The small peninsula country of Qatar has earned its place on the tourist map, having positioned itself as a vibrant and welcoming layover destination for those transiting between the east and the west. Occupying prime position in the heart of the Middle East, there are a growing number of interesting reasons why you should plan a stopover in Qatar.

The skyline of Doha, Qatar, as seen from the water at sunset; numerous skyscrapers have unique, twisting shapes.
Doha skyline from the water © Matteo Colombo / Getty Images

Doha's incredible architecture, museums & skyline

As you travel from the airport into Qatar’s capital toward the sweeping coastline road that runs along the Corniche, you can’t fail to miss the National Museum of Qatar. This unusual white building, shaped in a series of sprawling interlocking disks, was designed by award-winning French architect Jean Nouvel who took inspiration from the native desert rose. The brand new museum opened its doors to the public earlier this year, celebrating Qatar’s rich heritage and showcasing the country’s future endeavours on the world stage. Before wandering around inside, take some time to walk around the exterior of the building, which is positioned to become known as one of the world’s architectural masterpieces.

Read more: How to live like a local in Doha

Another architectural wonder not-to-be-missed on your exploration of Qatar is the iconic Museum of Islamic Art. Occupying its own island protruding out into the waters of the Gulf and designed by renowned architect IM Pei (also known for his glass pyramid outside the Louvre in Paris), the building, its contents and surroundings are a sight to behold. Inside, an impressive treasure trove of historic Islamic artefacts has been sourced from across the globe, making for an interesting hour or two. Outside, you can walk around the curved palm-lined park and settle into one of the comfy arm chairs at the Museum of Islamic Art Park Café with a light lunch of traditional karak chai (spiced milky black tea) and chapati (flatbread) in the company of the most awe-inspiring of views across the Gulf to the Doha skyline beyond.

Aerial view of The Pearl island in Doha, Qatar
The Pearl from above in Doha, Qatar © imagean / Getty Images

The Pearl & shopping in Souq Waqif

Next, take a ride through Doha and out to the manmade island of The Pearl, which comprises two interlinked horseshoe-shaped pieces of land, spanning almost 4 million sq metres. A popular place for expat residences, the bustling "Porto Arabia" encircles an impressive marina of yachts and is a great place for a quiet stroll along the promenade to take in the sights or for a stop at one of the numerous cafes for a coffee and a bite to eat. Take a water taxi (at a very reasonably priced QR25 for a return trip) from Tower 1 through to Qanat Quartier, where pretty pastel houses border a Venetian-inspired winding network of canals, or head to Medina Centrale, the central shopping zone of the island, with more than 55,000 sq metres of retail and restaurants.

Read more: First time Doha

Wind down for the evening at Souq Waqif, the bustling ancient Bedouin "standing market", which was completely renovated and restored in 2004 using wood and stone to recreate traditional Qatari architectural techniques. Haggle for traditional Middle Eastern wares and quirky souvenirs and get lost down the winding alleyways of stores.

Two trucks drive off road in the sandy desert in Qatar
Off roading in the Qatari desert © Shahin Olakara Photography / Getty Images

Adrenaline-inducing adventures in the desert

The untouched, undulating dunes and diverse landscapes that typify the Qatari desert outside of Doha are fascinating to explore. This tranquil and barren environment has a unique kind of beauty to it, particularly at sunrise and sunset, when the blazing sun reflects off the pale sand, creating scenes that have inspired poets and artists across the centuries. Juxtapose the space and serenity with the addition of an adrenaline-pumping off-road drive in a 4WD, and you have a recipe for a whole lot of fun. Khor Al Adaid, an inland sea south of Doha, is the most popular place to experience these adventures, and plenty of tour operators offer full-day trips that include a pick-up from your hotel, a heart-racing drive across the dunes, sand boarding, camel riding and even a night under the stars in a traditional Bedouin camp.

Read more: An adventurer's guide to unforgettable outdoor experiences in Qatar

Neolithic rock art and the Al Zubarah Fort

Hire a car (preferably with reliable navigation) and travel north of Doha, past Al Khor for a hike around the area known as Al Jassasiya, the site of almost 900 Neolithic rock carvings depicting boats, fish, scorpions and interesting patterns. There is a certain amount of speculation as to the precise meaning and background to the petroglyphs, but they are fascinating to see, and seeking them out amongst the rocky outcrops is a great fun activity for all of the family. Pack a picnic, as there is nothing in the way of restaurants or facilities up here.

On the very northern tip of the peninsula stands Al Zubarah Fort, Qatar’s first and only Unesco World Heritage Site. The impressive structure, built in 1934 at the centre of a large fishing and pearling port, is a final standing monument to Qatar’s days gone by, with a small museum dedicated to the historic pearling industry.

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This article was first published February 2019 and updated December 2019

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