Surrounded by the striking scenery of the Hajar Mountains, Muscat feels an eternity away from the hustle and bustle of life in Dubai. There isn’t a high-rise building in sight in this city, which exudes serenity and bliss. Essentially a fishing village, Muscat overlooks the Arabian Sea, the Sea of Oman and the Arabian Gulf. It also controls the Strait of Hormuz, which is one of the most important locations for international trade in the region, linking the Sea of Oman with the Arabian Gulf. Here, we round up six top things to do during a weekend in this relaxing city.
Spend a night at the opera
If you’re after a dose of high culture, take a visit to the breathtaking Royal Opera House Muscat, Oman’s premier venue for musical arts and culture, located in Shati Al-Qurm. It was officially opened on October 12 2011 and was built on the royal orders of Sultan Qaboos of Oman.
The style of the building reflects contemporary Omani architecture, and has the capacity to accommodate a maximum of 1,100 people. Unsurprisingly, it’s proving to be a very popular tourist attraction and, judging by the continuously sold-out performances of its inaugural season and the newly announced programme for 2013, including Madame Butterfly from April 19-21, it will continue to do so. The Nutcracker is currently showing and the Royal Danish Ballet and Royal Danish Orchestra will perform in January. The opera house complex consists of a concert theatre, auditorium, formal landscaped gardens, cultural market with retail outlets, luxury restaurants and an art centre for musical, theatrical and operatic productions. The quality of the performances is usually breathtaking.
The opera house was built to promote the Sultanate’s cultural heritage and artistic engagement. Royal directives were issued to develop a set of structures to broaden the population’s participation in cultural life. The Royal Opera House Muscat has emerged as the leading open house for arts and culture in the country and is viewed as a milestone in the evolution of Omani architectural style. It’s something that can be enjoyed by everyone. www.rohmuscat.org.om
Take a boat trip and go snorkelling
With the dramatic backdrop of the Hajar Mountains, one of the most memorable ways to take in the sights of Muscat is to head down to the Marina Banda Al Rowdha and take a tour of the Omani coastline. The contrast between the rugged, earthy mountains, against the white, old-worldy and mostly low-rise architecture of the city is spectacular. Add the calm, azure waters of the Gulf of Oman and it’s the perfect way to spend the morning.
A short sail down the coast from the marina affords an opportunity to spot the brightly coloured yellow and blue of the Sultan’s palace and the 16th-century Portuguese forts of Al Jalali and Mirani. Built during the Portuguese occupation, the Al Jalali fort is perched on a cliff, which contains graffiti of the names of ships which visited the port, creatinga log book which dates back hundreds of years.
Another must during your sightseeing cruise is to visit one of the calm bays, around 20 minutes from the marina. The shallow waters, free from strong currents, create the ideal conditions for snorkellers, and also offers a great opportunity to interact with the abundance of colourful marine life living in Oman’s warm waters.
Bag a bargain at the Mutrah Souk
Muscat’s strategic trading position between China and India means Mutrah Souk is thought to be one of the oldest markets in the Arab world. A dark maze of narrow winding streets and dimly lit alleys, the souk has a ramshackle Arabian charm. Everything from frankincense, perfume and fake football shirts to perfumes, silver and traditional Omani costumes is for sale among the warren of makeshift stands and tiny shops. Expect hawkers to call out to you as you wander past, and be prepared to haggle – prices are often inflated for tourists. Gastronomes should also keep their eye out for the wide array of exotic spices and other cooking ingredients on offer.
Visit the mosque
Constructed from Indian sandstone, the amazing Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque was commissioned and paid for by the Sultan in 1992. The mosque itself features an enormous, intricate hand-woven carpet (the second largest in the world), which covers the entire floor of the giant main prayer room. Ornately decorated, with a sense of inspiring serenity, the sheer scale and ambition of the mosque makes it an essential stop if you’re visiting the capital. The main minaret reaches 90 metres high and the mosque contains a library and a school for Islamic studies. Just remember that it’s only open in the mornings, and is closed all day on Fridays. If you plan to visit, make sure you dress conservatively – women need to bring a scarf to cover their head.
Watch turtles hatch
Head out of the city and take an excursion to the famous Rad Al Hadd area, near Sur on the Arabian Peninsula. A famous breeding ground for green turtles, from June to September you can watch the giant creatures nesting on the beach. You may even get the opportunity to help the newborns on their way from the beach to the water, keeping them safe from birds of prey.
Brush up on history at Bait Al-Baranda
Translated as ‘villa on the veranda’, Bait Al-Baranda is a great place to head for a crash course in the history of Muscat. Within walking distance of the Mutrah Souk, the museum covers everything from the geology
of the region to the earliest human settlements, from 10,000BC to the early Islamic origins of the country and more recent history. Opened in 2006, this small museum is definitely worth a look.
Wander around the old town
Old Muscat is located by the Mutrah Corniche and is surrounded by a wall, which dates back to 1625. No visit to the city would be complete without taking the time to meander down from the fish market towards the old fort. With lots of pedestrian areas, plenty of shady spots in which to sit and watch the locals play dominos, and the sight of the traditional dhows in the harbour, there’s plenty to see. Stop off for tea, or take a detour and explore. If you’re lucky, you might get chatting with one of the friendly locals.
Need to know
Etihad (www.etihadairways.com) flies direct from Abu Dhabi to Muscat from Dhs810 return. Alternatively, Oman Air (www.omanair.com) flies from Dubai direct to Oman from about Dhs630. Oman’s two largest airports are Muscat International Airport and Salalah International Airport. Both are a fair way from the city centre, so expect to pay around Dhs100 to get to your hotel. It is also possible to drive from Dubai to Muscat, which takes approximately six hours.
Where to stay
The Ritz-Carlton Al Bustan Palace
Rooms at this impressive beachside hotel start at Dhs1,400 per night.
www.ritzcarlton.com/albustanpalace (+968 24799 666).
Dubai to Muscat
Flight time: One hour.
Drive time: Approximately six hours.
Time difference: None.
Dhs1 = 0.1 Omani rials.