Muscat, Oman

Before travelling to Muscat I actually did very little in the way of research so really didn't have much of an idea of what to expect. Whilst I adored Petra and Jordan and would go back there to explore more in a heartbeat, I have to say that after a few days in Muscat I think it managed to just top it. Purely because I have honestly never travelled anywhere where the locals were so welcoming, friendly and genuinely wanted to do everything possible to help you.

Muscat isn't really like any other city I've visited. It took us about a day to appreciate and understand this but it doesn't have what you could call a city centre, rather a number of suburbs that stretch along the coast, each with their own points of  interest. Once you understand this about the city it becomes a lot easier to navigate and plan what you want to do. Whilst I haven't travelled extensively in the Middle East of the cities I have visited Muscat seems much more low rise and a lot of the buildings seem to be more in keeping with traditional building designs. It has a relaxed, understated but charming feel to it and maybe that's why it seems so friendly. I felt that charm and friendliness as soon as I stepped off the plane and into the airport. Whilst sorting my visa on arrival and clearing immigration was a little more chaotic than the same process in Jordan had been, though definitely not the worst I've experienced, that welcome was evident with possibly the friendliest staff at an airport I've ever encountered.

As on my previous visits to this part of the world this year I was meeting my husband upon arrival which for me was first thing in the morning after an overnight flight. Whilst the time difference between Oman and the UK isn't huge, only four hours, I always struggle to sleep on planes unless I'm absolutely exhausted. As a consequence when I checked on my step counter later that day I'd only managed about an hour and a half sleep which did eventually catch up on me a little. Once we got to the hotel, checked in, showered and freshened up we headed out for a wander deciding, based on a guidebook recommendation, to begin at the fish market in Mutrah. The sea port here is one of the largest in the region and the daily catch of fish is still brought into the market off the boats each morning. We'd found a walk in our guidebook beginning here that took us along the coast winding up in the old town of Muscat. In the end we did the walk over two days in two parts, partly because my lack of sleep coupled with the heat (don't forget I live in Scotland now so I'm not used to it anymore) exhausted me and secondly because my flip flop broke on route making it impossible for me to walk anywhere leaving us no choice but to take a taxi back to the hotel. Thank goodness I packed more than one pair!

rom the port area our first stop was at the Souq Mutrah, a rabbit warren of alleys with a myriad of stalls selling everything you could want, think you may want or perhaps don't actually want but just can't resist. As we wandered around it was easy to get confused about the route we'd taken but this gave us a great opportunity to see all the items available there to buy. Despite having travelled to this part of the world a couple of times this year I stupidly also forgot to pack the hat that has been a lifesaver on other trips so this was a good place to pick one up. It amuses me that the person who doesn't really ever wear hats because she thinks they look awful on her now has two of them that, yes, I probably most likely will use again, assuming I remember to pack them! Back to the souq though which is possibly one of the oldest marketplaces in the Arab world, being just opposite from the port made it an important trading point. We didn't buy anything else but if you wish you can buy perfumes and oils, jewellery, household items, clothing and shoes amongst many other items.

View from the port at Mutrah

In the vicinity of the souq are other shops, restaurants and coffee houses and from there you can follow the coast road towards old Muscat. Walking along this road is where we began to first appreciate that Muscat is a very spread out city stretching along a fairly expansive part of the coastline. Also noticeable was the influence that other foreign powers have had over the city, most notably at this stage the Portuguese with the numerous forts and watch towers built by them in the 16th and 17th centuries that dot the coast line. Further along the coast you catch sight of a huge incense burner on the top of the hills, a nod to Oman's former prosperity, built upon the exporting of frankincense. Whilst the coastal views were lovely I actually find this quite a long stretch of road to walk and not as interesting as I'd hoped. I suspect though that my tiredness plus the fact we hadn't appreciated the layout of Muscat fully at that point played a part in this too. So don't write it off yourself as the coastline is lovely but for me the second part of the walk around old Muscat was by far the more interesting.

Incense burner and Portuguese watchtowers 

Eventually by following the coast road you reach the Muscat gate museum which spans the road and marks the beginnings of old Muscat. We were unable to go in to the museum as we did this part of the walk on a Friday and so it was closed. The museum has the original gates that were locked every night up until the 1970s to keep land bound unwanted people out of the city. If you do visit the area on a Friday, whilst you can't go in to the museum, you can still get some great views from the gate over some of old Muscat and towards the western Al Hajar mountains that overlook this part of the city. 

Muscat gate museum

From the museum you enter the original historic city of Muscat, surrounded by low rise dwellings as well as some absolutely beautiful looking Government buildings the closer you get to the Sultan's palace. As you might expect the road gets grander the closer you get to the palace with date palm trees providing some welcome shelter and an almost Mediterranean feel. Keep walking and turn to the left and you'll soon spot the Sultan's palace (Al Alam palace) beyond the white surrounding Government buildings in traditional Omani style, beautifully manicured gardens and spotless shiny pavements. The palace itself is actually quite understated, perhaps in keeping with that understated charm of the place, compared to many royal residences around the world but is also quite striking in design. You can't go inside it but are able to walk around the surrounding area and get photos of the palace through the gates.

Sultan's palace

Another view of the palace peeking over the perimeter fence

We finished exploring old Muscat back by the water again spotting more of those many Portuguese forts. From here you can see some interesting graffiti left behind by the many sailors who've passed through the port. Look out for my next Muscat post to see that in a little more detail. From this view you can also see the back of the palace, just out of view in my photo below, they definitely have a pretty good view out to sea from there. If you are interested in learning more about, for example, Muscat's relationship with the sea or shipbuilding etc., there are several museums along the length of the walk from the port through to the old city you can visit, as well as the gate museum I've already mentioned. 

As I said before o
nce we recognised that Muscat is a number of different suburbs that could be broken up that way it was a delight to explore and the old city lends itself well to being discovered on foot. It's incredibly easy to get taxis no matter where you are so if you get tired, or your flip flop breaks for example you can break up your walk and head back to your hotel or elsewhere at any stage. I don't know if it's always the case but I assume it was pretty quiet when we visited as we did so on a Friday. Obviously go prepared with water etc. whatever day of the week you do it but keep in mind it may be trickier to get snacks or drinks on a Friday than other days. Muscat had only just begun to share it's beauty with us though and I couldn't wait to see more.

Muscat by night, back where we started exploring close to the fish market in Mutrah


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