Let’s talk about Qatar. More specifically, it’s capital, Doha.
I first visited Qatar in December 2012 and spent Christmas out there with my family as my dad lives and works in Doha. I also briefly went back in May/June 2015 on my way to and from Hong Kong.
I’m going to say straight up that Doha isn’t your usual holiday destination as it’s not really aimed at tourists. My family and I joke that the top 10 things to do in Doha are the only 10 things to do. The majority of people who visit Doha probably do so for work, to visit relatives or because Doha is a major destination for people to catch connecting flights from.
However, Doha is not without its merits and if you’re stopping over for a day or so between flights, you will have plenty to do and see. Some would describe Doha as a decade-behind version of Dubai but with its growing popularity in recent years as a connecting-flight hub and major business destination, it’s fast catching up as a tourist destination.
Qatar is the only Middle Eastern country I’ve visited to date so I was excited to experience another completely new culture. Because Doha is a relatively new city, everything is pretty out-the-box new (and there are constant building and road works going on) so it doesn’t appear to have a lot of history. This has a tendency to make the city feel quite superficial but dig a little deeper and you can have some really great traditional Arabic experiences.
I think the thing I loved most about Doha was being immersed in the Arabic culture. I found things like the citywide Islamic call-to-prayer enchanting and like nothing I had experienced before. Doha is also a melting pot of nationalities with it being the home and workplace of many Western expats, as well as Indians and Nepalese. You can drive past a shopping centre full of luxury Western brands and then find yourself walking past a shisha café in a traditional market.
So if you are looking for the quintessential Arabic market experience, look no further than the Souq Waqif. The Souq is at least a hundred years old but was renovated in 2006 to preserve its architecture and cultural identity. The Souq is an endless maze of traditional Arabic cafes and market stools selling everything from rugs, scarves to furniture, pets and, of course, tourist-tat. The whole place is a feast for your eyes.
TIP – Beware during the summer – do NOT go to the Souq during the day; partly because it won’t be open but also because you will be cooked alive outside. No joke. I looked like a beetroot after half an hour. Summers are unforgivingly scorching and dry. Take shelter in air-conned buildings as often as possible!
Another great place to discover traditional Arabic culture and history is the Museum of Islamic Art. Spread over five floors, this cool looking square-spiral building hosts the largest Islamic art collection in the world. You can easily spend a couple of days in there uncovering its treasures. Fun fact: the museum’s building was designed by architect IM Pei who also designed the Louvre pyramid in Paris.
TIP – Before going to the museum, make sure you’re dressed appropriately for an Islamic building! Ladies need to cover their shoulders and knees. The first visit I was a-okay. The second? Not quite. I hadn’t dressed that morning with a trip to the museum in mind… But a man at the reception desk kindly lent me a scarf I could cover my knees with so I could enter. Let that be a warning – bare your knees at the risk of having to wear the above fetching tartan ensemble I did.
The Museum is also a stunning spot to watch the sunset from so time your visit right if you want to catch it. (Unfortunately for my dad, I didn’t think he realised how painfully slow the sun sets until I made him sit there while I took photos).
Food-wise, we never really discovered any ‘local-eats’. In Doha, people mainly eat in the large amount of Western-style restaurants or simply cook at home. Alternatively, if you can, book yourself a meal at one of the top end hotels. You will not regret it. Like Dubai, Doha knows how to do luxury. For our Christmas Day meal, we ate at the Ritz and it was amazing, if a little odd to be celebrating Christmas eating sushi in an Arabic city where it was 25 degrees Celsius outside! Mash of cultures right there.
TIP – you can drink alcohol in Doha but not every restaurant will have a license to sell it. It’s usually only the top-end Western hotels. And of course, it’s an Islamic country so use common sense and don’t go on a crazy bender. When there wasn’t alcohol available in some places, I found myself drinking some of the greatest fresh fruit-juice mixes which actually rivaled a glass of wine!
On a completely different note, if you’re into cars in anyway, Doha is your playground. There are an INSANE amount of very expensive cars in the city, (being very badly driven at times). As the city’s home to the super wealthy, expect to see hand-painted Ferraris and such around almost every bend. Weirdly, almost every car I saw was white or silver. (It must be something to do with being heat-reflective).
And if it wasn’t a sports car, it was a 4X4. Probably because road safety is not Doha’s best-selling feature so the sturdier the car, the better. Let’s just say some locals like to multi-task while driving and using roundabouts correctly is optional. Driving in itself out there is a sight to behold. (Think India meets Egypt but with very expensive cars). It’s not uncommon to see locals using the roads as camel-racing tracks on weekends as they race their friends in sports cars!
Overall, I would definitely recommend visiting Qatar at least once. It’s the oddest place I’ve visited so far and you’ll definitely come home with some funny tales to tell. But on a serious note, Qatar opened my eyes to a whole new beautiful culture and for that alone it was worth it. I can’t wait to explore more of the Middle East!
Have you ever been to the Middle East? Where would you recommend? Have you got any weird and wonderful tales of your own? Let me know in the comments below!