Muscat: Magic and Mystery
I love Oman, and Muscat sums up many things that make it such an exciting, exotic country. Don’t stick to the tourist maps if you want to get a real sense of what makes the place tick. Dig into local life, get lost, and take the time to find the poky places down winding alleys and tucked behind grand glittering facades. Enjoy the delicious local food served up at little kiosks and cafes, and you’re sure to make some friends and gain some insider knowledge.
If you have limited time in Muscat, there are a few big attractions that you should definitely take in, but the wonderful thing about this city is, rarely do you feel hemmed in by crowds at any of them—except while at the souk perhaps, like any big city market. So make sure you put aside a couple of hours at least, for each of these Omani institutions: the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque, the Royal Opera House Muscat, the Al Alam Palace in Muscat Old Town (preferably at sunrise or sunset) and Muscat’s Old Muttrah Souk, which is believed to be one of the oldest markets in the Arab world.
Fitting in these places, which are both cultural institutions and well-known landmarks, will reveal a little about the spirit, past and mystique of Muscat. They will also give you a sweeping view of modern-day Omani life – which revolves around prayer, markets, music, family, food and the Sultan. And then there’s dates and coffee — it’ll only take a day in Oman for you to realise that daily life solidly relies upon them. They are both sustenance and an inextricable part of friendship and daily ritual.
It’s the little things gathered on a trip that will make it unforgettable, so here are some tidbits that will undoubtedly create an authentic Omani experience:
Good things come in little packages
Every day, the scent from local bakeries fill the air from the early hours as they turn out sweet baked morsels in the form of biscuits, sweets and cheesy breads. If you want to kick off a morning or finish a night in the company of locals with a nice hot sweet tea and some of these delicacies, Ubhar restaurant is popular with locals and visitors. As is Kargeen.
If you want to cool down while fitting in some shopping at the Muttrah Souk (which has enough glitter and glitz to give a bower bird a heart attack) the kiosks and hole-in-the-wall sellers in and around it make the best lemon and mint juice.
Muscat's ice cream vendors also do a roaring trade year all year round, churning out exotic temptations with flavourings such as rosewater, date, kahwa (coffee and cardamom), karak (sweet, milky spiced tea) and even frankincense. They’ll save you from melting on seriously hot spring and summer days where the temperature sits around 40 degrees.
If you have (understandably) enjoyed your hotel’s seaside pool all day, then the evening is the ideal time to soak up some local culture, as that’s when Muscat's 'shawarma rush' kicks off and locals loyally head to their favourite cafe, kitchen or kiosk for one of the thousands of savoury wonders pumped out each day. For just a few dollars you can tuck into a wrap or roll filled with a closely guarded secret-recipe-marinated meat, with yoghurt and garlic paste, topped off with all manner of fresh salad mixes. Be warned that queuing and chatting with other eager shawarma-hunters is all a part of another day here. The delicious juices in the wraps taste like nothing you can possibly concoct at home.
Another Omani treasure that draws anyone with a good ‘nose’, is Amouage – one of the world’s most valuable perfumes. If you can’t afford to buy some from the top shelf, make sure you visit a local poky perfumery where someone versed in the art of scent mixes concoctions that will make your heart sing. As soon as you enter one of these little stores, you’ll no doubt be enchanted before you’ve sniffed a thing, surrounded by gold and glass canisters that are like glittering treasures stolen from Aladin’s Cave.