traditional wooden dhow in qatar

Travel Guide to Qatar: Pearl of the Persian Gulf

In Community, Featured by Maryam Khalil

traditional wooden dhow in qatar. travel guide to qatar

Long before the rise of oil and gas in Qatar, the dhow is what brought in the country’s wealth. Photo: BlueOrange Studio

Your travel guide to Qatar

The cold snap was just beginning, and the moment I found a layer of ice on my car windscreen one early morning, my mind was made up for me; I was going to spend my upcoming half term in the Middle East. My cousin had moved out to live in Qatar over the summer, and I had known since then that I would take the first opportunity that came my way to join her.

 

The shimmering wave of heat was the first thing that hit me as I stepped off the plane. Having left the UK on a chilly October morning, arriving in 35-degree heat was quite the welcome development. Despite arriving in the evening, the sticky warmth swaddled me from all directions and I was all too glad to step into an air-conditioned taxi. 

 

It was my first foray into the Middle East, and I couldn’t wait. I had one week in Qatar and as we were planning our itinerary, my cousin set me a challenge. “Find something in Qatar I haven’t already seen.” She’d been there all but six months. Needless to say, I accepted. 

 

Naturally, we spent our first few days in the malls. Now, I’m not a massive shopper, but I was explicitly told that I couldn’t come all the way to Qatar without seeing its malls. “Trust me,” my cousin told me “You will want to see this.”

 

Villagio Mall is unlike any shopping centre I have ever visited – each wing of the mall is carefully crafted to resemble a street of Venice. Complete with a waterway spanning the length of the mall and gondolas transporting shoppers back and forth, this is a mall that embodies more than just opulence. The bridges and Venetian facades of the shop fronts are offset by the blue sky above, which is actually an arched ceiling perfectly painted to resemble the hues of a bright blue sky. Needless to say, I was seriously impressed. The Mall of Qatar too, was a no less bombastic affair; a sprawling shopping centre at the heart of which sits a very fancy food court, with a central fountain and four enormous botanical towers laden with hanging plants and flowers.  

 

Both Malls sport fully-operational theme parks for children, including actual Ferris wheels and roller coasters. It seems that undertaking a shopping trip is no small feat in Qatar.

desert rose building in qatar, travel guide to qatar

The National Museum of Qatar, designed by architect Jean Nouvel, in Doha, Qatar. The museum is designed in the shape of a desert rose, and opened to the public in March 2019. Photo: Joshua Davenport

 

The next day we set off for the National Museum of Qatar. This is, hands down, the most magnificent museum I have ever had the pleasure of exploring. The building itself was breath-taking; a slanting, slatted sandstone structure which designed to resemble the desert rose – a naturally occurring formation of interlocking crystals splayed out like sandy rose petals. Stepping out into the museum courtyard was like being transported to an alien planet, but the interior was no less exciting. Wall-to-wall projections chart the formation of modern-day Qatar, from the emergence of its very first organisms to the rise and fall of the pearl and oil industries. The fascinating story of Qatar is told on every surface and at every level, fully immersing us in Qatari culture, history and tradition.  

The second museum I visited was the Museum of Islamic Art  – situated at the end of the Corniche walk, on the seafront of Doha. The museum looks like a geometric seaside fortress carved out of a single block of limestone. The entrance to the museum is a long slanting stairway bordered by palm trees and a stream of flowing water, adding to the gravitas. With Mia Park to the right, and the Corniche walk to its left, the Islamic Art museum was also the perfect opportunity to take a photo against the hazy Doha city skyline from across the water. 

travel guide to qatar

Of the many exhibits at the Museum of Islamic Art, there is a 7 metre-long Hajj certificate that dates back more than 600 years. Photo: Museum of Islamic Art

 

The museum itself boasts a glittering array of Islamic artefacts and plots the themes and motifs of Islamic Art across a range of empires. The startling thematic unison across so many styles and wares is deeply reminiscent of the way Islamic art alludes to the oneness of God through the premise that each artwork is part of a larger pattern which extends into infinity. This was a fascinating journey into Islamic Art through the ages, and I also managed to catch an exhibition on Jewels of India, which included several famed gems and trinkets belonging to the Mughals of South Asia. 

 

By now though, it was halfway through the week and I still hadn’t found anything my cousin hadn’t already seen. 

 

That evening, we made our way to Souq Waqif , Doha’s outdoor market bazaar. By nightfall, the Souq was buzzing. Weaving our way through the crowds, we ducked into the arched markets to haggle for oud, got bamboozled by Turkish ice-cream sellers and wandered past the many restaurants and cafes. It was here that we stumbled upon the heart of the Souq: The Bird Market. As soon as we stepped through the arch, there was a ripple of chirping and squawking; a flurry of feathers and fur. All around us, there were vendors selling everything from tortoises to tawny owls. In every cage and on every surface there were bundles of bunnies, coiled kittens or a flutter of feathered wings. Perhaps not the most charming place to go for the more conscientious animal activists among us, but worth a visit to appreciate the sheer lengths people will go to in order to bag the most exotic-looking pet Qatar can offer. 

elderly men in the open air market souq waqif in qatar. travel guide to qatar

Souq Waqif, Doha. Photo: direwollff/Instagram

Adjacent to the main marquees, there is also the Falcon Souq, where there is a display of birds and equipment for falconers. The birds look altogether much less cramped than their friends in the Bird Market. Sitting in cool air-conditioned rooms, the birds eyed us lazily out of one eye as we took photos. There is also a falcon hospital just next door and if you’re lucky (and ask nicely!) you may well get a peek in! The Camel Souq is also situated just outside the main Souq, and the keepers are more than willing to let tourists have a ride around the pen – but watch out. When they say hold on, what they really mean is hold on for dear life!

 

Katara Cultural Village is another must-see attraction of Qatar (and the first place I’ve ever been that boasted outdoor air conditioning!). As a centre of diversity, culture and art, the Katara complex is spread out over a series of shops, restaurants and beachfront buildings. Nestled at the heart of Katara is the amphitheatre. A classic fusion of Greek and Islamic architecture, visitors can bask in the grandeur, watch the fountain display or admire the ‘Force of Nature’ sculpture below. With its pristine beaches and no shortage of viewpoints, Katara is the perfect place to eat, drink and watch the sunset. 

 

It was my last day in Qatar, and I was listing off other attractions my cousin may not have yet seen. Al-Koot Fort. The Singing Sand Dunes. The Inland Sea Border of Khawr Ul Udayd. “Been there, done that, got the Abaya”, she’d say. 

 

The one thing I desperately wanted to do before I left Qatar was bag a boat ride in a traditional Qatari dhow and this was my last chance to do it. So, I settled on spending my last day in Doha taking a solo trip to the Corniche, to see the sun set over the Arabian Gulf one last time. The uber driver gave me the low-down on a good price.

 

Are you sure you want to go today? Today is Friday.” he told me “It’s the worker’s day off. All the workers are meeting their families.”

 

I nodded yes, not entirely understanding until I got to the Corniche. 

 

The thing about Qatar is that the workforce is predominantly (if not entirely) Nepalese or South-Asian; seen and rarely heard. As I stepped out of the uber, I realised exactly what the driver had been alluding to. The Corniche was alive and heaving; more lively and animated than I had ever seen it during the week. The entire area was flooded with Indian and Nepalese families. They were picnicking on the grass, selling sweets, and piling into the boats moored in the harbour, shouting successively lower prices over each other. The sounds of adhaan had long since faded, and in its place, I could hear the lively tones of Hindi music blaring from speakers and HiFis. Little did I know, the din was coming from the boats – as I boarded the nearest dhow, I realised that the people swarming onto the small wooden ship were here to rave. The music swelled and we sailed out onto the open water – the atmosphere was electric. Everyone was up on their feet, giddy and breaking out into practised dance routines, whirling around with their partners, parents and children. This was a side of Qatar I had not seen all week long. 

I pulled out my phone and took a short video of the spinning silhouettes against the red sun, music blaring, and sent it to my cousin.

 

Do I win the bet? I texted her.

 

You win came the prompt reply. 

Travel guide to Qatar

travel guide to qatar

Qatar’s landscape is characterized by the contrast of its glittering skyscrapers and sand dunes against the blue shoreline of the Persian Gulf.

Before you Go

  • Check roaming charges and download the uber app! 
  • Local currency (Qatari Riyals)
  • Pre-arrange a pickup from the airport  

Getting Around

  • Excellent uber service 
  • Walking 

Recommendations

  • Fresh Juices!
  • Vanelli’s Pasta 
  • Le Vesuvio 
  • Mall of Qatar Food Court 

Main Attractions 

  • Villagio Mall
  • Mall of Qatar
  • National Museum of Qatar
  • Islamic Art Museum
  • Souq Waqif
  • Falcon Souq
  • Camel Souq
  • Al Koot Fort
  • Corniche walk and Harbour 
  • Mia Park
  • Desert Safari
  • Dhow Ride (at sunset!)