Port of Muscat
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Muscat couldn't be in a more beautiful setting. The old part of the town, hemmed in by terracotta-colored mountains, spans a graceful waterfront. Its corniche is flanked by a 16th-century hilltop fort at either end, remnants of the time the Portuguese occupied Oman, protecting their trade routes to the east. As well as the cruise ships, container ships and private yachts that moor there, old-fashioned wooden dhows (sailing ships) potter around the busy harbor. If your ship overnights, the sight of the mountains turning pink while the early-morning call to prayer echoes across the old rooftops is unforgettable.
Modern Muscat sprawls out behind the mountains, away from the sea, but for independent exploration, the old part of the city is easily walkable and safe; it's there that you'll find the winding alleys of the souk, or market. Beyond the city, there are tours into the mountains and wadis (dried-up riverbeds) for 4x4 rides along the coast to visit fishing villages or inland to explore some of the medieval forts.
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Where You're Docked
The pier faces the old town, with wonderful views of the mountains and their ancient forts. You're not allowed to walk through the port, as it's an industrial area, so free shuttles are provided to the gates.
There's nothing to do at the actual cruise terminal, which is pretty rudimentary. From the shuttle drop-off at the port gates, it's an easy walk to the souks and the corniche.
Good to Know
Oman is safe, and the people are gentle and polite. Be aware, however, that there has been some unrest in the wake of the Arab Spring uprisings, and you should stay away from demonstrations. Alcohol should not be consumed in public (you can get it in hotel bars and some restaurants but not in regular shops), and the penalties for drugs are severe. Oman is a conservative Muslim country, and women should dress modestly; if you want to visit the Grand Mosque, you need to cover ankles, wrists, neck, head and most of your face; there is an inspection at the entrance.
As previously mentioned, the old part of the city by the waterfront is quite walkable.
Taxis line up at the gates of the port, but before you take one, agree on the price and make sure the driver understands where you're going. A one-way transfer can easily morph into an expensive "city tour."
If you want to explore farther afield, a cruise line tour or a private driver and guide are your best bets. Renting a car is not practical for a day, as you're likely to get lost either in the city or the mountains. Many people on our cruise booked private guides and drivers, some of them in groups they'd formed on the Cruise Critic message boards. Everybody agreed that these tours were extremely worthwhile. The mountain and desert safaris are expensive compared to coach tours, regardless of how you book, as you're paying for a jeep with only five or six seats, each vehicle with its own driver and guide. A privately booked jeep for two would be costly, but if you can assemble a group of six, an independent tour would undercut what the cruise lines charge.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
The local currency is the Omani rial. (See oanda.com or xe.com for the latest conversion rates.) There are ATM's in a few of the banks and shops along the corniche and in most petrol stations (which double up as loo stops on coach tours, so there will be a chance to get money). In the souk, traders will accept U.S. dollars and euros, but you'll get change in rial and are likely to lose on the exchange rate.
Arabic is the official language, but tour guides speak good English. Do not expect shopkeepers to understand you; sign language works perfectly well when haggling in the souk. Many people living and working in Oman are not native Omanis, so you will encounter Indians, Pakistanis and Emiratis in your travels there.
Food and Drink
Typical Omani cuisine comprises grilled meats served in a variety of ways (marinated in yogurt or buttermilk, or spiced with cardamom, onion, garlic or lime) with perfumed rice and flatbreads. Main courses are preceded by assorted salads and dips. There's also a strong Indian influence, and Muscat has some excellent and contemporary Indian restaurants.
For a quick taste of local culture, try Omani coffee (kahwa), served strong and thick, flavored with cardamom. The bitterness is offset by the accompanying sticky and sweet halwa, a confection made with dates, honey, sugar, nuts and spices.
The corniche is lined with cafes and restaurants offering everything from traditional mathpe (barbecued meat) and gabole (cooked rice) to freshly squeezed fruit juices. High-class cuisine is available downtown, but you'll need to take a taxi. Omanis are just as likely to eat out in a five-star hotel as in a local restaurant, and most of the hotels have numerous venues.
Kurkum, on the corniche, offers modern Indian cuisine with Omani and other Asian flavors. You'll find dim sum, salads, meat and vegetarian curries, fresh fruit juices and ice cream. (It's on the Muttrah Corniche, just past the souk and close to Bank Oman. Tel. +968 24714114. Lunch is served from 11:30 a.m.)
Kargeen Caffe in the Madinat Qaboos area (a taxi ride from the port) has outdoor dining in a pretty garden of tamarind trees, and it's air-conditioned inside if it's too hot. The setting is authentic Middle East, complete with hookah pipes and oriental rugs, and food includes Middle Eastern mezzes (dips like hummus and garlic bean puree), salads, barbecued meats and even burgers. (It's located at Al Wattayah, postcode 118. Tel. +968 24 69 22 69. It's open for lunch and dinner.)
Al Tanoor at the Shangri La Bar Al Jissah Resort and Spa is ideal if you want a bit of Middle Eastern lunch in the setting of a gorgeous beach resort. It's 15 minutes by cab from Muscat, so it's best to make a day of it and enjoy the beach. There are numerous restaurants at the resort complex, but Al Tanoor is casual and has modern but traditional decor, like dining in a desert tent. The food mixes Omani, Turkish, Iranian and Indian flavors. (It's located at Bar Al Jissah Resort, postcode 100. Tel. +968 2477 6666. It's open daily, noon to 3 p.m.)
Terracotta incense burners with little fabric bags of frankincense from Salalah in the south of Oman make great gifts. Traditional Omani Khangar daggers or saifs (long swords) are impressive looking but have to be transported home by air, so make sure you can fit anything you buy in your checked luggage.