With the 2022 FIFA World Cup coming up, get an inside look at Doha’s must-see attractions. If you don’t have a car (or driver), the city’s efficient metro system makes it easy to get around, so there’s no excuse not to immerse yourself completely.
Sitting among the skyscrapers, five-star hotels and Doha’s other mind-bending architectural features is one of Doha’s oldest areas: Souq Waqif (meaning ‘standing market’). Although much of the market is newly reconstructed, and can sometimes look slightly too pristine, this bustling space arguably feels like the most authentically ‘Middle Eastern’ of all of Doha’s attractions. Once you’ve wandered around the labyrinth of traditional alleyways and haggled for perfume, fabrics and spices, visit any of the numerous cafés for coffee and tea and regional cuisine. Go in the late afternoon – perhaps after a few hours in the adjacent Msheireb Downtown area – and have tea before flopping down at Parisa for a slap-up meal. The restaurant serves authentic Persian food in a colourful venue that brims with hand-painted artwork, tiny mirrors brought from Iran and ornate chandeliers. After dinner, follow up with shisha by the water.
A visit to Doha must surely include a trip to the beach to see and swim in the Persian Gulf. Although it is now safe, this body of water has often been at the forefront of Middle Eastern conflicts over the past 50 years. A trip to the beach also provides relief from the hot weather, so it’s worth the effort even for the history- and politics-averse. If you don’t have accommodation with a beach area of its own, many hotels provide everything you need for an extra fee.
If you’re bored of the beach but enjoy being on the water, then kayaking in the Al Thakira Mangroves is ideal. Travel up the scenic northeastern coast (one hour by car or two hours by bus from Doha) to meet your guide and get going. As you paddle through the lush water, you will see fish, birds and beautiful trees; your guide will also tell you about the area’s history. When you return to the beach, there will be food prepared, ready to eat under the stars. If you’re looking for something similar but in central Doha, try kayaking in the Dhow Harbour. You can view the majestic dhows (ships) that are used for pearling, the Doha skyline and the Museum of Islamic Art all at the same time.
The sale and distribution of alcohol are strictly controlled in Qatar, and most eligible residents have to purchase it at government-controlled warehouses or licensed hotel bars. The limited number of watering holes means that some of these bars have become semi-legendary, not least the Belgian Café at the InterContinental Hotel. Here, you can sip pints of beer, or sample wine or a tasty gin and tonic. If you want to grab a bite, try the mussels served with Belgian fries. Keep an eye out for happy hours, but if in doubt, Thursday night is the best night to go. Don’t forget to bring your passport – security may not let you in without it.
A number of the malls in Doha are so jaw-dropping that they’re worth an excursion no matter how brief. Doha Festival City is the most incredible one; the complex is built on a vast scale and houses everything from restaurants and coffee shops to outfitters including H&M, Zara, Burberry and Cartier. Think Harrods – only better because it’s got Snow Dunes, a snow-filled experience. You don’t even need to spend money to have a good time; the dazzling mall provides a real clash with Doha’s more ‘traditional’ attractions and gives visitors a hint of the complexity of modern Qatari society.
Qatar has been building up quite an exceptional cultural résumé over the years, and Katara Cultural Village is an integral part of that endeavour. The village (named after the ancient name for Qatar) is a sprawling waterside complex north of West Bay and boasts green walking and running spaces, an amphitheatre, a souq, an opera house, a planetarium and a cinema, plus several dozen restaurants. Visiting the world’s first air-conditioned plaza is trending at the moment, but its cultural calendar is also full of film screenings, music, workshops and exhibitions. Be sure to check out any upcoming events in advance, especially if you are typically restless, have kids or want to take part in water sports on Katara’s beach. Of particular note for budding journalists or the news-obsessed is the Al-Jazeera Media Café, which includes a fun interactive studio. The café is the first of its kind in the Middle East and is an entertaining hub where media meets cuisine.
Technically it’s not one single attraction, but The Pearl-Qatar is worth a wander, even if you can’t afford a coffee at one of the cafés. North of downtown, this large man-made island named after Qatar’s pearling history is home to luxury shops and off-the-charts-expensive apartment blocks. It’s also known for its fancy yachts, brightly coloured houses and Venice-like canal system in the Qanat Quartier. Depending on your stamina for shopping (or perhaps window shopping), you can spend either minutes or days in the shops and squares. The Pearl-Qatar is situated near several of the other attractions listed and can form part of a larger outing in that part of the city.
Like several of its Gulf neighbours, Qatar is a monarchy, and it is currently ruled by Sheikh Tamim, a member of the ruling Al Thani family. When the Saudi Arabia-led blockade of Qatar began in 2017, a Qatari artist created giant black-and-white portraits of the sheikh that were then erected all over the country. His art was featured on buildings, billboards and car stickers, and residents came out in droves to sign them and declare their love for their emir. Qatari national identity has since solidified, and the small state enjoys a cohesion that it arguably did not do before the blockade. Visitors should keep an eye out for these portraits all over Doha. If your flight arrives during the day, you may even see his vast face etched in the sand in Al Khor – a coastal city in northern Qatar – as you make your descent.
The Qatar National Library houses a veritable treasure trove of historical books, manuscripts, maps and photographs, all of which are on display in its heritage library exhibition area. It’s also home to 1 million books in its general collection. The impressive 45,000-square-metre (484,376-square-foot) library is well organised and features interactive media walls, a writing centre and a computer lab. While you’re here, consider a (very) short wander around the area, known as Education City, either to the 130,000-square-metre (1.4-million-square-foot) Oxygen Park or to the Education City Mosque to see modern mosque architecture.
Make the short walk from the Qatar National Library across Al Luqta Street to the Sidra Medical and Research Center to see the highly controversial artwork by world-renowned artist Damien Hirst. (You can cross to the other side of the street through the metro station.) The Miraculous Journey is a group of 14 monumental bronze sculptures that adorn the hospital entrance and show the development of a foetus in the womb. Originally unveiled in 2013, it was covered up until late 2018, some say because of its pioneering depiction of nudity. Some love it, and some hate it. Why not go so you can form your own opinion?
Doha provides unprecedented opportunities to live the high life, and over-the-top, uber-lavish weekend brunches are one of the great ways to splurge. Get glammed up in your best lazy-chic gear, gather your group or take a book and prepare to spend the day eating, drinking and lounging. Many of the big international hotels have brunch menus, so you can choose your spot based on your budget and preferred location. Staying close to your accommodation is probably sensible because whether you try the Lazy Saturday Brunch at Gordon Ramsay’s Opal at The St Regis Doha or the Santa Monica Breakfast Club at the Grand Hyatt, you’re guaranteed to come out feeling ready for a nap.