City guide to Muscat Oman – top things to do on a weekend break
Picture perfect coastlines with pristine yellow sands, white buildings amongst a sea of rocky mountains, Portuguese colonial forts overlooking temperate waters, and sunshine – all year sunshine. You may have imagined a seaside town in the Mediterranean or Aegean Sea, or perhaps a tropical island in South East Asia. I don’t blame you, it certainly sounds like it, but if you go east – the Middle East to be exact – the Sultanate of Oman is where I was a couple of weeks ago being pleasantly surprised and captivated by its beautiful and vast landscapes.
If you were already in the know, then you may have already been fortunate to visit this Gulf country and know what I’m talking about. Popular with daytrippers from the UAE, (both for tourism and expats doing visa runs!) its a destination that has quickly made it to one of my favourite places, and is a guaranteed adventure. We were only there for a weekend but we managed to squeeze in a few sites on our visit and have compiled a city guide to Muscat outlining the top things to see and do in 2 days.
Getting there & the visa situation for Australians
We flew with Qatar Airways direct from Doha to Muscat. The flight was only 1.5 hours so made for a perfect weekend trip for those living in Qatar. As at April 22 2016, visas for Australian citizens were available on arrival for a fee of 5 OMR for a visit of up to 10 days, or 20 OMR for a visit of up to 30 days. As we were also residents of the GCC, we were able to show our Qatar resident cards and pay 5 OMR for the visa on arrival at customs. Visas can be purchased at the Travelex counter as soon as you enter the arrivals building, located before the immigration counters. Make sure you have cash as they didn’t accept credit cards to process our visas, and there are no ATMs in the arrivals hall. The line for foreign passports was short so the immigration process was very efficient.
Where to stay in Muscat
If you’re setting up base in Muscat, I recommend staying near the Al Qurum area for easy access to beautiful beach real estate. The laidback waterfront also boasts a wide selection of cafes and restaurants (Slider Station, D’Arcys Kitchen) so you wont go hungry for choice. The Intercontinental Hotel, Al Qurum Resort, Beach Hotel Muscat, Ramada and Ramee Hotels are all located in Qurm and are walking distance to Shatti Beach.
However, if you have hired a car, Muscat has great roads so its generally okay to stay anywhere around the city as everything is quite accessible and the traffic wasn’t too bad.
If money is no issue and you want something more exclusive or upscale, there are a few resorts that had their own private beaches like the luxurious The Chedi Muscat, Grand Hyatt, or the Shangri-La Resort.
Related post: Hotel Review: Best Western Premier, Muscat Oman
Getting around Muscat
If you have an international driving license (or in our case a GCC issued license), I highly recommend hiring a car in Oman. When I was doing my research on how much day trips cost for 2 people, it worked out much cheaper to hire a car and drive ourselves. For 2 people, it cost an average of $170 per person for a day trip to a wadi, Bimmah sinkhole and Sur, without lunch, whereas we paid $105 USD to hire a car for 3 days and we were able to explore Muscat and surrounds at our own pace.
If self driving is not an option, there are plenty of taxis you can flag down (I’ve read that they have only started introducing taxi meters in Oman, so just be prepared to negotiate the fare first if you hop into a taxi without one!)
Places to see & things to do
Stroll along Muttrah Corniche
Our first stop in Muscat was a visit to Muttrah Corniche where you will find remnants of the old Portuguese colony with 300 year old forts overlooking the harbour. Its quite a picturesque spot with dhow boats in the distance and white buildings dotting the corniche. Theres a few seating areas by the water so you can people watch as locals start their day fishing, feeding the fish or making their way to the markets close by.
Explore the Fish Markets
On one side of the Corniche you will find the produce markets. The fruit and vegetable markets were small, but if you follow the hall down to the port, you will find the fish markets abuzz with local life. Swordfish, tuna and crabs are all on display with a shark making an appearance on our visit! Most of the locals were okay with photos, but ask politely if you are unsure to avoid any awkwardness. Go early as this is when its most busy, and if you’re visiting in summer, its not as hot (aka less smelly).
Get lost in the streets of the bazaar
We were planning on having a morning coffee by the corniche and checking out the bazaar, however it was Friday morning most of the shops and commercial spaces were still closed due to Friday prayers. We strolled instead through the eerily quiet maze of streets of the bazaar, passing by the silver and perfume souqs.
If you’re planning on doing a spot of shopping at the souq, the opening hours can be found here.
Join the locals at Shatti Beach, Al Qurum
After checking into our hotel, we drove to Al Qurum and stopped at Shatti Beach. We walked along the palm lined esplanade, with tempting aromas of barbecued meats wafting from families and locals having picnics in the huts. The beach had a lifeguard on watch and was busy with swimmers and people strolling along the waters edge. Stop by one of the cafes after your swim to cool down with a fresh fruit juice (we didn’t see any licensed venues!) – we recommend the delicious watermelon lemonade from Sliders Station which had funky industrial interiors and great service.
Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque
We wanted to finish our day at the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque, but again as it was a Friday, the Mosque was closed for visitors. If you’re not Muslim, but still want to visit the Mosque, opening hours are from 8 am – 11 am Saturday – Thursday.
Swim in a legendary swimming hole made by a meteor – Bimmah Sinkhole
We set out early the next morning and drove to our first stop of the day, Bimmah Sinkhole. The drive along the highway took us past some spectacular scenery with cliffs surrounding us at every turn and small towns at the foot of them. Most of the drive was 100-120 km/hr speed limit so we arrived early – mid morning. The sinkhole is in a small enclosed park called the Hawiyat Najm Park and is fenced off from the car park.
In Arabic, ‘hawiyat najm’ translates to meteor fall as local legend has it that a meteorite fell to earth creating the spectacular pool we see today. Scientifically, it was created by erosion but I always like telling everyone I swam in the meteor pool.
Entrance is free and there were bathroom facilities and a nice garden surrounding the sinkhole. Most people were in bikinis and there were only 2 cars when we arrived so it felt quite secluded as we swam in its turquoise blue pool. If you’re ticklish, just be warned there are some little fish that nibble at your feet (like the fish they use at fish spas!). The sinkhole isn’t very big so you’ll probably spend an hour or so here max.
Finns and the coastal beaches to Sur
The highway from Muscat to Sur is along the coast so there are plenty of opportunities to to stop by one of the beaches. We passed a few lone campers at some of the beaches, and stopped by one of the deserted strips for a quick dip and photo stop. The beaches don’t have lifeguards so just make sure you are confident before getting into the water.
Wadi Shab was only a quick 20 minute drive from the sinkhole and Finns so we arrived before midday. The car park had already started to fill up with 4wds and all the shaded spots were taken but we managed to find a space by the public bathrooms.
Theres a small kiosk at the entrance where you can buy snacks, sandwiches and drinks so make sure you bring some h2o before heading off on the boat as there are no places to refuel once you start the hike. To start the hike, you’ll need 1 OMR per person to cross the river. The fee also covers the return boat trip and they will usually tell you the last time for crossings (listen up so you don’t resort to swimming across the river back to the carpark. The last boat crossing on the day we went was 5 pm).
The first 30 minutes of the hike is quite flat with only a few steps up the wadi cliffs where you follow the makeshift path. The rest of the way involves clambering over a few rocks and pools but it is still quite an easy trek. The only challenge for us was crossing some of the pools on slippery algae without dropping our camera and phone in to the water! You’ll get your feet wet so wear some waterproof shoes (my husbands reef shoes were perfect) or sneakers you don’t mind getting wet.
At the end of the trek, you’ll need to wade/swim through the water to get through to the main attraction – the waterfall and cave at the end of the wadi. If you’re going with a guide, you can ask them to mind your belongings, but I saw some people who left their stuff without supervision. I brought a camera and smart phone so my husband went without me to the end of the pools while I sunbaked 🙂 .
If you have time (and energy!) after Wadi Shab, drive another 40 minutes and stop by the pretty coastal town of Sur. Some of the famous attractions include the beaches, lighthouse, fort and the dhow ships at the port.
The wadi and sinkhole were the main highlights of our trip and we highly recommend a visit to both Wadi Shab and Bimmah sinkhole if you are planning to travel to Muscat.
Where to eat
We ate at the highly recommended Bait Al Luban restaurant at the Muttrah Corniche. Furnished in deep dark wooden furniture, with earthy rich tones and vibrant red, the interiors reflect the distinct Middle Eastern aesthetic. A large wooden cushioned sitting area is the centre piece of the restaurant with smaller traditional tables surrounding it. A peek on our way to the terrace, we found more cushioned sitting areas for groups sectioned off for privacy. The restaurant is famed for serving traditional Omani cuisine and we highly recommend the lamb shuwa which is slow cooked in a firepit.
If its not too hot (or loud from the construction across the road at the Fish Markets), try to get a seat on the terrace for sunset views over the Corniche.
For seafood fans, Turkish House has an impressive menu filled with hamour, calamari, tiger prawns and kingfish – cooked however you liked (fried, bbq, grilled or as a tajine) and at very reasonable prices. Portion sizes are generous so we ordered an appetiser of mixed mezze with freshly baked Turkish bread, along with a main of grilled seafood to share. Washed down with some Turkish coffee, it was the perfect meal.
If you prefer something familiar, there wasn’t a shortage of fast food options – we saw Hardees, TGIFridays, McDonalds and KFC scattered throughout the city. Or try the Middle Eastern fast food chain ChicKing which is quite similar to the Colonels special recipe.
|Bring cash for your visa on arrival, there are no ATMs in the arrivals hall prior to immigration|
|Bring 1 OMR per person for the boat crossing in Wadi Shab|
|Bring a waterproof camera to the wadi if you plan to swim all the way to the end|
|Bring cash if you plan on travelling around by taxi.|
|Bring water to the wadi. There is only a kiosk in the carpark and one makeshift store selling water at the beginning of the hike.|
|If you are hiring a car, get a GPS for a long stay. Voice instructions and rerouting didn't work on Google maps in Muscat.|
|Wear appropriate attire and dress conservatively.|
|Wear waterproof shoes, or shoes that you don't mind getting wet if you are planning to hike Wadi Shab|