I’m a year into my second stretch of calling Doha home. So I’ve learned a thing or two about living in the desert state of Qatar.
When I first lived here 20 years ago, nobody had even heard of this remarkable little country. Today, cruise ships hug the shoreline, and visitors flock here from around the globe. Yet some travelers arrive unprepared.
Knowing some background information before your visit will help you make the most of your trip to this country on the Arabian Peninsula. From coping with the heat and taking the super-modern metro to seeing amazing art and getting to know the Qataris, here are my top tips that will help you get the most out of your visit to Qatar.
Timing your visit to Qatar is crucial
Qatar’s “season” runs from October to May. These months are the best time to visit, when most events and exhibitions take place and when the temperatures are pleasant enough to walk around outside.
Qatar is a desert country, and it gets hot. Like, really hot. Summer temperatures easily reach 50ºC (122ºF) – in the shade. While you can expect everything from your rental car to the malls and even some bus stops to be air conditioned, you might still get uncomfortable bouncing between them.
Decide to travel – or not – during Ramadan
The ninth month of the lunar Islamic calendar, the holy month of Ramadan is when Muslims fast between sunrise and sunset. During Ramadan, it is frowned upon to eat, drink, smoke or even chew gum in public during daylight hours. While Qataris are tolerant of non-Muslim visitors, almost all restaurants are closed during the day (hotels offer the few exceptions). Visiting Qatar during Ramadan means your travel plans have to be more flexible, but you’ll get the chance to experience festivities such as the daily sunset cannon being set off, the pretty lantern decorations around town and the nightly iftar, the breaking of the fast after sunset that’s a joyous event in private homes and restaurants.
Take care to dress appropriately
Qatar is a Muslim country, and while Qataris are tolerant – especially of visitors – it’s a sign of respect to dress modestly. It’s not a problem to wear a bikini at hotel beaches and pools, but it’s respectful for men and women to cover their shoulders and wear clothes that reach to the knee when walking around elsewhere, especially in areas where you will encounter many locals, such as in Souq Waqif.
Hop on the Doha Metro
While much of Doha’s center around Souq Waqif and Msheireb is walkable in the cooler months, the easiest and most comfortable way to get around is on the Doha Metro. This modern, clean and expansive system takes you to all the busy hubs within Doha and its surroundings, including the airport and the towns of Al Wakrah and Lusail.
Understand the local etiquette
From avoiding eating with your left hand to coffee taken with cardamom and the various styles of traditional dress, Arab culture can be a new experience for those from outside the Muslim world. To learn about etiquette and practices directly from Qataris, visit Embrace Doha for experiences that will teach you about the cultural ins and outs here.
Don’t let preconceptions scare you away
Even before they visit, many travelers have an opinion about Qatar – but it’s essential to arrive with an open mind and experience it for yourself. While rules, customs and laws might differ from where you live, Qatar has been changing a lot in recent years. When I returned to live in Qatar again after a 15-year absence, I barely recognized the place. A rise in international visitors has spurred the country to continue to work toward more changes.
Solo female traveler visiting Qatar? No worries
Many consider Qatar the safest country in the world – and as a woman living here, I have never felt threatened. (Of course, it takes only one bad experience to change your view on that, but the same holds for every country in the world.) In Qatar, I usually forget to lock my front door and my car, and even leave my handbag in my shopping cart. You should use common sense as you would anywhere – and expect to feel safe and welcome.
Try the favorite local breakfast
Since Qatar is one of the world’s richest countries, celebrity-chef restaurants abound throughout the capital. Yet travelers visiting Qatar on a budget can still find delicious low-cost meals, such as the local favorite breakfast of karak and chapati. A tea made with condensed milk, cardamon, ginger, saffron and sugar, karak is spicy as well as sweet, while chapati is a flatbread served usually with honey or cheese (or both!). You can try these two staples in most simple-looking cafeterias, at food stalls in parks or in Katara village. You’ll know where to find them by the hungry locals queuing up to order.
Learn more about the importance of the beloved national bird
The falcon is Qatar’s national bird, and they are so revered that they are allowed on flights and even get their own seat. Doha has a falcon hospital as well as a falcon market; on your visit, stop at Souq Waqif to have a closer look at these gorgeous birds. While you’re there, don’t miss the camels and thoroughbred Arabian horses that are stabled right in the city center.
Qatar is an art hub of the Middle East
Qatar is more than luxury shopping and such prestigious sports events as the 2022 FIFA World Cup: it’s quickly becoming a heavyweight on the Middle Eastern art scene, too. In Hamad International Airport alone, you can see more than a dozen installations by such internationally famous artists as KAWS, Urs Fischer and Jean-Michel Othoneil. Head into the desert at Zekreet to see the stunning East–West / West–East by Richard Serra, or visit the enormous Miraculous Journey by Damien Hirst. Doha’s Museum of Islamic Art is world-class, while pockets of street art complement the capital’s high-culture offerings.
Relax in a park
Most of Qatar’s landscapes are beige and sandy – so take a break from the desert hues at a green park in Doha. My favorite is MIA Park behind the Museum of Islamic Art, which bends around a bay and is full of small food trucks that sell karak, chapati and other goodies. MIA Park not only has fabulous mature trees and grass perfect for picnicking, but also offers superb views across the skyline, with picturesque wooden dhows (traditional boats) moored nearby.
Don’t miss out on the desert
It is easy to keep busy in Doha, yet you can’t leave Qatar without experiencing the desert. As you off-road over sand dunes in a 4WD vehicle to, watch flamingos, camp under the clear skies of the “inland sea” of Khor Al Adaid and slide down the horseshoe-shaped Singing Dunes, you’ll discover how the desert lies at the literal heart of Qatar – and the figurative one of its people.
Search out Qatar’s history
Bedouin have long lived around the Arabian deserts, but the culture’s nomadic lifestyle means that most places in this region don’t have any ancient structures. Yet Qatar has few historic surprises, such as the petroglyphs at Al Jassasiya and the Unesco-listed Al Zubarah Fort, both well worth a visit.
Plan where to have a drink
It’s possible to stave off the heat with a cool beer in Qatar – but you’ll need to plan ahead. You cannot import alcohol into Qatar from duty-free shops or buy anything but non-alcoholic beer from the grocery store, nor are you allowed to drink alcohol in public places. Alcohol is available in Qatar only on licensed premises, such as larger hotels and hotel restaurants. Most hotels have superb bars, comfortable beer gardens or outdoor restaurants where you can sit back with a glass or two.