Although this Arab country is small and doesn’t experience the limelight as its more flashier neighbour Dubai does — its notoriety has been gaining momentum in particular thanks to the 2022 FIFA World Cup and the incredible growth it’s experiencing from this upcoming event. Many areas are still a work in progress, but there are still some incredible sites and activities worth seeing. Not to mention the luxury hotel scene — from the Four Seasons to the St. Regis, there’s no shortage of upscale accommodations, dining and pampering to be found. But when you’re not lounging in an oceanfront cabana or sampling Asian bites by Jean-Georges at the W, take the time to explore and get immersed in the cultural offerings in Qatar’s capital.
Designed by famed architect I.M. Pei (of Louvre fame), the building itself is a masterpiece. Set on an island on the waterfront, the geometric shaped building was inspired by ancient Islamic architecture, which naturally complements the actual artwork inside. Housing pieces from three continents over 1,400 years, the collection ranges from ceramics and textiles to precious manuscripts. Everything is well organized and it’s not too overwhelming to see the entire museum in an afternoon. There is a lovely cafe on the ground floor, designed by Philippe Starck, with beautiful views of Doha Bay and the skyline. Be sure to walk on the patio for scenic photo ops.
2. Souq Waqif
The social heart of Doha, the Souq is an open-air market that is bustling with locals and tourists. A souq has stood here for centuries, but it has since been modernized into a 19th-century version of itself with white-washed buildings, cobbled alleyways and exposed wood beams. Despite being so new (the restoration was completed in 2011), you would never know by looking at it. Much of the charm of the souq is the atmosphere. There’s a labyrinth of alleyways which lead to various shops — you’ll find spices, perfumes, clothing, housewares and jewellery. Plus there’s even an area where animals are for sale, including rabbits, turtles and birds.
Be sure to head over to the Falcon Souq. Here Falcons are extremely revered and many Arab locals have them as pets, sometimes spending thousands of riyals to buy just one. Plan to pop into a Falcon shop to see the birds (pictures are allowed, just ask). On your way look out for the Falcon Hospital — yes, they have an entire centre dedicated to the treatment of these majestic creatures.
The Souq is also home to many restaurants, cafes and Shisha bars. The best time to go is either in the morning or in the evening. Friday and Saturday are the days when it’s their “weekend,” so Thursday and Friday night are when it’s the most lively. The hours aren’t typical here with stores opening from 10 a.m. to noon and then from 4 p.m. to 10 p.m., but it also means you can shop in the evening after dinner.
In terms of souvenirs, spices are excellent here (saffron in particular is well priced), perfumes (you can find amazing pure oils like sandalwood and rose) and gold are all worth looking at. There is also a handicraft section where you’ll find local artisans creating some unique items. Look out for a glass blower who does beautiful Christmas ornaments and a metal worker that creates beautiful lanterns. It’s cash only, but there are ATM’s around the souq in case you run out.
3. Sand Dunes
What’s a trip to the Middle East without a visit to the desert? Luckily the sand dunes aren’t too far from the city centre. About an hour drive from Doha, the only way to truly experience the desert is with a guided tour. One of the most popular ways to experience the dunes is on a 4X4 land cruiser to do what’s called “Dune Bashing.” Our tour was with Gulf Adventures, the preferred partner of Qatar Airways. Our experienced driver took us up and down the dunes, for what can only be described as a thrilling (albeit a bit scary!) adventure. There were three photo ops during the 3-hour tour, including one that allowed us to see Saudi Arabia from the distance (Qatar borders them).
For those who want more than just to see the desert, there are more involved safaris available, such as an inland sea safari that includes watching the sunset while enjoying a traditional barbeque dinner, and an overnight adventure where you sleep in a traditional Bedouin tent. And yes, there are camels too. For a camel ride into the desert you’ll need to book ahead, otherwise there were a few camels at the entrance that you could ride around the front for a very cheap price.
Unfortunately there aren’t many restroom options this far out. The main facilities are very outhouse-like and not super clean, so prepare for wilderness-like conditions (aka bring your hand sanitizer).
An arts and culture centre constructed on reclaimed coastal land, this village is a social and business space that includes heritage centres, art galleries, libraries, an opera house, academic facilities, two mosques, cafes and its jewel — a 35,000 square foot amphitheatre that seats 5,000. The architecture in the village is a mixture of neo-romantic and oriental, with the amphitheatre built to look like a classic Greek theatre.
In addition to the cultural facilities, there is also a 1.5 kilometre private beach where you can swim, lounge, and even sign up for water sports like wakeboarding, canoeing, parasailing and kayaking. The hours for the beach vary (some nights it’s open during the evening), so check before you go. Also note the entrance to the beach is 50 QR for adults and water sports are extra.
We recommend visiting Katara during an event, like when the Qatar Philharmonic Orchestra, an art exhibit or concert is on, to get the full experience of this destination. During the day it can be rather quiet and the cafes won’t be open. It is however a large property to explore, especially if you’re interested in capturing the architecture.
5. Villaggio Mall
One thing you’ll quickly notice in Doha is how much money the locals have. The country is in fact one of the richest in the world, with petroleum and natural gas being their biggest exports. It’s not unusual to see woman toting luxury handbags and wearing designer sunglasses, and there are plenty of high-end shopping areas locals and tourists can get their fix. In the west end of the city, the Villaggio Mall is a massive indoor shopping centre that caters to all budgets. The mall is an astounding 1.3 million square feet, which includes a movie theatre, multiple restaurants, a luxury shopping area, and Gondola rides (the mall is practically a complete replica of the Venetian in Las Vegas). You’ll find many global brands here, such as Topshop, H&M, Zara and Sephora, as well as local brands and of course a huge luxury area that includes Saint Laurent, Tom Ford, Gucci, Jimmy Choo and Celine, among many others. Don’t expect to come finding deals, but you certainly will be able to get great service, and good selection.