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Arriving in the port of Muscat on my recent Arabia & Antiquities sailing with Seabourn Cruise Line was, quite literally, a breath of fresh, salty air. Our journey had first taken us to the more stereotypically glitzy neighboring cities of Dubai and Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates. In contrast, Muscat — the capital of Oman and the country’s largest city — is elegantly understated, allowing nature to show off. We approached the city in awe: Our ship sailed through the Gulf of Oman, graced on both sides by the arid Al-Hajar mountains and deserts.
Muscat is famed for its intricate souk mazes, fresh seafood, stunning backdrops and effusive Omani hospitality. Whether a client spends a day exploring off a cruise ship or devotes an entire week to the city’s offerings, the following activities are must-dos for understanding why Muscat is a gem on the Persian Gulf coast.
Barter at Mutrah Souq A labyrinth of ceramics, jewelry and spice scents, Muscat’s Mutrah Souq is essential for shopping and people-watching enthusiasts. Centrally located in the heart of the old town’s bustling Corniche, it is easily accessible from the port and the central square taxi stand. One of the oldest shopping centers on the Persian Gulf, Mutrah Souq is nicknamed “the dark souk,” referring to its especially winding and dim interior. Bargaining is the language of the souk stalls, though there is less wiggle room with jewelry. Popular items for purchase include leather, butter-soft wool pashminas and spices such as frankincense.
Catch a Performance at Royal Opera House MuscatRoyal Opera House Muscat has been graced by the presence of prominent performers, including Yo Yo Ma and The London Philharmonic Orchestra. The modern architectural masterpiece, which resembles a mausoleum with its white marble facade, is said to have the most stunning aesthetic in the city. With enough seating for 1,000 guests, the building also hosts ballets, jazz concerts and The Royal Oman Symphony Orchestra. Catching a performance at the Opera House is a surefire way to experience the venue in its full splendor.
Marvel at Al Bustan PalaceMuscat may seem understated in its glitz — that is, until travelers explore the area’s extravagant accommodations, such The Al Bustan Palace, a Ritz-Carlton Hotel. The sprawling property is located by the rugged Al-Hajar mountains and overlooks the Sea of Oman. Some of the world’s biggest names — including former U.S. president Bill Clinton — have stayed at this immaculate hotel, which truly offers clients a sultanate experience. Pro tip: Unlike other luxurious properties in the Gulf States, it is possible to visit the hotel without staying as a guest.
Stroll the Local Fish Market For a dually local and pungent experience, there is no better way to explore the Muscat food scene than by checking out the local fish market. Suggest clients wake up early to shop alongside Omanis who are bartering with fishermen flaunting their daily catches.
The market, located at the end of the Corniche, is best visited in the early morning hours, especially with a local guide who can assist in translations. Occasionally, tours of the market can be arranged — such as Seabourn’s “Shopping with the Chef” experience — allowing travelers to learn the most effective ways to barter.
Visit Sultan Qaboos Grand MosqueThe impeccably designed Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque — which dominates the city’s skyline — likely comes to mind when picturing quintessential Muscat. Completed in 2001 and commissioned with majestic artwork, the mosque once held the record for the largest Persian carpet in the world. The prayer hall can accommodate up to 20,000 worshippers at once. While non-Muslims may only visit inside from 8 to 11 a.m. (except on Fridays), it is possible to marvel at the Islamic facade at any time of the day.
The DetailsOman Tourism www.omantourism.gov.om
Seabourn Cruise Linewww.seabourn.com