Muscat, Oman – Why I Hated It and Will Never Go Back

Last fall, I met an Omani man at my guest house in Delhi, India. When he learned I was a travel writer, he began to gush about Oman. “You must go! It is so beautiful. Muscat is gorgeous and people are so friendly.” I was sold. I added Oman to a list of Middle Eastern countries to visit this spring.

I arrived in Muscat, the capital of Oman, on a balmy March evening on the heels of visiting Dubai in the UAE. I’d thoroughly enjoyed my time in Dubai and, if reports I’d read on the Internet were any indication, I’d be even more wowed by Oman.

A walk along the Corniche passes between this rocky promontory and the giant incense burner perched on the hillside, which is a nod to Oman being the world's major producer of Frankincense
A walk along the Corniche passes between this rocky promontory and the giant incense burner perched on the producer of Frankincense

My first inkling that Oman might not be all that I hoped came a few minutes later. The driver of the taxi who met me at the airport started asking what I wanted to do in Muscat. I replied that I’d begin by taking the hop-on, hop-off Big Bus in order familiarize myself with the sprawling city. “Oh no! You don’t want to do that. It’s really expensive and you have to wait a long time between buses.” His warning was quickly followed with a sales pitch. He could show me everything I needed to see in half a day and it would cost only $65.

Clock Tower in the Central Business District of Muscat, Oman
Clock Tower in the Central Business District of Muscat, Oman

I wasn’t interested. As a photographer, I often need to wait for the right light, or for crowds to clear in order to get the best shot. As a writer, I must be able to roam at my own pace, soaking up the atmosphere, talking to locals, and musing over story angles. Being tied to a tour where I’m allowed 15 or 20 minutes at each stop simply doesn’t work. I politely declined, but he wouldn’t take no for an answer. Trapped in his vehicle, I suffered the hard sell all the way to my hotel.

Entrance to the traditional Souk (market) in the Mutrah neighborhood of Muscat, Oman
Entrance to the traditional Souk (market) in the Mutrah neighborhood of Muscat, Oman

It was late and I was exhausted by the time we reached my hotel. I wanted nothing more than to fall into bed and sleep for ten hours. But my room fronted on a six-lane highway and the traffic noise was so bad I knew sleeping would be impossible. I asked for and was given a second room…which had a balcony with sliding glass doors that would not lock.

As a solo female traveler, I have a few non-negotiable rules for staying safe. One of them is never to stay in a room where the doors won’t lock. Once again, I asked for my room to be changed. The third try was even worse. The room reeked like a dead animal and there were dark brown spots on the carpet the size of dinner plates. I’m sure the Filipino staff hated me by that time, but I had to demand a fourth room, which was finally acceptable.

In Old Muscat, a mosque is framed by one of the 16th century Portuguese forts that once guarded the harbors
In Old Muscat, a mosque is framed by one of the 16th century Portuguese forts that once guarded the harbors

My experience did not improve over the next five days. I began in Old Muscat, where the only interesting sites among a sea of whitewashed buildings were the Al Alam Palace and two 16th-century Portuguese forts. None of which were open to the public. With everything closed during the midday heat, streets of the old town were deserted. The only sign of life was four Omani men wearing the traditional Omani Dishdasha, an ankle-length white caftan, and round embroidered caps known as kumma. They strolled slowly down the middle of the street, eventually disappearing into one of the brilliant white palaces. Little did I know this would be the closest I would ever get to Omani culture.

The Corniche is a 4-mile long walkway between the Mutrah area of Muscat, and Old Muscat, the original site of the city
The Corniche is a 4-mile long walkway between the Mutrah area of Muscat, and Old Muscat, the original site of the city

Dejectedly, I turned my back on Old Muscat and headed back down the 4-mile Corniche. It was a beautiful seaside walk, but as in Old Muscat, everything along the way was closed. I arrived at the Mutrah Suq just as the market was opening for the evening and ducked inside to wander its cool narrow alleyways. Like any other market in the world, merchants hawked wares ranging from gold to spice to pashmina shawls. But every single one of the shop owners was an immigrant. I met friendly Pakistanis, Filipinos, Bangladeshis, and even Nepalis. But not a single Omani was to be found.

Shop owner in the Mutrah Souk hawks his goods
Shop owner in the Mutrah Souk hawks his goods

On day two I fended off multiple pushy taxi drivers, found the Big Bus stop, and sat down to wait. The bus arrived fifteen minutes later, but I wasn’t allowed to board. A cruise ship was in town and the company was busy shuttling passengers back to the ship. When the next bus finally arrived, it did an “abbreviated” route that ignored some of the stops shown on the company’s website.

We were well past the beach by the time I realized the driver had skipped it. My only option would have been to go all the way around and wait for the next bus. By that time it was too late. Even if I took a quick stroll on the beach and grabbed a late lunch, I would miss the last bus back. And a taxi back to the hotel would set me back another 25 bucks.

The stunning Swarovski crystal chandelier in the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque
The stunning Swarovski crystal chandelier in the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque

My Big Bus ticket was for two days, so I set out early the next morning. I was beginning to suspect that there was little to see or do in Muscat, and the Big Bus tour quickly confirmed my worst fears. Strangely, the two most visited sites, the Muscat Opera House and the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque, were not even included on the route. Unlike the hop-on, hop-off buses I’ve taken in dozens of other locations around the world, this one was a total rip-off. I did manage to see the mosque when a lovely French Canadian family at the hotel invited me to accompany them in their rental car. Good thing, too, because the taxi driver I’d hired to take me didn’t show up.

A palm-lined beach along the Corniche in Muscat, Oman
A palm-lined beach along the Corniche in Muscat, Oman

For the remainder of my time in Oman, I decided to focus on day trips outside of the capital city. I’d read about jeep tours in the surrounding Sahara-like dunes, off-roading through rugged mountain scenery, and wadis where hidden emerald pools offer opportunities for a cool dip. I tried my favorite go-to booking site, GetYourGuide, and even Viator, without success. Not only are tours in Oman extremely expensive, the minimum number of participants for any tour was two people. As a single person I would have had to pay double, even if other customers joined the same tour. The cheapest option was $250 for a half-day trip to a wadi. I just said no.

Dining along the Corniche in the Mutrah area of Muscat, Oman. The only choices are a few expensive restaurants or these "fast food" sidewalk cafes.
Dining along the Corniche in the Mutrah area of Muscat, Oman. The only choices are a few expensive restaurants or these “fast food” sidewalk cafes.

I spent my last day wandering around the Mutrah area, eating horrible fast food and trying to meet locals other than taxi drivers. The only Omanis I found were squatting on the sidewalk in front of a sand pit, playing an ancient game known as hawalis. The chess-like game involved moving a series of pebbles among four rows of holes dug in the sand. The men refused to acknowledge me and even my requests to take a photo went unanswered. Lacking denial, I snapped the photo. I stood there a while longer, trying to decipher the rules of the game, but their snub made me increasingly uncomfortable. I later learned the centuries-old game, which is just as incomprehensible as the local culture, is exclusive to Oman.

Omani men play Hawalis, a board game where stones are moved between four rows of cups dug in the sand. This version of the game is said to be exclusive to Oman
Omani men play Hawalis, a board game where stones are moved between four rows of cups dug in the sand. This version of the game is said to be exclusive to Oman

Others may wax lyrical about Oman, but the only friendly people I met were immigrants. And the countryside may indeed be beautiful, but since all the tours were exceedingly expensive, I never saw it. There is no published information about bus routes and no rapid transit. Even renting a car is problematic. My new French Canadian friends told me horror stories about getting lost in the interior on roadways completely devoid of any directional signs. Oman doesn’t have a clue how to handle tourism. Until it does, I can find lots of other places to spend my money.

Author’s note: Since publishing this article, I have been flooded with comments from travelers who love Muscat. I’m the first to say that different places resonate with different people. I may not want to return, but those of you who are intrigued by Oman as a destination may find both this comprehensive travel guide to Oman and this 10-Day Oman Itinerary helpful.

Muscat, Oman - Why I Hated It and Will Never Go BackMuscat, Oman - Why I Hated It and Will Never Go BackMuscat, Oman - Why I Hated It and Will Never Go BackMuscat, Oman - Why I Hated It and Will Never Go Back

499 thoughts on “Muscat, Oman – Why I Hated It and Will Never Go Back”

  1. I’m an Omani. I agree with you 95%. Here we glorify the past and history but do nothing now. We do not have good spots for to boost tourism as we see in UAE and Qatar. We do not have cycle path. No good public transport system. The roads are dangerously built.

    I traveled around the world, What are basic services in other countries you can not find it here.
    Its good to be real and say what it is with no painting. For me as a local. I have 4×4 and drive camp where ever I like because i know where to go where to drink and so.. what a tourist can do ?!

    Most of Omanis whish when they have a holiday to travel to UAE or Europe. No wonder why 🙂

    Well, Thank you for visiting Oman

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  2. Perhaps you should temper the title of your article. It is incredibly emotive and quite controversial, especially since you don’t seem to have experienced much of Muscat at all. The city that I have called home for the past 7 years is hardly recognisable to that which you describe in your article.

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  3. i think you should indeed delete this article as it is not giving accurate information about Oman. Omanis are one of the friendliest nation on the world. Please check “Expat Insider 2021” report, Oman is the 4th friendliest country among 59 countries.

    I’m living in Oman for 4 years now, as a solo woman, never ever had any bad experience. They have been always so helpfull, kind, welcoming and warm. I’m not working here but settled because there is no better country than Oman in the world.

    Also taking a photo of Omanis without their consent is unacceptable. It’s not allowed even by law. Even if there is no law, i found it quite disrespectful. I’m also a traveler and i never do that.

    Moreover, Oman is an expensive country. You should have been ready for it. Seems like you were not willing to spend any money to explore the country. That is also awkward.

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  4. To enjoy Oman as a tourist you probably need to get a car. But it’s as simple as that – just go for a drive! Amazing scenery.
    I understand you didn’t have a very good experience but to say that you HATED the country was a bit weird. sort of clickbait.

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  5. Actually the author is right. i live there for 2.5 yrs because for my work. There are some good locals specially at your workplace but there are also some of the worst youll meet in your workplace. I was able to sit and eat with locals , i went to their cultural houses but “some” are just evil bosses. They used the pandemic to blackmail and not pay you for your rights and benefits. Talking about nice places are true but most of the good places are far and is expensive to go there or atleast you have your own car which is good. Anyone who says bad to this lady means you are just proving the facts that you are what you are. No offense but this is reality check …

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  6. Hi Barbra, I’m sorry you had a difficult time in Oman. It seems like you didnt get a chance to meet with many locals to really give you a feel for the culture and the country.

    I do hope you decide to give the country another try, our door is always open. ?

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  7. I find it amazing to read all those comments disagreeing with the author employing the most juvenile of logical fallacies. ‘I was there….I liked it…..Thus your experience is invalid and wrong! These are the same type who spout the ‘If you don’t like it…LEAVE! passive aggressive ultimatums. You only embarrass yourselves!

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    • Declan,

      If you really want to see juvenile, try reading Victoria’s comment from April 7th. Here we have someone who is so uniformed that she has not realized that “clothes police” exist in all cultures, and have do so since time immemorial. On Youtube today, I saw a blonde Karen in the USA threatening another woman with hellfire and damnation because she was wearing a long-sleeved top that Karen thought “made her look naked”.

      This is almost as silly as the “experienced traveler” who comes to a country and does not bother to familiarize herself with details like public transport routes, or opening times, and rejects advice from local experts.

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  8. Hello Barbara
    Thank you for taking the time to write your review regarding your experience in Oman (or more specifically, Muscat). While I understand as to why someone would take offense at your post, you have the right to express yourself as you see fit in your personal blog.
    It is important for you to remember that when visiting a highly observant Islamic nation one should refrain from interacting with members of the opposite gender. I learned this the hard way when I attempted to embrace a young woman wearing a hijab back in high school. I suggest you give Muscat another chance but it sounds to me as if you will not grow to love It. There are many places on Earth that we dislike at first, yet learn to live (Los Angeles for me) and others which no matter what I will do my best possible to avoid (Las Vegas or Toronto). I found your article well written and interesting and I look forward to reading more of your travel insights. Have a blessed week

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      • As an expat living from childhood Oman, Muscat was a great place to enjoy my childhood. Never had any bad experiences life was great then. But as i grew up i started to notice how omani citizens actually saw me. Not all were criticizing towards me. I do have omani friends from my college who are amazing, supportive and really friendly towards me and i love that about them. But when it comes to me in a public place i have experienced a really bad way of how an omani lady was offended by my outfit.when all i wore was a good pair of jeans and top. I was at a public park with my family . Me and my dad were sitting and talking on our mats under a tree. So later i laid down side ways to relax . Then one omani lady behind us came straight to my dad and me just started complaining that “her husband was staring at me and looking at my bottoms” and that she didnt like what i was doing. So she told me to sit straight up or leave just because her dumbass husband was staring at me that really offended her. She also told me that i dont like what you are doing im sorry but my husband is staring at you. So she was offened by me just because her husband was staring at girls. Like i never expected this to happen. So my dad just apologized her and we had to leave that park. This what i hate about this country. Some citizens are so backwards that they really hurt people and they dont even realise it.

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  9. So funny and in reading all the comments about how amazing it is I have to say I’d heard similar from others and yet we HATED it. So boring and Nizwa was the same.
    We lived in the UAE and drove over for a week. Ended up in saying “you know we could be home in 4 hours and eating good food and drink…” And no we don’t need glitz. We are travelers and loved quiet but this place…Spot on feedback from you thanks.

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    • Yep, back to tacky UAE. If you thought it was boring, you obviously didn’t look around, and there are wonderful restaurants in Oman, and beautiful hotels. The people are also FAR more humble than the grab grab Emiratis. Muttrah is lovely, beautiful beaches, stunning hotels, incredible scenery, but obviously wasted on you. But you’re right, probably better off in tacky UAE, branded, sanitised, cliquey expats, copy paste cities, franchises, skyscrapers, fast cars, and empty souls. Oman is for the humble and more down to earth types.

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      • Mutrah is nothing but unremarkable. Oman is famous for having hugely overpriced hotels, terrible customer service, and aging infrastructure. What I have lived in five stars hotels in Oman, are unheard of even in road-side dumps in South America. In terms of tourism, you can’t even compare to UAE. Its not about your personal preference. Dubai alone receives over 10 million tourists per year. Oman receives 1/4 of that, many comong as package deals to Dubai which include a few nights in Muscat. Customer service and pricing in UAE kicks the ass of any hotel in Oman. Oman is way more beautiful than UAE. But tourism is not only about landscapes. In Oman people feel they are being ripped off.

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  10. Barbara, I just have to say that having spent the majority of my childhood growing up in Oman as an expat, Oman may not have been perfect, but your distasteful description of your very limited experiences are simply ignorant, to say the least. I know others have commented about this, but it truly is disrespectful to photograph locals in Oman without their permission. Despite your claim to travel, I find it hard to believe that you give any real effort to learning the culture of the places you visit. You could have easily learned from a multitude of travel sites about Oman that it is impolite to photograph locals without their permission. Speaking on your visit in the U.A.E., Dubai and the other more affluent cities of the Arabian Peninsula are (at least to those who actually spent time in the region) have a far more imbalanced proportion of immigrants to locals. I assume you only liked Dubai more because you are used to a certain degree of luxury and gentrification. Bartering (such as in your taxi experiences) is common in Oman, and while white people are certainly more likely to be pushed to spend money, it is hardly different in any other country that relies on white tourism to thrive. Did you actually spend any time during your visit in the interior or did you turn your nose up entirely because you couldn’t find a tour? Seeing as you are a travel writer, I would like to believe you would have a few ways to get around new countries without relying on tours. If you had spent any real time with a local Omani family, you would have realized that Omanis are truly some of the most hospitable people in the Middle East on account of the Ibadi branch of Islam they follow. I am offended and disgusted by your lack of poise and outward disrespect of a country and a people that you failed to understand.

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    • Ethan, I totally agree with you. I spent the most interesting five days in Muscat last february (2020) visiting museums, mosques, public buildings such as the Opera House, masterfully maintained gardens and public parks, frequenting local restaurants where I had stimulating experiences. I think that researching informations on the destination one wants to visit is the basis for a successful trip. Ms Weibel cannot define herself as a journalist, perched in her presumption, and closure towards different cultures.

      Reply

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