful stereotype breaker. Fears and preconceived notions fall away quickly when travelers arrive in the incredibly welcoming and comparatively liberal country on the coast of the Arabian Peninsula. Like many prosperous countries in the Middle East, Oman has modernized and seen rapid growth. Yet, at the same time, the country preserves many of its traditions. For example, all buildings in the capital Muscat are held to a code that restricts height and demands keeping up architectural tradition. This is key to understanding the country — it is modernizing but not completely westernizing.
Any traveler lucky enough to visit Oman will undoubtedly pass through Muscat. Muscat is a coastal city strategically located at the mouth of the Gulf of Oman, a body of water needing to be navigated to reach the Persian Gulf. The city embraces the presence of backpackers and those exploring the capital are treated with a taste of the Middle East, both past and present. Follow along our adventures with some ideas to experience the visit of a lifetime.
Things to Do
Celebrating only its second birthday this month, the National Museum is a beautiful undertaking by the Omani government to display pieces of significance from Oman’s heritage dating back to its earliest settlement.
Al Alam Palace
The National Museum is in the heart of the old city across the street from Al Alam Palace, the ceremonial residence of Sultan Qaboos. The Sultan is a very popular figure in Oman, evident by the number of posters praising him around Muscat. The palace, while not the main home for the Sultan, is visible to the public and is an imposing architectural presence with the large building being flanked by Portuguese forts built in the 16th century.
Royal Opera House
While front row seats may not be in a backpacker’s budget, depending on the performance, tickets can get as low as $15. Whether attending the opera or not, the Opera House is well worth a visit as it is housed in an impressive building that also features great dining and shopping.
Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque
One of the many culturally significant buildings bearing the name of the Sultan, the Grand Mosque is the primary mosque in the country. The marbled walkways leading into the entrance of the ornate place of worship create a jaw-dropping view of Muslim culture. In the center of the prayer hall is the second largest Persian rug in the world, a piece of hand-woven art that took four years and around 600 women to make. Visitors are welcome, however, clothing etiquette needs to be observed.
Bait Al Zubair Museum
Another praised museum in Muscat is the once private collection of the Zubair family. Since having grown into a fully-fledged gallery, lodged in a renovated old mansion, the Bait Al Zubair Museum features things like weaponry, clothing, and furniture that all have significance amongst Omani heritage. The museum also has beautiful grounds with a relaxed café.
Muscat has many easily accessible day trips to beautiful beaches, deserts with dunes stretching as far as the eye can see, and to mountains. Consider a trek into the Al Hajar Mountain range, a three and a half hour drive from Muscat. These peaks and valleys are sometimes referred to as the ‘Grand Canyon of Arabia’.
The favorite location of many backpackers who end up in Muscat, Muttrah Corniche will likely draw multiple visits from those staying in the city. The corniche, a road cut into the shoreline, is the epicenter of Muscat’s attempt to draw tourists to the harbor. Amongst the Islamic architecture is the Muttrah Souk, the classic bazaar that serves as the main economic and tourist artery for Muscat. Guests will be bombarded with the scent of frankincense as they shop for spices, oils, foods, clothing, antiques, and the many other items to be bargained for.
The fish market is part of Muttrah, however, it deserves its own mention. Oman’s sea-faring past is often associated as the origins of the country’s inclusiveness, as Omani sailors controlled territory down the African coast and trade routes to East Asia, introducing the country to alternative cultures. Backpackers should keep this in mind as they meander past vendors selling lobsters, octopus, and a wide assortment of fish. Seafood, along with Middle Eastern classics like kebabs, tea, and falafel, is a staple of Omani cuisine and must be tried.
Accommodations are not cheap in Muscat; backpackers can expect to pay at least $65 per night. Oman is also still catching up to the hostel and guesthouse phenomenon, so finding budget hotels and private homes is the way to go.
Private apartments surrounding a beautiful garden in the home of an Omani family. Perfect for a true local experience.
One of the cheapest, nicest options available, this room in a deluxe condo complex complete with a pool, is great for unwinding.
Although this staple of American travel is slightly farther from most attractions, it’s often around $50 per night and features the expected amenities of a good hotel chain.
Understanding the Culture
Muscat locals, for the most part, are extremely friendly, although there are cultural differences that should be observed because most Omani may be too polite to correct tourists. Many of the cultural practices that differ from Western norms are based in Muslim tradition. For example, unless at a beach at a private resort, knees and shoulders should be covered at all times, and while rules surrounding women’s “fashion” are not strict, headscarves are not required but wearing a bikini or swimsuit could cause bitterness amongst locals. As is required in Muslim countries, alcohol is not sold in the country. Non-Muslims are allowed to bring an allotted amount of wine into the country with them but as a general rule, this should be drunk with discretion. Another unusual practice to keep in mind revolves around visiting villages outside of the city limits. If driving, park outside the village then walk the rest of the way. As a LonelyPlanet guide puts it, driving through the village center would be like driving your car “through a neighbor’s garden.”