In steeped-in-tradition Qatar, you can learn about the ancient pursuit of falconry, watch camels race across the desert and admire traditional dhows (wooden cargo boats) bobbing on the water. But the country is developing rapidly, with the capital Doha a world-class city in the making, thanks to its spectacular modern skyline, peerless Museum of Islamic Art, a fine and expansive traditional souq, and burgeoning arts and culinary scenes. On any given day you could sample a portfolio of sophisticated restaurants and then watch the sun set over sand dunes that seem to spring from a fairy tale.
As Qatar prepares to host the 2022 World Cup, there's a flurry of activity and controversy in the air – as the nation uses imported labourers for construction of roads, rail routes and stadiums for the future fans. The recent Saudi-led blockade of Qatar makes most onward Gulf travel from this once-popular stopover destination much more difficult.
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These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Qatar.
This vibrant complex is without doubt one of the most atmospheric places to explore in Qatar. Built on an ancient market site, the area remains the social heart of Doha. Centuries ago, Bedouin would bring their sheep, goats and wool here to trade for essentials, and the entire market area has been cleverly redeveloped to look the part of a 19th-century souq, with mud-rendered shops and exposed timber beams, plus some authentic and beautifully restored original Qatari buildings. With booming prosperity, the advent of vast air-conditioned shopping malls and Qatar's rush to embrace the new, Souq Waqif fell into serious decline by the 1990s, and much of the market was destroyed in a fire in 2003. An outcry from Qataris prompted the authorities to undertake a massive rehabilitation program, one that continues to this day. Such has been the success of this venture that the souq keeps growing to accommodate new ‘old alleyways’. Despite the ongoing gentrification of the area, the chief business of the souq continues unabated, and it remains one of the most traditional marketplaces in the region. This is the place to look for national Qatari dress, including the beautifully embroidered bukhnoq (girl’s head covering), spices, perfumes and oud (incense made from agarwood). Until land was reclaimed along Doha's waterfront in the 1970s, the waters lapped at the entrance to Souq Waqif, where traders were just as likely to arrive by boat as by camel. The first semi-permanent shops here were built around 250 years ago. Before that, vendors stood and sold their wares from makeshift stalls, as the market often flooded, and it is from this tradition that the souq's name derives: waqif means 'standing' in Arabic. The Falcon Souq is a highlight, but falconry is not the only traditional Qatari leisure pursuit you can see around the market. Nearby stables house Arabian horses and just off the Corniche end of Al Jasra St, a pen is filled with feeding camels most of the day. Animal lovers beware: located behind the colourful spice section of Souq Waqif is a collection of caged birds, and sometimes cats, rabbits, tortoises and dogs, kept outside in all weather: hot, hot and even hotter. Some of the shops are like museums, displaying artefacts (such as swords and shipping memorabilia), plus jewellery from around the Arab world. Many shops and stalls in the souq close around 1pm and reopen at 4pm, but the area, and its many cafes and restaurants, remains open all day.
With the largest collection of Islamic art in the world, drawn from three continents, this fabulous museum is so rich in treasure that it rewards short, intense visits. Rising from its own purpose-built island, and set in an extensive landscape of lawns and ornamental trees off the Corniche, the museum is shaped like a postmodern fortress with minimal windows (to reduce energy use). The views across the water are splendid. The museum was designed by IM Pei, the architect of the Louvre pyramid in Paris, and you know that something special awaits from the minute you lay eyes on the grand, palm-tree-lined entrance. Inside, the building is a masterpiece of light and space, drawing your eyes up to the dome, a clever modern take on an element so prevalent in Islamic architecture. The collection is spread over three floors: the 1st and 2nd floors house the permanent collection, which includes exquisite textiles, ceramics, enamel work and glass, all showcased conceptually. A single motif, for example, is illustrated in neighbouring display cases in the weave of a carpet or a ceramic floor tile, or adapted in a piece of gold jewellery, allowing visitors to gain a sense of the homogeneity of Islamic art. Pace yourself by visiting the cafe downstairs or finish at the top-floor IDAM restaurant. On the ground floor there's a large museum shop. There are free 40-minute guided tours (in English and Arabic) of the permanent collection on Thursday at 2pm. Both men and women should avoid strappy tops or vests and shorts because you may be refused admission.
For a glimpse of Qatari heritage, don't miss the Falcon Souq. You only have to see the scale of the market, afforded its own traditional arcaded building off Souq Waqif, to understand the place of falconry in Qatari society. Evenings are the best time to come, especially on Thursdays, when you can watch customers examining the birds – most of them hooded in black leather and perched on posts or railings – and discussing the finer points of falconry with the shopkeepers. You may see shopkeepers crafting leather falcon helmets or enjoying tea on the cushioned benches at each store. Next door to the Falcon Souq is the Souq Waqif Falcon Hospital – if you stop by when things are quiet and ask nicely, the staff are usually pleased to show visitors around.
With its opaque waters and 800m golden-sand beach, the crescent-shaped Banana Island is one of the best excursions in Qatar, even if you're not staying at the luxury hotel. Covered in tropical plants and greenery, it's reached via catamaran. Six restaurants on the island, from traditional Middle Eastern and American to Italian, keep guests fuelled up for the many activities on offer, including Segway rides (QR250), beach diving (from QR700), bowling (QR50) and flowrider wave riding (QR150 for 30 minutes). Day passes include a QR100 food voucher.
The much-anticipated opening of the National Museum of Qatar took place in March 2019. French architect Jean Nouvel's sprawling desert-rose-inspired structure is spectacular and houses 1.5km of galleries that have been organised into three 'chapters': Beginnings, Life in Qatar and Building the Nation. Exhibits focus on Qatari history and heritage, celebrating the nation's past, present and future on the world stage. A thrilling, immersive and educational experience that should not be missed.
One of the best libraries in the world, this incredible, spaceship-like structure contains a literary wonderland of two million books, including ancient maps and Qurans and literature dating back to the 15th century. You enter the building though a futuristic hatch; inside, the bookshelves appear to almost float on the wall of the library. In the centre of the expansive room is a labyrinth-like pit where all the ancient heritage books are kept on a maze of carefully positioned shelves. The library also contains egg chairs, work stations, exhibition spaces (with rotating shows by modern artists), a children's library and a cafeteria-style restaurant. An innovation station has a recording studio filled with instruments; it's free to use, but bookable by residents only. Likewise, anyone can read the books while visiting the library, but only Qatari residents may borrow them from the building.
One of the best and most beautiful green spaces along the Doha waterfront, Museum of Islamic Art Park is home to Richard Serra's vertical steel sculpture, known as 7, this celebrated artist's first public piece of art in the Middle East. It's also home to cafes with some of the finest city views in Doha, including the MIA Park Cafe, as well as pop-up food trucks. Runners enjoy the 1km crescent pathway around the park, and there's also a kids play area. Renting a picnic basket inside the park costs QR50; you can fill it up with goodies from the local cafe. Check the website for upcoming events, from weekend markets and outdoor cinemas to kayaking tours and fitness sessions.
One of Doha's best hangout spots, TaliaMare is set on a pretty beach, among pastel-coloured houses, and has a chilled-out vibe and music reminiscent of Ibiza's Cafe Mambo. Guests pay for an umbrella or a sunbed and get use of showers, lockers and other facilities, including beach toys for kids. Smoke shisha as the sun sets or have a bite to eat in the trendy cafe. The kitchen serves up excellent shakshuka, pancakes and omelettes for breakfast, plus seafood mains and salads (breakfast/dinner plates from QR36/79). Wash your meal down with a cooling mocktail.
Visitors can walk through this sculpture, comprised of seven steel plates – a number with special spiritual significance in Qatari and Islamic culture – and gaze up to the sky from inside. The first of two installations by celebrated artist Richard Serra to be commissioned by the Qatar Museums Authority, the 24m-high artwork stands proudly at the end of the Museum of Islamic Art Park, looking out to the Gulf and the bright lights of the Doha skyline beyond.
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