Muscat, the capital of Oman is an odd city. And I mean this in a positive way. My expectations were proved wrong the moment I stepped out of the airport. Wide avenues, relaxed traffic, new buildings everywhere and yet – still very traditional Arab atmosphere. It seems it has modern development such as I saw in UAE (although without high skyscrapers) and on the same time more relaxed, proud yet welcoming atmosphere.
Comparing to Yemeni capital Sanaa, Muscat is new and most buildings of the same, bland style. There is almost no historical buildings apart from some watchtowers on top of the hills. The Muttrah souq and the fish market are both in relatively modern style too. Even the Al Alam palace is new – although very interesting. One building does stand out in its beauty and awe, the Grand Mosque of Sultan Qaboos. What makes Muscat unique is its position within the coast and sharp mountains – it seems literally squeezed in between!
If the architecture of Muscat feels somewhat sterile, the most pleasant surprise was the people. I traveled around Middle East and North Africa a lot and I must say that people of Oman are the nicest, friendliest and most relaxed! It seems the economy is doing well and most people benefit of country’s rich oil resources. There is about 40-45% of foreigners of the total Oman population. Most of them come from India, Bangladesh, Iran or Pakistan. I did not notice any big divide between original Omani people and foreign workers. Soon I learned how to distinguish people of different nationalities – mostly by the dress style. Most people also speak English very well – I was surprised that even older people are quite good at it. As a photographer I was thrilled that people were relaxed about being photographed. This goes mostly for men, women are still more hesitant, like most Muslim countries. Overall, my experience with Omani people was amazing, warm and welcoming.
Our first morning was relaxed – we all arrived in the middle of the night so we had late breakfast. We stayed at Sheraton hotel which has a nice, central location. We walked in the neighbourhood and found a nice clock tower where we spent some time trying different angles which was fun. There was also a nice mosque nearby but visiting hours were already past.
In the afternoon we met with our guide Hussain. I spoke with him via Whatsapp a few times before the trip and he sounded really nice. His English is also very good. In person he is even nicer, friendly, relaxed and he was working hard to make us happy through the entire trip. Hussain’s suggestion for our first night was a sunset cruise along the coast of Muscat. I am usually not convinced about these “sunset cruises” as many tend to be tourist traps. But this one exceeded my expectations regarding photography! The best thing were the backlit mountains behind the city as we were cruising on a traditional dhow. The sun created beautiful layers and silhouettes and we were enjoying gentle breeze of the Ocean. A nice and relaxed start of the trip!
Next morning we visited Muttrah fish market. First impressions were mixed, there was a lot of activity but the light was horrific – the neon lights in a sterile interior were not what I was hoping for. We had to work around this and focus on closer shots which yielded some keepers. The outside part of the market was also very interesting – fishermen cleaning their nets and bringing daily catch inside for sale. My advice would be to come here as early as possible – at sunrise. There will be more activity when fishermen return from the sea and the light will be softer.
The highlight of the day was the Grand mosque of Sultan Qaboos. One thing for sure – when you travel around Oman and you see a big mosque – it is named after Sultan Qaboos. I felt like the main connoisseur of Omani mosques when we were driving around.
The mosque is spectacular. I want to avoid the “pissing contests” so – “one of” the largest, chandeliers, domes, one-piece carpets in the world! Definitely my favourite modern mosque so far. It definitely exceeds the one in Abu Dhabi or Casablanca. The details, the size, the light and decorations it all comes together nicely – one can see no money was spared for arts.
This mosque is only open for visitors in the morning and it pays to come early – soon it gets very crowded and is hard to photograph with wide angle without getting too many people in the shot. There is enough light inside to shoot handheld and I used bracketing a lot. Hussain was happy to pose for us and he picked up a Quran for some nice portraits.
Another part of the city I enjoyed very much is the “historical” Muscat around the Al Alam palace. The palace itself is of interesting architecture – it does not look Islamic, in fact I struggled to “place it” in particular era, style or culture. It certainly is unique. Sue and I decided to wait for evening blue hour while Dave went to rest at the hotel.
While waiting for the right light we explored the area around the palace. One of the coolest places was the archways nearby. It was fun to wait for different people to walk by to catch “decisive moment”. Below are a few snaps from this place – which one do you like the most?
Another good find was the Ali Musa mosque, adjacent to the archways. It was nice when sunlit, but the big surprise came when the lights turned on at dusk – from the inside!
Our last day in Muscat we focused on the area around Corniche. A visit to Mutrah souq is apparently a must do for every tourist. I’ve seen so many souqs that this wasn’t something I wanted to do. But when in Rome… The coolest thing about the souq was the incense shops where locals sell Frankincense, Musk oil and other exotic products. I planned to do some shopping on my return at the end of the trip but due to Corona outbreak we had to return early and I missed this opportunity.
The photo above si my only keeper from Muttrah souq. At the end of the souq there is a little public square where local men hang out, drink coffee and play cards. Sue and I found this super cool and spend quite some time with locals. They taught us to play cards and offered us Omani coffee – a weak, sugar free concoction, spiced with cardamom. See the small plastic coffee cup left of the man on the photo above. This is how they drink it – a one-time use cup, same design all over Muscat.
If you want to enjoy elevated views on Muscat and the area around Corniche, Muttrah fort is the place to go. The fort itself is more or less empty and of no interest, however the views are great. Well worth climbing up. Note that it closes in the afternoon and it is not possible to stay up for sunset.
From the fort we walked down to Corniche. First we walked west along the main road where we photographed views back to Muttrah and over to the incense burner monument. This walk was enjoyable. The temperatures were great and locals came out for the evening stroll along the coast. Great for people photography.
We concluded our last day in Muscat photographing blue hour of the Corniche and a nice dinner at local Bait al Luban (the house of frankincense) restaurant. A very nice place that reminded me of Zanzibar island where I’ve been many times.
Visiting Muscat was a pleasant experience and a nice intro into our Oman trip. Next day we headed to the mountains, a very different world in this amazing country.
Here are my other posts from Oman. And here you will find a photographer’s guide to most interesting locations for photographers in Oman.
Muscat was a great start to our adventure. A great place to explore and begin to learn a little bit about the culture.