Having spent most of my childhood in the Gulf region, I feel deeply connected with Arab culture and heritage. My parents still reside in Dubai, and I still consider UAE my home. This article, however, is not about Dubai, but another beautiful city 4.5 hours away, the capital of Sultanate of Oman, called Muscat. My last trip to Muscat was in 1998, precisely 20 years ago and more interestingly, I have even lived in Oman briefly in 1991 (in a town called Buraimi).
So what took us back? We try to have our family union every Christmas, and this year we were all together at my parents’ place. Since we had plenty of weeks at hand, we decided to make a family road trip to Muscat (we were eight members- my parents, Sneha and my uncle’s family) for three days.
As always, lets tick out the logistical facts for Oman:
Currency: Omani Riyal (UAE dirhams are also widely accepted)
How to get there: Muscat International Airport is connected to almost all major destinations in Europe and Asia.
Language: Arabic. However, most people can speak English and Hindi.
Recommended months of travel: November to April
Visa requirements: Oman has an online visa system which you can apply through the link below. The website will also give details on the eligibility for visa on arrival for different nationalities - https://evisa.rop.gov.om/
Oman is considered the peace haven of the middle east and is genuinely reflective through its natural beauty and behaviour of the local populace. You feel it in the country’s air. And within Oman, Muscat is the perfect blend of a bustling metropolis that has rusticity yet the best of everything one finds in a modern international city. Although memories fade as you move from childhood to adulthood, Muscat has always had an everlasting impact on me. It is probably one of the cleanest cities I have seen, certainly miles ahead of its European peers. And yet, even though Muscat has it all, it is rarely visited or spoken about in tourist media. So, here is our take on three days that indeed were memorable.
Since we were eager to make the most of our three days stay in Muscat, we decided to leave Dubai at 7 am. We were eight fitted in my father’s SUV, which when combined with luggage was a bit of a squeeze. 😉 We decided we will take equal turns on which three sit at the back, true believers of equality! 😊 Aside from the picturesque route that we were about to drive past, an even more significant incentive for all of us were the packed sandwiches for the journey. The journey from Dubai to Khatmat Malaha border post between UAE and Oman turned out to be a real pleasant surprise. Part of it was dessert, but as we got nearer to Fujairah most of the scenery switched to sharp craggy mountains, which honestly was unique and beautiful.
The exit from UAE is usually just a stamp and costs AED 35 per person and is done by well-spoken Emirati staff, who are courteous and friendly. After crossing the Emirati border post, we then headed towards the Oman border. There can be quite a bit of rush here in peak hours, so would advise keeping sufficient time in hand. The usual process involves parking your car and visiting one of the visa units to get your visa checked and stamped by either a police officer or immigration official. Most can speak basic English, and as long as you have all your visa documentation at hand, it should be reasonably straightforward. We were a bit lucky given it was a working day morning and only took a maximum of 20 minutes to clear immigration.
By the time we entered Oman, we were all starving and decided to park at a hard shoulder. It had been 2 hours since we left Dubai, and the impossible had happened, we still hadn’t eaten up our sandwiches! Believe it or not, we ate them at such a speed that within 10 minutes we were ready to hit the roads again. 😉 I took the car controls from my father to proceed from there on.
Initially, we thought we should pick the route that goes via Sohar and is nearer to the coast to reach Muscat. It is usually the more popular route as it is inhabited throughout and could have coastal views. However, Google Maps pointed us to another expressway route, which was recently built and expected to save us about 35 minutes. Although it turned out to be super fast and practically traffic free, there were nil petrol stations or services that one could stop and take a short break, plus the scenery was quite average. That, unfortunately, made the last 3 hours a little uncomfortable for all of us.
We reached our hotel in Muscat, Fraser Suites, by 1 pm. We had booked two apartments, whereby each apartment had two bedrooms. Fraser Suites is a 5-star property which has a swimming pool, spa, and gym on its topmost floor. The hotel’s senior staff are efficient, active, prompt and very hospitable. The apartments were urban, cozy, well equipped with all the latest amenities. We loved our stay overall.
After checking in, we headed out for lunch at a nearby branch of Sarvana Bhavan (South Indian vegetarian chain). We didn’t quite like the food here, especially the quality of the main items were a bit off track compared to other Sarvana branches. Once we were done with lunch, we were exhausted and tired, so we headed back to our hotel and crashed out for an afternoon siesta. At around 6 pm, we were up and ready to kick off our Muscat exploration by road.
First stop, the Royal Opera House. Inaugurated only in 2011, this is perhaps one of the most majestic buildings I have come across in the entire Middle East. The elegant dim lighting on evenings complements the modern Omani architecture. With a capacity to accommodate up to 1100 people the opera house complex consists of a concert theatre, auditorium, formal landscaped gardens, cultural market with retail, luxury restaurants (including the world-famous French boulangerie, Fauchon) and an art center for musical, theatrical and operatic productions. We were all mesmerized by this stunning structure.
After clicking plenty of pictures, we drove on towards the Mutrah Souq (aka Al Dhalam Souq). Dhalam in Arabic means darkness, and one would wonder, why name a souq “darkness”? Locals explain that because of the crowded stalls and lanes where the sunrays do not infiltrate during the day, paradoxically the shoppers needed lamps to know their destinations despite the daylight outside. The main thoroughfare of the souq sells household goods, shoes, and ready-made garments. Further inside, there are mixed smells of frankincense, perfume oils, fresh jasmine, and spices. If you are looking for some cheap local shopping and love to bargain (such as the ladies in my household), ensure you buy it from here. The entire experience was truly local, and do not miss out!
By the time we were done shopping at the souq it was already 8 pm, and we were all practically starving. We decided to grab dinner at Spice Bahar, right next to the Intercontinental Hotel or Royal Opera House. Although the waiting time was long, the food was delicious. Best of all, they were so sorry for the delay of serving our order that before paying the bill they bought us a complimentary dessert, which we all happily gobbled up within a matter of seconds. 😊 A post-dinner walk was now a must after all the lavish feasting, so we headed towards Qurum beach (a couple of minutes walk from Spice Bahar). The full moon, the scenic beach and the vibrant local crowd made the night stroll worth it. And that was it for the day, we headed back to the hotel, played a few games of cards till past midnight and crashed.
The following morning, our plan for the day was to cover Old Muscat and then head towards Wadi Shab to get a feel of the beautiful countryside that Oman is well known for and if time permits, also try out the famous hiking trail there.
We kicked off by having breakfast at the hotel’s buffet style setup. My personal favourite was the freshly prepared pancakes (between my cousin and me, we ate quite a few of those!). Given we had only seen a night view of Muscat so far, our day time drive towards Old Muscat was incredibly scenic. We passed by the Mutrah Corniche and were so thrilled by the scenery that decided to stop over for a quick walk. Visualize transparent blue waters on one side, rocky mountains in another and a road decked up with bright coloured flowers on the third? It was a breath-taking sight. And to be honest, you find this mix in most parts of the city. Truly spectacular.
Our drive from Mutrah Corniche till Muscat Gate was mostly by the coast. Although we drove past the Muscat Gate, for those interested in stopping over, the museum contains displays about Oman’s history from the Neolithic times till present times, along with a particular focus on Muscat. It is free to enter and open only on weekdays (8 am to 2 pm).
Within a kilometer’s drive or walk from the Muscat Gate towards the coast will bring you at the Al Mirani Fort. Built by the Portuguese, the fort is known for the Ottoman invasion of 1552 whereby the Ottoman army laid siege around the fort for 18 days post which the fort’s defences fell and thus captured. Although one can’t enter the fort, it is a perfect point to park and enjoy the scenery, which is what we did as well.
At a further 650m distance, sits the resplendent Al Alam Palace. An absolute marvel, Muscat had yet again left us astounded on the architectural grandeur it has to offer for tourists. Considered as the ceremonial palace of the current monarch of Oman, Sultan Qaboos, the palace is used for official functions only. Note that like any other visitor, we too were not allowed to enter the inner grounds of the palace but at least we click photographs near the gates.
Since it was already 11 am by the time we finished off at Al Alam Palace, we had to depart for Wadi Shab immediately otherwise we would be too late to enjoy the view and activities there. Had we had more time at hand, we would have also visited the Al Jalali Fort (only a further 900m walk from Al Alab Palace). Just like Al Mirani and Al Alam, this fort too does not allow entry to regular visitors.
The drive from Al Alam Palace to Wadi Shab via Sur was about 170km or around 2 hours 15 minutes, and trust me, every minute and meter was worth the effort. The motorway route sits between the desert and rocky, barren mountains, with snaps in-between of the coastline. There are some superb views to drive through. Note that the signs for Wadi Shab don’t appear until you are almost 10km close to the sight, so don’t be stressed to look out for signs earlier.
Wadi Shab is an incredibly popular spot for both locals and tourists, which was quite evident when we tried to find a parking bay upon reaching. The entry to the wadi hiking trail requires a 2-minute boat ride, which comes at a return charge of OMR 1 per person. The last boat leaves at 4 pm if you don’t catch that you might end up spending the night there. 😉
The hiking trail involves an hour-long walking plus 15 minutes swimming each way so ensure you wear waterproof footwear. Once you get off the boat, the first part of the hike is easy with flat pathways, but it starts getting adventurous when you start walking along the cliff edges, while the water flows underneath. The entire trail in-between the rocks reminded me a lot of my time in Jordan, especially the trails in Petra. It was slippery at times but insanely scenic and surely a lifetime experience. Given that we had arrived quite late already and the last boat leaves at 4 pm, we had to stop right before the swimming element of the trail to get back on time. A slight disappointment that we never got to swim but still the entire hiking experience was unique.
Once we got back to our car, we decided to set up lunch in the car boot, a mini picnic. As always, mom cooked food is probably the best meal ever. By the time we reached our hotel, it was almost 4 pm. After a hectic day, we all took off for a nap to freshen up for the evening plans.
At around 6 pm, we headed for our evening tea to one of Middle East’s top luxury hotels, Ritz Carlton’s Al Bustan Palace. With the Sea of Oman on one side and Al Hajjar Mountains on the other, from the moment we entered the hotel until we left, we were spell bounded by its glamorous interior. The crystal chandeliers in the lounge bragged the grandeur while the lounge chairs, the Grand Piano in the corner and the flower arrangements created the majestic ambience. I felt as if I was in a 16th-century Mughal court solely for the grandeur. We ordered some tea, coffee, and cakes at the Atrium Tea Lounge, all pure and utterly delicious. Later we headed towards hotel gardens, pool and the beach in front of the hotel. Gosh, the wow factor only multiplied as we explored the hotel more and more. I am surely going to book myself here on my next visit to Muscat. A must do just for the opulence.
On our way back from Al Bustan Palace, we happen to pass by the Omani Parliament building. Built only in 2013, entrance to this stunning complex is not permitted to tourists yet, but I would surely recommend stopping over for a few minutes to view the building from outside and clicking some pictures. For dinner, all of us were in the mood for some Dominos pizza, so we decided to stop by at one of the branches near our hotel. We decided to call it a night shortly after that since we were planning to check out the next morning and we had to finish off packing our luggage.
On our last day, after eating Frazer Suites’ sumptuous breakfast, we checked out and left for the previous must-do item on our list for Muscat, Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque. But before I delve into the details of this magnificent mosque, I must share a little incident that made us fall in love with the people of Oman.
So, on our way to the mosque from Frazer Suites, we lost our way and decided to stop over and ask a local for help on directions. He didn’t know English, but through sign language, he gathered we were looking for one of the main tourist attractions. He thought we were referring to the Opera House, and given he couldn’t explain in English, he stopped halfway on the work he was doing and instead drove his car ahead of us to show the way. Of course, when we reached the Opera, he realized we were referring to the Grand Mosque. And although we insisted we will be fine and find our way somehow, he was not convinced and drove down to the other side of the city to ensure we made it to the mosque fine. Not just that, when we reached the mosque, he was about to park his car so that he could guide us around the mosque as well. Sadly, he never found a parking bay, so we bid him farewell outside the mosque, but that incident left a profound impact on all of us. It was altruism to its core and just showed how warm and hospitable Omani people are.
Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque was inaugurated in 2001. The mosque involved 300,000 tonnes of Indian sandstone, built on a land site of 416,000 m2. My favourite spot is the central prayer hall of which at one point had the largest single piece of carpet on the planet and contains 1.7bn knots weighing around 21 tonnes. Entrance to the mosque is free, but females must wear covered clothing (shorts and half sleeve tops are not permitted). The gardens surrounding the mosque are lavish and full of florals. A must visit spot in Muscat, do not miss this out.
Our last stop before we headed back to Dubai was the Shangri La hotel. Recently built, the hotel is about fifteen minutes’ drive from Muscat and is built in front of an incredibly scenic coastline. We decided to grab some coffee and snacks here and take a short tour of the resort. Honestly, it wasn’t the best of ideas to visit Al Bustan Palace first, and than Shangri La because they are not in the same league in terms of grandeur and luxury. However, Shangri La has a relaxing vibe to it which I am sure tourists looking for a beautiful beach would love to indulge.
The trip back was similar to our inward journey in terms of timing except that this time we made a brief stopover at Sohar for lunch. By the time we were at home in Dubai, it was 7 pm.
And so, that brings me to the closing of a phenomenal trip where not only did we see such a beautiful city but had plenty of fun with family. We will be back soon Muscat!