Chances are if you find yourself in Doha you won’t be there long. Qatar’s insanely rapidly growing capital is pushing itself as a tourist destination, but if you’re not there on business, the data says, you’ll be there for less than three days. For most of you, your layover in Doha will be for as little as a handful of hours.
But if you’re on the ground for at least six –and among the citizen of the 33 countries eligible to receive a visa on arrival— there is no reason not to spend some time exploring Doha, the capital of the richest country, per capita, on the planet. And this guide is really the only one you’ll need.
I’ve visited Doha eightnineten 11 times since 2010, trips that ranged from four days to four weeks. From a tourist’s perspective, I’ve seen just about everything worth seeing. Most of those places more than once. A couple I’ve even returned to during each visit.
Before we get into the countdown, know that the order presented here is very much my intended order of importance. If your stay is a layover or transit of less than 24 hours, stick to this order. If your stay stretches over the course of 48 to 72 hours, you’ll have no trouble making it through the list, save for the last item, a pair of suggestions to get out of Doha and into the desert which could take up the better part of a day.
Museum of Islamic Art
Since my first visit there in 2010, I’ve sung the praises of the Museum of Islamic Art to anyone who’ll listen. It’s the finest museum in the Emirate and one that houses one of the most complete collections of Islamic art in the world.
The building is breathtaking, thanks in no small part to architect I.M. Pei, who was coaxed out of retirement by the Emirate to undertake the ambitious project’s design, a center piece of Qatar’s goal to redefine itself as an international cultural center. Pei admitted he knew nothing about Islam and little about the Islamic world, so at 91 he set off on a six-month quest to fill that gap.
The result was this five-story 45,000 square meter structure built on a small island constructed at the southern end of Doha Bay, housing 14 centuries of the finest Islamic art and artifacts collected from across the Middle East, Europe, Asia and Africa.
Since its reincarnation and renovation in 2006, the Souq Waif, or “standing market”, is one of the premiere social centers of Doha. It’s easy and entertaining to spend at least a few hours exploring the labyrinthine old style mall, where you’ll find everything from jewelry, art, spice, clothing, falcons and even rabbits dyed in pink.
There’s been a market on or near this spot for centuries; this renovated rendition largely remains true to the architecture and style of more than a century ago as does the regular day-to-day commerce, but with an added element of upscale panache to match the general transformation of Doha as a whole.
Popular with locals, visitors and ex-pats alike, there are dozens of cafes and restaurants –a few among Doha’s finest– which particularly come alive at night.
The sprawling facility is located almost directly across a main boulevard from the Museum of Islamic Art, so the two are a natural combo, especially during short stays. Take note that many of the shops close from 1-4 in the afternoon.
Here’s a brief video shot during a visit in 2011.
And below, a few more images from the Souq.
A seven-kilometer waterside promenade and park, the Corniche stretches along the entire length of Doha Bay, from near the Museum of Islamic Art and Dhow Port to the edge of the West Bay district, providing ample views of its sparking futuristic skyline. It’s popular among locals as a jogging and cycling route, for family picnics, or just for a quick afternoon snooze under the shade of a palm. Keep in mind that there are few restaurants or cafes along its entire length so pack some water.
There are however several public gadget charging stations.
Katara and The Pearl
If you’re in the mood for some slightly over-the-top modern Gulf architecture, Katara and/or The Pearl is up your alley. The Katara Cultural Village features theaters, performance venues and an extensive beach, with dozens of restaurant and cafe options. My favorite in Katara and on the short list of my favorites in Doha? MAMIG Armenian & Lebanese Restaurant.
Like Katara, The Pearl is new, a man-made group of islands that are home to luxury apartments, a marina, high-end shops and Mediterranean-style seafront promenades.
The downside? Both are located to the northwest of the West Bay area, so will take some effort to reach –especially by cab during peak traffic hours.
As someone who considers Mojo Nixon’s ‘Burn Down the Malls‘ a Christmastime classic, it feels odd recommending to anyone that they visit a mall in Doha. But you should, even if you’re not buying anything.
No, not for the gimmicky attractions like indoor ski hills, Venetian style canals and gondola rides, ice skating rinks or amusement park rides. But because you’ll get a quick taste of just how diverse the country is, especially its labor force. The vast majority of the people working in the stores are from somewhere else: from dozens of Asian countries, from a slew of African ones.
If nothing else you can cool off from what will likely be a very hot outdoors. The West Bay districts offers two, The Gate Mall and City Center Mall, located just a few minutes from each other.
Outside of Doha
For those with an extra half day or more at their disposal, consider leaving the city. One popular option is finding an outfitter that will take you to ride the dunes near the Khor Al Adaid, the so-called inland sea that forms the border between Qatar and Saudi Arabia in the country’s southeast. A UNESCO-recognized natural reserve, it’s Qatar’s finest natural attraction. I wrote extensively about a February 2016 trip here; note that you’ll need at minimum, four hours for one of the many half day options.
Or if you’ve got a car, consider Fuwayrit, a beach about 75 kilometers north of Doha situated next to a ghost town that shares its name. I was there a couple years ago and subsequently published the largest Fuwayrit photo gallery on the internets. Guaranteed.
The Nitty and the Gritty
Arrival and Visa Formalities
Opened for operation in late 2014, the ultra modern Hamad International Airport is the second largest hub in the Middle East, and designed with efficiency in mind. Unless your arrival coincides with a shift change, you can and will get through the entry formalities and out into the city quickly.
Visas cost 100 QAR (approximately USD 27.50/ EUR 25), and are paid for by credit card at immigration. One-stop.
From the arrivals hall, follow the signs to the taxi stand. It’s best to use Karwa, the ubiquitous aqua green fleet. The vast majority of those will be metered; if not insist upon it. Generally speaking, expect to pay between 40 and 50 riyals (QAR) for a one-way trip to West Bay.
There are several secure cash machines just inside the terminal by the taxi stand. Use them.
The work week is Sunday to Thursday; most offices will be closed on Friday (Islamic holy day) and Saturday. Most shops, malls and restaurants will be open.
Summers months –May through September– will be hot, with temperatures reaching highs of 40 C+. Conversely, I’ve also visited in January and February, when conditions are just about ideal, mid-20s during the day and mid teens overnight.
Arabic is the official language but English is widely spoken; most restaurant, shop and museum employees as well as taxi drivers will speak and understand English.
Qatar is a conservative Islamic society so dress accordingly and consider context: beachwear and bikinis are acceptable at your hotel pool but not in public areas.
Taking photos of military installations, government buildings, police facilities and certain parts of airports is prohibited. Taking photos of local citizens without permission is also not permitted. Also be careful around construction sites.
For tourists, alcoholic beverages are only available in four and five star hotels. If you want to have one drink, I suggest the Strata Club at the Intercontinental The City in West Bay. It’s on the 55th floor with spectacular views. Try the Arabian Martini: Arak (a Lebanese Anise spirit, 80-100 proof), gin and honey, garnished with dates.
220/240 volts, with a square three-pin socket type (UK style). I saw several public gadget charging stations on the Corniche.
And finally, if you don’t feel like setting out on your own, Qatar Airways and the Qatar Tourism Authority offer complimentary three-hour tours if your transit time is 5-12 hours. Stops include Katara, The Pearl, the Souq Waqif and the Museum of Islamic Art. Offered on a first-come basis. More details are here.