The goal of the $0 trip series is not just about spending no money, but it’s meant to show that you can see great places for little to no money. And Oman is nothing short of a great trip. Really surprising just how awesome Oman is. I’ve heard it called an underrated travel destination, but upon leaving I couldn’t help but feel that there was just so much more we could have seen if we just had a second week.
I’ll start by focusing on what we did actually see within Muscat. But then I want to mention some of the incredible places I was hoping to see outside the city, and planned on seeing, but just didn’t end up doing for one reason or another.
Things To Do In Muscat
Corniche is the main boardwalk you see pictures of when you do a google image search of Muscat. When I first saw Corniche it was the only time that I thought Muscat had a center or town. However scenic, it’s still a pretty small oceanside walk and so I wouldn’t spend a week in any area; it’s worth a couple trips.
There are markets in Corniche I figured I’d mention as well. It may not be much compared to Istanbul or Morocco’s big markets but it’s right on the main walk. There’s a typical market and a fish market in the area.
From Corniche a couple of bucks can get you a short taxi ride to Old Muscat. This is my favorite part in the city by far. But it’s all historically important and it’s dead past a certain hour, so it’s not where I would stay. But you have to spend a few hours here. The beautiful buildings, palaces and forts all along the blue water and at the base of the dry mountains make it a unique and beautiful place. A must see.
Unfortunately closed when we got to Old Muscat, there are cool forts along the cliffs that remind me of smaller versions of the forts in Rajasthan, India. Ancient forts on a hill with walls that climb down cliff sides to wrap around a once protected city.
Drinks at the Ritz Carlton or Shangri-La
Another couple of bucks in a taxi will get you a bit further down the road to the Ritz Carlton Al Buston Palace. And five minutes past the ritz is the Shangri-La. Both are on big beaches with the desert-like mountains surrounding the beach and hotel. We decided to see what the fuss was about and got drinks at the Ritz Carlton. The prices were no worse than a typical drink the US.
On a sidenote though, I had one of the most awkward hotel experiences of my life. At the Ritz Carlton the security guard followed us around to the most awkward degree. Almost to the bar, he stopped us. Upon telling him we were just hoping to grab a drink he told us that we need to go to the front to make reservations.
Which was absurd because first of all, I could see the restaurant and it was empty and second, we were going to the bar. When going to the bathroom he followed us. And when leaving and walking across the giant lobby I thought it would be humorous if we zig zagged across the lobby. A guy on his phone across the lobby walking in our general direction matched our zig zagging. No one else there seemed to get the treatment and the waiter actually rolled his eyes at the goofy security guards when we told him about it.
All that to say, it is beyond stuffy in the Ritz and I’d highly recommend going to the Shangri-La as from what I can tell, it has a better view as well.
Grand Mosque Sultan Qaboos
The biggest Mosque in Oman and one of the biggest in the world, you should walk around and visit their Grand Mosque. Open for visitors from 8:30 am to 11:00 am, Carrie “covered up” and I wore long pants for a trip to the Mosque. It was the site furthest west in the city, and so we saw it while staying at the Radisson Blu.
The best hotel we stayed at in terms of location was by far the InterContinental. The Grand Hyatt might have been nicer but from the IC we could walk out on the beach and walk all the way down to the cliffs of Qurum beach. Long walk but it was a beautiful sunset and there were tons of locals playing tons of soccer games across the beach.
Sites outside of Muscat
What struck me upon leaving was that there was a long list of things to see only two hours or more outside the city. Really, I didn’t want to rent a car and didn’t feel we had the time. If we had a few more days I would have tried to figure out the bus system departing from Ruwa in order to get to a couple more places.
Here are the other sites I wish I would have seen:
What makes Oman striking is how dry it is when it’s contrasted with something like a nice beach. But one amazing contrast is from an oasis of water in the desert. Pools of water that are crystal clear, surrounded by greenery and yet still at the base of these desert mountains. I imagine it’s similar to what makes Lake Powell interesting, except these are little pools and little rivers.
The old capital before Muscat was Nizwa. But instead of being on the coast it is up in the mountains. I imagine the experience to be a lot like Old Muscat except older and a mountain version instead of a costal version. Plus it’s on the way to other sites in the mountains.
I joke that Oman has every desert attraction the US has in 2 hours of Muscat. Looking at pictures of Jebel Shams, it appears they have their own Grand Canyon. Up in the mountains I hear the hiking is phenomenal. Maybe for an over night trip that can be paired with Nizwa, you may consider a trip to the mountains.
Getting around Muscat
First a little context- Muscat is not like a typical city built along a square and sprawling out from the center. Quite the opposite, it is spread along the coast with seemingly no center. To go from one place considered part of Muscat near the airport to “Old Muscat” can be half an hour in a taxi.
While it’s not pedestrian friendly, the taxis are pretty cheap and there are “baisa buses”, which would be like the “penny bus”. These are really white passenger vans that run along the main road and stop under the bridges. Even fairly long rides were 300 to 500 baisa ($.75 – $1.30).
Taxis are really cheap… for locals. The best thing I did is asked a “local” Indian on the street how much a bus would be to the area of my hotel. He told me $5… which I couldn’t believe because it was such a long distance. But there is no meter system so it’s all about haggling. I’d ask for the right price, pick a price slightly higher and then stick to it.
Oman has everything and it has everything close to Muscat. Crazy bare deserts, crazy cliffs and mountains, beautiful beaches, ancient forts… actually, the only thing it’s missing is a downtown.
Actually, my only critique is that normally I love food. Like I look forward to going to places sometimes just thinking about the food. I love trying new food, trying street food, seeing the food culture, etc… And while they of course have a food culture, it’s far too bland for me. It reminds me of Indian food if you remove the spices. So if you go to an Indian or Turkish restaurant, ask them to make it spicy (if you like spicy food of course), because otherwise it’s watered down.
But one of the more interesting experiences is finding a local restaurant where they seat you in a room of your own. Even if it’s just two of you, or heck, our friend Keith did it by himself, they give you your own room.
There are many interesting things about Omani culture, and I consider it a very tourist friendly version of some middle eastern cultures. Unlike a few of its neighbors, women can drive and it’s much less awkward to wear your own clothes. Carrie thought the “wardrobe adjustments” weren’t as drastic as she thought they’d be. Just no tank-tops and shorts. If you’re itching to dive into the Middle East, Oman is a great place to start. Tourist friendly and beautiful. Good luck with public transit.