Muscat, the capital and largest city of the Sultanate of Oman, is no dusty desert outpost but an immaculately clean and leafy city fringed by majestic mountains, as Methil Renuka discovers
1. The Grand Mosque
For an impressive start to your trip, take a morning tour of the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque, a magnificent monument located in Al Udhaybah, which is within the city centre and close to Seeb International Airport. An architectural masterpiece completed in 2001, the mosque is open to all tourists. Even before you visit it, proud Omanis will tell you that it boasts a Swarovski crystal chandelier and the biggest carpet in the world, so it's definitely worth a look. The handcrafted, silk Persian carpet in the main hall is particularly impressive. If you pass the mosque at night, you're likely to be captivated by its beauty; discreet spotlights make it look all the more dramatic.
2. Waterfront Drive
Round off the mosque tour with a quiet, reflective drive along the waterfront. Located on the south-east coast of the Arabian Peninsula, Oman is blessed with a 1,700km coastline, and the seafront in Muscat is stunning. It's clear the Omanis have great civic pride and the municipality works overtime to keep the city spotless and immaculately green. Wherever you look, you find well-manicured lawns, landscaped roundabouts, open gardens and clean beaches. The city is located in a dramatic setting, with the rugged Hajar Mountains on one side and the Arabian Gulf on the other. Muscat is a bustling metropolis (minus high-rises or traffic snarls), with a resplendent local culture steeped in traditional values.
3. Al Qurum
Once you've soaked up the views, stop by at Al Qurum, Muscat's upscale and fashionable residential and diplomatic district. It's built on steep, rocky terrain and features splendidly white bougainvillea-framed Arabian villas on the waterfront. Once a fishing village, Qurum has a beautiful beach and is popular with partygoers. The Crowne Plaza Hotel is perched on a cliff here, so you can get some spectacular sea views. It's a 20-minute walk along the beach from the Intercontinental Muscat, where you can find a number of trendy restaurants, malls and parks. The Grand Hyatt Muscat is also a good option for a quick coffee stop. Do note that getting around in Muscat is not easy; opt for private taxis but remember they are not metered, so settle the fare before the trip as they can charge extra from tourists. Shared taxis are a cheaper option, but it's best to hire an air-conditioned hotel cab for a couple of extra rials.
4. Muttrah Souq
Muttrah has always been Muscat's commercial centre. Apart from the business district, Muttrah Souq is a compulsory stop. Consisting of a maze of back streets and alleys, the souq (traditional market) is an Aladdin's cave, with a wealth of colourful merchandise on sale. You can get the best bargains for souvenirs, gold, silver, jewellery, perfumes, antiques, saffron, spices, worry beads, kaftans and carpets. The bazaar is an excellent place to find the Omani khanjar (a curved dagger worn by men on ceremonial occasions) and frankincense, which Oman is renowned for. There are plenty of money exchange centres in this market, too; ask for good rates. While this is the old market, Muscat also has a glitzy mall near the airport. If you want to settle down somewhere with your shopping bags, you could visit Riyam Park and also enjoy the view from the giant bukhoor (incense burner) facing the sea. Riyam lies between Muscat and Muttrah, and is where a peace treaty was signed with the Portuguese in 1648. If you are in the area by night, the colourfully lit Muttrah Fort resembles a fairytale castle.
5. Old Muscat
If you are impressed by palaces and forts, head over to Old Muscat, which is essentially a fortress town dominated by the central Al Alam Royal Palace. The impressive sea-facing Al Mirani and Al Jalali forts, built by the Portuguese in the 16th century, flank the palace. History notes that Mirani was officially known as Fort Capital when it was commissioned in 1552. Originally a historic residence, the nearby Bayt az-Zubair Museum houses artefacts, weaponry, art works and clothing depicting traditional Omani culture and lifestyle.
6. Diving at Shangri-La Barr Al Jissah Resort & Spa
If you have a little more time on your hands, head offshore. The seas around Oman boast incredible coral reefs and marine life - you won't leave without spotting the odd dolphin or whale, while the Ras Al Hadd beach is a famous haven for green turtles. As a result, Oman is renowned for some of the best diving sites in the world. Your best bet is to head further south from Old Muscat and visit the luxurious Shangri-La Barr Al Jissah Resort and Spa, a scenic, 30-minute drive away from the city. The resort features three exclusive hotels, a dedicated marina and a dive centre offering both packages and speciality courses. Visit shangri-la.com.
7. Wahiba Sands / Salalah
Another out-of-town option is a four-wheel drive into the desert or dune-bashing in the Wahiba Sands area (the Muscat Diving and Adventure Centre will be able to help organise such tours; go to omandiving.com). If you have more than half a day to spare, Salalah, about 1,000km from Muscat, has mountains and springs. The monsoon rains arrive here in the summer, during the khareef season, bringing lower temperatures and making the area lush and green.