Population : ca. 2,000,000 (metropolitan area)
Made up of : Omanis, Indians, Bangladeshis, Pakistanis, Sri Lankans, Filipinos, Gulf and Levant Arabs, Brits, Europeans, Americans, Africans… and basically more or less from everywhere
Language : Arabic and English are official, while Hindi, Bengali, Tamil, Malyalam, Urdu, Punjabi, Balochi, Persian, and Tagalog are widely spoken
Religion : Muslim majority population followed by Christians, Hindus, and small number of Buddhists
Climate : Long, hot & humid summers and short ‘warm’ winters with scarce rainfall
Electricity Plug Type : Mostly British (3-pin plug)
Major Airport : Muscat International Airport
A lot of you by now probably have heard of the country in the Arabian Peninsula called Oman. Despite its geostrategic location, Oman is actually one of the most peaceful countries in the world and Omani people are generally very friendly, warm, and hospitable! But without looking at the world map or googling, would you maybe be able to guess the capital city of this country? Unless you have been or lived there, probably not. But I’ll save you the trouble – Muscat is the name!
And this is the city where I’ve lived 8 years of my ‘expat’ life with my parents. Which means I’ll be able to give you some first-hand tips and tricks if you plan to visit this wonderful city! Alright let’s get started then….
Muscat is a city that stretches in an east-west direction. On the north lies the Gulf of Oman and the southern areas are dominated by rugged mountainous landscapes. The ‘original’ Muscat is actually the old city that lies on the eastern side – and from there the city expanded along the coast towards the west and now this whole area is generally referred to Muscat by its residents. This east-west direction of the city is shaped by two major highways – the older ‘Sultan Qaboos Highway’ and the newly-built ‘Muscat Expressway’. Most of the city’s districts/boroughs are situated along these highways.
So how many people live there? Are they all Omanis?
Almost 2 million people live in Muscat municipality – about less than half of Oman’s total population. And don’t be surprised if you tend to see more non-Omanis than Omanis in the city because like the rest of the country, Muscat is very multicultural and multiethnic. Honestly, I think it’s very possible that South Asians (Indians, Bangladeshis, Pakistanis, and Sri Lankans) outnumber Omanis, but there are also significant numbers of people from the Philippines, Indonesia, U.K., other Arab and European countries, as well as Americans and Africans.
When is the best time to visit?
Before you plan to go to Muscat (or even Oman), make sure that you do not go there between May and October. Seriously, trust me on this. The heat together with high humidity makes it impossible to stay outside more than few minutes – the temperature under the sun can be as high as 50ºC even! Sure, there is air conditioning everywhere but they’re mostly inside buildings and cars. To visit a place, you would have to roam around outside right? So it’s really best to go during the ‘winter’ months – when the temperatures are cooler for those living in Oman, but for those like us living in Europe for example, it’s more like a spring/summer temperature 😉 While it almost never rains during the hot weather season, it tends to rain more during cooler periods. But it’s also very pleasant to enjoy some rain in a desert-ish climate!
How easy is it to reach there or get around the city? Are there budget hostels?
Getting a flight connection to Muscat is pretty easy, given that Muscat International Airport is served by well-connected airlines like Emirates, Qatar Airways, Etihad, Turkish Airlines, British Airways, KLM, as well as Oman’s own Oman Air. You can also easily drive from the U.A.E. (Abu Dhabi or Dubai) which takes about 5 hours to Muscat. But getting around the city is where it gets challenging because Muscat has virtually no public transportation to speak of. Really, don’t expect to ride on metro lines or suburban trains or even buses because well, nearly everyone owns a car. My advice? Unless you have a driving license, don’t bother visiting Muscat as it will really won’t do you much good. If you have a driver’s license, you can easily rent-a-car and move around as you like. If you don’t have one but still willing to visit Muscat, then taxis are your best bet, which are in plenty but freaking expensive.
You might be asking, how do normal people who have no car move around then? Well, there are shared minibus taxis which are pretty cheap and operate mainly on major roads and highways, so it won’t really get you to your doorstep. And recently, the government finally introduced public bus system – red low-floor buses similar to here in Europe but as it’s still a new addition to the city, it doesn’t cover everywhere and like minibus taxis, stops mostly at bus stops which are next to major roads and highways.
Now that you’re in Muscat, you’d need a place to stay. Well, bad news for backpackers and budget travelers, there are no hostels or backpackers’ accommodations in Muscat. Your best bet for a ‘budget’ accommodation would be to stay at guesthouses or so-called ‘hotel apartments’. Otherwise, you’d have to target something fancier like Hyatt, Radisson or Intercontinental 😉
But is there anything to visit in Muscat?
Well first of all, don’t expect Muscat to be as fancy and shiny as her neighbors Dubai or Abu Dhabi. There are no skyscrapers to speak of in this city. But Muscat is still pretty and beautiful in its own ways and does indeed have something to offer for everyone. And at night, Muscat lights up to show its brighter side as well so definitely visit the city at night too. Most of Muscat’s important sights consist of mosques and museums – and perhaps the most important place to visit in Muscat is the architectural masterpiece of Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque. But this isn’t the only mosque worth visiting in the city, there are at least three other important mosques which are beautifully built. I even wrote a separate post on which mosques to visit in Muscat and why.
If you’re into museums unlike me, then Muscat has plenty to offer, where you can learn about Oman’s history, heritage, and culture. There is also the newly built Royal Opera House and Oman National Museum, which are some of the most magnificent buildings with gorgeous interiors in the country! A visit to the old part (old town) of Muscat is definitely worth it if you want to have a glimpse of the city’s past and also walk by the Corniche (seaside promenade) in Muttrah. This is also where you’ll find a traditional Omani Souk (bazaar) where you can buy traditional Omani souvenirs, frankincense, clothes, household items, and spices. The National Museum is located at the heart of Old Muscat, right opposite the Sultan’s Palace, which is also worth a visit (though entry is restricted). As Muscat stretches along the coast, there are numerous beaches to relax, go for a swim or boat ride, or enjoy an Omani barbeque with friends.
Last but not least, a visit to some of Muscat’s finest shopping malls is definitely a must! They’re perhaps the most favorite places to hangout for Muscat’s residents. And no, they don’t look boring like malls here in Europe. Definitely expect a lot of high-street and high-end fashion brands among others as well as food courts with international restaurants and fast food chains. Some of the malls also have large multiplexes and children’s theme park. Muscat City Center is currently the largest of them all, followed by Avenue Mall, Muscat Grand Mall, and Qurum City Center. If you’re getting hungry, just duck into one of the malls where you can have various options from different parts of the world.
How about eating outside malls for once?
But I wanna eat outside a mall, maybe try the local food! No worries then, there are endless eating options on the streets of Muscat – from the cheap Shawarma café to affordable local restaurants to even pricey ones that will leave you broke – there is everything for everyone in Muscat. Due to a large South Asian population, Indian restaurants perhaps dominate the culinary scene of the city, but there are countless eateries where Arabian (especially Lebanese), Asian (mainly Chinese), and western food are offered. And Omani food must not be missed too! Many of the places are quite affordable, unless you fancy eating at a 5-star hotel or on top of a hill with a view or something 😉 Btw heads up, you will see many small cafés or eateries where it says “Coffee Shop” – don’t get your hopes up because you’re not in Amsterdam 😉 in Oman, Coffee Shop is literally a small café which serves tea, coffee, and Shawarma (kinda like small Kebab shops here in Europe). Unlike many other countries in Asia, the food is perfectly fine for any stomach so don’t worry about getting sick.
And while we’re on the subject, I should also mention that alcohol is not publicly sold in Oman. So if you’re craving for booze, your best bet is to go to some really expensive bars and fancy hotels located in the diplomatic slash some of the most posh areas of the city. Actually hang on, I can think of two places (cafés/restaurants) where you can get drinks too – one is called ‘Left Bank’ and the other place is called ‘The Cave’. But really, drinks would be so expensive that you’re honestly better off booze for a couple of days or weeks (however long you’re visiting Oman). Tap water is generally quite safe, but it’s best to drink bottled water.
Umm… Do I need to change money? How about staying connected?
If you need to exchange money to Omani Rials, keep in mind that Omani Rial has a fixed rate with the US Dollar. So 1 OMR = $ 2.60, and Oman’s currency is perhaps one of the strongest ones out there. In most stores, malls, and restaurants, you can easily pay with your credit card. Exchange offices are widely available and can be easily found in almost every mall. When it comes to going online, unless you have a local SIM or connection, public WiFi connectivity can be hard to get. There are WiFi connections in malls, some restaurants, and at the airport, but in the end you would need a local number to sign into those WiFis.
Do I need to speak Arabic?
Oman’s official language is Arabic but you’re very unlikely to face language barriers as English is literally used almost everywhere. Most signs and names are bilingual and due to a mixed population of people from different parts of the world, English is widely spoken and understood, especially among the younger generations. So no need to worry about knowing any Arabic, although it can help making new friends and gain new impressions if you know a few words and phrases in Arabic!
Is Muscat (or Oman) safe for foreign travelers?
Before I finish off, I’d like to mention one last important thing to keep in mind when you plan to visit Muscat or Oman. I’m sure by now, you also have been asking yourself, whether Oman is safe to visit. If you recall earlier at the beginning of this post, I mentioned that Oman is one of the safest countries in the world. Not that I’m trying to ‘promote’ Oman here or something, but I can absolutely assure you that because I myself have lived there more than any other countries in the world so far.
Oman is a conservative Muslim country indeed, but it isn’t strict like its neighbor Saudi Arabia for example. Omani women drive, work, and shop just like everyone else and freedom of religion is granted for everyone. Although not strictly enforced, foreigners are expected to dress modestly and best not to kiss in public. And going to the beach in bikinis are allowed only in designated places. Other than that, you should be perfectly fine visiting the country. Even for solo female travelers, Muscat is much safer to walk alone at night than most major cities in the world. Violent crime is rarely heard of and the Omani police are very efficient, honest, and friendly. But there is one thing you should be worried about though – driving on the streets of Muscat. Oman has one of the highest death rates from car accidents in the world and one of the major reasons for this is excessive speeding. So if you’re driving in Muscat, be extremely careful, especially on highways!
Last two pieces of advice:
– Omanis and non-Omanis both love the Sultan. The leader of the country is highly respected by the vast majority of the population because he has done a lot to bring Oman from the ‘dark ages’ into a fast, developing country. So if you’re visiting there, don’t even dare to mention anything negative about the Sultan – even better, don’t speak about him. A slip of the tongue may as well get your ass kicked out of the country in no time.
– Do not make fun of Omanis or call insulting names. Yes, Omanis are very down-to-earth and humble people, but they can be sensitive to anything which they can think as criticizing their country or people. Even if you’re joking or teasing someone, they might not take it so lightly. Of course, it is different with younger Omanis if you’re good friends with them. But if they feel insulted, they may take you to court and that may be the end of your trip.