First time Doha: a stopover for souqs, skyscrapers and sightseeing

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There can be few places on earth changing faster than Doha right now – in true Gulf style, the cityscape of Qatar’s capital is rising as steadily as a plume of shisha smoke. A short jaunt around town will pass all-new luxury hotels, art complexes and lofty skyscrapers designed by the world’s finest architects, not to mention the unique five star island retreat and replica Venetian town complete with canals. Doha is a tiny city, and most of its major attractions, from souqs to art galleries, are within a short taxi ride of each other, making it easy to squeeze them all in on a short stopover.

A couple admire the skyline from outside the Museum of Islamic Art, Doha, Qatar. Image by Helen Elfer  / Lonely PlanetA couple admire the Doha skyline from outside the Museum of Islamic Art © Helen Elfer / Lonely Planet

Sports stadiums, green spaces, malls and hotels are springing up as Qatar readies itself to host the FIFA World Cup 2022. But despite the international appearance of all this development, it would be a mistake to think that Qatar was drifting away from its own culture. A strong sense of identity and heritage infuses every experience here, whether that’s hearing the dawn call to prayer through the window of a five-star suite, or watching a traditional dhow boat sail past the contemporary Museum of Islamic Art. This place may be moving quickly, but it seems determined not to leave anything behind.

The Corniche

A drive, cycle or walk along Doha’s long, horseshoe-shaped Corniche is the perfect way to introduce yourself to the city. The man-made bay stretches for four miles, past palm trees, iconic architecture, grassy parks and traditional wooden dhow boats, depending on which area you find yourself in. On cooler evenings, families and couples congregate in Hotel Park at the West Bay end of the Corniche, a serene and undulating green space complete with water features and play areas set amidst the skyscrapers and bustle of the business district – join them to admire the views and get your bearings.

The Museum of Islamic Art juts out into the Doha's bay. Image by Marcus Lindstram / E+ / Getty Images The Museum of Islamic Art juts out into the Doha’s bay © Marcus Lindstram / Getty Images

Museum of Islamic Art

The treasures in this world-class museum have been sourced from across the Islamic world, with displays as diverse as a ruby-studded golden falcon from India, Ottoman-era pointed steel helmets and exquisitely painted Persian pottery, not to mention the rare and ancient collection of Quranic manuscripts. Then of course, there’s the building, a work of art in itself. Before creating it, architect IM Pei travelled through the Middle East for months on end, searching for ways he could convey ‘the essence of Islamic architecture’. The result is utterly inspired, its bright white cuboid edges reflected in the surrounding sea by day and illuminated against the sky by night. Look out for Islamic details incorporated in the design – the curved openings in the top tower resemble the eye slit of a burqa, and the museum’s ceiling is a traditional geometric pattern. Outside, the park that the museum sits within is no less impressive, curving away from the mainland on an island of its own, with a breathtaking panoramic view of the city from the quaint café at its farthest point. It’s no overstatement to say that this heart-stirring place alone would make a visit to Doha worthwhile.

National Museum of Qatar

This much-anticipated museum, which is due to open its doors to the public in December 2018, aims to give voice to Qatar’s heritage, while celebrating its future. It will be a place for visitors to learn about the country’s unique place in world history, and will wow with its modern displays and interactive technology. Despite not being open yet, the museum is still worth a quick visit, to take in Jean Nouvel’s awe-inspiring sprawling architecture of interlocking disks, inspired by the desert rose. This building is surely soon to become one of the Middle East’s most iconic landmarks.

Souq Waqif

Souq Waqif, or ‘the standing market’ was built on the site of an old Bedouin marketplace, and in 2004 it was completely renovated and restored using wood and stone to recreate traditional Qatari architectural techniques. The Souq Waqif’s animal market is the most exotic corner, with everything from plastic tubs of baby terrapins to cages full of tropical parrots, rabbits, kittens and lizards. Drop in to the nearby Falcon Souq to check out the highly prized hunting birds too.

In other corners of the souq, there are plenty of more packable souvenirs for sale, such as colourful fabrics; traditional homewares, lamps and trinkets; dates, teas and spices. Do as the Qatari families do and stroll through for an evening’s entertainment, taking in the scent of sweet Arabic perfumes, the low buzz of market negotiations and the steam billowing from the food stalls. There are plenty of casual cafes and restaurants around too here, so grab an outdoor table if you want to sit and soak up the atmosphere.

A busy evening a Souq Waqif. Image by Terry McCormick / Getty ImagesA busy evening at Souq Waqif © Terry McCormick / Getty Images

Desert safari

For a total change of pace, book a half day tour for a dune-bashing drive into the desert might be just the thing. Once you’re strapped firmly in the seat of a 4WD, you’re at the driver’s mercy, hurtling up and down steep dunes with sand spraying against the windows – it’s adrenaline pumping stuff. Survive that, and the reward is a photo-op in one of the desert’s most scenic viewpoints – if you’re lucky, just as the sun is setting.

If you have time, ask the driver to include a stop at the inland sea, a Unesco recognised natural reserve, and squint over at the Saudi border on the other side. Desert safari packages can also include camel riding, BBQs and quad biking, and you can even opt to stay overnight on a traditional Bedouin campsite.

Driving the desert dunes. Image by Matilde Gattoni / ArabianEye / Getty ImagesDriving the desert dunes © Matilde Gattoni / Getty Images

The Pearl Qatar

No visit to Qatar is complete without a visit to The Pearl, a manmade island comprised of two interlinked horseshoe-shaped pieces of land, spanning almost forty-three square feet. A popular place for expat residences, the bustling ‘Porto Arabia’ encompasses an impressive marina of yachts, and is a great place for a quiet stroll along the promenade, taking in the sights, or for a stop at one of the numerous cafes or restaurants for a bite to eat. Take a water taxi (at a very reasonably-priced QAR 25 for a day pass) from Tower 1 through to Qanat Quartier, where pretty pastel houses border a Venetian-inspired winding network of canals, or head to Medina Centrale, the central shopping zone of the island, with 600,000 square feet of retail and restaurants.

Where to stay

Qatar is becoming better known for its affordable luxury. Doha, an emerging cosmopolitan city, has some of the best 5-star hotels in the world, and they’re all available at affordable prices. Travellers can book a hotel room at Ritz Carlton, Shangri-la, Four Seasons, the W, or the St. Regis for a low as $200 a night.

For a luxurious but more local experience, choose one of the nine Souq Waqif Boutique Hotels. These smaller properties give the impression of staying in an (extremely wealthy) Arab home and are based right in the heart of all the market action. Anantara’s Banana Island Resort is another excellent option. The island lies about 20 minutes’ away from the mainland by boat (or you can use the helipad if you’d rather), and there’s a range of resort-style accommodation here, including rooms with pool and beach access and oversea villas.

Need to know

  • Qatar is a conservative Muslim country, and so alcohol is only served in 5-star international hotels.
  • To show respect to the country’s religion and culture when out and about, women should avoid wearing revealing clothing (it’s expected that shoulders and knees stay covered), and men should stick to long shorts or trousers. It’s OK to wear what you like within the walls of your hotel and swimwear is fine on hotel beaches and by pools, but not on public beaches.
  • The best time to enjoy Qatar is between October and March when the weather is warm and dry, but not quite hot. The temperatures might be scorching in the summer, but air conditioning in malls, hotels and taxis can be fierce, so it’s worth packing light cardigans or jumpers as well as the sunhats.
  • Taxis are the easiest way to get around the city, and they are relatively cheap. Uber is the most commonly-used option here, but there are also light green coloured ‘Karwa’ taxis which can be flagged down on the street. DohaBus runs day-long ‘hop-on, hop off’ double-decker tours around Doha, which is an easy way to capture all of the sights. For greater independence, hiring your own car or ‘limo’ (smart saloon) with driver are two possibilities. Keep an eye out for the upcoming Doha Metro system which is due to open to the public in 2020, transforming the way that people travel across the city.

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