You probably haven't heard much about Oman's capital, Muscat, but you're in for a surprise. This striking port city has a long and illustrious history, with a compelling old town as well as more modern districts. Keen to preserve its past, though, Muscat's commercial prowess in otherwise pastoral country is balanced by its well-preserved watchtowers and ancient walls.
Locals welcomed new bus routes in Muscat recently, a break from a past that saw very little in the way of public transport. The orange-and-white share taxis and microbuses are probably still the best way to get around the city, though, and to get to other cities, which are also served by infrequent buses.
Muscat has grown considerably in recent years, but a government keen to preserve the country's traditional appearance means that it has grown outward rather than upward – most of the growth is low-rise suburban sprawl. Indeed, this remains an attractive, quaint-looking city clinging to a picturesque port.
The central zone of Muttrah and the historic quarter known as Old Muscat should be your first ports of call; the latter is home to the sultanate palace, as well as two impressive fortresses built by the Portuguese. There are a few elegant hotels in the city centre, which tend to be extravagantly decorated, as well as some upmarket restaurants.
There are several impressive mosques and Islamic monuments to admire in Muscat, not least amongst them the spectacular Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque, built in 2001. The only Omani mosque open to non-Muslims, it's huge – one of the biggest in the Gulf, capable of holding 20,000 people.
The district of Ruwi is the most modern part of the city, with its relatively tall buildings, neon signs and commercial vibes. There's even a bit of nightlife, here. To the south of Ruwu is the area known as Little India, where South Asians live and work. Check out the low-price curry houses, and lively shops of Souq Ruwi Street.
Heading west from Muscat, you'll encounter jagged mountains and classic villages in the Saiq Plateau. Little has changed in this area for hundreds of years. Further west, you'll come across are two mighty forts, Jabrin with its beautiful, well-preserved interior, and Bahla, Oman's largest and most impressive fortress.
To the north of Muscat, on the edge of the Hajar Mountains, the coast offers another alternative to city life with its long stretches of pleasant beachland, in the Al Batinah area. Continue along the coast and you'll find several sleepy towns such as Seeb and Barka, the latter boasting more striking fortifications.
Omani cuisine is fairly basic, with not much in the way of fine restaurants to be found across most of the country. The exception is Muscat, where it's possible to find traditional local fare such as kebab, meze, shawarma and biryani in decidedly more elegant settings. It's even possible to find hamburgers in the capital, as well as international food, though mostly served in the hotels at many times the prices of local eateries. It's difficult to obtain alcohol, though some of the posher hotels do stock wines, again at eye-watering prices. Good quality curry can be found in restaurants throughout Muscat.