Qataris are proud of Doha, the modern capital with its spectacular tapering towers, elegant corniche and extravagant malls, making Doha one of the finest stopovers in the Gulf. It offers an excellent introduction to the Arab world but without the tensions often associated with the Middle East.
The success of this booming nation and rapid economic expansion, barely brooked by the global recession, international sports tournaments, and Education City are some of the hallmarks of Qatar’s sophistication.
When to Go. Nov–Mar Enjoy a break from the intense heat and humidity of summer.
Apr has the Emir’s Cup event – camel racing at its best. June has the grand prix of power boat racing.
Qatar is a relatively expensive destination with few budget hotels below US$100.
After exploring modern central Doha, recharge by the beach, take a sunset dhow trip then hire a car and tour the peninsula, north to explore the ancient rock carvings at Jebel Jassassiyeh or visit the far-flung fort Al-Zubara. It is possible to camp out under the escarpment at Bir Zekreet, see the historic interior at Umm Salal Mohammed , or stay overnight at the enchanting inland sea of Khor al-Adaid.
Language. Arabic (English widely spoken)
Official name. Qatar
Money. Currency Qatari riyal (QR) ATMs widespread; credit cards widely accepted. The riyal is pegged to the US dollar and rarely fluctuates. In December 2015, I QR = 2.65US$.
Visas. Available on arrival for many nationalities.
DOHA (pop 796,947)
It’s rare to see a great city in the making these days with an exotic skyline best seen from a dhow in the bay or a walk on the cornice. You can’t help but be struck by the beauty of Doha’s buildings, all unique and with magnificent architecture that give a sense of prosperity and optimism you feel.
History. Doha was a small and inconsequential fishing and pearling village up until the mid-19th century, when the first Al-Thani emir, Sheikh Mohammed bin Thani, established his capital at Al-Bida, now the port area of town. From a notorious safe haven for Gulf pirates, it became the British administrative center in 1916 and the capital of the independent state of Qatar in 1971.
The University of Qatar (1973) and Qatar National Museum (1975) brought education and culture to the city, and the shape of Doha changed, from an ugly concrete rash to the elegant city of today. The masterstoke was the early construction of Doha Bay, carved out of reclaimed land, and giving harbor to Doha’s shrimp industry, leisure for inhabitants and a vantage point that architects have exploited to the full in West Bay. The secret of Doha is sure to be outed well before the World Cup in 2022.
Corniche. The highlight of Doha is unquestionably the corniche. If you want an encapsulation of Doha in a day, walk the 8km around Doha Bay, carefully constructed with landfill to make an attractive crescent. There are even tiny pockets of sand for swimming. Beware, it will feel more like a hike across the Sahara if you attempt the trip in summer. Along the entire walk, enjoy the spectacular view of West Bay with its remarkable skyline of futuristic towers built entirely on land reclaimed from the sea.
Start at the southeastern end at Ras Abu Abboud St Flyover, a brooding black glass construction with dramatic overlapping planes. At 1.3km is the marble-clad Museum of Islamic Art. MIA Park is adjacent to the Museum of Islamic Arts, one of many beautiful green spaces in Doha. MIA Park is home to Richard Serra’s vertical steel sculpture – the first public piece of art by this celebrated artist in the Middle East. Continuing the nautical theme, at 1.8km, look inland for a ministry building shaped like a ship’s bridge. The dhow harbor is the next point of interest, the entrance of which is marked by the famous pearl monument.
Turn inland towards the elegant spiral-tapered building (Qatar Islamic Cultural Centre) for must-see Souq Waqif or walk along the ‘garden’ zone of the corniche, where water cascades down the steps of the Diwan Building (2.7km) and an enormous grass lawn and winter petunias decorate the approach to the Ministry of Interior. Rumeilah (Al-Bidda) Park is next on the left, offering leafy shade.
The honeycombed post office (5.1km) marks the start of the ‘highrise’ zone at the northwestern end of the corniche. From here to the end is a cluster of spectacular buildings including the Ministry of Justice, with a pair of scales over the doorway, the Ministry of Education, featuring a mosque dome set in the glass frontage, the candy-twisted Al-Biddar Tower that defies gravity and the snow-flake clad World Trade Centre among many other show-stopping towers. At the end of the corniche is Al-Dafra Park next to the Sheraton Doha Hotel & Resort,
Museum of Islamic Art. Rising from its own purpose-built island and set in an extensive landscape of lawns and ornamental trees, this is a monument of a museum. It was designed by the renowned architect IM Pei (architect of the Louvre pyramid) and is shaped like a postmodern fortress with minimal windows (to cut down on energy use) and a ‘virtual’ moat. I personally get very tired of the vast majority of museums, but this is one not to be missed. It is easily one of the best museums in the world.
The museum houses the largest collection of Islamic art in the world, collected from three continents. Exquisite textiles, ceramics, enamel work, gold jewelry and glass are showcased. It is so rich in treasure that it rewards short, intense visits. The vast central courtyard with its infinity pools has arches framing the high-rise zone.
Souq Waqif. Reincarnated in the last decade, Souq Waqif is a wonderful place to explore, shop, have dinner or simply idle time away. There has been a souq on this site for centuries, as this was the spot where the Bedu would bring their sheep, goats and wool to trade for essentials. It grew into a scruffy warren of concrete alleyways by the end of the last century and at one point was almost condemned for demolition. Now the entire market area has been cleverly redeveloped to look like a 19th-century souq, with mud-rendered shops and exposed timber beams and some beautifully restored original Qatari buildings. It keeps growing to accommodate new ‘old alleyways’.
The chief business of the souq continues unabated as one of the most traditional market places in the region. Most of the shops in the souq close around noon and reopen at 4pm.
Falcon Souq. This fascinating new souq, next to Souq Waqif, is worth a visit just to see the kind of paraphernalia involved in falconry: burkha (hoods) and hubara (feathers). During falcon season (October to March) you will also see dozens of peregrines and other assorted falcons patiently aperch their stands. A truculent falcon costs about QR2000, but a well-mannered bird can be many times that figure. Falconry is an ancient art that dates at least from the 7th century BC. The first falconer, according to Arabic tradition, was a violent king of Persia who was so entranced by the grace and beauty of a falcon taking a bird on the wing that he had it captured so he could learn from it.
It is no easy task to train birds of prey. Bedu, the falconers par excellence, traditionally net their falcons (usually saker or peregrine) during their migration using pigeons as bait. They train the birds through complex schedules of sleep deprivation and sparse feeding, retain them for as long as it takes to harvest fresh meat, and then set them free again at the onset of summer.
It is estimated that 2000 falcons are still employed on the Arabian Peninsula each year. Today, birds are more usually bred and ‘imprinted’ from hatchlings to create a bond that lasts a lifetime. Sporting achievement is measured not through the number of quarry caught but in the skill of the catch – and in the wisdom of leaving enough prey for tomorrow.
Gold Souq. Walking through is fun even without the intention to buy. Gaudy design and spectacular craftsmanship are the hallmarks. The souq comes alive later in the evening when the “women in black” pack the stores. Qatari bridal jewelry can cost thousands, but sometimes pieces can be traded back after the wedding for something more readily usable, or even just for cash.
Doha Fort. Built during the Turkish occupation in the 19th century, this fort has been used as a prison and an ethnographic museum. But during restoration in the late 1970s, many of the original features were lost and is empty inside. Camels are grazed out
Weaponry Museum. This small museum has an impressive collection of arms and armour, some from the 16th century. The main reason to visit is the dazzling array of gold and silver swords and daggers, including a khanjar (ceremonial dagger) that belonged to Lawrence of Arabia. The museum is open to the public by prior appointment.
Qatar National Museum. Just off Al-Corniche, it occupies the Fariq Al-Salata Palace , built in 1901 and used by Sheikh Abdullah bin Mohammed, Qatar’s ruler from 1913 to 1949.
Mathaf. (Arab Museum of Modern Art) This exceptional new exhibition space is home for international art with an Arab connection.
Dhow Ride. For a chance to see the corniche from the sea, consider taking dhow (a local fishing boat) ride around Doha Bay. These boats leave from the jetty near Al-Mourjan restaurant on the corniche. All the tour companies offer three- to four-hour evening dhow cruises with dinner, traditional music and entertainment for around QR330 per person.
Qatar was my second chance to CouchSurf. I stayed with a sweet woman originally from the States who opened her apartment to me. In the heart of the high-rise district, it was close to the nice City Center Mall with a large Carrefore. I made dinner both nights and slept in my own room with an ensuite bath.
Transportation to and from the airport is easy: public bus #777 goes to City Center Mall. I even hitched from the souq to downtown. The guy who picked me up had never seen a hitchhiker before.