If you know nothing about Qatar, you might think Doha is another Dubai, filled with giant malls, luxury hotels, and skyscrapers.
It’s certainly got all of those, but there’s plenty to occupy anyone looking for a quick stopover to regroup on the way to or from Asia or Africa. More low-key than its Emirati neighbors, it’s got enough cultural offerings to keep you occupied for several days. Impressively modern, it’s also a place with traditional Arab souks, easy access to the Arabian desert, and gorgeous beaches.
Doha offers unexpectedly extensive cultural treasures to go with its unique blend of Arab hospitality.
You’ll likely land in Doha in the early morning, so drop your bags at your hotel and spend your first morning exploring one of the city’s excellent museums. Depending on your interests, there are many good choices (and they are all free). One of the kingdom’s highlights is the soaring Museum of Islamic Art, a monumental collection in a beautiful building designed by I.M. Pei. When you’ve had your fill, press on to the Msheireb Museums, which are housed in four historic buildings in Doha’s old downtown and learn about the history of Qatar (and Doha). The entire area is being redeveloped in advance of the World Cup.
Have lunch at one of the restaurants in Souq Waqif, Doha’s historic outdoor bazaar, a short walk from the Msheireb Museums. Parisa Souq Waqif is a popular Persian restaurant with an opulently decorated interior and food that’s just as good.
Afterward, take a stroll around Souq Waqif. If you’re looking for jewelry, you’ll find it in abundance in the Gold Souk near Parisa. More than 40 stores sell a wide variety of jewelry. Other stalls sell spices, candies, dried fruits, and locally made art.
There are also charming antique stores, cafes, and plenty of souvenir stalls. You may wish to return to Souq Waqif in the evening, when it fills with locals. Either way, don’t leave until you find the bird market and the Souq Waqif Falcon Hospital, where you can see patients perched, patiently awaiting their appointments.
When you’ve had your fill of shopping and strolling, head back to your hotel, drop your purchases, rest, and freshen up.
You’ll likely be tired on your first day, so take advantage of Doha’s best happy hour, and make reservations for an early dinner at Nobu. Sit outside on the deck and watch the sunset while you drink half-price drinks and eat discounted versions of the restaurant’s signature dishes. The happy hour menu is offered every night from 6 to 8.
Qatar is a peninsula jutting out from much larger Saudi Arabia into the Persian Gulf. It’s surrounded by water but also covered by blowing sands, and you should certainly spend a day experiencing the desert. If you have never been in the Arabian Desert, this will be a great opportunity to go dune-bashing, where a trained driver takes you out in the sand dunes for a thrilling ride. Afterward, you can visit Qatar’s Inland Sea, Khor Al Adaid (actually an inlet of the Persian Gulf at the southern end of the country, albeit just an hour from Doha), then stop by a seaside desert camp for a snack or lunch, and perhaps even take a swim before heading back to Doha. It’s a long but fun day.
When you get back into Doha in the late afternoon, freshen up, and then take a sunset dhow cruise. These cruises can include dinner and traditional entertainment, but you can also book a tour that lasts just a couple of hours and takes you out to see the sunset followed by a stroll on the Corniche.
If you don’t have a barbecue dinner on your dhow, then make a reservation at Al Mourjan Restaurant on the Corniche, an elegant, Lebanese restaurant, where you can dine under the stars on delicious meze as well as grilled seafood and meats.
If you have a third day in Doha, then you should spend it exploring the city’s modern side, and you have several options. Spend an hour or so exploring Katara Village, one of the newer waterfront developments north of West Bay, which is a great place to stroll, with cafes, restaurants, and (especially on weekends) plenty of outdoor entertainment.
In a country where literacy is almost universal and education is free (and which hosts several international university campuses in a large “Education City”), it’s not surprising that the country has a state-of-the-art National Library, which offers tours several times a week. The library has a huge collection of books, both in English and Arabic (according to the director, more titles are in English than any other language). There’s also a heritage collection of historic books in Arabic that you can tour. But the space, itself, is breathtaking.
After the library, head to the Villagio Mall, where you can walk around and have lunch at one of the many restaurants.
After lunch, you have a few different options depending on your interests. If you like horses, you probably know that Arabian horses are among the most beautiful equines, smaller than many other breeds, but bred for either racing or beauty. There’s a lively horse culture in Qatar. One way to get a taste is to join a guided tour of Doha’s magnificent equestrian center Al Shaqab. If you’re an animal lover and have the opportunity, by all means, take it. The facilities are amazing and extensive, including vast performance arenas, state-of-the-art air-conditioned stables, and medical facilities.
If you’re more of an art lover, consider a trip to Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art, which houses an enviable permanent collection of contemporary Arab artists on the grounds of the Qatar Foundation.
If you’re visiting after March, then you must spend some time touring the new crown jewel of the kingdom’s museums, the Qatar National Museum, designed by Jean Nouvel in the form of a “desert rose.” The building is as impressive as the collection.
Splurge for your final meal. If you want the quintessential Doha experience, then you must try Al Hubara Restaurant at the Sheraton Grand; it’s the grandest buffet you’ll likely ever see, and many nights are themed extravaganzas. Reservations are a must, and there’s also an à la carte menu.
Where to Stay
If you are looking for luxury, you’ll find it in Doha for a favorable price. West Bay will put you near the Corniche and downtown, but you can also stay near Souq Waqif or even farther out. The Four Seasons Doha is one of the best oceanfront luxury hotels in West Bay. But if you’re looking for a more authentic experience, consider the Musheireb Boutique Hotel just outside Souq Waqif. If you’re on a budget, the Mövenpick Hotel West Bay Doha is near the high-end Sheraton Grand in West Bay but at half the price.
Doha is the hub for Qatar Airways, which offers the only nonstop flights to Qatar from the United States from a number of gateways that include New York–JFK, Dallas, Los Angeles, and Atlanta (though Turkish Airlines has good connections).
When to Go
The weather in Doha is best from December–March, and temperatures can still quite tolerable in April and October. From May–September, average highs are over 100, and in the hottest months, temps of up to 120 are not uncommon. Non-Muslims may wish to avoid Qatar during the month of Ramadan, when observant Muslims may neither eat nor drink from dawn to dusk, alcohol is banned everywhere (some hotels close their pools), and everything is very quiet; some hotel restaurants will be open to serve non-Muslims, but hours and options may be restricted, and days are very quiet. The dates for Ramadan vary annually but will be from May 5-June 4 in 2019.