One of the best things about being an expat is getting the opportunity to give visitors from home an insight into what your country’s like and how you live when they come to stay. It’s even more satisfying when you live in a country like Qatar, which is an unknown entity to your average tourist. I take great pleasure in debunking a few myths and showing people just how much there is to see and do in Doha, when you scratch beneath the surface.
Excitingly, my home is about to be placed firmly on the tourist map as a number of new initiatives have been designed to position Qatar as a new stopover destination. A free transit visa launched by Qatar Tourism Authority in collaboration with Qatar Airways allows transiting passengers to enter Qatar for up to 96 hours in between flights. Over the summer months, Qatar Airways passengers are also being offered free hotel stays at some of Doha’s top hotels, and if this isn’t enough, a range of free tours around Doha are being offered to tourists too, to give them a taster of what the city has to offer.
So what should you do with your 96 hours in Doha? I put my tour guide skills to the test with a recent four day visit from my friend Emma (of Adventures of a London Kiwi fame) on her way through to Australia, and showed her some of my favourite Doha pastimes. Here’s a snapshot of what we got up to (and a little more besides).
1. Visit the Museum of Islamic Art
As you travel from the airport to West Bay, it’s likely that you’ll notice the unusual boxy building, occupying its own piece of land which protudes out into the waters of the Persian Gulf. Designed by famous architect I. M. Pei (probably better-known for his glass pyramid outside of the Louvre in Paris), the Museum of Islamic Art is my favourite piece of architecture in the world, with one of the most interesting collections of artefacts that I’ve seen in a museum.
Not only is it home to one of the world’s most impressive collections of Islamic artwork, spanning 1,400 years, but Alain Ducasse’s famous restaurant, Idam is located on the top floor – an unmissable restaurant for a very memorable dinner.
2. Have brunch in a five star hotel
If your layover happens to be over a Friday or Saturday, then you absolutely can not miss out on brunch. Brunch in the Middle East has taken on its own meaning over the years, evolving from the late morning meal comprising of coffee and eggs that the rest of the world recognises, into a veritable feast consumed throughout the afternoon on a Friday (usually in the form of a buffet and accompanied by copious amounts of alcohol).
You haven’t really experienced Doha until you have experienced the party atmosphere of one of its hotel brunches alongside scores of merry expats.
Emma and I enjoyed two very contrasting brunches while she was visiting – the family-friendly, warm and welcoming ‘We Love Saturday’ brunch at Coral in the Intercontental Hotel, and the upbeat and lively Friday Shangtastic Brunch at the Shangri-La (look out for upcoming blog posts on both of these post-Ramadan).
For an iconic Doha brunch experience, you can’t go wrong with the St Regis or Four Seasons brunches, and if you have children then the Ritz Carlton offers something very special for the little ones.
3. Haggle for Arabic wares at Souq Waqif
If you crave a culturally authentic experience when travelling to new cities, then a visit to Souq Waqif (the standing market) is a must. It is essentially a muddled centre of traditionally-built Qatari buildings, recently constructed on the site of a much older Souq, where you can easily get lost for hours while searching for little trinkets and hand-crafted gold jewellery or fabrics.
Emma and I quickly wandered through the hot and crowded lanes of the Souq just before she was due to catch her taxi to the airport…and then spent a panicked 40 minutes trying to locate said taxi! Hopefully the fear that she might be about to miss her connecting flight to Australia didn’t put too much of a downer on the experience!!
4. Wander through Katara Cultural Village
Katara was built to showcase Qatar’s varied cultural identity and exhibits regular art installations, music concerts and fairs. However, even when there is nothing going on, it is still a beautiful place to take a stroll. Stop at one of the restaurants for a bite, marvel at the architecture of the stunning blue-tiled mosque and its iconic dove cots or climb to the top of the sandstone Amphitheatre to admire the view.
Don’t leave without sampling an authentic Qatari drink and snack from Karak and Chapati.
5. Head out into the desert for some dune bashing
Outside of Doha itself, the huge expanse of the Arabian Desert stretches off to the north and to the south, and apart from the occasional settlement, it is largely remote and uninhabited. The best way to get around of course, is by 4×4, where specially-trained drivers take you far too quickly through the desert in an off-roading style known as ‘dune bashing’.
Organised tours can combine a morning’s dune bashing with other desert activities such as camel rides, and a visit to a traditional bedouin camps, and they’re definitely worth the money.
6. Visit the Pearl for a coffee and some retail therapy
Comprising of 400 hectares of shops, restaurants and leisure facilities as well as numerous residential towers and a large marina of yachts, The Pearl Qatar is a manmade island in the shape of two inter-linked horseshoes. It is also where my apartment is located. Due to the large community of expats that reside on The Pearl, this area is the most laid back and liberal area of Qatar, and because of that, it’s especially appealing to tourists.
Emma and I enjoyed strolling around the marina on a regular basis, grabbing a coffee in Qatar’s best coffee shop, Flat White and taking in the sunset views across the marina.
7. Take a traditional Dhow out onto the Persian Gulf
Prior to the discovery of oil and gas, Qatar’s economy was based around fishing and Pearl diving, which took place on traditional wooden boats called ‘Dhows’. These days, Dhow boats are more commonly used by tourists who want to catch a glimpse of the city from a different perspective, out on the sea.
You can grab a boat from anywhere on the Corniche near to the traditional Dhow boat harbour by the Museum of Islamic Art. Wait until night time, when all of the lights come on in the city, and the Dhows light up in neon colours for the full experience!
8. Eat, eat, and eat some more!
I have never eaten so well in my life as I do now in Doha. The hotels across the city are the best places to get your fill, providing a range of restaurants and cuisines to cater to every palette. The one thing that they all have in common is that the food they serve is really, exquisitely good!
Restaurants that you shouldn’t miss:
For fine dining you can’t go wrong with the stunning architecture, excellent happy hour and faultless Japanese at Nobu; the city views, cocktails and and pan-Asian eats at Zengo; the cool vibe and modern Cantonese cuisine at Hakkasan; the refined luxury and meticulous attention to detail of Gordon Ramsay.
For something a little more casual, try breakfast at Eggspectation, traditional Arabic food at N.Zain or any of the restaurants in Souq Waqif.
I hope this little guide will help you when planning your layover in Doha. If you have any questions about anything mentioned above, then please don’t hesitate to drop me a message below.
For further information on Qatar please visit: www.visitqatar.qa