MUSCAT (Reuters) - The capital of the sultanate of Oman stands in stark contrast to the nearby glitzy trade and business hub of Dubai with no high-rise buildings to obscure the beauty of its Arabesque architecture, ancient fortifications and generous corniche.
Muscat, where men wear spotless white robes, the traditional woven kuma hat and for festive occasions a khanjar (curved traditional dagger) in their belts, and women long abaya cloaks, has preserved much of its rich history and culture.
Reuters correspondents with local knowledge help you get the most out of 48 hours in the oldest independent state in the Arab world, which has been ruled by the al-Said family since 1744.
10 p.m. Spend your first evening enjoying the 1,001 Nights atmosphere and oriental decor of The Chedi hotel(www.ghmhotels.com). Stylish lounges serve non-alcoholic "mocktails," while an infinity pool in a lush green garden, and a stretch of private, sandy shore provide a relaxing atmosphere. Most bungalows at the hotel have scenic views either on the sea or the surrounding mountains. Or try the Shangri-La (www.shangri-la.com), a luxurious three-hotel resort village and signature spa, a drive away from the capital in a desert setting of rugged mountains.
For the lower-budget traveler, go to the Corniche Hotel, just steps away from the fish market in the Mutrah area of town.
6 a.m. Rise with the sun and dash out to get photographs of the daily catch being delivered to the fish market in the Mutrah port, as well as the scaling, cleaning and weighing of hammour, tuna or octopus then spend time listening to the fish merchants haggling over the bounty of the sea.
8 a.m. After this first photo opportunity, it’s time to grab breakfast. Head to the rooftop Al Boom restaurant in the Marina Hotel overlooking the harbor, a few steps across from the fish market. Muscat means “anchorage,” and cruise ships as well as fishing boats are berthed at the port around the clock.
10 a.m. Now it’s time to take in some culture. Muscat is home to a number of museums, including the Museum of Omani Heritage, the National Museum of Oman, or the Oman Natural History Museum.
Visit the Bait al-Zubair museum (www.baitalzubairmuseum.com) on al-Saidiya Street in Old Muscat, which houses a vast collection of ancient household equipment, costumes and weapons, or the Bait al-Baranda museum (www.baitalbaranda.com) on the seafront in Mutrah, presenting Muscat's ancient life, geology, and folk arts. It is open Saturday to Thursday from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m and 4 p.m. to 6 p.m.
12 p.m. From Bait al-Zubair, walk either across the street to the Bait Muzna Gallery for a taste of local art (www.baitmuznagallery.com), or take a refreshment a few steps away at the Muscat Light Restaurant & Coffeeshop, before continuing your walk through Old Muscat to the Sultan's Palace.
1 p.m. A colonnade surrounded by palm trees and royal court buildings leads to the palace, which was built in 1972 but is not open to visitors. It is flanked by the al- Mirani and al-Jalali Forts, both built in the 1580s during the Portuguese occupation of Muscat.
3 p.m. Now head to the Mutrah souk (market), and stop for a quick bite at the street eatery Fastfood’n’Juice Center to the left of the entrance to grab a shwarma (sandwich) and a cup of sweet chai (tea).
5 p.m. Explore the Mutrah souk, open daily from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. and 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. Saturday to Thursday and 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. on Friday, a market housed under a roof with a labyrinth of small alleyways where everything from khanjars to silverwork, gold jewelry, textiles, spices and incense is sold. Make sure you’ve polished your haggling skills.
7 p.m. Enjoy an energy-boosting pomegranate, banana or mango fruit juice at al-Ahli Coffeeshop in the heart of the souk.
8 p.m. You must be hungry by now. Restaurants serving Omani dishes are rare, but try the cuisine of the Bin Ateeq in the al-Khuwair area, serving harees, made from wheat mixed with meat, or maqbous, a rice dish with saffron cooked over spicy meat. For dessert, have halwa, traditional Omani sweets, containing eggs, sugar, saffron, cardamom, and nuts.
Alcohol is only available in selected restaurants and luxury hotels, but usually quite expensive. Omani qahwa (coffee) is delicious however, mixed with cardamom powder and often accompanied with dates.
If you travel during the holy Muslim month of Ramadan, refrain from eating, drinking or smoking in public during daylight hours.
10 p.m. Muscat's nightlife is rather thin, but you can have a drink at the Trader Vic's in the InterContinental hotel for cocktails, or at the romantic John Barry Bar with live piano music in the Grand Hyatt. If you are lucky, you can catch a concert of the Royal Oman Symphony Orchestra (here).
If all of this doesn’t tempt you, take a stroll along the corniche to enjoy the harbor scenery.
You may want to venture out of the city for the day, consider the options of: diving (www.omandivecenter.com), birdwatching (www.birdsoman.com), horse-riding, dolphin and whale-watching or off-road wadi-bashing in the desert dunes.
Camel races are also held on Fridays from October to April, but check with the Directorate-General for Camel Affairs first when the race is taking place.
8 a.m. Otherwise, start your day with breakfast in the Bedouin-cultured garden of the Kargeen Caffe (www.kargeencaffe.com) in Madinat Qaboos.
9 a.m. Take a taxi to the sprawling Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque, which is able to accommodate up to 20,000 worshippers. Construction of the white marble mosque with ceramic floral murals and a Swarovski crystal chandelier started in 1995 and was completed in 2001. The mosque is open daily for Muslims, and for non-Muslims Monday to Thursday from 8 a.m. to 11 a.m. Visitors must wear long sleeves, trousers or long skirts, and women must cover their hair.
10 a.m. A nice place to see old silver ornaments, copper crafts and samples of Omani ships is the National Museum. It is open Saturday to Thursday from 9.30 a.m. - 1.30 p.m.
1 p.m. Have lunch at the classroom restaurant of the National Hospitality Institute, tucked away in the Wadi al-Kabir, where students train to become chefs and offer an international menu. Be aware that a "training eye" camera is installed in the restaurant. (www.nhioman.com/contactus.html)
3 p.m. You may have spotted them from a distance the previous day. Now it’s time to climb up to the al-Jalali and al-Mirani Forts, accessible only via a steep step. Get access permission from the Heritage Ministry at the Museum of Omani Heritage. The twin forts once served as bastions to defend Muscat’s harbor. The Portuguese bolstered the already existing fortifications during their occupation in the 1580s.
5 p.m. Bring home an Arabian gift from Bateel (www.bateel.com), a gourmet dates company which offers filled Segai dates with caramelized pecan or date chocolates with nougat pistachio, a silver khanjar (curved traditional dagger)from the souk costing between 30 rials ($77.9) to 500 rials, or a kuma, a handmade woven hat which costs around 30 rials.
If you have bigger pockets, purchase a fragrance from luxury perfume house Amouage (www.amouage.com), produced from frankincense, musk and other oriental ingredients.
7 p.m. Before packing your bags, enjoy a dinner at Mumtaz Mahal (“beautiful palace”), an Indian restaurant located on the hill behind Qurum Natural Park.
The best time to visit Muscat is between November and March, when maximum temperatures range between 25 and 35 degrees Celsius. The Shamal, a dust-laden wind, blows from March to August.
($1 = 0.385 Omani Rials)
Reporting by Martina Fuchs, editing by Paul Casciato