Up until the 19th Century, international maps of the Middle East didn’t even include Qatar. Now, with the country set to be the stage for the World Cup (whether you like it or not) and the country being a prominent hub for the ever-expanding network of Qatar Airlines, Doha is suddenly taking center stage. Over the last few years I’ve found myself facing a layover in Doha on my way to Asia on a number of occasions; but until recently had never mustered the desire to stretch my legs in the pint-sized (by Arabian Gulf standards that is) city. I’m glad that changed! A couple of days in Doha can be well worth the effort and is a perfect way to sample what the Gulf has to offer without breaking the bank (yes, Dubai, I’m comparing to you!).
Hamad International airport finally opened in 2014 (anyone who had to transit through the old airport will probably appreciate my relief at Hamad finally opening). It’s only about 15km outside of town (on the Souk Waqif side of the bay) so getting from the airport to downtown is really easy. In terms of public transport there are currently 3 bus routes operating from the airport that all run until about 11pm. You’ll need to buy a Karwa Smartcard at the Mowasalat Information Desk by baggage claim before you board as you can’t pay by any other method. The card is basically just a pre-paid fare card and it’s really cheap. I’ve included a link to the website in the additional resources section so that you can check out the bus routes.
Taxis in Doha are reasonably affordable (more like UAE and less like Bahrain), clean, safe and operate on a meter system which takes the stress out of haggling (just make sure they have the meter turned on when you get in). They are also easy to identify in a delightful shade of turquoise. They are easily hail-able roadside or can be found sitting outside the majority of the malls and larger hotels. You can also catch them from the airport, and given the airport is so close to downtown is a relatively cheap and stress-free option (particularly if you’ve got huge bags and don’t fancy lugging them all across the city on the bus).
Doha is set around a bay which, to a large extent, divides the old from the new. The City Center represents new Qatar and has the regionally typical ‘mine’s bigger than yours’ skyscraper and shopping mall competition going on. The old town has the rehabilitated souk Waqif (including the Falcon Souk), Museum of Islamic Art, the Dhow marina and the National Museum. The two are joined by a 4-mile long walking Corniche or promenade (see more below). The seemingly efficient Doha bus network runs alongside the corniche (as well as to other locations) making it a great way to see the major landmarks.
Although Doha is yet to grab the attention of the big hop-on hop-off companies (Big Bus and City Sightseeing) it does have its own local equivalent called the Doha Bus (see additional resources for website information). For those short on time the Doha Bus is an easy way to see the major sights the city has to offer and allows the usual unlimited 24-48 options (including a separate night tour and a soon to launch monster truck desert tour). If you aren’t too bothered about the commentary that accompanies the sightseeing buses then you might find the local bus equally as good; particularly because most of the sights you’ll want to see are clustered in to the two hubs (Old Town and City Center) and are easily walkable once you’re in either.
Qatar is an Islamic country; as a result you’ll want to consider you’re attire more carefully than you possibly normally would. If you’re generally strolling around town then Doha is fairly cosmopolitan; you’ll avoid offending people so long as you steer clear of tight and / or revealing clothing (shorts are just fine). If you’re planning to visit any religious sites or are heading a little off the tourist-beaten path then ladies should ensure you’re covered up (including wrists, ankles and hair) and gents should opt for long trousers and cover their shoulders. Given how hot Doha can get, November – March is typically more popular with tourists; as its winter and the temperatures cool off to a positively balmy 25 Celsius!
Souk Waqif: For me, this 100-year old labyrinthine of shops and alleyways is the highlight of Doha. It’s a traditional Arabian souk (shopping area) that has undergone some restoration but has managed to keep its old Arabian charm. Portions of the souk are undercover (meaning you get a break from completely charring your skin under the desert sun) whilst the bigger walking streets are open air and lined with cafes and restaurants with outdoor seating (making them a great place to people-watch whilst enjoying reasonably priced meals). You’ll find pretty much everything you could want to buy here; from spices, glass lanterns and Khanjars (daggers) to tacky tourist souvenirs emblazoned with the Qatar World Cup logo. Within the souk you’ll also find a couple of niche areas. The most interesting is the Falcon Souk where locals go to buy their falcons (as you do), get them treated at the falcon hospital (as you do), and buy falcon-related paraphernalia (as you do). Nearby you’ll also find the Arabian horse and camel stables and the bird market (excluding falcons); all of which are well worth a visit.
The Corniche: The corniche is a beach-front promenade that runs between the old town and the city center. It’s a pleasant stroll (in the winter months) and a great place to get fantastic photos; particularly from old town towards the skyscrapers of the city center. On the old town side of the corniche you’ll also find the Pearl Monument which represents Qatar being the former pearl capital of the world. As you progress around the corniche you’ll find shaded foot and cycle paths and a number of water-front restaurants.
Forts: Doha Fort (Al Koot Fort) can be found in the old town right next to Souk Waqif and was built during the Turkish occupation. Given that it’s basically within Souk Waqif it’s the easier of the forts to visit if you’re looking for a little bit of history. For the avid history buffs (i.e. those that are happier to travel the extra distance or haven’t seen enough fort at Al Koot) then you could also visit Al Zubarah Fort or Umm Salal Mohammed Fort in the North of Doha.
Desert Safari: A number of companies offer day trips (or half day trips for those tight on time) out in to the desert surrounding Doha. If you haven’t been ‘dune-bashing’ before then it’s well worth it! You’ll hop in a 4×4 and hit the dunes in a rollercoaster-esque experience that at first leaves you gasping and later might leave you gagging (as was the case with my wife). You’ll find these kinds of experiences throughout the region, but what makes Qatar unique is that you can combine the dune-bashing with a visit to Khor Al-Udeid (the inland sea). Only in Qatar and Namibia can you see dunes meeting the ocean which makes for some excellent photo opportunities. The inland sea is also the home of the dugong; which is a rare spot but looks similar to a manatee. Khor Al-Udeid is also the natural border between Qatar and Saudi Arabia; so you’ll be able to see Saudi across the crystal clear water.
Museums: Doha has a couple of world-class museums. The first of these is the Museum of Islamic Art. Located on its own little island joined to old town by a causeway, the Islamic Art Museum is easily walkable in about 15 minutes from Souk Waqif along the dhow wharf. Even if you aren’t a fan of Islamic art the museum is well worth visiting. Firstly, the building itself is a work of art. Secondly, it has an enviable position on the bay overlooking the skyscrapers of the city center. If you turn right as soon as you enter the museum and go through the doors at the end you’ll reach a courtyard with archways overlooking the bay. It makes for a pretty spectacular photo opportunity. Another museum you might want to consider visiting is the National Museum.
Dhow Harbour: Also located in the old town (no doubt you’re slowly seeing my preference for the old town) is the Dhow Harbour. There are hundreds of dhows located here (just so you know, dhows are Arabian wooden boats with wing-shaped sails that traditionally carried heavy goods like fruit throughout the gulf, Africa and South Asia). These days they are also used for carrying tourists along the coastline on scenic tours. No need to arrange anything in advance; just head down to the harbour. I can pretty much guarantee that you won’t even need to ask anyone; you’ll likely be approached by dhow workers asking if you want to ride one as you stroll down the corniche near the harbour.
Katara: Otherwise known as the Valley of Cultures, Katara is part of a multi-million dollar project to recreate traditional Qatari buildings. Within the site you’ll find an amphitheater, opera house, art galleries and libraries. Although it’s all fairly new it’s a good way to get a sense of what traditional Qatari architecture looked like.
Pearl Qatar: I couldn’t write an entire post about a Gulf nation without including something new, shiny, and built on land reclaimed from the ocean. As the name would suggest, the Pearl has built on a former pearl diving site. These days it’s somewhere that foreigners can own property amongst gleaming plazas, shopping centers, venetian-style canals and a marina fringed by top restaurants. Basically, it’s somewhere to see what the new Qatar has to offer and grab a bite to eat!
Hamad International Airport Transport Website: https://dohahamadairport.com/airport-guide/to-from-the-airport/bus
Doha Bus Website: www.dohabus.com
Museum of Islamic Art Website: http://www.mia.org.qa/en/