24 Hours in Doha
Balancing tomorrow with yesterday in Qatar.
Once a sleepy pearling and fishing port, Doha is now truly awake, thanks to both oil and gas revenues and the fact that Qatar is gearing up to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup. Though the city’s first school didn’t open until the mid-20th century, gleaming skyscrapers today dominate the bay and luxury cars roar throughout the streets. And even as Doha keeps its eye on the future, the city also goes to great lengths to ensure that its people don’t forget their nomadic desert roots.
The Shangri-la Hotel Doha is one of the latest additions to the skyline of the ultramodern West Bay district, the city’s new central business hub. Blending Asian and Middle Eastern hospitality, the hotel provides an unforgettable sense of cultural immersion starting from the moment you enter the lobby, where an oud (a pear-shaped string instrument) player will serenade you while a falcon holds watch. For a leisurely breakfast to start the day, head to Sridan, featuring 10 stations of different cuisines. Enjoy everything from shakshuka, a spicy egg-and-vegetable dish from Morocco, to Indian stuffed-pancake-like dosas. If your taste buds are less than adventurous first thing in the morning, though, don’t worry: There are plenty of familiar options as well.
Take a leisurely 15-minute walk to the Msheireb Enrichment Centre. En route, soak up some of the surrounding architecture such as the Doha Tower, designed by French architect Jean Nouvel, with its brise soleil (sun screens) patterned with ancient Islamic designs. Though the Qatar National Museum remains under construction across the bay, the Enrichment Centre located on a floating barge offers an introduction to Doha’s recent transformation — as well as a glimpse of the ambitious rebuilding of the downtown area.
Grab a taxi to the Museum of Islamic Art — an imposing IM Pei–designed building that sits on its own man-made island in Doha Bay. Covering around 1,400 years of art, the museum collects pieces ranging from ceramics and glass to metalwork, manuscripts and textiles. Look out for the colorful ceramic cenotaph from Central Asia, as well the complete set of armor for both a horse and rider dating to the turn of the 16th century. Also be sure to note some of the beautiful wood, bone and ivory inlay on exhibited doors from the region.
Taxi to the Katara Beach area for lunch at Turkish restaurant Sukar Pasha. Weather permitting, opt to sit on the outside terrace with views of West Bay. Devour theŞeyhü’l Mûhşî, a hot meze (appetizer) dish of stuffed eggplant served with yogurt, and if in a group try the hefty platter of chargrilled meats. To pair, enjoy a refreshing limonata, homemade Turkish lemonade.
Venture beyond to Katara Beach, the closest beach to the city center and a popular place where locals choose to relax. A large number of water sports are on offer (but require prior booking), including standard banana boat rides and jet skis to cutting-edge “jetlevs” (personal water-propelled jet packs). More serene options include sailing, canoeing and pedal boats, and Katara also hosts regular cultural events; be sure to check the schedule in advance to hopefully catch a glimpse of Qatari tradition, from folk-singing concerts to the annual dhow boat festival.
The downtown Souq Waqif area is largely closed for the early afternoon, so plan to taxi there when it starts to reawaken. For centuries, the Bedouin came to this market to trade livestock and goods, and it today remains the center of local life. Wander around the back alleys and explore stalls selling everything from everyday essentials and handicrafts to pets such as rabbits, kittens and birds.
Despite an abundance of restaurants in Souq Waqif, few actually serve Qatari food; most dish up cuisine from other Middle Eastern countries. Al Enna at the adjoining Falcon Souq, however, offers reasonably priced traditional food as well as a view of the training ground for falcons (hence the area’s name). Dinner begins with a traditional Qatari greeting of complimentary cardamom-infused coffee. Beyond that, the Madfee Samak Saloonah catch of the day — cooked with Qatari spices, black lemon and cardamom — is well worth trying, thanks to its rich but not overpowering sauce.
After dinner, take some time to explore the Falcon Souq. Falcons play a large role in traditional Bedouin life — from hunting to mere sporting — and buying one’s first bird is seen as a rite of passage for a young Qatari male. Along with falcons awaiting an owner, all manner of equipment required to care for and hunt with them can be found here.
Even if you are not in the market for jewelry, check out the Gold Souq, located in the southeast of Souq Waqif, for a dose of window shopping. Haggling is necessary when purchasing, but you can be assured of provenance, as all gems and gold have been tested and hallmarked. Locals go here to buy expensive bridal sets, whereas for tourists, a necklace with your name written in Arabic makes for a good souvenir.
The Corniche promenade caresses Doha Bay, and in the evenings, its footpaths and cycle tracks teem with exercising residents. Join the crowd for a long walk back to the hotel, enjoying such passing sights as the Amiri Diwan (royal palace), Grand Mosque, and dhows offering cruises of the bay. The modern architecture of West Bay also looks best when lit up with LEDs at night. Take your time soaking it all in as the hot day comes to a close in the city trying its best to balance tomorrow with yesterday.
Mark Andrews is an Asia-based freelance travel writer. He found Doha to be a melting pot of different nationalities living and working together in relative harmony.