Middle East, Wanderlust

24 hours in Muscat: Oman with kids

As we sped along the coast by Muscat, scuffing above the sparkling blue waves, it was hard to believe that four hours earlier we had been sitting on a plane.

A view from the sea back on to Muscat and the mountains during our dolphin spotting trip, including a boat on the waves - my tips for spending 24 hours in Muscat, Oman with kids

Landing in Oman and whizzing through the visa and immigration queue, we had arrived at our hotel well before check-in. So, on the helpful suggestion of our representative from Stubborn Mule (who we booked our trip through), we headed down to the marina for an impromptu dolphin spotting tour.

If there’s a better way to blow away jetlagged cobwebs, I’m not sure I’ve found it. With 24 hours in Muscat (well, maybe 25), we didn’t have long to explore the Omani capital before heading out to the desert and mountains on our one-week break in Oman.

But while there is plenty more I’d have liked to do, we managed to fit in the essential highlights – or my essential highlights at least. So if you’ve only got a day in Muscat, here’s what you can do from the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque to traditional Muscat and more. Jetlag included.

24 hours in Muscat: Dolphin spotting boat trip

Sitting on board the boat at Marina Bandar Al Rowdha, it felt as if someone had switched the scenery into glorious technicolour. After leaving grey London in October, via a night flight and airport terminal, there was suddenly water glinting a deep blue, morning sunshine reflecting off the rocks and the white of the buildings.

Cresting our own waves of tiredness and jetlag, it was a relief to settle back and stare out to the sea and the mountains behind the city. Even if we didn’t spot dolphins, I decided this was a great way to start our holiday – and I couldn’t help thinking the speed and noise of the boat would keep any marine life at bay as we zipped along through the water.

As it turns out, our captain – from Sidab Sea Tours – knew better; word soon came in that dolphins had been spotted. And not one pod, but two. The boats converged and we saw dolphin after dolphin leaping out of the waves before diving back down below. Dozens visible then suddenly vanishing before reappearing sleekly with another graceful surge.

I couldn’t help feeling uncomfortable at some of the other companies whose boats were trailing one pod so closely that the dolphins seemed pursued rather than spotted. Ours, happily, kept more of a distance – close enough to have plenty of opportunities to see but never feeling as if we were chasing or distressing them.

Around 10 species live off the coast, although as with any wildlife sightings it’s never guaranteed what you’ll get – our 10am trip saw two pods, the 8am tour on the same day returned without spotting so much as a fin.

There are also dhow and sunset cruises available from the same company, with transfers between the marina and hotels included; Minnie gave in to sleep and dozed on the minibus ride back to the hotel, arriving to find our room ready, I followed her lead with a much needed nap!

24 hours in Muscat: Visit Mutrah souk and corniche

Muscat is a sprawling city, divided into different areas rather than having a single main centre so you’ll find yourself driving across the capital at some point (although try to avoid rush hour, where the roads grid lock in some areas).

But Muscat is also far from the high-rise ultra-glitzy reputation of its neighbours – sandwiched between the sea and the Hajar Mountains, buildings are mostly white or a sandy shade and nothing can be built too high, by the Sultan’s decree, which makes it feel much less overwhelming.

And nowhere is quite as traditional as Mutrah (or Muttrah), home to the city’s oldest souk and a waterfront corniche.

Wandering past the stalls just before sunset, we could have snapped up frankincense and sandalwood, antique looking brass lamps, scarves and souvenirs galore or joined the women shopping for homewares, toys, children’s clothes and more – not dissimilar to its 15th century reputation of being “a port, the like of which cannot be found in the whole world”.

Without any of the hassle you might find in similar souks elsewhere in the world, it’s easy to wander and soak up the atmosphere even if you’ve spent all your spare rials on taxi rides.

And we weren’t the only ones ambling along by the sea as sun sank in the west behind the port. Men in white dishdashas strolled, others sat cross-legged on the wall to chat and some made the most of the lower temperatures by jogging past as we gazed out across the water, spotted the fort above and the fish sculpture.

We settled down to soak it up over fresh fruit juice and some hummus at one of the string of cafes which line the area.

Arrive a bit earlier and you could stop in at the Bait Al Baranda museum too (recommended by Our Globetrotters) – a little further east are the Bait Al Zubair culture and history museum and National Museum.

24 hours in Muscat: See the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque

This was top of my list of things to see in Muscat, but with visitor hours closing at 11am on weekdays (there’s no admission on Fridays unless you’re coming to pray) and only a vague idea of how long it might take to get through the airport on our first morning, we left our visit to our second morning, on the way out of the city to Nizwa.

Set aside enough time not to rush though. One of the most beautiful buildings I’ve seen, its courtyards gleam in the sun, elegant white minarets towering above against the blue sky and light shining through archways and into shady corridors.

And that’s before you explore the gardens, with their cool fountains and flowers, or even more spectacularly, before you get inside. Home to what was once the world’s largest carpet, measuring 4,343 square metres, weighing 21 tonnes and taking 600 women four years to weave by hand including 1,700 million knots, the men’s prayer hall can fit 6,500 inside.

But it’s not just the space which is impressive. The chandelier above is still arguably the largest in the world, measuring 14 metres and weighing 8.5 tons, with 24 carat gold plate and sparkling Swarovski crystals – apparently when it is taken down to be cleaned, 12 people can stand inside it.

Even the spines of books lining the shelves are embossed with gold, while intricate calligraphy, vibrant mosaics and geometric decoration adorn every surface, just as on the smooth sandstone outside.

Built to mark the 30th year of the Sultan’s reign, 20,000 worshippers can fit inside the mosque including 750 in the smaller women’s prayer hall – less space is needed, my guide informs me, as it’s better for women to pray at home to avoid anyone distracting anyone else. Certainly although it’s a peaceful room, it’s not on nearly as magnificent a scale.

Incidentally, although everything I read, including signs in the mosque itself, stated that under 10s aren’t allowed inside the main prayer hall, my five-year-old was waved through without hesitation – in fact security were full of beaming smiles for her (admittedly rather cute) hat. I know we’re not alone in having this experience, but it’s worth being aware in case the rules are being enforced when you visit.

One rule which you will need to follow is to cover up – for women that means hair, arms to your wrists and legs to your ankles. There are abayas to hire if you prefer, but apart from asking me to adjust my headscarf a little, a shirt and loose trousers (leggings won’t be accepted) was absolutely fine. You’ll also need to take your shoes off before going inside, so easily kicked off sandals are useful.

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My tips for spending 24 hours in Muscat, Oman with kids - from the magnificent Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque to one of the oldest parts of the city in Mutrah (or Muttrah), and a chance to see dolphins #oman #familyoman #omanwithkids #muscat #mummytravels #24hourguide

Disclosure: Our dolphin spotting trip was arranged free of charge as part of our trip with Stubborn Mule. I paid for the rest of our Oman holiday, including our day in Muscat, and all opinions remain my own, including the need for a midday nap on day 1.

Images copyright MummyTravels

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