Compared to flashy Emirati neighbours like Dubai and Abu Dhabi, the capital
of Oman is a breath of fresh, sea air. Muscat is famous for dazzling souks and superb seafood, but its terrain brings the biggest thrills. This port city on the Gulf of Oman is backed by the arid Hajar mountains, meaning you can trek deserts at dawn, spot dolphins at sundown, and enjoy plenty of effusive Omani hospitality in between.
To see a remarkable mosque
Towards the western end of Muscat’s long urban sprawl, the suburb of Ghubrah is where you’ll find the stunning Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque. Opened in 2001, this is the only mosque in Oman open to non-Muslims and one of the largest in the Gulf, with room for an estimated 20,000 worshippers in the two prayer halls and surrounding courtyard. The mosque itself sits within a walled compound with a minaret at each corner, plus a fifth, larger minaret halfway along the northern wall. The overall style is a kind of stripped-down contemporary Islamic, clad in vast quantities of white and red-brown marble. The minarets offer a nod towards traditional Egyptian architecture, while other decorative touches were inspired by Omani and Persian traditions. Other architectural details, such as the impressive latticed golden dome over the central prayer hall, are entirely original.
Visiting the mosque, note that its popularity and limited opening hours mean that it often gets absolutely overrun with coach parties by around 10am. The earlier you can visit the better. Visitors are required to dress appropriately (no shorts or uncovered arms, while women are required to cover their heads) and to remove their shoes before entering either prayer hall. Under-10s are not allowed into the main prayer hall.
For palatial modern architecture
A natural starting place to gaze at regal architecture is Al Alam Palace, a resplendent gold and blue royal residence. At the heart of Old Muscat is Al Alam Palace (“Flag Palace”), the most important of the six royal residences of the ruling monarch, Sultan Qaboos, which are dotted around Muscat, Salalah and Sohar. Built in 1972, the palace is Oman’s most flamboyant example of contemporary Islamic design, with two long wings centred on a colourful, cube-like central building, its flat, overhanging roof supported by extravagantly flared blue and gold columns. The palace complex is impressively stage-managed, approached via a long pedestrianized boulevard framed by two arcaded colonnades, with copious amounts of highly polished marble covering every available surface. On either side stretches a cluster of impressive government buildings: huge, snow-white edifices sporting crenellated rooftops, traditional wooden balconies and window shutters. Look right as you approach the palace and you’ll also see a fine section of the original city walls snaking up the hillside, punctuated with three large watchtowers en route.
The palace isn’t open to the public, although you can get a good view of the facade from the iron gates at the front.
To access breathtaking hiking terrain
Northeast of Nizwa rises the great limestone massif of the Jebel Akhdar, centred on the Saiq Plateau (pronounced “Sirq”, and often spelt Sirq or Seeq). This is one of Oman’s more unusual natural curiosities: an extensive upland plateau, lying at an altitude of around 2000m and ringed by craggy summits to the north and the vertiginous gorge of Wadi al Ayn to the south. The plateau has been extensively farmed for at least a thousand years thanks to its temperate Mediterranean climate, which allows for the cultivation of many types of fruit which cannot survive the heat of the lowlands: peaches, pears, grapes, apples and pomegranates all flourish here, along with a wide range of vegetables and the area’s famed roses. The plateau is particularly beguiling during the hot summer months, and deliciously cool after the heat of the plains below.
Lace up your walking boots for the rocky C38 trail from Muscat’s Riyam Park into the hills; rewards for this two-hour exertion include bird’s-eye views of the port and fortresses, and blissful mountain solitude.
Hiking is at its best from October to April.
Exploring the Fjords of Musandam on a Dhow
At the northeastern most tip of the Arabian peninsula (and separated from the rest of Oman by a wide swathe of UAE territory) the dramatic Musandam peninsula is perhaps the most scenically spectacular area in the entire Gulf. Often described as “The Norway of Arabia”, the peninsula boasts a magical combination of mountain and maritime landscapes, as the towering red-rock Hajar mountains fall precipitously into the blue waters of the Arabian Gulf, creating a labyrinthine system of steep-sided fjords (khors), cliffs and islands, most of them inaccessible except by boat. Musandam remains one of Oman’s great wildernesses, with a largely untouched natural environment ranging from the pristine waters of the coast, where you can see frolicking dolphins, basking sharks and the occasional whale, through to the wild uplands of the jebel, dotted with fossils and petroglyphs.