Conveniently located at the crossroads between East and West, Qatar has long been a popular destination for business professionals transiting through Hamad International Airport, but tourists are increasingly being encouraged to visit the country for leisure stayovers and vacations. Furthermore, with the capital city, Doha set to host the FIFA World Cup in 2022, the whole world will soon have its eyes on Qatar – the first Muslim country to host the World Cup. So, what are the top things to do in Doha and is it really holiday material?
A Middle Eastern peninsula perched on the salty, tepid waters of the Persian Gulf, Qatar is the richest country in the world based on GDP per capita (valued at over US$128,000), due largely to its natural supply of oil and gas. I visited the country for the first time recently while experiencing Business Class with Qatar Airways on a press trip to promote the new flight route from Cardiff to Doha.
In recent years, the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani – who also governs the country – has sought to transform the economy into one that runs on knowledge, as opposed to oil or gas. As a result, Doha is now home to a 20 sq km ‘Education City’ comprising of schools, colleges, universities and research centres, funded by the Qatar Foundation. This organisation is headed up by the Emir’s wife, Her Highness Sheikha Moza bint Nasser, who is widely respected for her efforts to represent Qatari women and improve gender equality in the country.
This shift towards becoming a knowledge economy, combined with the fast-approaching arrival of the FIFA World Cup 2022, is driving the country to make changes to improve its infrastructure and attractions in order to make Qatar more attractive to tourists as a potential destination for leisure stayovers and holidays, and – in the words of the official slogan for Doha’s impending World Cup – Deliver Amazing.
So, what are the top things to do in Doha?
- 1 10 unmissable things to do in Doha
- 1.1 1) Discover the Qatari desert
- 1.2 2) Meet the Arabian horses at Al Shaqab
- 1.3 3) Explore the Museum of Islamic Art
- 1.4 4) Wander around Katara Cultural Village
- 1.5 5) Marvel at The Pearl Qatara
- 1.6 6) Shop and unwind at Souq Waqif
- 1.7 7) Admire Doha by night
- 1.8 8) Dine out in Doha
- 1.9 9) Drink Arabian tea or coffee
- 1.10 10) Stay in a luxury hotel
- 1.11 Doha: Delivering Amazing?
- 1.12 Share this:
10 unmissable things to do in Doha
1) Discover the Qatari desert
Although not actually located within Doha itself, no trip to the Qatari capital would be complete without seeing the desert.
Indulge your inner adrenalin junkie as you ride over the golden sand dunes in a quad bike, dune buggy or 4×4. Alternatively, explore your surroundings at a slower pace on camelback.
Discover Qatar – the destination management division of Qatar Airways – offers a desert tour in a 4 x 4 ‘Monster Bus’, priced from just QAR 325 (£70). Pick-up can be arranged from any location within Doha, and you’ll be dropped off at your desired location after the tour.
2) Meet the Arabian horses at Al Shaqab
Founded in 1992 by Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa Al-Thani, Emir of Qatar, Al Shaqab is the epicentre of Qatar’s flourishing equestrian sports scene.
The 980,000 square-metre site includes stables that house up to 400 prized Arabian horses – including the oldest stable in Qatar since the time of the Ottoman Empire – in addition to specialist training and breeding centres.
Home to one of the biggest equestrian arenas in the world, Al Shaqab also hosts live horse shows – perhaps you’ll be lucky enough to catch a glimpse of the horses in action during your visit!
Tours of Al Shaqab can be arranged via Discover Qatar from just QAR 275 (£59) per person.
3) Explore the Museum of Islamic Art
Opened in 2008, the Museum of Islamic Art is to the Muslim world, what the Vatican Museums and Sistine Chapel are to Christians. The building houses collections of Islamic art originating from three different continents over the space of 1,400 years.
Made entirely from limestone, this magnificent cultural monument sits on Doha’s Corniche waterfront promenade, a seven-kilometre long palm-fringed boulevard and carriageway stretched along the length of Doha Bay.
The museum is open seven days a week and entrance is completely free of charge. Complimentary guided tours take place at 2pm on Thursdays and Saturdays, available in both Arabic and English.
4) Wander around Katara Cultural Village
With an emphasis on culture and diversity in line with the Qatar National Vision 2030, Katara Cultural Village seeks to safeguard the heritage and traditions of Qatar.
The aim is to position the country as a cultural beacon for theatre, literature, music, visual art, conventions and exhibitions in the Middle East.
Named after Qatar’s original title, Catara (used up until 1738AD) the site on Doha’s West Bay Lagoon area brings together mosques – including the glorious Golden Masjid and the Masjid of Katara – an amphitheater, a museum & convention centre, an opera house, drama theatre, shops, restaurants, cafes, landscaped gardens, pigeon towers (originally designed to collect pigeon droppings, pictured below) & even a beach.
Katara is also home to the Al Jazeera Media Cafe (the most important broadcaster in the Arab world).
Admission to Katara is completely free of charge and the venue offers flexible opening hours to encourage visitors to feel welcome to attend whenever they wish.
5) Marvel at The Pearl Qatara
A luxury district home to slick shopping malls, super-car showrooms and swanky restaurants, The Pearl Qatara was once the hub of Qatar’s pearl diving industry – the main driver for the country’s economy until the discovery of oil in the 1940s.
Today, The Pearl is the only area of Qatar where expats (who account for around 88% of the population and represent 180 different nationalities) are entitled to own property. This man-made island features a string of high-rise apartments built in two semi-circles to resemble a pearl necklace.
Take a break from the Arabian glamour of The Pearl’s towering residential blocks and escape to Little Venice, formerly known as the Qanat Quartier. The pastel-coloured apartments and the replica Rialto Bridge overlooking the sparkling blue canals bring a touch of old Venetian charm to this futuristic district.
Visit The Pearl and Little Venice as part of Discover Qatar’s Doha city sight-seeing tour – prices start from QAR 80 (£17). If you prefer, you can explore Doha City by boat on a traditional Arabian dhow, priced from QAR 260 (£56).
6) Shop and unwind at Souq Waqif
Built hundreds of years ago, Souq Waqif (meaning “standing market”) is the oldest market in Qatar. It was pulled down and rebuilt in 2006 for safety reasons, but every effort was made to preserve the building’s original architecture.
By day, weave your way in between the shopkeepers manning their stalls, Arabian men peddling their wares around on hand carts and locals shopping for essentials as you navigate through the labyrinth of winding alleyways and cobbled streets.
Besides spices and herbs, Souq Waqif sells everything from fragrance, clothing and jewellery, to handicrafts, and souvenirs. The market also features a string of art galleries, as well as its very own falconry market.
At night, Souq Waqif transforms into a popular spot for dining out and socialising among locals. Besides the bustling bazaar, the area is also home to a string of restaurants and cafes. One of the highlights is the Instagrammable Iranian and Persian restaurant, Parisa. This is based just off from Souq Waqif in the aptly-named Gold Souq, featuring over 40 high-end jewellery shops.
You can enjoy a brief tour of Souq Waqif as part of the Doha City Tour hosted by Discover Qatar. However, you really need to spend a few hours exploring the souq in order to fully experience all that it has to offer. With this in mind, consider booking yourself onto Get Your Guide’s four-hour guided tour of Souq Waqif for just 155 QAR (£33).
I often turn to GetYourGuide when I want to uncover new things to do in my favourite destinations. It’s so quick and easy to book via their website, and I always have a great experience.
7) Admire Doha by night
When darkness falls, the Doha skyline is illuminated by the bright lights of the fancy five-star hotels and sleek skyscrapers that line the Corniche and West Bay business district.
For a spectacular view, head to Nobu Doha at Four Seasons Hotel or the Strata Lounge on the 56th floor of the InterContinental Hotel.
To make sure you see the best spots in Doha at night-time, I recommend booking a guided tour. Get Your Guide offers a great Doha By Night Tour and Dhow Cruise for around QAR 350 (£75). For a cheaper option, try this tour for just QAR 145 (£31)
8) Dine out in Doha
You might associate the Arabian diet with kebabs, mezzes and dates, but traditional Middle Eastern food isn’t the only kind of cuisine that champions in Doha. The enormous expat population has brought a myriad of international cuisines to the Qatari capital, with elaborate restaurants serving dishes from all corners of the globe.
If it’s traditional Qatari food you’re after, head to the aforementioned Souq Waqif. You can either choose to dine in a traditional restaurant like Parisa, or pop to one of the thriving boutique hotels. Our traditional set meal at Al Mirqab (owned by Tivoli Hotels) was absolutely flawless, with highlights including hot falafels, hummus, muhammarah, labneh keshkeh and mashawi mishikal (assorted mixed grill).
Meanwhile, Doha’s top international restaurants include Nobu Doha, the world’s largest Nobu restaurant. Perched on its own man-made island connected to the Four Seasons Hotel, Nobu Doha serves fine Japanese food, with dishes like baby spinach, lobster and truffle oil salad; yellowtail sashimi with jalapeno; miso-marinated black cod and rock shrimp tempura.
Other popular high-end restaurants in the Qatari capital include L’Wzaar Seafood Market on West Bay, an interactive dining experience enabling you to choose your own fish, and authentic south-east Asian street food restaurant, Spice Market at W Doha Hotel.
Discover Qatar will happily direct you to some of the best places to eat out in Doha as during their City Tour, but nothing beats exploring the city’s food and drink scene for yourself. Do your research before you go, and don’t be afraid to ask locals where they like to eat out. However, if you are male, refrain from approaching Arabian women to ask for recommendations.
9) Drink Arabian tea or coffee
Although nothing like coffee as we know it in Western culture – and what some may describe as an acquired taste – you can’t visit Doha without trying a cup of Arabian coffee.
Known as ‘gahwa’ or ‘qahwa’, Arabian coffee is served in a small cup known as a ‘finjaan’ and consists of a mixture of coffee beans, saffron, cardamom and cloves, served with dates instead of sugar for sweetness. It’s customary to drink at least one finjaan, although three is often seen as the ideal. You should hold the finjaan in your right hand and if you’d like another one once you’ve finished, return the cup to your host. If you don’t want another cup, just jiggle the finjaan from side-to-side.
If you’re more of a tea drinker, try karak chai, meaning ‘strong tea’ – a national obsession in Qatar. Karak chai is made by adding loose tea to a pan of boiling water, followed by evaporated milk and sugar, allowing the water to reach boiling point once more before serving.]
Arabian tea and coffee is served in most cafes, restaurants and hotels in Doha.
10) Stay in a luxury hotel
Doha is home to some of the best hotels and resorts in the world, so make the most of your time in the city by treating yourself to a luxury stay.
During our time in Doha, we stayed at Four Seasons Doha, an elegant five-star hotel complete with nine restaurants, cafes and bars, including Nobu Doha and south-east Asian restaurant, Elements, besides five outdoor swimming pools and a spa.
My Ambassador Suite was fit for royalty…
…boasting panoramic views over the Arabian Gulf.
I loved having my own beach on my doorstep. Stepping into the Arabian Gulf is just like getting into the bath; the water is fairly warm and as it’s so salty, it’s pretty easy to float – before long, you’ll feel your worries floating away too! Many hotels also allow you to rent water sports equipment including jet skis, snorkels and scuba diving kits.
Relaxing in the swimming pool was equally enjoyable.
Discover Qatar and the Qatar Tourism Authority’s +Qatar scheme is offering Qatar Airways transit passengers the chance to turn a layover into a stayover. The programme offers a free transit visa if required (although nationals from 80 different countries are now entitled to visa-free entry into Qatar) in addition to free overnight hotel stays and discounted two-night stays at top hotels on both onward and return journeys. You can also opt to include city tours, a desert safari adventure or museum visits. This offer is available on bookings made up until 28th December, and travel up until 31st December 2018.
Doha: Delivering Amazing?
With a range of exciting attractions and activities to entertain tourists, Doha is well worth turning a leisure layover into a stayover for. To discover the best hotels to stay at during your visit, take a look at this guide to where to stay in Doha.
While this post has only touched on a few of the top things to do in Doha, some may question whether Qatar is really holiday material just yet. However, with the FIFA World Cup arriving in Doha in just four years’ time, preparations are well underway to transform the city in order to accommodate the 1.5 million fans who are expected to descend upon the capital.
With plans for 12 state-of-the-art stadiums, the capital’s first ever metro system, giant cruise shops transformed into five-star floating hotels and glamorous ‘glamping-style’ tent cities, who knows what else you’ll be able to see and do in Qatar by the time of your visit?