Muscat has for centuries been an important trading port due to its strategic location at the Arabian Sea. Today, it’s the capital and biggest city of Oman. Don’t expect a city like Dubai or Doha however, because Muscat is different. Tradition is still very important in Oman and Omanis are proud of their culture and tradition. There are few skyscrapers in Muscat and the whole city, although spread out over a large area, feels like an entity, and there’s no race for bigger, higher, and more modern as in other Gulf countries.
One of Muscat’s main tourist attractions is Muttrah Souq near the corniche along the ocean. More interesting than most of the shops is actually the building itself, especially the elaborately carved and painted ceiling. Otherwise, I found there are much better souqs in the country.
Along the Corniche to Old Muscat
A nice corniche links Muttrah with old Muscat. It’s a 30-40 minutes walk along the shore; you can also rent bikes for free. For good views of the port and the city, it’s worthwhile to climb one of the many watchtowers that dot the hills around Muscat.
Old Muscat feels worlds away from busy Muttrah or Ruwi, it’s much more quiet here. The huge Sultan’s palace is in Old Muscat and a beautifully restored old building houses the Omani-French museum we wanted to visit but that was already closed by the time we got there. Most museums close early, so it’s better to go in the morning. Muttrah Souq, however, only comes to life after 4 pm.
The Opera House
Muscat’s Royal Opera House was finished in 2011 after four years of construction. The stage, the roof of the auditorium, and some of the balconies can be moved in order to change the size of the stage and/or the acoustics of the room. The opera also houses the largest pipe organ in the Middle East.
The building looks great from the outside. Modest, not too big, all white and elegant. This first impression doesn’t prepare you at all for what awaits you inside. The inside of the building is just stunning. Guessing by the smile of the guides, they’re used to all the wows and oohs and I can’t believe its from the visitors. The main lobby is especially impressive. The colors (white marble and dark brown teak wood, the same in all the rooms) contrast amazingly. The ornaments, the lighting, the proportions – every detail is perfect.
If you have time and just the slightest interest in architecture and art, don’t miss the opera house. It’s open daily from 8.30 to 11 (double-check on their website) and is definitely worth a visit.
Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque
Inaugurated in 2001, the Grand Mosque is, as its name suggests, the biggest mosque in Oman. The main minaret is 90 meters high and the mosque can accommodate up to 20’000 worshipers. The main mushalla’s (the prayer hall) walls are beautifully decorated with elaborate mosaics and the carpet on the floor is the world’s second biggest hand-woven carpet, after the one in the mosque in Abu Dhabi. The numbers are impressive, and so is the building itself. At first, we didn’t know if we’d make it to the mosque before it closes but we did and I’m glad that we did.
For non-muslims, the mosque is open every day from 8 to 11 am (except on Fridays). It pays to be there well before closing time – half an hour is just not enough time to truly appreciate the prayer halls, the garden, the courtyard, and the passageways (and the library). It’s a wonderful and peaceful place and, as the opera house, one of the most interesting sights in Oman’s capital.