Royal Opera House Muscat
Built by the same architects as the Grand Mosque, the Royal Opera House Muscat is worth a visit simply to admire the harmonious amalgam of marble, inlaid wood and Arabesque design. Some of the most famous names in opera and ballet have performed within this beautiful building since its inauguration in 2011 and the quality of the productions here regularly wins international acclaim. The season extends from September to May.
There is an efficient online reservation system with collection of tickets at the door.
Note there’s a strict dress code for attending a performance: jeans and sports shoes are not permitted. Coveralls can be hired if there isn’t time to get back to the hotel to change.
Even if you’re not intending to catch a show, it’s worth stopping by to admire the beauty of the building and enjoy window-shopping in the adjacent Opera Galleria arcade. Call the box office to check the availability of tours.
Quietly imposing from the outside, this glorious piece of modern Islamic architecture was a gift to the nation from Sultan Qaboos to mark his 30th year of reign. The main prayer hall is breathtakingly rich. The Persian carpet alone measures 70m by 60m wide, making it the second-largest hand-loomed Iranian carpet in the world; it took 600 women four years to weave.
The mosque, which can accommodate 20,000 worshippers, including 750 women in a private musalla (prayer hall), is an active place of worship, particularly for Friday prayers. Visitors are required to dress modestly, covering arms and legs and avoiding tight clothing. Women and girls (aged seven and above) must cover their hair. Abeyyas (full-length dresses) and scarves can be hired from the mosque cafe and giftshop for OR2.500; some form of ID is required as a deposit.
Bait Al Luban
You know you’re somewhere unique when the complementary water is infused with frankincense. This delightful restaurant, housed in a renovated khan (guesthouse) that was built 140 years ago and which used to charge by the bed, not by the room, serves genuine Omani cuisine, home cooked by local ladies. Come just to savour the decor. Opposite Mutrah’s Fish Market.
Bait al Luban makes the perfect venue to sample the delights of iftarduring Ramadan.
With a choice of open-air and majlis-style dining (on sedans in small rooms), this excellent restaurant has spilt into a courtyard of illuminated trees to create a thoroughly Arabian experience. Make sure you try Kargeen’s take on the traditional Omani shuwa – a succulent banana-leaf-wrapped lamb dish. Also worth a try are the hibiscus drinks and avocado milkshakes.
Orders for delivery are available from the excellent website
On the Rocks
This novel lounge restaurant, with its giant psychedelic TV-screen, serves a spirited cocktail and a fine-dining menu for modest prices, but it’s the music that draws the crowds. Every Tuesday is steam and beer night with dim sum and pulse and soul music; every Wednesday there is live music, and DJs pitch in from 8.30pm to 2am on other nights. Smart-casual dress is strictly enforced. It’s near the airport.
This top-class restaurant, with superb Arabian ambience created by fire pits and subtle lighting, serves exciting, complex fare in a luxurious beachside location. The French pastry chef at the hotel’s indoor restaurant makes wicked confections, including delectable handmade chocolates, if your sweet tooth tempts you. The four-course degustation menu is excellent.
This exquisite restaurant next to the Royal Opera House offers just the kind of refined fare demanded of a special occasion, such as a night at the opera. From the silver napkin rings to the carved wooden ceiling, this stylish restaurant showcases Omani cuisine at its best.
Many people come to Mutrah Corniche just to visit the souq, which retains the chaotic interest of a traditional Arab market albeit housed under modern timber roofing. Shops selling Omani and Indian artefacts together with a few antiques jostle among more traditional textile, hardware and jewellery stores. Bargaining is expected although discounts tend to be small. Cards are generally accepted in most shops, but bring cash for better deals. The main entry is via the corniche, opposite the pedestrian traffic lights.
The traditional coffeehouse at the souq’s entrance is a rare relic from the past and a locals-only meeting point for elderly men. Take care not to wander into the historic Shiite district of Al Lawataya by mistake, as the settlement is walled to protect the privacy of the residents here. A sign under the archway requests that visitors keep out.
Navigating the souq takes a bit of practice. You enter by going slightly uphill away from the sea. If you keep turning right at each junction, you will of course come back to the sea. If in doubt, head downhill. That said, getting lost inside the souq is part of the fun. A right fork at the first junction and a left at Muscat Pharmacy shouldlead you to an Aladdin’s Cave of a bead shop, but then again…
Al Alam Palace
If you stand by the harbour wall on Mirani St, the building to the right with the delightful mushroom pillars in blue and gold is the Sultan’s Palace. On the inland side, an avenue of palm trees leads to a roundabout surrounded by grand royal court buildings and the new national museum. Although the palace is closed to the public, you can pause in front of the gates, at the end of the colonnaded approach, for a quintessential photograph.
The palace was built over the site of the former British embassy where there used to be the stump of a flagpole in the grounds: the story goes that any slave (Oman was infamous for its slave trade from East Africa) who touched the flagpole was granted freedom. The palace today is largely used for ceremonial purposes as Sultan Qaboos favours a quieter, seaside residence near Seeb.
Mutrah stretches along an attractive corniche of latticed buildings and mosques; it looks spectacular at sunset when the light casts shadows across the serrated crescent of mountains, while pavements, lights and fountains invite an evening stroll or a bike ride.
The initiative to relocate the industrial elements of the port and redevelop the dockside for tourism is well underway with the refurbishment of the fish market almost complete. The port will provide a permanent home for Shabab Oman, the country’s magnificent fully-rigged training ship, which is soon to be retired now that its replacement has been commissioned. In the meantime, the harbour is home to His Majesty’s dhow, visiting cruise ships, the high-speed ferry to Musandam and assorted naval vessels.
Bait Al Zubair
In a beautifully restored house, this much-loved privately owned museum exhibits Omani heritage in thematic displays of traditional handicrafts, furniture, stamps and coins. The museum has recently evolved into the cultural centre of Muscat, hosting many international exhibitions of contemporary art in Gallery Sarah within the museum’s grounds. A modern cafe and a shop selling quality souvenirs usually entice visitors to stay longer than they expected.
If you’re visiting the cafe, take a look at the wind tower for an idea of how old buildings in Muscat coped with the heat before the invention of modern air conditioning.
Housed in an imposing new building in the heart of Old Muscat, the National Museum makes a fitting consort for the Sultan’s Palace opposite. The emphasis of this contemporary museum is on quality rather than quantity, with space, light and height used to enhance the selective displays showcasing the heritage of Oman. Giant screens and high-tech devices bring the artefact alive.
Lasting for a month from around the end of January, Muscat Festival is a highlight of the capital’s year, featuring nightly fireworks, a ‘living’ replica of an Omani village with halwa-making and craft displays, exhibitions from regional countries and events such as laser shows and traditional dancing. The festival is organised around several main venues – one usually in the suburbs of Al Amerat and the other in Naseem Gardens along the Muscat–Barka Hwy near Seeb. There is also a funfair, international pavilions selling crafts, bargain clothing and bedding and a range of items from cheap imports to inlaid furniture from Pakistan. International dance troupes perform on the open-air stages and fashion shows take place nightly; other acts, such as high-wire acrobatics, occupy the periphery. In addition, many shops in Muscat offer grand draws and discounts. Check the English-language newspapers and Muscat FM radio for the festival program.
Zahr El Laymoun
Bench seats with colourful cushions spill onto the pavement at this excellent Lebanese restaurant, inviting diners to make a night of it. That’s easily done as there are lots of different hot and cold mezze on offer that can be rolled out slowly over the course of an evening. It’s situated in a prime spot at the end of the Walk.
Specialising in Northern Indian Mughlai cuisine, Mumtaz Mahal is more than just the best Indian restaurant in town – it is part of the landscape of Muscat. Perched on a hill overlooking Qurm Nature Reserve, with live sitar performances, some traditional seating at low tables, and lantern-light, this restaurant is a local legend.
Marina Bandar Al Rowdha
Apart from offering a full range of boating amenities, Marina Bandar al Rowdha is a popular launching point for a range of watersports, including fishing and diving. It is also a pleasant place to enjoy harbour activity and relax at the Blue Marlin restaurant. The marina offers free use of its pool for those dining at the restaurant, making it a potential day’s outing when combined with a boat trip.
The journey to the marina, along the coast road from Old Muscat to Al Bustan, offers spectacular mountain and sea views and a glimpse of local life. A water taxi service connects the marina to the resort at Al Seifa (Jebel Sifah) and the marina at Al Mouj.
Sultan’s Armed Forces Museum
Despite the name, this excellent museum is far more than just a display of military hardware. The collection is housed in Bayt al Falaj, built in 1845 as a royal summer home but used mostly as the headquarters of the Sultan’s Armed Forces. The lower rooms outline Oman’s history while the upper rooms explore the country’s international relations and military prowess. The museum is on the itinerary of visiting dignitaries and a military escort is mandatory for all visitors. If you haven’t time to visit the mountains to see Oman’s ancient engineering in action, there’s a working model falaj (irrigation channel) in the grounds outside the museum that is worth a look.
Al Jalali Fort
Guarding the entrance to the harbour to the east, Al Jalali Fort was built during the Portuguese occupation in the 1580s on Arab foundations. The fort is accessible only via a steep flight of steps. As such, it made the perfect prison for a number of years, but now it is a museum of Omani heritage. Admission is strictly by permit only – apply to the Ministry of National Heritage and Culture, through the contact page on the ministry website. During palace military occasions, bagpipers perform from the fort battlements, and the royal dhow and yacht are sailed in full regalia into the harbour. With fireworks reflected in the water, it makes a spectacular sight.
Just outside Al Bustan Palace Hotel, opposite the imposing parliament buildings, a small roundabout is home to Sohar, a boat named after the hometown of the famous Omani seafarer Ahmed bin Majid. The boat is a replica of one sailed by Abdullah bin Gasm in the mid-8th century to Guangzhou in China. It was built in the dhow yards of Sur from the bark of more than 75,000 palm trees and four tonnes of rope. Not a single nail was used in the construction.
Tim Severin and a crew of Omani sailors undertook a famous voyage to Guangzhou in this boat in 1980 – a journey of 6000 nautical miles that took eight months to complete.
A road runs along the edge of Qurm Nature Reserve towards the Crowne Plaza Hotel, giving access to a long, sandy beach – a popular place for cruising in the latest on four wheels and for family picnics on the sand. Women bathing on their own are likely to feel uncomfortable here so avoiding skimpy swimwear is advised; all swimmers should take heed of warnings about strong tides. There are cafes along the beachfront with a view out to sea. Some water sports, including jet skis, are available at the Crowne Plaza end of the beach from Al Nimer Tourism.
This cave-like complex of seven different restaurants includes Al Manjur, an Omani restaurant with shuwa (slow-cooked, marinated meat dishes) on the menu. Smart-casual dress is expected in this Aladdin’s cave of a restaurant. If the slightly austere atmosphere doesn’t appeal, opt for Arab-style dining on the terrace upstairs with expansive views over the sparkling lights of Ruwi.
This elegant building, completed in 2013, is home to the two houses of the Majlis ash Shura, Oman’s parliament. It is not open to the public, but it does make for a fine photo opportunity with its low-rise, Omani–style architecture, backed by Muscat’s distinctive russet-coloured ophiolite mountains. The partially elected Majlis ash Shura assists the state in the formation of policy.
This stylish cafe overlooking the marina has brought a touch of class to the new esplanade that is slowly expanding around the fashionable Al Mouj complex. Having made their name from the retail of fine quality dates, Bateel is a regional favourite, offering local flavour with international flair. This branch, with its wrap-around marina-view windows, also serves light bites.
Blue Marlin Restaurant
With cheerful cloth-covered tables under brollies alongside the harbour, the Blue Marlin offers consistently delicious light bites at lunch time – perfect after a boat trip from the marina. Breakfast aficionados take note: this place serves real bacon. Diners are offered free access to the marina’s pool. There’s a cool, blue-lit interior for unbearably hot summer days.
This Omani restaurant (with seating at tables rather than on the floor) offers an avante-garde menu. Camel features among other traditional meats. Leave room for dessert – the frankincense ice cream and halwa pastries are delicious. Within walking distance of the Royal Opera House Muscat, it’s ideal for a post-show dinner.
National Day is marked with fireworks, city buildings are draped with strings of colourful lights, and Sultan Qaboos St is spectacularly lit and adorned with flags. Petunia planting along highway verges, roundabouts and city parks is timed for maximum blooming, transforming the city into a riot of floral colour.
Al Mirani Fort
Sixteenth-century Al Mirani Fort was built by the Portuguese at the same time as nearby Al Jalali Fort. Although closed to the public, its presence looms large over the harbour and contributes to the iconic view of Muscat captured in 19th-century lithographs. Al Mirani Fort has a special place in history as it contributed to the fall of the Portuguese. This came about through a curious affair of the heart: legend has it that the Portuguese commander fell for the daughter of a Hindu supplier, who refused the match on religious grounds. On being threatened with ruin, the supplier spent a year apparently preparing for the wedding during which time he worked an elaborate trick on the commander, convincing him that the fort’s supplies needed a complete overhaul. Bit by bit he removed all the fort’s gunpowder and grain and when the fort was left completely defenceless, he gave the nod to the Omani Imam, Sultan bin Saif, who succeeded in retaking the fort in 1649. The Portuguese were ousted from Muscat soon after, and the wedding never took place.
Mutrah Gold Souq
A visit to Mutrah Souq wouldn’t be the same without a stroll through the narrow alleys that house the glittering gold shops. The bridal gold, worked into bibs, buckles and belts, may not be to everyone’s taste, but the sheer accumulation of treasure in the shop windows is exciting on the eye. The gold souq is a five-minute walk via the main souq entry off Mutrah Corniche, followed by an immediate right turn. The covered lane leads through textile shops, and the gold souq is a left turn just before re-entering the corniche. If you feel comfortable getting lost, the alleyways behind the main gold souq are home to shops selling precious stones and silver. This is where monocled old men with beards sit in a muddle of uncut, semi-precious stones, making and mending rings and pendants in designs that are as old as the hands that craft them.
Bait Al Baranda
Housed in a renovated 1930s residence, this museum traces the history – and prehistory – of Muscat through imaginative, interactive displays and exhibits. A ‘cut-and-paste’ dinosaur, using bones found in Al Khoud area of Muscat and topped up with borrowed bones from international collections, is worth a look. The ethnographic displays help set not just Muscat but the whole of Oman in a regional, commercial and cultural context. The ground floor of the museum is used as an exhibition space.
Natural History Museum
The Ministry of National Heritage houses the small but quaint Natural History Museum. The museum is illuminating about the local flora and fauna, and there are some excellent displays on Oman’s geography and geology, together with information about environmental protection. Of particular interest is the clump of rudists, elongated marine fossils that formed giant reefs under the Tethys Sea. The fossils are now to be found only in the remote interior of the Huqf. Entry is off Way 3413.
Oman Avenues Mall
Arguably Muscat’s most popular mall, the Avenues comes with 150 shops, cinema, and large food court open until 1am at weekends. There’s a children’s entertainment area called Funtazmo, a bowling alley and gym. Free wi-fi is available in the mall’s cafes. Ostensibly a shopping destination, visitors flock to the mall’s grand marble corridors just to escape the intense summer heat.
Despite being the capital’s main port area, Mutrah feels more like a fishing village. The daily catch is delivered to the fish market, by the Marina Hotel, from sunrise. A lengthy refurbishment has transformed the market from a few crates on the shore to a landmark destination with a purpose-built, wave-shaped building and landscaped addition to the corniche, completed in 2017.
Al Riyam Park
Beyond Mutrah Fort, the corniche leads to the leafy Al Riyam Park, with fine views of the harbour from the giant ornamental incense burner. There is a small fun fair popular with locals at weekends. The park is on the path of a popular hike that used to link Mutrah with Muscat proper. Opening times are a bit hit-or-miss.
Al Boom & Dolphin Bar
This intimate, licensed restaurant, with large windows and a terrace overlooking the harbour, is a good place to get a feel of Muscat’s age-old relationship with the sea. A few marine favourites find their way on to the mainly Middle Eastern–style menu. The bar stays open until 3am (2am on Fridays).
Catering to homesick traders from the interior, this restaurant is one of the few to serve genuine Omani food the traditional way with seating on old carpets in private rooms with a television. Try harees, a glutinous Omani dish that’s often mixed with chicken. Cash only.
The Planetarium offers free shows approximately once a month, but visitors should call ahead to check show times and book a seat. To reach the Planetarium from Qurm, follow the signs for the Crowne Plaza Hotel and take the first right turn along Sayh Al Malih St.
Built by the Portuguese in the 1580s, this fort dominates the eastern end of Mutrah harbour. Used for military purposes, it is generally closed to visitors although you can scale the flank of the fort for a good view of the ocean.
Well-signposted domed building with lots of hands-on science displays. Free for children under seven.
Amouage sells the most expensive (and exquisite) perfume in the world, produced from frankincense, musk and other exotic ingredients in premises near Rusayl. You’ll find the ultimate Arabian gift here or better still, call in on the Visitors Centre & Factory on Nizwa Hwy, 3km west of the Rusayl Clock Tower, where they offer guided tours of the factory.
A surprisingly comprehensive little souq located inside the Sabco Centre sells crafts (mostly from India and Iran), pashmina shawls and Omani headdresses. Bargaining is recommended, although prices are reasonable. The souq’s excellent cobbler can repair any leather item. Some shops in the souq close at lunchtime.