Cryptus Portus, the Hidden Port
Continuing on our journey bound for Tanzania, this is our second intermediary stop after Luxembourg City and Nancy. Muscat it is then for the entire day since the very early morning until the very late at night departure on the next and final flight into Zanzibar. Although we knew this was not that much time for such a beautiful city, it did work great for us in being the first time in this incredible country, now looking forward to discover in full in the near future and not just its capital city, but the many historic villages and that incredible ochre landscapes of the mountains and the yellow of the desert amidst the blue of the Arabian Sea.
Muscat is in any case, a small city; “narrow” but very long, with a very small historic old town in a creek flanked in between the Portuguese forts among the bendy coast and the mountains. All is there to see and visit can be perfectly done in a day, and even less, but bear in mind a very important subject here: the heat. If you are coming between March and October, it is guaranteed to be over 30 degrees during the day. That sounds still OK, until you experience the over 40 degrees, very dry, June to August months. During the night it does not really drop much and remains stable at around 30, therefore if there is something I can strongly recommend you here is to rent a car. You cannot imagine how much you will appreciate this. Muscat, as opposed to what Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Doha or Kuwait are, it is still very laid back and living in the past. Public transports are only a bunch of buses, not even as efficient as the other neighboring countries’ capitals. There are no metro system nor air-conditioned bus stops. The heat simply feels like fire, and so it did in our stay making it quite uncomfortable if I am to be honest, even though we thankfully had a rental car.
Now, what at one hand is the down-side, in the other hand this translates in a very unique city. Forget the shiny skyscrapers and islands gained into the sea as for neighboring UAE or Qatar. Forget a “westernised” world and enjoy instead a truly unspoiled Arabian experience. Its architecture, its culture, the food, the people; our country number 86 and it was stunning and a wonder!
Moving through the city is physically impossible on foot. Distances in between he sights are huge hence why it is very important to have your own transportation, however not mandatory as there are public buses along the main avenue that connects every sight, and a handy city tour bus which take you absolutely everywhere. *Please note in the entire time we spent in the city, no one got into this bus for a tour, but it was there and ready; probably was so terrifically hot that everyone was trying to escape being in the street. The most beautiful areas in the city are not in the centre nor old town itself, but quite far outside following the coastline southeast, in between the mountains and creeks, the many Portuguese former watchtowers, forts and castles, and the shiny Royal Palace of the Sultan. This was for us the highlight of Muscat without hesitate. Anyone visiting only the old town will be disappointed for sure. The city is way much more than just that.
I must also say something important that we found difficult if comparing with the neighboring countries: restaurants and food situation. Very limited, almost non-existing even by the old town bearing 3 restaurants being a rip-off. The best decision was to drive to the Panorama Mall, near the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque. This is the largest brand new mall in Muscat with a good food court and nicely air-conditioned.
For information about Muscat, check Wikipedia and Wikitravel sites. Oman’s currency is the Rial (OMR). Please note that any price reference is true as from when this guide was created, therefore check prices in advance as with the time they change.
Important information about Visas
The major drawback and possible major reason why not to come for a long time to this country. It seems they do not want to have tourists, and perhaps that’s the reason why we were some of the very rare tourist in the city on sight. Basically until January 2017 everything was fine and how it used to be. However since then, the hike in price is such that it is very discouraging. The only country in the entire region imposing such fees. No wonder why everyone chose UAE, Qatar and Kuwait as their transit hubs and preferred choice for visiting.
Entering Oman is definitely very simple and straightforward for visa exempt countries and nationals of 67 other countries who are entitled to visa on arrival. Upon arrival, right before the border control there are offices where you can pay the fee of 20 OMR for a visa length of up to 30 days, they will provide you with the payment receipt, then proceed to the border officials who will stamp your passport and welcoming you to Oman. Further official information from their website can be obtained here.
So the fuzz all about the cost? Well, if you fall into the same circumstances as ours, transferring into another flight 15 hours after landing in Muscat, you face now the equivalent of £40 for an entry visa, merely for few hours. No distinction made if you are transferring, staying 2 days, or staying 30 days. Now everyone pays the same no matter what, while before January 2017, this was just 5 OMR. A very serious hike in price to be honest, for a country and capital city that aims to get more transiting passengers through their hub in Muscat. I doubt they will succeed! Transferring or visiting the UAE or Kuwait is completely free of charge, while transferring through Qatar is free, or a longer stay visa is £20.
What to see and do in Muscat
- West of the city In the metropolitan districts near the airport, west from the old town of Muscat known as Mutrah.
-Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque On Sultan Qaboos Street (highway 1). Completed in 2001 it is one of the newest landmarks in the city, and of course the largest mosque in the country and third largest in the world. Among its highlights is the carpet, the second largest single piece in the world, produced in Iran, and the 14 meters tall chandelier made by Faustig from Italy.
-Supreme Court Opposite the Sultan Qaboos Mosque, was opened in 2016 to accommodate most of the city’s courts in a grand scale building.
- Muttrah – The Old Town Located in creek and flanked by the two Portuguese forts, is the traditional and historic small fishing port.
-The Corniche As in any city in the Arab world, it’s the name that received the promenade along the coast. Recently revamped, offers the best view of the traditional architecture and white houses Muscat is famous for.
-Fish and Fruit Market At the western end of the Corniche, recently built is the newest 21st century piece of architecture.
-Soor Al Lawati The oldest area in the city, built over 600 years ago. Originally a fully walled residential complex with two access doors. It is notorious for the houses with the wooden terraces perched from the facades, the very same style you see in Zanzibar, Tanzania.
-Gold Souk By the eastern side of the Soor Al Lawati, as usual for any Arab world cities there is one gold market.
-The Corniche Gate Nothing out of the blue, just new, and the main entrance to the large Mutrah Souk.
-Mutrah Souk The largest of the indoor traditional markets, and oldest in Oman where you can find literally everything. Don’t accept the first price they tell you, it is normal to bargain.
-Muttrah Watchtower By the opposite end of the Souk, there is one of the many watchtowers that once protected the country from invasions.
-Mutrah Fort By the eastern end of the Corniche, from the top you will get the most spectacular view of the city and the sea.
- East of the city Characterised by the many watchtowers and the rugged mountainous landscapes.
-Riyam Park Tower Designed as a giant incense burner it is a viewing platform. However, you get better views from the nearby old watchtowers, especially that across the creek in Kalbooh Park.
-Kalbooh Park As explained for Riyam, it is from here that you get better views and for free. Climb the approximately 100 steps for a fascinating view.
-Muscat Gate Museum Father ahead along the road parallel to the sea is the largest museum dedicated to the history of Oman since neolithic times to the present.
-Muscat Gate The famous old gate (although reconstructed), next to the Gate Museum leads the road outside of the old Muscat.
-Qasr Al Alam Royal Palace In a creek guarded by the twin forts of Al Jalali and Al Mirani, it is the office of the ruler Sultan of Oman, Qaboos. It is huge, with many buildings of great architectural taste and symmetry, among squares and avenues, ministries, a mosque and the National Museum at its southern end.
-Al Mirani and Al Jalali Forts Built in 1580 by the Portuguese as prisons. They are located in Qasr Al Alam Street.
- Outside of Muscat Continuing along the coast, and near Muscat itself there are nice small traditional fishing villages, watchtowers and forts all along the rugged landscape and the sea. While you could continue driving and driving through such a beautiful scenery, the following are at easy reach on the same day you tour the city.
-Sidab Bay Really next door to the Royal Palace continuing southeast. Very small harbour and fishing village in a creek.
-Nakhal Fort West and inside not along the coast from Muscat, one of the most complete forts right by the base of the Jebel Akhdar of the Hajar Mountains, completely surrounded by palm forest.
The International Airport is around 35 kilometres from the centre of Mutrah, the old town of Muscat. There are only taxis coming to the terminal, not the public buses. However, a short walk is the main highway Sultan Qaboos where buses do stop on both directions east towards Muscat and beyond, and west to along the coastal area. The brand new airport is soon to be opened (scheduled for 2018) and that will be another world. From a very old-fashioned, antiquated and quite run-down tiny airport to a state of the art large facility.
As mentioned within the guide before, public transport in Muscat is not the best, however is been recently revamped and it’s getting considerably better and better. People is more used to drive their own cars, hence the lack for any good transports. We got a rental car and this was the best decision without any hesitation. Distances are really far from one place to another, and the city is very spread along the coast, although the worst is the heat so we got this the best we could. Hop-on hop-off by car to the sights and so on.
We did not stay overnight in the city as this was for us a full day tour since our arrival early in the morning and until the late departure for the next flight into Zanzibar. But in any case, you are in a booming city where every hotel chain has already huge property and even more. Top luxurious resorts align the coast, and anything in between to the more modest ones, the choice is there.
If you are having your own transport, then stay anywhere you find a good deal or wherever you wish, but if I can suggest for the ones counting only on public transport, then stay in Mutrah, the old town of Muscat. Here are majority of the sights, and always near a bus along the Corniche going in any direction elsewhere in the city. A good and reasonable point to start your search would be checking some of our preferred affiliate hotel search engine such as Hotels.com, Booking.com, Expedia, Otel.com, Agoda, Opodo, LateRooms or Ebookers.