A Happy Accident: The Undiscovered Joy of Doha
Many find themselves in Doha by accident. Up until recently, Doha was a city to travel to only for business, and before they discovered the fields of gas, nobody went at all. But Qatar Airways have taken their rapid and giant leap into the top Airlines of the world, and their expanding network, impending Oneworld alliance and constant awards means this is only going to increase the traffic.
Excited young travellers twixt the new west and the old are finding themselves in the only part of the Middle East they have ever touched. They stop and step off the plane hoping for harems, gold and arabesque or extremists and secret societies. Or at least a city that’s a little like Dubai. What they find is a dusty construction zone surrounding a quiet hub with seemingly very little to do.
In fact, I found myself at a loose end on a long weekend when another quick break fell through. My friend had tickets to Doha. I said I’d rather stay at home, but she (and the Four Seasons) convinced me it was a mistake. I’m finally with them. So why should you go?
Doha is building itself overnight, and if you’ve missed watching other cities around it embrace their resource wealth and welcome the world in, it’s a wonderful place to get a picture of what’s been happening behind the scenes in other cities in the region like Dubai, Riyadh and Baku. The architecture is unlimited, each building an expression of culture and the modern age. The people are inspired, every taxi driver will tell you the name of each building you pass, how long it’s been there, who built it, what’s coming next. The city is alive, growing like Jack’s beanstalk – taller, wider, and most definitely into the clouds of dreams.
Geographically it’s convenient. It’s in the middle of the world for anyone travelling to or from Europe on a long haul. It’s also such a ridiculously short flight from anywhere else in the region that the planes are still ascending when they turn to make their descent. On the ground, it’s clever. The city has been built around a series of bays, and optically it’s incredibly pleasant – bafflingly, you can almost always see buildings over the water in front of you, making you feel like you are moving around a giant inland sea.
What to do:
(in a hedonista-approved order of importance)
Visit the souq: Souq Waqif is a relatively new structure, but you’d never know it. The style is wrapped in tradition, and it’s not just in the rustic mud-brick walls and barasti roofing. It’s also in the people who surround you – it’s definitely a local market, with two in every three people garbed in abaya or kandora, aging trolley-boys with their wheelbarrows full of deliveries, and shopkeepers selling local goods and providing the stories for free. It’s a working market, so forget the fact that the walls are new. They look old, and they feel old – it’s all that counts. Buy sweets for the kids – chocolate ‘rocks’ and a local jelly like saffron-flavoured Turkish delight, nuts, textiles and antique trinkets, an aluminium pot big enough to bathe in. Then grab a snack in the main drag at one of the many Arabic restaurants, which range from roadside diner to reception centre. Make sure you allow plenty of time to wander. The souq has several areas, including a falcon souq, stables, the Al Khoot fort and more. It’s open most of the night, so in warm weather, head down at 5pm and meander until midnight. If you only do one thing in Doha, this is it.
Peruse the Islamic art museum: At this stage, this is the flagship gallery of Qatar, and it’s not just about the art inside (which is incidentally quite incredible – we’re talking ancient manuscripts, textiles, ceramics, glass works and more). The building itself is quite a piece of work – a monolith perched on a tiny peninsular that provides an excellent view back to the city through its contemporary arches and over the traditional dhow wharfage and Doha’s aqua waters. Even young visitors will enjoy the landscaped gardens and a kids park with paddle boats, playground and a whole heap more. You can also dine at the Alain Ducasse restaurant, fusing French and Qatari cuisine. Now isn’t that something for everybody?
Get into the desert (seasonal): It’s easy to organize either a half-day trip into the dunes, or for the more adventurous, even an overnight at Qatar’s salty inland sea, Khor Al-Adaid. Expect some hairy driving, screaming and plenty of video footage of bouncing sand and sky (you can ask your driver to take it easy if you’re a little lily-livered), often followed by a meal in Bedouin-style tents, sand boarding and the like. Overnights are either basic tents, or in a simple but large, carpet lined tent with basics provided (electricity and water for showers and toilets). Don’t go from mid-June to mid-September, it’s just too hot. You can also stay at Sealine resort down this way if you want to get out of the city, but stay in comfort. For those who like to keep away from the crowds, or at least see something different, try the Sheikh Faisal Museum, which you can partner with a trip to the Camel races. Great tips here on how to get there, or you can book a tour through a group such as QIA. I have also heard rumors of an oryx farm, which you can apparently visit by calling Alpha Tours on + 974 4837815 or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Check out the dhows: It’s like an antique carpentry museum floating on piles of glittering aquamarine gemstones. You don’t need to do much, just look. If you’re lucky you’ll spot a sailor eating lunch in his undies while his coveralls dry in the sun. You’ll wonder how on earth these craft make it from India, let alone past the tip and from Bangladesh, but they do. If you want to get on one, you can hang around the corniche long enough and someone will offer you a ride (for a price) on one of the ocean-retired and suitably-appointed-for-tourism vessels. Otherwise you can book a half-day jaunt like this one, or a sunset cruise, which again, can be done on the corniche, or through an operator. Ask at your hotel if you trust them to put you onto a good one.
Absorb some Islamic Culture: Those who can’t get enough of the real Doha from the souq and the corniche and find themselves wanting to discover more about Islam should visit the Fanar Islamic Centre in central Doha. It’s serpentine spire is hard to miss, and it makes a (seasonal) walkable triangle between the souq and the Islamic Art centre. You can just drop in between 8 and 1pm or 5 and 9pm for an introduction to the culture and a squiz in the mosque. Or you can book for a variety of experiences, including exterior mosque tours, dinner in the desert and more.
Ride around Villagio: This is just about the craziest mall you’ll ever see. It’s Venice – but inside. There are frescoes, canals and gondolas that you can ride on for 10QR (about $3). If you get bored with that, there’s an ice rink and an indoor amusement park. The Dean and Deluca store is the biggest in the region – a very tempting array of sweets is on offer, and honey in just about every which way you can imagine. Try the chocolate fondue and Mexican hot chocolate upstairs at Maya and watch the gondolas putt beneath you. It’s just (ahem) like the real thing. The Torch, Doha’s tallest hotel (unfortunately in the middle of nowhere, so the views are a little dusty) is next door, worth a stop, and probably better for lunch if you don’t like mall dining.
Call into The Pearl and Katara: Katara is a cultural village located just off the Pearl, Qatar’s own man-made island. Here you’ll find a little for everyone – Contemporary local and international art for the culture vultures, more interactive exhibitions for those who can’t keep their mitts off things, cafes and restaurants, an arena for live shows and one of Doha’s nicest beaches with plenty of paid activities to try. From here, you can see The Pearl over the water, of take a quick taxi ride for some more high-end shopping and international branded dining (no alcohol – they banned the booze on the Pearl in 2011, and subsequently many of the big name restaurants have pulled out. You will find alcohol in many other areas, but only in hotels or clubs, and you can’t bring any into the country.) It’s got another mini-Venice. And Morocco, and the Caribbean, and the French Riviera and New York. Cosmopolitan.
Where to eat:
Damasca Restaurant is one of the larger establishments in the main drag of the souq. There’s tables and chairs out the front (near Mirqab hotel) for games and shisha, and hawkers vans with Syrian street food. Inside is a lower level with a stage for live traditional music, and upstairs a leafy, air conditioned terrace with Arabic soaps and sports on the big screens, some fabulous moutabel and homemade Syrian pies (along with all the Arabic classics)
Altawash serves traditional Qatari dishes, but receives mixed reviews about food and service. The dessert menu also has some traditional Qatari sweets. Fab rooftop terrace
Any small place in the souq selling balaleet (sweet saffron/cardamom vermicelli noodle dish usually eaten for breakfast) and lqeimats (fried dumplings drizzled with date honey). Have them with strong, sweet black cardamom tea or gahwa (local coffee).
Nusantao is a seafood-based fine dining oriental restaurant with sweeping open kitchens and island stations, and a menu to please everybody. They even do Fugu (puffer fish) for the brave. Also open for a Four Seasons breakfast (with everything from waffles to dosa) and Friday Brunch deal. Lovely service. Licensed
The Italian Job, a crazy, mid-priced Italian with reasonable food and terrible singing waiters. Good for a laugh. Licensed
Thai Snack, fairly authentic and super cheap Thai food. Restaurant has a local cult following.
Shisha Garden at La Cigale is a leafy oasis where you can get all the standard mezze, and chase it all down with some grape-scented smoke. Quite atmospheric, but if its not your thing, you can always go up to the Skyview bar (which, you guessed it, has a nice view).
Al Mourjan is the Arabic restaurant bathing in a rose glow on the corniche. Yes, it’s a little overpriced, and the service can be hit and miss, but it’s an incredible place for a kebab.
Hakkasan is only just born to the City. It’s a tiny sister to the venues of London and Dubai, but welcome none-the-less, and it’s just picked up Time Out Doha’s “Best Newcomer”. And the smokey beef ribs are on the menu – what more do you need? Oh yes, it’s licensed, so you can get a (fancy) drink.
Four Seasons is the obvious winner – it gets my gongs, and Trip Advisor’s and just about everyone else’s. Ultimate family hotel – decent pools, lovely day spa, beach front, kids club, huge rooms, a great restaurant (Nusantao), and that perfect balance Four Seasons always manage to achieve between luxury and friendliness. Still very close to the city, and well serviced with a fleet of BMWs if you like a private taxi, or helpful doormen who will happily get the green taxis for you if you want to save some dosh. And dare I say it, cheap for a Four Seasons. Licensed
Souk Waqif Boutique Hotels: There is a list here of several establishments of a luxurious Arabic vibe, the highest rated being Mirqab, which is a bustling and luxurious hotel at the entry to the souk. For something even more traditional, try Al Najada, a conversion of three houses within the souk bounds with attention to the little details and bespoke butler service. Al Jasra probably takes the prize for prettiest and most exotic. As I mentioned, traditional, so find your wine elsewhere.
Marriott Executive Apartments is a reasonable mid-priced option. Day spa, pool, restaurant and well positioned in the City Centre/West Bay area. Serviced apartments with 24 hour room service. Good business hotel but lacking a little soul. Licensed.
The Ramada Encore is probably the choice for budget travellers, with mid-season rates hovering just over US $100. They have decent sized rooms, pool, wi-fi and room service. Great position near the souq. No booze.
The Torch. It’s a bit out of the thick of it, but a little novel, especially with their “iPad in-room solution” – a gimmicky thingy involving lighting and colours which you can adjust to your mood. The tallest hotel in Doha, with panoramic views, albeit too far from the city to see much (Best city hotel with skyscraper views is the Intercontinental City), a revolving restaurant. Licensed.
Finally, my map, with all these wonderful places can be found linked here. Enjoy!