Discovering the cultural wonders of Muscat (Oman)
The capital city of Oman is a hidden-gem miles away from the glitz and modernity of its neighbor, Dubai. Spreading along the coast of the Gulf of Oman, this authentic town is similar to its inhabitants: charming, genuine and surprising. We spent a few days there in the most luxurious palace in town. We share with you our tips to discover Muscat’s rich history and heritage. The capital city is also the ideal base for day-trips to the oasis (wadis), deserts and rugged mountains of the Sultana.
1- Staying in the wonderful oriental Al-Bustan Palace
The Al Bustan Palace, a Ritz Carlton property, is the most famous hotel of the Omani capital. This place is worth a visit by itself to admire the magnificent entrance lobby. Actually, we saw small groups of tourists with their guides coming there just to take pictures of this huge oriental lobby.
The Al-Bustan hotel was built in 1985 to host a summit of the Gulf Cooperation Council, the alliance of countries of the Arabic Peninsula. Nested in a private bay, it offers a private sandy beach and is surrounded by gardens and rocky mountains on the eastern end of the city of Muscat.
From the airport, it is a smooth 30-minute drive by the modern freeway. Muscat is not a big town but it is spread-out along the coastline. Most buildings are painted in white and low rise; there are no modern skyscrapers.
The hotel is surrounded by spotless greens dotted with palm trees where guests sip a drink on sun-loungers or swim in the huge pools. The hotel beach is a long stretch of sand enclosed like a bay, which gives the sensation of being cast-away in the good sense of the word.
Upon entering the lobby, I clearly remember being awakened by the frankincense scent, the aromatic resin extracted from the Boswellia trees in Oman and neighboring Yemen. I was also amazed by the size and height of the place: the dome shaped roof of the lobby was adorned with giant crystal chandeliers falling like a water cascade. I felt entering an Arabic palace straight out a fairy-tale.
Following Omani traditions, we were greeted by the staff with dates and coffee with cardamom. Dates are local fruit served in many occasions and their taste have nothing to compare with the ones that you can buy in Western countries.
Our room was really comfortable with a view on the rocky mountains and a nice middle-eastern decoration made of wood. I just read that there is an ongoing renovation in the hotel, which should make it even more exceptional by 2019.
We used the hotel as a base for outdoor adventures in Oman to explore the wadi (oasis), the Grand Canyon and the fortress city of Nizwa. You can easily rent private local guides that will drive you comfortably to any place with their modern SUV. I noticed that local guides acted more as drivers but you can have nice discussions with them. I prefer that kind of atmosphere than a traditional guide.
As we had only one week in Oman, we did not want to change hotels and places every day. The country has a modern network of freeways in perfect shape, so driving a few hours every day is perfectly fine as you will enjoy the landscapes. Many spots can be attained and enjoyed in a day trip from Muscat.
2- Visiting the Sultan Qaboos grand mosque with its world records
The Grand Mosque has been built in honor and on the plan of Sultan Qaboos, the reigning monarch for the past 48 years. The Sultan took over the throne from this father in 1970 and quickly transformed a poor country into a thriving place.
Today, he remains one the longest serving monarch in the world and a beloved figure for the local population. You will notice his portrait hanging in many public places from markets to hotels or restaurants.
The Sultan modernized the country, started to exploit oil resources and promoted social developments such as women rights. Nowadays, Omani women study, work and can access ministerial positions. For instance, I remember looking out of my taxi window from the airport and seeing a police car next to our taxi. Inside, there were two female police officers wearing uniforms with a simple hijab.
The Grand Mosque is a building of superlatives and holds many records. It is made of white Indian sandstone and looks quite new from the outside as it was finished in the early 2000. The complex can host up to 20’000 worshipers and is impressive with its rising minarets and central dome.
Inside the main paying hall, you will walk on the second largest carpet in the world measuring 70 times 60 meters, a beauty that took 4 years and hundreds of female workers from Iran to produce. All together, these women had to weave 1,7 billion knots to finish the carpet. The motives are inspired by Iranian traditions.
Now looking up in the air, you will notice the majestic central chandelier of the mosque, one of the biggest in the world. It is beautifully trimmed with Swarovski crystals and fined gold metalwork.
Measuring 14 meters long and 8 meters in diameter, it still looks small in this giant praying hall. Going out of the main hall, we spent some time exploring the huge complex. It is well worth a visit.
3- Tasting refined local cuisine on the steps of the Royal Opera House
At night, we went a few times to Al Angham fine-dining restaurant, a famous restaurant next to the Royal Opera House.
It is the perfect place to enjoy Omani cuisine in a refined setting and with a charming service. The elegant traditional decoration adds to the culinary experience, although coming at a high-price for Omani standards.
Not knowing much about the local cuisine, we chose the chicken Byriani with rice served in a rich tomato based sauce. The dishes are served in luxurious plates and silverware.
After a traditional coffee with cardamom, we went out and could enter in the hall of the Opera House. Unfortunately there was no performance that night.
Opened in 2011, this building is a masterpiece of contemporary Omani architecture. The Sultan loves classical music and wanted a premier venue for his capital city. Since then, the Opera House has hosted performances of the Swan Lake by the Russian Mariinsky ballet as well as performances by Placido Domingo and Andrea Bocelli.
Alternatively, a good choice for a meal is to go for Indian cuisine. Indeed Oman hosts a large Indian community. The restaurant we recommend is called Mumtaz Mahal and is located in a modern white building on a small hill overlooking the city. The cuisine is authentic, the decoration refined and the view appealing.
4- Wandering in the souks and fortresses of the old town
Muscat has always been a strategic harbor between the Indian Ocean and the Persian Gulf. Portuguese arrived in Oman in the 16th century after explorer Vasco da Gama discovered a route to India via the Cape of Good Hope (South Africa).
The Portuguese settlement was attacked by Turkish Ottomans and the city changed hands multiple times before Portuguese started building defensive fortresses in the harbor. The main one is now called Fort Al-Jalali.
The Portuguese also built a range of protective walls and towers around the city that are still visible today. Eventually, an Imam led the people of Oman to kick the Portuguese out of Muscat and even start threatening their possessions in the Indian sea and on the eastern coast of Africa.
Oman conquered Zanzibar on the east cost of Africa and developed the trading of spices… and slaves. By the 19th century, Oman was dominating a small empire running south until the island of Madagascar.
Next to the fort Al Jalali, you can have a look at the Sultan palace (Al-Alam Palace) with its funky design from the early seventies including mushrooms columns in turquoise and gold.
At the end of the afternoon, we went for a gentle walk on the Muttrah Corniche, the nearby waterfront area with its colored minarets and souk (market).
This area was the old commercial center of the town. In the souk, we met mainly Indian traders. The place is nice for a stroll but I would recommend visiting the markets of Nizwa for traditional Omani handicrafts.
In the Muscat souk, we just purchased a bag of frankincense with a traditional burner and charcoal. One just has to place a few pieces of frankincense in the burner along with a piece of charcoal. Then one has to ignite the thing with a flame.
Frankincense is definitely the smell of Oman for us. This resin comes from the Boswellia trees and has been traded for thousands of years from growing regions in Oman, Yemen and Somalia. It came as far away as China. Across cultures, Frankincense has been used for cosmetics, medicines (in China), perfumes and even religious purpose , mainly in the Catholic and Orthodox Churches.