Layover in Muscat, Oman - 1-Day Itinerary
Oman is the second largest country in the Arabian Gulf after Saudi Arabia. Although not as well-known as its neighbors the UAE, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia, it actually has so much to offer — from diverse natural landscapes to magnificent Islamic architecture.
Unlike the ultra-modern Dubai, Oman has stuck to its traditional Arabian and Bedouin roots, featuring only low rise white-washed buildings in its skyline, thus giving visitors a glimpse of what the Middle East used to look like before modernity crept in.
Its strategic location makes Oman a great layover destination, connecting the west and the Far East — which was how I got to visit this beautiful country.
After falling in love with Simba in the Lion King, I was intent on going on a safari in Kenya. Unfortunately, there were no direct flights from my country to East Africa that were within my budget range.
While scouring the net for more affordable options, I stumbled upon Oman Air, which offered great deals, plus an opportunity for a long layover in the capital city Muscat. It was too good to pass up.
Muscat is a port city located on the Gulf of Oman coast, in the northeast of Oman. Surrounded by rocky mountains, deserts, and the sea, it consists of three smaller towns:
- Muscat – Often referred to as the “walled city”, it is home to the royal palaces.
- Mutrah – Originally a fishing village, this is where you you can find the Mutrah souq (bazaar) and corniche.
- Ruwi – Generally considered the city’s commercial and diplomatic center.
For centuries, Muscat was inaccessible by land due to being surrounded by mountains on three sides. The first people to settle there were Arab tribes coming from Yemen by the sea.
By the 16th century, Muscat was a trading port used by merchant ships bound for India. This inevitably attracted the Portuguese, who conquered the town in 1507. City walls and two Portuguese forts (Mirani and Jalali) were constructed, but in the end, none of these could prevent the Omanis from reconquering the town in 1650 and ending the Portuguese era in the Gulf.
Muscat became the capital of Oman in 1793 and a seafaring empire in the 18th and 19th century before descending into oblivion under Sultan Said bin Taimur. City gates were bolted against the outside world until 1970, when the current Sultan Qaboos finally revived the city.
As of 2021, Muscat population is close to 1.6 million people, composed of Arabs, ethnic Balochis, ethnic Lurs, Swahilis, Hindus, and Mehri. Omanis account for about 60% of the total population of Muscat, while expatriates and foreign workers constitute the other 40%.
The official language of Oman is Arabic, which is spoken by the majority of the population. The younger generation in big cities, especially in places frequented by tourists can usually speak English.
However, based on my own experience, this is not always the case. At the airport, I went to the information counter to ask if there was any locker service to leave my luggage at. What ensued was practically a tour of the airport — through customs and back to the baggage carousel — where they thought I had left my luggage.
The only English-speaking staff member who finally came to assist me was a foreign worker from India.
The official currency of Oman is Omani Rial (OMR) and the current exchange rate is 1 OMR = 2.60 USD. Exchanging money in Muscat is easy, with many foreign exchange providers scattered around the city, as well as at the airport. International debit cards and credit cards are also widely accepted.
Best Time to Go to Muscat, Oman
The best time to visit Oman is during the ‘winter’ season from October to March, when the temperatures are milder (between 17°C to 35°C), and there is little to no rainfall. If you’re going to see turtles, this is also the best time to do so.
However, the winter months are the peak season in Oman, which means it gets busier than usual, although in general Oman is still not a very touristy country.
April and May are also a good time to go. Aside from being a buffer between the comfortable winter and the scorching summer, this shoulder season also sees fewer tourists and may offer you some travel discounts.
Avoid the summer months between June and August unless you fancy being fried in the desert.
Do You Need a Transit Visa for Oman?
All international visitors to Oman (other than Gulf Cooperation Council Nationals) must obtain a visa for the duration of their stay. Oman transit visa enables a single entry into Oman for a maximum of 72 hours and can be obtained online.
Travelers must have a passport that is valid for a minimum of six months after the travel dates, an onward travel ticket, and a visa for the next destination, if necessary.
Click here for online application and further information.
What to Wear in Muscat, Oman
If you have never visited a Muslim country before, this may be something you’re worried about. But rest assured — in Oman, there is no need for foreigners to wear traditional Arabic clothing like the thaub or abaya.
However, it’s still important to dress modestly. Pants should go below the knees for both men and women. For women, stay away from revealing clothes to avoid unwanted attention. Loose long-sleeved blouses, loose pants, or long skirts are great options. You don’t necessarily have to cover your head except in places of worship.
If you visit during the hotter months, loose, light-colored cottons or linens will help make the heat more bearable.
How to Get Around in Muscat, Oman
Again, I was fortunate enough to meet a local Couchsurfing host who offered to pick me up from the airport and show me around.
For half a day, he took me in his car to visit some of the major attractions in Muscat, have breakfast and lunch, and meet some of his friends. Then, he dropped me off in Qurum, where I explored on my own for a couple of hours before taking a bus back to the airport.
Having your own transport is undoubtedly the most convenient way to get around in Muscat. You can either rent a car and self-drive or hire a driver to take you around. This is of course not the cheapest option but it gives you the total freedom to go anywhere you like and at your own pace.
A more affordable alternative would be to take public buses, although these don’t cover all places. You also have to figure out the routes and stops, and factor in the waiting time. Check out their official website for bus route and timetable.
If you take taxis, make sure you have brushed up on your haggling skills. Agree on the fare before you go.
Unlike most major airports in surrounding countries, there are currently no airport tours from Muscat International Airport, but you could try to book one of these tours on Get Your Guide if it fits your schedule:
How Much Time Do You Need to Explore Muscat?
Muscat has a lot to offer visitors, from resplendent mosques and majestic forts, to lush green parks, golden deserts, and pristine beaches. To explore all of the city and visit all of the major tourist attractions can take you at least 2 – 3 days, depending on how packed you want your schedule to be.
The good news is the airport isn’t too far from the city center. For example, it’s only 12.5 kilometres (13 minutes’ drive) to the Grand Mosque and 32 kilometres (28 minutes) to Mutrah. So, even if you’ve only got a few hours, you can still go to one or two of these places.
With this guide and a little bit of planning, you should be able to enjoy the best of Muscat in a short time.
Things to Do in Muscat on a 1-Day Layover
The attractions in Muscat are not that far apart from each other and are perfectly doable in one day (if you don’t spend too long at each place).
For my journey home from Nairobi, Kenya, I opted for a long layover in Muscat, so I had approximately 10 hours to spend in the city before my flight back to Kuala Lumpur.
Here is a list of some of the best things to see and do on a layover in Muscat:
1. Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque
Located in the heart of the city along the Sultan Qaboos Road, this stunning mosque is also known as the Grand Mosque of Muscat and is the only mosque in Oman that is open for people of all religions.
It consists of five high minarets, and several huge verandas and gardens to accommodate the large numbers of worshipers during the Friday prayers and Eid prayers.
The main prayer hall features a humongous fourteen-metre-tall Swarovski chandelier — currently the world’s biggest. It also has the world’s second largest handmade Persian carpet.
Regardless of religion, all visitors are required to dress appropriately to enter the mosque. Men should wear full-length pants and women must cover up from top to toe, exposing only their faces and hands. Shoes must be removed and placed on the shoe racks outside.
The mosque’s proximity to the airport (about 10 minutes’ drive) makes it a must-visit attraction for those on a transit. Non-Muslims may visit from 8 a.m. to 11 a.m. every day except Friday.
Since I visited outside the visiting hours, I only had access to the ladies’ prayer hall, which unfortunately (but not surprisingly) doesn’t have all the extravagance of the main prayer hall that is reserved for men.
2. Royal Opera House of Muscat
The Royal Opera House of Muscat (10 minutes’ drive from the Grand Mosque) is a magnificent royal property that serves as the country’s main center of arts and culture.
Built with white stone marbles, this picturesque structure looks even more beautiful after sunset and is also one of the most Instagrammable spots in Muscat.
If you’ve got a few hours to spare, watching a show in one of the opulent auditoriums is a great way to experience they city’s grandeur (dress code applies). However, casual visitors are welcome to wander around the complex as well. Apart from concert halls, it also houses retail stores and luxury restaurants.
The Royal Opera House is open every day for show-goers and visitors. Click here to check the performance calendar.
3. Mutrah Souk
Only about 32 kilometres (20 miles) away from Muscat International Airport is Mutrah — one of the most ancient cities in the Capital Governorate of Muscat. Due to its seaport, which was one of the largest in the country, Mutrah used to be the center of commerce in Oman.
Now, it is better known as the tourist hub of Muscat, mainly because of Mutrah Souk — a traditional market filled with hundreds of small shops selling things like clothes, bags, key rings, home decorations, jewelry, perfumes, medicinal herbs, spices, nuts, earthenware, and their specialty: frankincense.
If you’re good at haggling, this can be the cheapest place to shop in Muscat. However, even if you’re not planning to buy anything, the souk is still worth a visit to get a better glimpse of Omani heritage and culture.
4. Mutrah Corniche
Just across the road from Mutrah Souk is a long stretch of pedestrianized walkway, locally known as the “Corniche”. Starting from the busy fish market and ending at Kalbuh Park, it runs along the coastline with low-rise buildings, small cafes, and mosques on the other side of the road.
Taking a stroll along the Mutrah Corniche is a popular thing to do for both locals and tourists in the city. You can also hire a bike to ride along the coast while enjoying the great views of Muscat Port and the Gulf of Oman.
On days when the winds are strong (like the day of my visit), the waves can get so big that they splash all the way across the Corniche. It’s fun to watch unsuspecting tourists getting splashed by the sneaker waves while they’re taking selfies (I was one of the tourists).
5. Riyam Park
After the Corniche, you can head to Riyam Park just 1.2 kilometres (0.75 miles) away. Situated on a hill overlooking the sea, it provides some truly amazing views of Mutrah and the coast.
The park features lush gardens, a mini amusement park for children, a few coffee shops, picnic areas, and the Riyam Memorial — a watch tower shaped like an incense burner that was built in honor of Oman’s 20th National Day.
Having been featured twice in The Amazing Race (Seasons 9 and 17), Riyam Park is also the place where a peace treaty was signed with the Portuguese in 1648.
6. Qasr Al-Alam Royal Palace
Continuing your journey east, you can drop by at Qasr Al-Alam Royal Palace. This 200-year-old building was rebuilt and redesigned in 1972. Now, it sports a gold-and-blue facade and is used as the official ceremonial palace of the Sultan of Oman.
As it is a royal palace, you can’t enter the building, but you can still walk around the complex to enjoy the peaceful ambiance.
7. The National Museum of Oman
As one of the oldest capitals in the region, Muscat bears a rich and interesting history, all of which is conserved in museums across the city.
While there are many museums in Muscat, such as the Natural History Museum, Omani French Museum, Children’s Museum, and the Sultan’s Armed Forces Museum, if you could only choose one to visit on your layover, you should definitely go for the National Museum of Oman.
Inaugurated in 2013, it is the newest addition to the list of museums in Muscat and is dedicated to showcasing Oman’s cultural heritage and traditions from different generations.
This state-of-the-art museum houses more than 5,000 objects and artifacts including a 16th-century shipwreck believed to be a part of Vasco Da Gama’s fleet.
8. Bait Al-Zubair Museum
Bait Al-Zubair, which means “The House of Zubair” in Arabic, is a museum privately owned and funded by the Zubair family — one of the oldest families in Oman.
The museum displays cultural artworks and artifacts, mostly from the owner’s personal collections. There are five buildings in the complex, each one housing a different section of culture and history.
Recently, the museum has been turned into a cultural center, where many art and culture events are hosted throughout the year. There is also an Arabian-style cafe and a gift shop on site.
9. Qurum Natural Park (Rose Garden)
Muscat has a number of recreational parks and gardens, the largest of which is Qurum Natural Park, also known as the Rose Garden. Other than rose gardens, the park also has a huge man-made lake with fountains and a waterfall, children’s playing area, and an amusement park.
Whether you choose to have a picnic under the shades, stroll among the trees, or paddle on the lake, Qurum Natural Park is a great place to relax and rejuvenate close to nature. It is also free to enter.
10. Qurum Beach
Qurum Beach — the most popular beach in the city — stretches for nearly 4 kilometres (2.5 miles) along the Muscat coastline. With its clear water and swaying palm trees, this beach is the perfect escapade for layover tourists yearning for a dose of Vitamin Sea.
An array of water sports is available for visitors, including parasailing, banana boating, jet skiing, and scuba diving. In the evening, enjoy a luxurious seafood dinner at one of the restaurants lining the coastal road.
11. Visit the Forts
Learning about Muscat’s history and heritage wouldn’t be complete without actually visiting / photographing the forts:
- Mutrah Fort – Standing tall and high on a rocky hill facing the sea, Mutrah Fort was built in the 16th century by Portuguese traders to monitor the harbor. It comprises three circular towers with the bigger one in the center and the two smaller ones in the West. A cannon guards the northern side. The fort has recently been reopened after a long period of restoration.
- Al Jalali Fort and Al Mirani Fort – Said to have been built by the Sassanid Persians and later rebuilt by the Portuguese during their occupation, the twin forts sit opposite each other. One of them is located on a rocky outcrop in the middle of the sea and was once used as a prison. Today, they are both used by the Royal Oman Army. Although visitors aren’t allowed to enter, you can appreciate and photograph them from the outside.
12. Eat at a Traditional Omani Restaurant
While Muscat has almost all kinds of international food on offer due to the large number of expats in the city, you should definitely not miss out on the local fare.
13. Try Camel Milk
One of my favorite things to do when traveling is to go to the supermarket and just browse through the different kinds of items on sale, from raw groceries to household goods to candies and snacks. It’s a great way to learn about the local lifestyle and there will surely be some interesting finds.
In Oman, it was camel milk and camel-milk-based products, such as chocolates, soaps, and cold brews. If the arid weather wasn’t enough of a reminder that I was indeed in the desert, these camel products really drove the point home.
If You’ve Got More than One Day in Muscat
If your transit in Muscat is more than one day, you can do all of the above at a slower pace, spending more time at each place before going to the next.
Or you can also add more things to your itinerary because the city and its surrounding areas have a lot more to keep you occupied for many days! Here are some other things you can do in and around Muscat on your long layover:
- Visit local factories that are open for visitors, such as the Omani halwa factory and the Amouage perfume factory. Omani halwa is a popular local dessert made of margarine, sugar, rose water, and semolina, while Amouage is a world-renowned luxury perfume brand that was first established by the Sultan of Oman. It uses traditional Middle East perfume ingredients such as agarwood, incense, musk, rose, and spices.
- Visit Nakhal Fort, which is located about 40 minutes’ drive east of the city, at the base of the Jebel Akhdar section of the Hajar Mountains.
- Go rock climbing on the many mountains around Muscat. There are over 200 bolted climbs in the Jebel Shams and western Hajar Mountains regions about 150 kilometres from Muscat.
- Do water sports. Oman has a 3000-kilometre stretch of coastline, which makes it a perfect place to do water activities, including snorkeling, scuba diving, boat tours, dolphin watching, turtle watching, jet-skiing, kayaking, wake-boarding, fishing, and many more. You can also visit Marina Al Rowdha and Al-Mouj Muscat Marina — the two main centers for water activity operators in Muscat.
- Go dune bashing in the desert. The most famous spot for dune bashing is Muscat is in the area of Baushar. People who own four-wheelers typically use their own vehicles for dune bashing. Otherwise, you can rent quad bikes and pay per hour.
- Attend a camel race, if that’s your cup of tea. Camel racing is a popular Arab sport where camels compete on race tracks specially built for them. Race take place regularly and have evolved into official and professional events.
- Go on an overnight desert safari, where you get to take a short ride on a camel, experience Bedouin culture, and camp under the stars.
Where to Stay in Muscat, Oman
If you’re not staying overnight but would like to get some rest between flights, you can go to one of the airport lounges like Plaza Premium Lounge and Majan Lounge.
However, if you have more than a one-day layover, Muscat has some of the best hotels, hostels, and guesthouses ideally located in the heart of the city, and they’re all quite affordable. Even some of the four-star hotels fall in the budget price range.
Ramada Encore by Wyndham Muscat Al-Ghubra – Situated on the Sultan Qaboos Highway (13 kilometres away from the airport and 3.5 kilometres from the Grand Mosque), this 4-star hotel comes with a restaurant, a swimming pool, a fitness center and free private parking space. Its 24-hour front desk, airport shuttle, room service, and currency exchange service make it a great hotel for guests on a layover. From OMR 15 (USD 40) for a Twin Room.
Mysk Al Mouj Hotel – Uniquely located inside Al Mouj, a thriving waterfront community 5 kilometres away from the airport, this hotel is surrounded by green spaces, luxury retail and dining outlets, and Oman’s only signature Golf Club. They also have a rooftop swimming pool and a restaurant called Salt, which has its own salt sommelier to help you choose the perfect salt for your dish from their rich salt selection. From OMR 37 (USD 96) for a Deluxe King Room, including breakfast.
Al Bustan Palace, a Ritz-Carlton Hotel – Set against the Al Hajar mountains overlooking the sea, this 5-star luxury resort offers a unique palace experience with the longest (1 kilometre) private beach in Muscat, including a private section for ladies only. The resort also comes with an infinity pool, a spa, three restaurants, a pool bar, and a tea lounge. From OMR 70 (USD 180) for a Deluxe Twin Room with a balcony and pool view. Inclusive of breakfast.
Traveling in Muscat, Oman as a Solo Female Traveler
For the most part of my day in Muscat, I was accompanied by my male host, who immediately took charge and did all the talking with the male sellers and waiters.
So, I didn’t really experience what it was like to travel solo in Muscat until he dropped me off in Qurum to explore on my own for a few hours.
And I’m happy to report that it was an overall good experience, probably better than in my own city. There were no catcalls, staring, or any form of harassment. The local men went about their business as any respectful person would.
Of course, it’s hard to judge after just a few hours in Muscat on my own, and I obviously can’t comment if it’s the same situation outside of the city.
I was also not the only lone female walking around. There were several others who I assumed to be Filipino workers.
However, I did notice a sign outside a traditional restaurant saying that lone female customers shouldn’t collect their food themselves, but must instead assign their drivers to collect for them.
Now, I’m not sure if female customers aren’t allowed to eat at those restaurants on their own, or it was just something lost in translation. If any of you knows what it means, please enlighten me in the comments.
Final Thoughts on Spending a Layover in Muscat, Oman
Unlike the neighboring capital cities, Muscat is one of the few that has not been overtaken by extreme urbanization or commercialism. It still retains its traditional Bedouin charms and cultural values, which is a treat for visitors seeking the true essence of Arabia.
However, despite being more traditional, it’s still well equipped with modern conveniences, such as a reliable public transportation system, decent hotels, shops, restaurants, and recreational areas, making it a great place to rejuvenate between long flights.
So, the next time you need to choose a layover destination in the Middle East, make sure you give this underrated city a try.