Dangling precariously off the top edge of the Arabian peninsula, dwarfed by neighbouring Saudia Arabia and Iran, it is easy to miss Qatar on a map. Though the city does not immediately spring to most people’s minds as a tourist destination, with more long-haul travel routes connecting through the large Middle Eastern air hubs, Doha is very much worth a stop.
The Qatari capital has relatively few tourist attractions in the traditional sense, so to get the most out of Doha you need to tap into the lifestyles of the resident expats and locals.
Take in some culture
Suffering from stifling heat and humidity for most of the year, and prone to sand and dust storms, Doha is by necessity an indoors city. One way to combine air conditioning with culture is to visit the Museum of Islamic Art. On the southern tip of the bay near the airport, the MIA boasts a fascinating collection housed in a striking modern building that will have you admiring the architecture just as much as the artefacts.
Hit the shops
While there are lots of outdoor souqs (traditional markets) in the older parts of town, Qataris and expats love hanging out at shopping centres like the massive Villagio, next door to the Hamad bin Khalifa sports stadium. While not quite as outrageous as some of the attractions you will find in the malls of Dubai and Abu Dhabi, Villagio’s indoor Venetian canal, complete with a gondola ride past expensive jewellery stores and Western-brand clothes outlets, makes for a goodhearted chuckle-inducing photo opportunity. A leisurely lunch at Dean & Deluca deli is a great opportunity to observe wealthy locals browsing top-end stores like Bulgari.
Stretch your legs
If you happen to visit during the milder months of October to April, a stroll around the bay at dusk is magical. For the best view, start at the southern end of the 6km horseshoe-shaped corniche and walk towards West Bay (confusingly, at the north of the bay) where a large crop of futuristic skyscrapers has sprung out of the ground in barely a decade. As the sky darkens and the lights of the city brighten, remind yourself that you are in the middle of the desert.
Grab a meal
In the evening, there is simply no better place to be in Doha than Souq Waqif, a recently renovated bazaar targeted at tourists but with an authentic mix of locals and expats all shopping, eating and just hanging out. Wander along the main thoroughfare with people from all over the world, through clouds of scented tobacco smoke, past tacky souvenir shops for tourists that trade right next to bulk foodstuff shops for locals, and stop at a random cafe table for a spot of sweet black tea and people watching.
While Qatar lacks a distinct national cuisine, the souq’s many restaurants reflect a range of regional and global cuisines. Both locals and visitors love a long session at the three-story Tajine. After a day in the cultural mash-up that is Doha, eating camel (similar to goat in taste) on the roof of a Moroccan restaurant in Qatar will not seem strange at all. Stick around after your meal to watch either football or Lebanese music videos (it is only ever one of these programs) on the giant projector screen on the wall, accompanied by mint tea and a shisha.
Despite the almost total lack of a public transport system (there is a very basic bus service), getting around Doha is relatively easy and cheap. Aqua-coloured “Karwa” taxis are plentiful in most areas a tourist might frequent and can be hailed by the side of the road. Meters are routinely used (if it is broken your ride is free), and rates are low.