Would you believe there was barely an inkling of modernity in Muscat before 1970? The once poor, disease-stricken and rudimentary city is now a sprawling metropolis with a swanky airport, sizeable museums, mosques and palaces, smooth tarmac and everything else you could want from a Middle Eastern capital. Oman’s Sultan Sayyid Qaboos bin Said Al Said’s reforms were responsible for getting things moving. Sure, there are no high-rises like in Dubai, there’s an abundance of white-and-limestone coloured buildings, the city is filled with intricate Middle Eastern architecture.
You find an intermingling of the old and the new at every turn—like the 200-year-old Mutrah Souq with the sprawling Lulu Hypermarket nearby; or quaint Old Muscat and its white boxy houses with the new Al Mouj township, including a golf course and a yacht harbour.
Trade between India and Oman may have existed since the BCEs, especially with the former being an important East–West trade centre. Today, the place happens to be quite expat-friendly, and lots of Indians are settled here.
Muscat has a pretty coastline, especially in the Mutrah district, home to the corniche. Barren cliffs visible at a distance hide breathtaking wadis that dot the countryside. Desert vegetation is prevalent.
Rule number one for shopping in the Middle East: seek out souqs and corniches. In Muscat, they are both prefixed by and located in Mutrah, a district reflective of a pre-oil Oman. The oceanside Mutrah Souq, as traditional as a bazaar can get, faces the Mutrah Corniche, a seaside promenade. Locally known as Souq Al Dhalam (or darkness) for its narrow alleyways, crowded lanes and sun-blocking timber roof, it houses vibrant shops selling brightly coloured goods. Find here the fragrant Omani al-lubÄÂÂn (frankincense), patterned mejmars (frankincense burners) and khanjars (local daggers) in all shapes and sizes. Take a whiff of freshly made date halwa, or buy cloth or silverware. The Omani and Indian shopkeepers here are as good at salesmanship as you are at bargaining. Outside, walk by the corniche, and watch the sunset.
Some of Muscat’s landmarks are also quite new, mostly built within Sultan Qaboos’s 48-year reign, and combine traditional Omani architecture with inspiration from many other cultures. The 17-year-old Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque (which took six years to build), though, takes things up a notch: 20,000 can pray here in this almost-half-a-square-kilometre area, and the main prayer room boasts one of the world’s largest carpets and one of the world’s biggest crystal chandeliers. This gargantuan space sports murals of leaf patterns, mosaics, geometrical shapes, a dome consisting of spherical triangles and timber panels that are quintessentially Omani. All in all, an explosion of detail and colour. Non-Muslims can visit on all days except Fridays, between 8.30am and 11am.
Visit Al Alam Palace in Old Muscat next. From the nearby hillside, this blue-and-gold palace is a blip of colour among the cluster of white. It is two centuries old originally, though it was rebuilt four decades ago. You can stop outside and take a snap, but cannot go in.
Again in Old Muscat, there are two 16th-century forts—Al Jalali and Al Mirani. Both were built by the Portuguese Empire, which was ruling Muscat at that time. Although both places are closed to the public, they are picturesque.
You probably want to sunbathe by the ocean while on holiday in Oman. Well, no sweat (unless it is humid): Muscat has a neat coastline with a bunch of scenic spots. For the touristy vibe, cafés and hotels, there’s the well-known Qurum Beach. Slightly calmer is Qantab, in the vicinity of a village with traditional Omani architecture. Sifah, on Muscat’s eastern coast, has white sand. And for more or less complete seclusion, hit Yiti Beach, a virgin expanse by some dramatic rocks.
The seven-year-old Royal Opera House Muscat is best described as ‘operatic’. It may be Sultan Qaboos’s opulent love letter to music, its massive limestone façade giving way to an Italian-inspired interior with high ceilings, Omani castle-like but dotted with Austrian chandeliers. This velvety red wonderland can seat 1,000. Next performance: Gala Zarzuela with Plácido Domingo, the Spanish tenor, Sept 6 and Sept 8, 2018.
There is a lot of white in Muscat, but the newly renovated Muscat International Airport is mostly breezy blue and royal gold. Its unfortunate abbreviation of MIA is completely misleading—right from the check-in counters (there are 96) to the aerobridges (29), the staff ensures you have a smooth journey (and goodwill for the one onwards). There is even an outdoorsy touch: corridors illuminated in blue lights laid with sand, rocks and cacti surround the travelators,and palm trees segment the check-in areas. Plus, there’s the resplendent Oman Air premium lounge, a colossal duty-free and a 90-room four-star hotel.
Where to Stay
Authentic Omani culture is at the heart of Mysk by Shaza, Al Mouj, even though its décor is very eclectic. A big plus is its location—among prime real estate, neat surroundings and the sea (from approx. ₹ 6,200 doubles, taxes extra). However, it is the 310-room Kempinski Hotel Muscat that is Al Mouj’s best offering, especially with its 10 restaurants, bars and lounges (from approx. ₹ 15,000, taxes extra). The Ritz-Carlton-owned Al Bustan Palace is a colossal hotel tucked between hills and the ocean, and quite a visual spectacle (from approx. ₹ 26,700, taxes extra.
Date with Halwa
There is nothing quite likea good date, and Al Khalas is considered the best. Grown in the A’Sharqiyah and A’Dhahirah regions of Oman, it is a tourist favourite, though only one of the 250 varieties grown in the country. It has a high sugar content, so if you don’t fancy that, go for Hilali dates. Dates can be found at most stores, especially in the Mutrah Souq.
The greatest thing Oman has done with the fruit is made halwa out of it. You mix dates with rosewater, cardamom, white and brown sugars, honey and nuts to make this delicacy (easier said than done), which is best enjoyed with qahwa or Omani black coffee. Though the souq should work just fine, you could also buy the sweet from the Barka Halwa Factory, which is renowned for its halwa since 1951.
Meals for Sultans
From Delhi, it is a shorter flight to Muscat than to Kochi. The proximity has created a strong South Asian influence on Omani food, which has also been fuelled by the many migrants and centuries of Indo-Oman trade. Portuguese colonial rule too brought its own influence, and Oman’s conquests in Zanzibar added an African flavour. Finally, a long coastline translates to a lot of seafood. But do not make the mistake of forgetting the usual Arabian delicacies—labneh, hummus, tahini, tabbouleh, etc, which will embellish every breakfast spread, as well asother meals. Yet the fun lies in the mishmash.
Kargeen presents a fresh take on Omani-Arabian fare. What doesn’t work here is the dull evening lighting; what rocks is the food. The Kargeen special stuffed bread is served with labneh, zaatar, olives, onions and fresh mint—quite refreshing. Wash it all down with karkade, refreshing hibiscus tea. Stop by Bait Al Luban, which has a more authentic interpretation of the cuisine, but emphasises the Portuguese, Indian and African influences. Finally, take a spin by Ice Cream Mama (+968-98529022), where, if you can stomach the strong flavour, try the frankincense. The Mama Original is the safest bet. Other must tries in Muscat: shuwa (a spice-marinated meat platter wrapped in banana leaf and cooked in an underground oven), the majboos (a biryani-like dish) and, since seafood here is so good, Mashui kingfish with lemon rice.
For History Enthusiasts
The National Museum is enormous, its never-ending sections showcasing Oman’s rich history and culture using artefacts, paintings and even audio-visual elements. If museums capture the spirit of a place, then Oman must be larger than life. Tip: the exhibit windows are so clean, you’ll be able to see your reflection wearing an ancient belt with a khanjar.
Family heirlooms find their way into a museum setting at Bait Al Zubair heritage and cultural centre, close to the National Museum. The Zubair family boasts a collection of artefacts that include jewellery, swords and firearms, household paraphernalia, and male and female attires, in the museum building. The other buildings in the complex are interesting too—one displays vernacular architecture and another pays homage to the Renaissance period.
Land of Frankincense
The staple Middle Easternincense burner, perfume ingredient and, these days, soap, shampoo and even ice cream flavour, is extracted from the sap of the Boswellia tree. In Oman, the Dhofar governorate is best known for it, and as per an Omani historian, even Alexander the Great fancied the scent (and imported it from Arab lands).
Outside the luxury fragrance brand Amouage’s only visitor’s centre and factory in Muscat, and anywhere else in the world, there is, and aptly so, a frankincense tree. When you step inside, however, you find a table with every perfume ingredient imaginable—angelica, myrrh, red peppercorn, oakmoss, etc. But it takes at least another 100 to complete some of the perfumes. With dozens of different variants and over 500 outlets all over the world, it is astounding how a factory in Oman alone caters to such demand. And, as you realise upon entering the next room, it is all done by hand (to the tune of 3,000 bottles a day). The key lies in the meticulous manufacturing process, the all-natural ingredients and the concentration of each component, which is usually very high compared to other perfumeries. Consider Omani culture a key ingredient (women’s bottles have nozzles that resemble mosque domes; men’s resemble the traditional Omani dagger). Needless to say, the concoctions smell great, and there’s sure to be something or the other that will match your preference.
The Bollywood Connect
Bollywood producers love Oman for its diverse, rugged landscape. So if you’re a B-town buff, head to film locations such as: Qantab Beach, Qurum Beach and Shangri-La Barr Al Jissah Resort and Spa, where Once Upon A Time in Mumbai Dobaara! was shot; the Jebel Akhdar (approx. 3,000m) mountain, a day trip from Muscat, which featured in Dishkiyaoon; and Qantab, where a song from the Abhishek Bachchan-starrer Naach was filmed. If you’re craving both Bollywood and a good meal, visit The Bollywood (+968-2465653), a beloved Indian restaurant that features pop art and posters of famous actors, some in their iconic avatars.