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Tuesday, November 20, 2012
What To Do In Doha/Qatar
[last updated: December 2014]
Now that winter is approaching and the temperatures are nice, I figure I’d expand from “Where to Eat in Doha” and do a general tourist blog post.
So you're visiting for a few days, or maybe a week, and you’re wondering what there is to do in Doha. Well, here's my list:
(What about summer? Don't worry, I'll let you know if summer is not a good time for it):
Yes, these are in order of my personal preference.
1) Souq Waqif
If you only have time for one thing in Doha visiting Souq Waqif should be it. A recently refurbished old Souq it is now popular with both locals and ex-pats and has over 20 restaurants in addition to hundreds of small shops selling everything from souvenirs, swords, perfumes, clothing, jewelry, pets, spices, even falcons.
Don't just stay on the main street where the restaurants are, be sure to explore the narrow alleyways and get lost in the labyrinth of shops. Maybe you'll find the shops that make halwa, a traditional dessert, or a club where Qataris play a traditional board game called “damah”. Stop by a perfume shop and ask for information about the various oils and incenses, or pick up a bit of candy in the spice market. Unlike markets in places like North Africa you will not get hassled much at all so can wander around and enjoy the Souq at your leisure. Souq Waqif is an excellent way to spend an evening.
I’m usually there two or three times a week so if you see me feel free to say Hi.
What about summer? The heat of summer makes it a bit tougher for wandering around the Souq but it is still a worthwhile experience. The restaurants have indoor sections that are air conditioned and many of the alleyways are covered so the air-conditioning from the shops makes them a bit cooler than open-air areas like the main street. Wear some casual clothes as you will be sweating.
(Warning: Most shops in the Souq close in the afternoon until 4pm or so and will also not be open Friday mornings. After 5pm is the best time to go.)
I now have a map of Souq Waqif on my blog, you can find it here.
2) Museum of Islamic Art
Near Souq Waqif is another must-see attraction, the Museum of Islamic Art. Beautiful building, excellent park, world-class exhibits. Admission is free but be sure to bring ID so you can get a headset which will give you a lot more information about the exhibits (free to rent but they will hold onto your ID until you return it). Unlike many European museums which are crammed to the rafters with items the Museum of Islamic Art rotates the items on display and they are well spaced. At a reasonable pace and without the headphones you could see everything in the Museum in about two hours. Linger a bit at the exhibits that catch your eye and the museum would take you 3 to 4 hours. Be sure to take some pictures from the open-air courtyards and I consider their café one of the nicest in the city. The park surrounding the Museum is worth visiting as well and has a playground in addition to a couple of cafés with great views of West Bay.
Since the Museum is free one suggestion, especially if you are traveling with children, is spend some time in the Museum, take a break in the park, have lunch at one of the cafés, then go back to the Museum exhibits. There’s your day right there. Walk over to Souq Waqif for dinner. You can also visit the nearby Islamic Cultural Centre (see item #6).
What about summer? No problem, the Museum has excellent air-conditioning and the Museum café is indoors. You might want to give the park a miss if it's too hot out though many families go to the park in the evening when it's a bit cooler.
Be sure to check the opening times as they change depending on the day of the week. The Museum is closed on Tuesdays.
3) Tour the Sand Dunes in the South
Most hotels will have a tour company at a desk in the lobby. Every tour company will offer a tour of the sand dunes (you may also see mentioned tours to something called the "Inland Sea”, that's also in the dunes). Definitely worth doing and can be a fun way to spend the day. It takes about an hour or so to get down to Sealine Beach Resort at the edge of the dunes, where you will take a break while they deflate the tires (necessary for traveling over sand). There's usually a couple guys around with some camels that you can rent for a few minutes. If you're not familiar with Qatar surprisingly there aren’t many opportunities to ride camels so if you want a picture riding a camel this is your chance.
The desert trip usually involves going over the dunes to a camp set up by the tour company. Depending on how long your tour is you may have a few stops along the way for pictures. At the camp meals will be served.
Companies will usually ask if you want a normal ride or an exciting/dune-bashing ride in the desert. Take the exciting one. It's not bumpy like you might expect, instead the driver will build up speed and slide across some of the dunes. It's very smooth. Kids who enjoy going on amusement park rides will love it. The driver will typically also go down a very steep dune, this time slowly sliding down the sand. The excitement is in the approach -- it looks like you're about to go off a cliff.
Depending on the tour company you might also have an opportunity for swimming in the Gulf. Ask in advance and if so bring your swim shorts.
Other activities depend on how long your tour is. Some offer same-day while others may also offer tours where you stay overnight at the camp. For the longer tours ask what activities are offered.
If you want to book in advance just google search “Qatar tour companies” or “Inland Sea tours” and I’m sure you’ll find many companies.
What about summer? Depends on the tour company I guess, I'm not sure how many, if any, offer a tour the sand dunes in the really hot months like July or August. If they do I definitely wouldn't do an overnight unless there's some serious air-conditioning at the camp.
4) (In no particular order) Walk along either the Corniche, the Pearl, or Katara
All of these areas are nice to walk around, each has their own attraction:
Corniche: this is typically the busiest of the three with tons of walkers and joggers, or people sitting on the grass watching their kids play.
On the Corniche in the evening you will also see a number of dhows with lights on them
These dhows offer quick tours around the Corniche area, just walk up to one and negotiate how long you want the tour (typically a half hour to an hour) and the price. It's been a couple years since I did this but last time I think they charged around QAR 30 per person for 45 minutes -- but we were a large group. If you're a small group they’ll probably ask for a flat rate of something like QAR 100-150 for everyone. It's a relaxing thing to do and a great way to see West Bay and the Museum of Islamic Art.
Downside: there are almost no restaurants or cafés along the entire 6km so you might need to plan ahead and bring drinks and snacks with you. There is a Costa Coffee on the end of the Corniche near the Sheraton Hotel so you can get supplies there.
The Pearl: Another popular place for a stroll. A huge reclaimed-land development with new skyscrapers surrounding a circular bay. At ground level there are wide walkways and plenty of shops and cafés. As you stroll around you’ll see some of the nicest yachts in Qatar parked at the Marina.
Downside: unless you are staying in a hotel in West Bay, or somewhere north of that, it's a fair distance away. Also, there isn’t much in the way of grassy areas or parks there.
Katara: The Katara Cultural Village is a large area with restaurants, art centres, interesting mosques, an amphitheatre, and a beach. It's worth spending a couple of hours wandering around and seeing what's there. Check their website ahead of time for what activities or exhibitions might be happening.
Downside: like the Pearl the area is a few kilometers north of West Bay so can be a bit of a journey if you're not staying anywhere near that area. Most of the restaurants are high-end and expensive but there is a café there and you can stop by chowpatti stands for a quick snack and karak. You also have to pay to use the beach.
What about summer? The Pearl and Katara have some indoor areas with air-conditioning, the Pearl especially, but it's still not as nice an experience if you can't go outside for too long. I don't recommend walking along the Corniche in the summer as it is entirely outdoors, does not have a lot of shade, and since there are not many restaurants and cafés if you start feeling overheated you could be very far from somewhere to get out of the heat.
5) Visit one of the Larger Malls
This is worthwhile even if you're not much of a shopper if only for people watching. Malls in Qatar are very busy so find a café, get a coffee, and watch the many nationalities of Qatar pass you by. I usually do this with guests the first night they arrive -- it really gives them a feel for Qatar and how diverse and cosmopolitan it is. It also gives newcomers a good idea about the dress code. I remember one British friend assumed she'd have to wear a headscarf in Qatar, watching hundreds of people pass by at the mall quickly showed her that jeans and a T-shirt, and no headscarf, was perfectly acceptable.
In addition, all of the larger malls have sizeable amusement parks for children.
I recommend City Centre, Villagio, or Landmark mall for this excursion. Check with your hotel which one is easiest to get to.
What about summer? You bet all the malls are air-conditioned so the summer is no problem. In fact the malls can be busier in the summer since most people don't go outside much at that time.
6) Visit the Islamic Cultural Center
The Islamic Cultural Center, also known as FANAR, is located in the spiral mosque near Souq Waqif. Inside is plenty of information about Islam, and you can go there and have a cup of coffee with one of the volunteers who would be happy to answer your questions. The volunteers are not aggressively trying to convert you (that's not exactly going to happen over a cup of coffee) but want to clear up misconceptions many people have about Islam.
FANAR also does a number of events and tours of other mosques or Katara, go to their website and see if they have anything while you are in Doha. Great way to learn about Islam and Qatari culture.
FANAR is also close to Souq Waqif and the Museum of Islamic Art so if you want combine a visit to FANAR with one of those places.
What about summer? Of course you can visit, it’s indoors. They might not have any external tours though.
7) Camel races & Sheikh Faisal’s Museum
About 25 km west of Doha is the town of Shahaniya, where there is a camel track and camel races are held. Check with your hotel for times though even if there isn't a race there are usually people exercising or training camels. The best time to go would be Saturday since that is the only time you can visit Sheikh Faisal’s Museum, which is nearby. Sheikh Faisal has an extensive collection of items such as integer vehicles, swords, maps, antique furniture and some pretty unique items (wandering around I saw things like an old Catholic confession booth). As it is a private collection you have to call in advance to see it and I believe the only day available is Saturday from around 10am-2pm. The place is huge and you could easily spend a few hours there, I went one time with the Natural History Group and I think over 100 of us were wandering through the place. There was even enough space for all of us to have a catered lunch. There's also no problem with bringing children.
Given the distance from Doha I recommend going on Saturday so that you can see both. Ask your hotel to try to find out if there is a camel race or other event at the track. For the museum call 44861444 to see if you can visit.
What about summer? You can still go to the museum but I doubt there'll be much going on at the camel track – too hot for people to be outside training camels.
8) Visit the Abandoned Villages and Fort Zubara
Up in the far northwest corner of the country (a little over an hour drive) is a fort that was created around the 1930s, Fort Zubara. Recently upgraded as part of the area becoming a UNESCO site it has some displays of the archaeological dig and the history of the area. You can find more details on my blog post here.
A couple of kilometers north of the fort are a few abandoned villages. These are interesting to wander around and maybe have a picnic. The largest one is on the shore (you’ll probably need a 4x4 to reach it). I like the abandoned villages better than the fort.
What about summer? This is all outdoors and the fort does not have air-conditioning in most rooms. Not recommended for the summer.
For information on the fort try http://www.qatartourism.gov.qa/pillars/index/1/culture/239
And if you're really feeling a little adventurous . . .
Bonus #1) Wander Around a Commercial Street
Many neighborhoods have what is called a commercial street, a long street with tons of shops on either side. This is where the more conventional stuff is found: cheap eats, barbers, cobblers, mobile phone shops, car washes, corner stores, tailors and so forth. Moreso than malls you will see people from all walks of life mingling around on a commercial street, from wealthy Qataris to construction laborers. Traffic is usually hectic, and double parking (or occasionally triple) is commonplace. This is not the pristine walkways of the malls or places like the Pearl, commercial streets are chaotic and occasionally unkempt and don't be surprised to see old buildings with dripping air conditioners, uneven sidewalks, and rough-looking stray cats wandering around. It’s safe though.
If you don’t have a car you’ll likely need to take a taxi there but it should be reasonable to find one to take you back. If you’re concerned then arrange with the taxi driver to pick you up at a location in a few hours.
Where are these streets? My favorite is Al Nasr Street near Ramada Signal, about 1.5 km long and contains many of my favourite restaurants like Turkey Central but there are dozens of small eateries you can try. Other suggestions would be Old Airport Road, Al Mansoura Street in the Najma Area, the area behind Royal Plaza Mall in Al Sadd, or Al Shafi Street if you’re staying out near Aspire or Education City. Upscale areas like West Bay or the Pearl do not have a commercial street.
Bonus #2) Ladies -- try wearing an abaya
Ah yes, the abaya and niqab (veil). While a common sight in the Gulf in Qatar ladies are not required to wear it, nor do they have to keep their hair covered, but why not be adventurous and give it a try? Gulf Arabs would never have an issue with a foreign woman covering up and wearing a black abaya and veil, and might even appreciate that you're making an effort to dress conservatively. Many Westerners tend to be critical of abayas and veils but as the saying goes about "walking a mile in their shoes" consider giving it a try so that you know what it's actually like. Will people treat you differently when you're wearing it?
If nothing else once you go back home it will definitely be something to talk about and your friends will marvel at your photos.
Abayas can be found in shops throughout the city, though inexpensive ones would more likely to be found that places such as Souq Waqif or on commercial streets (see bonus #1 above).
Hope you enjoy your time in Qatar!