In thirty years, Muscat has witnessed unprecedented development. The capital of the Sultanate of Oman has indeed changed from being a small maritime town into a city with ultra-modern buildings. Although modest regarding the size of its population (650,000), Muscat extends over a considerable area (its districts cover roughly 18 miles from west to east) and almost every district is aligned by rows of white houses on both sides of the expressway, which passes through the capital. Skyscrapers are absent from the landscape, but gardens can be seen quite frequently and Muscat also has three impeccably green golf courses despite the scarcity of rainfall in the region.
The commercial port, the souk and the fish market are located in the district of Muttrah, at the bottom of a cove adjacent to the Old Muscat. You can walk around these two areas, as the distances to cover are not very large. Go to Muttrah early in the morning to observe the fishermen drawing in their fish nets, then stroll along the cornice to admire the wood covered galleries on the first floor of the houses, as well as the blue minaret of the mosque adjacent to the entrance to the souk.
Housed in a covered but airy street, the souk unites a myriad of small shops offering incense, floral waters, powders of fragrant wood, silver jewellery, traditional coffee services, khanjars (daggers with a curved blade) and various fabrics. At the eastern end of the road, there is a monumental incense burner which forms (along with the boutre and the coffee pot with a long spout) one of the emblems of Muscat. It dominates the entire cove of Muttrah and offers a pleasant view over the city and the mountains.
If you continue along the sea, you will reach Old Muscat, whose port is guarded by two forts built by the Portuguese in the 16th century. Behind that lies the palace of Sultan Qaboos, and a little further away you will find two museums which are well worth visiting if you want to learn more about the history and the traditions of the country: the Franco-Omani Museum and the Museum Bait Al-Zubair.
Plan a 3 to 4 day trip in the hinterland of Muscat. There are towns and villages like crenellated ramparts in the Oasis on the slopes or at the foot of the mountains. They reach high altitudes which culminate at the 10,088 ft of Jebel Shams (the Mountain of the Sun). The views are spectacular, but take your time to drive along the twisting roads.
You must see four of the ten forts that are found in the areas around Muscat (125 miles away): Nizwa, Jabrin, Nakhl and Rustaq. Built in the 17th century, the fort of Nizwa is distinguished by a huge tower which dominates the city and the palm grove. Also dating back to the 17th century, Fort Jabrin is remarkable for its interior. An impressive ensemble built on a rocky spur, Fort Nakhl is one of the most beautiful in the country. Built over former Persian foundations, Fort Rustaq has long ramparts with 12 towers.
The visa for the Sultanate allows you to go to Dubai without applying for another visa. Starting from Muscat, it takes a day's drive to reach the capital of the Arab Emirates. Enjoy combining a tour of the Sultanate with staying in a local seaside resort and doing some shopping and sightseeing in Dubai. Be ready to discover two very different faces of the Arabian Peninsula.
Avoid the period between April and October, and between July and August in particular. Not only is it extremely hot (40 to 50 °C), but there are the affects of the monsoon: mist and fine rain and the constant high humidity, in particular. You would only feel comfortable inside (very air-conditioned) hotels or in the (chilled) swimming pools.
Try a traditional meal from Oman. People generally eat it with their hands (right hand to serve) and it is often taken in a small private room, seated on mats and leaning against cushions. On the menu, you will find dishes of rice with fish or meat, which are based on Indian curries but without the hot spices. To finish the meal, coffee (flavoured with cardamom) is served in mini-porcelain cups (containing barely a mouthful of coffee).
Incense, floral water, powders of fragrant wood, silver jewellery, traditional coffee services, khanjars (daggers with a curved blade) and various fabrics. These are all the things which await you during your visit to Muscat in the small shops of the Muttrah souk. Preferably go there in the morning, when it is a bit livelier.
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