Highlights of Muscat and Nizwa, Oman

February 9, 2011 by

Middle East & Africa

For the uninitiated, Muscat must come as a bit of a shock. The Omani capital isn’t your classical city with a defined centre and everything else radiating from it. In fact, Muscat itself is tiny; home to the Sultan’s Palace, plenty of government buildings and very little else.

Mutrah Corniche

Mutrah Corniche

Muscat vs Greater Muscat

If you’re the sort of person that likes to explore a city on foot, you’re in for a very nasty surprise. In fact, it’s best thought of as a Greater Muscat Area than spans 50km along the coastline rather than Muscat. The things you’ll want to see – the Mutrah Souq, the Qurm Nature Reserve, the Palace and the museums – are spread all over the place. Try to tackle them on foot and you’re going to endure some extremely long and not-at-all pleasant walks. Oil is cheap in Oman, and thus the Greater Muscat Area has been designed almost entirely with the motorist in mind. Much of your pedestrian journey will be spent at the side of terrifying dual carriageways, hoping for slight gap in traffic that you can chicken-run across in.

Driving in Muscat

Having your own rental car in Oman is nigh on essential, but it’s not necessarily the best way to sight-see in Muscat. The road system can occasionally feel like it has been designed by Franz Kafka – you have to know the exact exit you need to take for a certain attraction, restaurant or shopping centre, otherwise you can find yourself going round and round in circles. Getting a guide who knows where he’s going can save a lot of time and frustration. You can also spend time looking out of the window, rather than at the road ahead of you. And once you do that, you start to realise quite how extraordinary the Muscat area is.

It is sandwiched against the coast by the Hajar mountains, almost built into whatever gaps can be found. The ultra-modern roads are often raised to pass through and around the obstacles, and the spectacularly bleak and barren rubble-strewn peaks look like they belong in far more inhospitable territory.

Mutrah

If you have to pick one part of Greater Muscat to spend a bit of time in, it would be Mutrah. This is the one spot with a series of things going for it. It’s where the dolphin-watching trips and ferries to the Musandam Peninsula go from, but for a port it’s darned beautiful. Built into the crags, it hosts what is often called the most atmospheric souq in the Middle East. The wafts of frankincense, gleam of silverware and colour of a million-and-one pashminas bombard the senses. In the evening, the market comes to life, but there’s very little of the hassle factor that you’d get in, say, Morocco or Egypt.

The Corniche skirts the coastline, passing by stone statues of interlocking dolphins and leading the eye towards the watchtowers sat high on the jagged rocks.

View from Nizwa Fort

View from Nizwa Fort

Travelling inland to Nizwa

Branch out from the coast, however, and Oman soon becomes a different world. The space age roads are still there (even if they’re on occasion waiting for some space age sign posts) but the urban landscape is soon replaced by a far more forbidding one. It becomes rather lunar, and settlements are replaced by the occasional petrol station. It’s like something out of Star Wars.

The road out to Nizwa is worth driving even if you get to the destination and turn straight back, but once you get there, you’ve a rather impressive fort to explore. Nizwa is known as the conservative, religious capital of Oman and it’s only fairly recently that intense rivalries with Muscat have subsided. And such rivalries require defensive strategies.

Road to Nizwa

Road to Nizwa

The fort at Nizwa dates back to the middle of the 17th century and the earth-filled central stone tower is full of sneaky traps. Some steps were replaced with easily breakable wooden planks so that would-be assailants would fall into deep pits. These are mercifully replaced with glass nowadays. Tourists with broken legs aren’t such a good look.

There are also ‘murder holes’ built into the ramparts, where boiling date syrup could be poured through onto the heads of attackers. On a more prosaic level, they could be used for pouring water down on the flames if the enemy tried to set fire to the fort.

At the top of the fort, there are great views of the markets down below and the mountains. You can see that Nizwa is almost surrounded by jagged peak, and plenty of date palms fight the buildings for space.

Mountain village experience

Going too far into said mountains without a four wheel drive vehicle is foolhardy in the extreme. The paved roads soon stop, and you’re onto perilous mountain tracks. If you or your driver are skilled enough with a 4WD, however, you can get up to Jebel Shams and peer down into Wadi Ghul – dubbed the Grand Canyon of Arabia.

Misfat

Misfat

We don’t even attempt that far, but we do make our way up to the mountain village of Misfat. It’s a beautiful spot accessed via a winding, but sealed, road. The hillsides are clearly cultivated up here, with date palms carefully planted into terraces. Some of the homes are mud-built, and there’s a maze-like series of walking paths marked out up and down the mountainside through the villagers’ homes. Elsewhere you’d expect to be confronted by people selling huge tables full of tat, but here you just get a few respectful hellos and the sound of goats bleating. The narrow streets feel as though they have been carved from the rock, and the village feels like a specially-sculpted garden. It’s incredibly peaceful, and with the sun blazing overhead, it lulls you into a fixed lazy smile. It’s a world away from the fearsome dual carriageways of Muscat, and feels like the very best sort of end of the road.

David Whitley

Accommodation in Oman: David stayed at the Al Nahda Resort outside Muscat. It’s set in a mango plantation, has an excellent pool area and rooms that are done up with a sense of Omani tradition.

Planning a trip? Browse Viator’s Oman tours & things to do, Oman attractions, and Oman travel recommendations.



3 Responses to “Highlights of Muscat and Nizwa, Oman”

  1. Joey Phi Says:

    The mountain village looks great!

  2. Loren Says:

    Oman is such a nice country to travel. Have been there once for a week. Enjoyed alot, Thanks for sharing.

  3. valerie - souvenirs d'Oman Says:

    Oman is a very great country. I have been there many times : omani people are cute, landscape are amazing (mountains, deserts, beaches…), shopping is interesting.