Clinging to desert cliffs alongside the gorgeous shores of the Gulf of Oman, Muscat is an exotic yet modern introduction to a country that is not widely known to travelers that hail from the west. With an abundance of natural attractions being located within a relatively close proximity of Muscat, it is the perfect place to stock up on provisions and enjoy the pleasures of modern life (with a Middle Eastern twist) before heading out into the serene arid wilderness that can be found everywhere in Oman.
Existing for the past 2,000 years as an important trading post, Muscat has been an important settlement for many civilizations, including the Persians, the Portuguese and the Ottomans. Its positioning in the region and the rise of the Omani sultanate also meant that it became a militarily important city, commanding places like Zanzibar in the 18th century.
Its heritage in both endeavors is reflected in the highly active souqs that endure to this day, as well as in several impressive forts that projects the might that Muscat once wielded throughout the region. These attractions and others will serve to occupy you intellectually for at least a few days at the start and/or end of your Omani adventure.
As alluded to in the introduction, Muscat has had an involved past as a strategic city from a military standpoint. Two impressive legacies of this past age include the forts of Al Jalali and Al Mirani. Starting their lives in 1580 as prisons during the Portuguese occupation, they went on to serve alternately as an abode for members of the royal family, and as key defensive positions against the aggression of the Ottomans, who had attacked Muscat twice before the construction of these fortifications.
Sadly, these mighty stalwarts are closed to the public, as they contain national treasures that the ruling sultanate only allows special guests and dignitaries to view in person. They do make for excellent photographs from the exterior though, so dropping by is still well worth your time.
Another place that restricts access but makes for an unforgettable photo opp is the Qasr Al Alam Royal Palace, home to the residence and office of the Sultan of Oman. Decorated with blue and gold trim, surrounded on the land bound sides by lush gardening, and boasting an excellent view of the Gulf of Oman (that sadly, only the royals and their guests can enjoy), this royal home is easy to access after visiting the previously mentioned forts, as they are located within the same general area of Muscat.
One place that is explorable by the general traveling public is the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque. Being the third largest mosque in the world, this hall of worship possesses extensive marble panelling, a Persian carpet that ranks as the second largest in the world, and a magnificent Swarovski crystal chandelier that will dazzle you when you see it.
One more cultural landmark worth seeing is the Muscat Gate Museum, which was formerly the main gate for the city along its formidable walls. It contains exhibits on the cities’ and the region’s history, dating from Neolithic times straight through to the present. The water works that made this arid city possible, the ancient markets, and the origins of its fortifications count among the many interesting things one can learn about Muscat here.
Being situated in a tropical desert climate, the heat can be overwhelming at times. When this is the case, a refreshing walk in the Corniche area can often set things right. Lined with souqs, food vendors, and of course, stunning ocean views that permit refreshing sea breezes to wash over all that stroll this waterfront street, the Corniche is a popular place for many local Muscat residents to gather in the evening, on weekends or on holidays.
Finally, a day trip to Wadi Shab from Muscat is a journey that will be well worth the time it takes getting to and from this marvelous natural site. Located 100 kilometres from the city centre, the emerald green water, high cliff faces, and desert oasis atmosphere will make it hard to return to Muscat at the end of a long day of exploring and swimming in this undiscovered paradise.