Oman - Attractions
Oman's capital enchants visitors in a way that no other city in the Gulf can even begin to match. Maybe it's because Muscat doesn't have that slightly artificial feel which typifies so much of the rest of the region. Muscat, Mutrah and Ruwi are the capital's core districts. Muscat, the old port area, is the site of the sultan's main palace and a fascinating place to wander around, but it has few shops and, except for the old city walls, it isn't exactly bursting with sights. Mutrah, 3km (2mi) north-west of Muscat, is the main trading and residential port area. A few kilometres inland from Muscat and Mutrah lies Ruwi, the capital's modern commercial district.
There are three forts in Muscat, all of which took on their more or less present form in the 1580s during the Portuguese occupation of Muscat. Mutrah Fort sits on a hill while Jalali and Mirani forts guard the entrance to Muscat. All of the forts are still used by the police and/or military and are closed to the public, but it's okay to photograph them. Muscat has by far the best aquarium in the Gulf. All of the specimens on display are native to Omani waters and most are accompanied by thorough descriptions in English. The Oman Museum, in the Medinat Qaboos, west of Muscat, covers the entire sweep of Oman's 5000-year history. There are also a displays on shipbuilding, Islam and fort architecture. In Ruwi, the National Museum has sparkling displays on Omani silverwork, and the Sultan's Armed Forces Museum, in the Bait al-Falaj fort, has an excellent outline of Omani history.
You could easily spend a day in Mutrah. Start off early at the fish market, then head down to the souk for a cup of tea and a wander around the most interesting bazaar in Arabia. To the east, a restored watchtower looks out over Mutrah. The climb is steep and involves more than 100 steps, but the view from the top is worth it.
Muscat's best value rooms are along the Mutrah Corniche. If you spend only a little above rock-bottom you'll get good views and great atmosphere. There are several small restaurants along the Corniche, too, and several good bets in Ruwi.
Oman's northern coastal strip can easily occupy a good two or three days. Barka, about 80km (50mi) west of Muscat, has a fort and a restored house that gives you an idea of how wealthier Omanis lived several generations ago. Sohar, a good 150km (90mi) further up the coast, is the home port of the fictional Sinbad the sailor, and one of those places where history casts a shadow over modern reality. A thousand years ago it occupied three times its present area and was the largest town in the country. Sohar Fort is a large, whitewashed rectangle with a single tower rising from its courtyard. It's a dramatic sight after the earth-coloured forts that predominate in Oman.
Inland from Barka, the nondescript town of Nakhal, with its dramatic fort, gives way to the lush spring known as A'Thorwarah. The spring emerges into a wadi here to form a stream and small oasis, a perfect place for a stroll and a picnic. Some 175km (108mi) west of Muscat, Rustaq is best known for its imposing fort, though for a time in the Middle Ages it was Oman's capital.
Nizwa has recently emerged from centuries of fierce religious conservatives as one of Oman's major tourist centres. Nizwa's fort was built in the mid-17th century by Sultan bin Saif, the first imam of the Al-Ya'ribi dynasty. For the next 300 years it was the primary seat of the imamate, serving as a combination palace, seat of government and prison. The town's other great attraction is its souk which, despite having been moved into more 'modern' quarters, retains much of its colour and vitality.
Oman's second city is a striking change from Muscat. Salalah is about the only corner of Arabia that catches the Indian summer monsoon, and it's also the best base for exploring the villages and archaeological sites of southern Oman.
The ruins of Al-Balid, site of the ancient city of Zafar, lie about 5km (3mi) east of the centre, on the coast. Zafar's heyday was in the 11th and 12th centuries when it was an active trading port. Coins from as far away as China have been found at the site. There are very good beaches all along the road to Mughsail, once you're about 5km (3mi) west of Salalah.