“Life is full of surprises, some good, some not so good.”
~ Pablo Escobar
Thankfully, Muscat was one gem of a surprise!
Muscat, the Capital of Oman, offers everything – right from the traditional souk to the Royal Opera. Travelling to Muscat was our eleventh-hour decision, considering the announcement of 4-day UAE National Day holidays.
Honestly speaking, we were not expecting much from the city, after hearing mixed reviews from everyone who had been there. Nonetheless, we wanted to see it by ourselves. And we are glad we opted for Oman!
Best time to visit
Muscat has a hot-arid Middle Eastern climate and hence, the summers from May to August can be extremely unpleasant. Any other month is just fine. We visited in the first week of December.
With an Indian passport and the US multiple entry visa, I was eligible to apply for an e-visa to visit Oman. Further, as a spouse, Sidi was also eligible with her Indian passport, even though she did not have an US visa. The e-visa process is fairly simple. You need to visit the website – https://evisa.rop.gov.om/. The site is very user friendly. A summary process is provided below:
- Register using your e-mail ID
- Login and select apply for unsponsored visa
- Enter the nationality and select the relevant visa type (26N for 10 days or 26M for 30 days)
- Fill in the required details and upload the required documents (passport, US visa, photo)
- Make the payment and submit the application
We received the e-visa within 3 days. Once the visa is received, you can apply for the spouse or child visa (26E for 10 days or 26F for 30 days) in the similar manner. Important to note that spouse/ child visa can be applied only after the first visa is received, as it is a prerequisite. The visa for spouse / child may either be applied from same account or new account.
Update as of 10 December 2020 – Oman has now allowed visa free travel for upto 10 days from 103 countries, including India.
We used the flight aggregator https://www.skyscanner.net/ to search for best available flights. However, once we selected our flight, we booked directly from the carrier’s website. Salaam Air was the cheapest available option from Dubai, and experienced one of the most horrifying take-offs yet!
There is a road transport option also available from Dubai, which is very cheap, however the buses take more than six hours of journey time. The mode of transport may be selected on the basis of the budget and number of days of travel. Since we were travelling for four days, we preferred flights to save on time.
We prefer https://www.booking.com/ to book our hotels. It is reliable, with trusted reviews and all the needed information about the property. The reviews are handy, especially if you are on a budget. Local hotels are generally cheaper than the branded hotels. Some offer a great location whilst some offer great services!
We wanted to minimize our local conveyance, hence, we stayed near the main landmark, the Grand Mosque. We could find one decent option – Weekend Hotel and Apartments, which was a 5 minute walk from the mosque.
The hotel was basic and included a breakfast, which was not mouth watering. The only thing in favor of recommending the hotel would be the location. There were also two good Indian restaurants within a 2 minute walk, which made this trip gut-friendly.
The Muscat International Airport was delightfully amazing. The immigration process was quick at the Airport. We took one of the Airport taxis,which are easily accessible at the exit gate, and note, these are the only metered taxi in Muscat.
On the first day, we visited the following places in order, which can be seen together in five to six hours, due to the proximity:
Al Alam Palace – The majestic and colorful palace is one of the six residences of Sultan Qaboos bin Said, the ruler of the Sultante of Oman. The Palace is everything befitting the Sultan’s grandeur. Though visitors are not allowed to enter the Palace, its picturesque location makes it a must visit.
Al Khor Mosque and Al Mirani Fort – Located just 100 meters away from the Palace, these are one of the many little gems that Oman has to offer. Again, visitors are not allowed inside, but its prettiness is definitely a spot for clicking some memories.
Al Jalali fort – Further 50 meters from the Al Khor Mosque, a view which cannot be missed! Like others, even Sidi wasn’t really sure of what the brief walk around the premises would result into, but believe us.. both of us couldn’t leave that surreal view which climaxed our long walk. The birds chirping, the waves dancing and winds playing, it was an unexpected view that took our breath away! The Al Jalali fort and the back side of the Al Alam Palace, overlooking the ocean. BEAUTIFUL!
National Museum of Oman – The national museums in any country are a great way to know about the history and culture more closely. Hence, we always recommend a visit to such museums. The National Museum of Oman is located right across the palace and provides an insight into the Oman, and its culture being influenced by all the traders and sailors that sailed ashore for some rest, bringing with them, tales and influence from all across the world. In case you are not so fascinated by history, you can give it a miss.
Mutrah Corniche and Souk – Located 3-4 kms from the Palace, Mutrah Corniche and Souk have a tremendous local flavor, which brings you more close to the country and its people. The Corniche, a curved pathway that is lined by the sea on the one side and the mountains on the other, is full of life and hustle bustle local shops. It absorbs you quietly into the vibes of that area as you sit besides the corniche walls embracing the sky, the waters and the setting sun. The Corniche also features a dockyard and if lucky, you can find some gigantic cruise ships.
We started a bit early on the second day, considering we had to cover a few important places, with limited and fixed visiting hours. We visited the following places, in order:
Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque – We would rate it higher than the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi. The mosque was as grand and surreal as it could get. Completed in 2001, it had the largest single piece carpet and the largest chandelier in the world, when built. This is the main and the best attraction in Muscat. Just note that it is open for visit only from 8 am to 11 am and closed on Fridays for non-muslims. Do check our clothing suggestions!
Royal Opera House – As the name suggests, it is a musical art and culture venue. You must be thinking what is so fascinating about an opera house. Yes, it is just like all other opera houses, but the way this opera culture has been embraced by the Sultanate of Oman is truly fascinating. Its interiors are opulently and unlike other artistic creations that draws in influence from Oman, the region and the world. Don’t miss the free guided tour which takes place every half an hour. Similar to the mosque, the Opera House is also closed on Fridays. The visiting hours for other days are 8:30 am to 5:30 pm.
Al Qurum Beach – Let’s be honest, Muscat is not a beach destination. You will not find the pristine blue waters like a few other places in the world. However, the Qurum beach makes a relaxing visit, particularly if you are travelling with your family. You can get your own camping gear and unwind at the beach. Note that it is generally crowded on the weekends. It is just a 10 min walk from the Opera House.
This was the day of Sidi’s birthday and we had planned to rent a car and see a few places around Muscat. However, to our disappointment, we were told that with an Indian driving license alone, one cannot drive in Oman. An international driving permit is required. And my IDP had expired just a week ago 😦 . Without spoiling our mood, we decided to spend time at two nearby malls located next to each other, the biggest ones in Oman, Muscat Grand Mall and Oman Avenues Mall. We spent time bowling and had some serious fun at the Museum of Illusions.
In the evening, we visited the Al Ameen Mosque. The mosque is recently built, and a must visit at dusk. The use of lighting in the night gives this marble carved mosque a magnificent look. You’ll spot many photographers around in the evening to capture one of the most beautiful mosques in the region.
We checked out early the next day and took our morning flight back home.
Like every other Middle East country, Islam is the state religion of Oman and the same is reflected in the clothing of the country. Dressing conservatively is suggested, like long to mid sleeves length tops and trousers. Carry a pashmina or scarf, in your bags to cover your head/ or body parts, if the time calls.
The Grand Mosque offers abayas for ladies on rent (with ID proofs as deposit). You may not require one if you’re covered from your ankle to wrists. Sidi was well dressed and covering her head with pashmina, hence an additional abaya was not felt required by the authorities.
Due to a large presence of Indian residents, particularly Gujaratis, it is not very difficult to find vegetarian food in Muscat. From tea or coffee to our proper vegetarian meals, Muscat aptly made us feel like home.
Kamat, a pure vegetarian restaurant with over 300 dishes on its menu, was located within a 2 minute walk from our hotel. Since this is very famous amongst vegetarians there, better to call and reserve or you may end up waiting. The taste and value for money deserves a big thumbs up!
Another Indian restaurant, Mumbai Chennai Express, though not pure vegetarian, but with a decent number of vegetarian options, was located right next to our hotel. The taste and value for money was pretty good.
On our third day, Sidi’s birthday, I surprised her with a fine dine experience at Teatro, a rooftop restaurant at Hotel Sundus Rotana. The dal makhani we had at this restaurant was second to none.
Some other good rated options available (but not tried) are Mumtaz Mahal, The Indus fine dining, Copper Chimney, Yellow Chilli, Saravanaa Bhawan, etc.
The best way to get around is using taxi booking apps such as Marhaba Taxi and Careem. These are reasonably cheaper than the local taxis, as the local taxis are not metered, apart from the Airport taxi. It is better to have a mobile data connection in order to book taxis, as public wifi is quite limited and available only at malls and a few restaurants.
Currency and costs
Omani Riyal is the currency in use. (1 OMR ~ 9.5 AED, 2.6 USD, 185 INR as on January 2019)
The costs depend on the accommodation and mode of transport. Tentative budget for two persons is given below:
- Budget hotel accommodation for 3 nights – 65 OMR
- Round trip flight from Dubai – 125 OMR
- Food per meal average – 5 OMR. In case of fine dine, the meal could cost around 15 OMR or more
- Entry tickets to attractions (per head) – National museum (5 OMR), Opera house (3 OMR), Museum of illusions (5 OMR). The other attractions are free of charge
- Local transport by Careem – 250 baisa (0.25 OMR) per km on an average
Overall, Muscat is perfect three day layover destination, if you are travelling from far. If you plan to travel from neighboring regions, then it definitely makes up for a perfect extended weekend getaway.
There are a few places around Muscat, particularly adventurous ones, which can be covered in a day each (e.g. Nizwa, Jabal Shams, Wadi Shab, Sur, etc.). We visited Muscat more from a cultural perspective, and hence, gave these sites a miss. In case you have more days, these places can make a good visit. Do share your experiences with us!
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