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General Information

Have you always hankered after the whole Thousand and One Nights experience: sultans, palaces, exotic spices and foods, twisting streets through the marketplace, ancient fortresses, even a harem?

You've come to the right place when you come to Muscat.

Muscat has always been the capital city of Oman. As a matter of fact, until 1970 the country was called Muscat and Oman. The Portuguese had control of it for a hundred and fifty years or so until 1650, and there are two picturesque forts that remain from that time, flanking the city against a backdrop of barren desert hills. The influences on the architecture of the city don't stop with the Portuguese - you'll see Persian, Indian, African, Arabian, and modern Western influences. The Sultan's Palace itself is in Indian style. Actually, unlike most cities in the Middle East with any history, the old town is rather deserted, with only the harbor, the palace, and the fortresses as worthy attractions. There are other places to go, though, to get your fill of sights.

The place to see, and the place to be, in Muscat is Muttrah, the oldest residential district, and the place where you'll experience the most exotic atmosphere. The Corniche (the seaside promenade) is the best way to start your acquaintance with the city. Walk along and soak up the harbor scene.

Eventually you'll reach the Muttrah Souk (marketplace) with its little cubicles offering every exotic thing under the sun. It's been called the best in the Arab world. This is the place to do your souvenir shopping, and there are certainly some out-of-the-ordinary souvenirs to buy: khanjars (the traditional curved daggers), caftans, turbans, leather, hand-made Omani costumes, and especially silver jewelry. The variety of silver for sale is impressive, from small make-up boxes (traditionally used by both men and women) at one end of the spectrum to full-sized chest pieces at the other. And if that's not exotic enough for you, snap up a carved camel bone item. (If you want to pick up more modern merchandise, there are several actual malls to go to elsewhere in the city.)

At the northern end of the souk, just outside the entrance, is a rather well known teashop, frequented by old men puffing on hookahs (the Arab water pipe) and drinking jasmine tea as they hobnob and gossip. It's the kind of place you'll see sometimes by accident when exploring, giving you a peek at the genuine life and atmosphere of the city. Drink a little tea and absorb some of that mysterious-Orient feeling you came here to find.

The next item on your list should be the Zawawi Mosque, built by Sheik Zawawi, probably Oman's finest mosque. The dome is shaped like an inverted lotus and is made of pink marble covered in 22-carat gold leaf. It is a photographer's dream-come-true; so burn up a few rolls while you're there. (Be sure to wear the proper attire - shorts, beachwear, and bare arms or legs are not considered correct.) And while you're on the trail of large and imposing edifices, check out the Al Alam Palace, an official sultan's residence, with lovely views of Muscat Bay. The style is a mix of oriental and occidental, sparkling with rich blues and gold. And last but certainly not least, check out the Al Bustan Palace Hotel, considered the finest in the Middle East. In accord with the oil countries' tendency towards extravagance, the cost was more than a quarter of a billion US dollars. You can see every one of them!

To scale back the experience a little - if you're wandering around by yourself and strike up an acquaintance with an Omani, don't be surprised if he takes you home and offers you something to eat, or at least a cup of the cardamom scented coffee called kalwah. (The Omanis are renowned for their hospitality.) You may be offered the little deep-fried dough balls called lohkemat, flavored with honey and rosewater, to add some sweetness to the bitter drink. If you're not treated to home cooking, you're still in a place with great cuisine, so make a point to sample some maqbous, saffron rice over spicy meat, or mashuai, the spit roasted kingfish dish. Rice is big at every meal, as is the thin round bread called rukhal. The major meal is eaten in the middle of the day, so maybe you'll want to schedule your more vigorous walking in the afternoon, to work off your lunch. Or maybe you'll just want to lunch all day; it's understandable with such good things to eat all around.

The charms of Muscat will reveal themselves to you quicker than you can say "Open Sesame," without you even having to know any magical incantations. Take advantage of its generosity.

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