The mystique of Muscat

Forget time and lose yourself in majestic mosques, or do as the locals do – saunter, shop and eat.

"Look at that abaya," one woman whispers to another. "Isn't it just so glamorous!"

"It's the jewels," her friend replies. "The jewels shimmer and that makes the abaya look extra special."

The two women giggle as they continue to chat about fashion, eyeing off one spectacular outfit after another.

It's a complete sell-out at the Royal Opera House Muscat tonight and the excited crowd, which is gathering for a pre-performance mingle, is dressed to impress. Groups of chic women in traditional abayas, wearing accessories in a kaleidoscope of vibrant colours, huddle in corners; men in crisp white dishdashas take the centre spots in the waiting hall, while expats wearing elegant cocktail attire are interspersed throughout the crowd.

It's a people-watching paradise and I melt into the background and take it all in, joining the women in checking out the fashionistas, albeit without the commentary.

Oman only opened its doors to Westerners 25 years ago and Muscat, the thriving capital, is the first port of call for most. Set against a dramatic backdrop of straggly mountains, the city of stark white, dirty beige and milky cream buildings (all low-rise, which adds to its appeal), with glittering gold mosque minarets popping up to break the muted tones, is a visual feast, especially as it has retained its historical feel.

The main sights are found in various valleys located far from each other and connected by busy roads. It pays to get familiar with taxi protocol early on, as this is the best way to explore the city – and a fun way to discover it, too. Taxi drivers are a wealth of local knowledge, and with little more than a few probing questions to get the conversation rolling you'll have a personal tour guide (until you reach your destination).

Omani people are exceedingly passionate about learning and take great pride in not only understanding their history and culture, but also sharing it with the world. This is the main reason performances at the Opera House are so popular. The 1100-seat venue, which opened in 2011, was built because the Sultan wanted his people to have a space dedicated to classical music and the arts.

Three years on, it still fills up most nights with locals who want to immerse themselves in music and culture. Tickets are generally cheap (the Sultan wanted everyone to have access to the arts) and those who can't attend an evening performance can book a morning tour.


It's worth it. The building is a blend of traditional Islamic architecture and modern acoustic technology. Walking through the majestic space is an enlightening experience as you take in the grand staircase, elaborate artwork and intricate detailing in everything from the sound system to the movable seating, walls and stage areas.

Buildings are Oman's forte and the striking Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque is another sophisticated example. The first thing you notice is its astonishing size. The mosque can accommodate 20,000 people at any one time, and I can't even begin to imagine the atmosphere that comes with so many like-minded people all gathered in the one space.

The second thing that jumps out is the impeccably clean state of the mosque's grounds. The emerald-green grass looks as if each strand has been moulded into shape to sit in a perfect upright position, and there's not one piece of rubbish in sight. Wandering past shiny white pillars that glisten in the afternoon sun keeps me busy for hours ... although time doesn't seem like it has a place here.

Inside the mosque, some of the most exceptional design features include a huge, ornate Swarovski chandelier in the main prayer hall (it's so massive it had to be transported in sections and assembled on site) and the world's second-largest (70m x 60m) hand-loomed Iranian carpet, which took 600 women four years to weave. I spend some time cranking my neck up and down to take in both the chandelier and the colourful carpet.

There are also rooms where visitors can go to relax and learn about Islam. Here you'll be offered free dates and coffee (everywhere you go in Oman you'll be greeted with dates and coffee as a sign of hospitality), and there are books, brochures and CDs you can take home. Volunteers are available to answer any questions you may have about Islam. Although I don't have any questions, I do help myself to the dates: I'd hate to seem rude.

For more dates (stocking-up purposes) Muttrah Souk is my next stop. This chaotic and pulsating market is best visited in the afternoon when locals come to barter, gossip and people watch. I take my cue and do as the Omanis do – saunter, shop, eat, drink, repeat.

As the sun begins to set, people leave the market and wander outside to take in the magic that dusk brings. Soon the wide waterfront sidewalk – Muttrah Corniche – is packed with happy families, couples and solo rovers strolling along. The sea is peppered with a mix of charming, traditional dhows and flashy modern super yachts. It's a picture-perfect representation of Muscat – a city that has taken the best of what the world has to offer without losing any of its identity; a city where old and new exist side by side in seamless unity.


Where to stay
Shangri-La's Barr Al Jissah Resort & Spa ( feels like it belongs in an Arabian fairy tale. It comprises three hotels, and Al Husn – meaning The Castle – is the most luxurious.

What to wear
Dress conservatively. Women should cover legs and shoulders while men should stick to long pants and shirts.

What to eat
Halwa is a specialty dessert that's often served with dates and coffee.

What to drink
A mint lemon juice from any cafe.

Essential souvenir
Amouage, the world's most expensive perfume.

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