As the wealthiest country in the world, Doha is fast emerging as the next go-to destination in the middle east. In anticipation of the 2022 FIFA World Cup the city is burgeoning into a dynamic powerhouse with a tourist economy set to hit new economic heights. Yet, hidden behind the shopping malls and an ever changing skyline is a myriad of iconic cultural gems that entrench Qatari culture into the very fabric of the city. In a refreshing and authentic alternative to the glitz of Dubai, learn about the ancient sport of falconry, watch a sun set over the desert and rub shoulders with the oldest peal diver in the region; whether you’re staying for one night or five, glimpse a city at the height of a truly fascinating transformation.
What to do
The Museum of Islamic Art
MIA is an architectural marvel in itself and an iconic landmark which can be easily spotted across the city. Its stark white exterior is confronting yet satisfying, with geometrical shapes piled neatly together in an impressive structure which is both modern and traditional. Situated on the water’s edge, the interior is equally striking; its vast floor length windows expand across 5-stories, offering an impressive glimpse of Doha’s sprawling skyline ahead.
A light, cylindrical centre gives way to a myriad of darkened interconnecting rooms displaying Islamic artefacts spanning fourteen centuries, offering an insight into religious teachings scrawled across delicate pages of ancient Quran’s. Well positioned on an artificial island which faces the peninsular, the museum makes for a perfect photo op, so make sure to stroll the courtyard for panoramic views of the West Bay area before you go.
A trip through the dunes is a rite of passage for any middle eastern adventure and though rolling through sand the size of small mountains is as scream-worthy as it sounds, a chance to experience the sheer scale of the desert is a small wonder in itself. Choose an afternoon slot for the addition of a blazing Arabian sunset and take a bumpy camel ride if that floats your boat.
This infamous labyrinth of “standing markets” was re-developed on an ancient site to reveal an almost perfect warren of stalls brimming with barrels of chilies, mint leaves, turmeric and dried rose petals. A kaleidoscope of smells and colours melt together in the hubbub, as Qatari’s and expats rub shoulders along narrow passageways wafting with everything from Arabic coffee to the flowery scent of Arabian oils drifting from the row of resident perfumeries. Unlike the markets of Morocco where tourists are tugged and jostled through the hoards into cramped booths, a wander through Souq Waqif is void of pressure or discomfort. Amidst cashmeres and caves of antiques, market owners sit serenely amongst their wares. Spend a late afternoon wandering through spice mountains, garlands of salt water pearls and rows of falcons for a true middle eastern shopping experience.
Located in the heart of the Qatar Foundation (a development project set to foster a hub for education and science), is just one of the initiatives aimed to push both community development and the production of locally grown food and “made in Qatar” products. Selling local, ethical produce – from coffee to homemade cookies to Yemeni honey, this open air oasis wouldn’t look out place in the suburbs of north London and is often frequented by expats yearning for a slice of home. Make sure to swing by Education City (also located in the Qatar Foundation) armed with your artisanal goods; a nose at the international university campuses, research facilities and Qatar’s national library will give you a firm insight into the country’s vision of nurturing a ‘knowledge’ economy which can compete on a global scale.
Where to Stay
Souq Al Wakra Hotel Qatar
Souq Al Wakra Hotel by Tivoli is located in the up-an-coming seaside district of Al Wakra, just 20 minutes from central Doha and 10 minutes from Hamad International Airport.
The expansive 101-room complex spans two sites made up of 17th century heritage buildings, once home to local fishermen and pearl divers who traded in the region. By preserving the original structures and features including traditional thatched roofs and wooden beams, a stay at Al Wakra offers a quiet and leisurely sense of luxury reminiscent of laid-back seaside holidays blended with a nostalgic Arabian ambience. Local restaurants are peppered along a sleek promenade which leads to a sandy stretch of public beach (no bikinis allowed, sun worshipers beware) and an early evening meander is met with the pleasant hustle and bustle of locals and children. The area is part of a large regeneration project and developments aimed to transform the coastal area into a sophisticated coastal resort are still underway, so watch this space! However, a stay here is ideal for anyone hoping to capture the essence of Qatari life.
Al Najada Doha Hotel
Boasting an elegant ballroom, sprawling ceilings and al fresco dining overlooking an Italian style piazza, it’s easy to see why Najada is most popular with European guests. The largest of the hotel in the Tivoli group features 151 rooms laden with plush Arabian interiors and quite possibly the biggest, softest beds in the world. Paired with exceptional staff, a stay here is quiet and luxurious with easy access to Doha’s most popular attractions.
Souq Waqif Boutique Hotels by Tivoli
Tivoli’s nine boutique hotels make up the only accommodation in Souq Waqif and a stay in at least one of these opulent Arabic properties is a must for anyone wishing to experience the Old Doha, where age old customs and a rich merchant heritage are preserved amidst a towering skyline.
Such is the design concept, each is within walking distance of another, allowing for easy access to all facilities. This set up differs from traditional all-inclusive style hotel, it is purposely so; a swimming pool, spa and a number of specialty restaurants are peppered between the nine Souq Waqif properties. By maintaining the layout of traditional structures within the souq, the hotels themselves embody the essence of the sprawling marketplace. Dashing across the cobbled square for breakfast in Al Bidda’s domed stained-glass dining hall, followed by a leisurely swim at Al Mirqab is hardly a hassle! Rather, this unique layout provides a bespoke experience which provides unparalleled access to the city’s vibrant cultural, historic and commercial hub.
For a true Souq Waqif experience, we relocated to Al Jasra, located in the heart of Souq Waqif. Offering a slice of serenity amidst the bustle of the market, a modern lobby gives way to an intimate lounge area where Arabic coffee is in plentiful supply. Its 22 suites balance luxury with the complete privacy of a spacious, fully serviced apartment which includes a small kitchen, lounge and office area. With personalised pastries awaiting guests and a shower big enough to cartwheel in (yes, really), our stay was truly impeccable down to the finest of details.
Authenticity is maintained across all of Tivoli’s hotels; from preserving architecture, celebrating local cuisine to enshrining Qatari hospitality into every hotel lobby. No room, or suite is decorated the same and with 183 to choose from, you really are spoiled for choice.
Where to Eat
With the opening of Tivoli hotels in the Souq Waqif area came 12 new restaurants offering a variety of cuisines, hugely expanding Doha’s fine dining options.
An evening spent feasting in the famed Indian restaurant at Arumaila hotel was particularly memorable. Heaped plates of tandoori, butter chicken and garlic prawns washed down with cups of chai was melt-in-your-mouth delicious.
Al Jomrok hotel provides the perfect spot for a lunchtime banquet with a view – where hordes of traditional wooden fishing boats give way to West Bay’s infamous skyline. Enjoy a mixed grill featuring garlicky lamb kofka, succulent chicken kebabs, Arabic bread and all the babaganoush you can dream of while sat on the wrap-around veranda. Save space for some Om Ali, a delicious Arabic dessert which tastes somewhere in between a flower bouquet, a bread pudding and a Crème Brule – all deliciously topped with dried fruit, pistachios and warm sweet milk.
For a lighter bite in a more casual setting, Canela café at Al Najada is the perfect spot for an afternoon Turkish coffee and the most scrumptious tabouleh and garlic hummus ever tasted.
Home to just over 300,000 Qatari citizens, expats contribute a huge 2.3 million of the total population, making Qatar a melting pot of friendly, open-minded and forward facing individuals. That being said, its traditional roots remain solidly in place. Islam is the official religion and the state is governed primarily by sharia law.
As an officially ‘dry’ country, drinking is limited to a selected number of bars, restaurants and hotels, mainly in the West Bay area. Though not overly difficult to come by if you’re really in need a bev, the prices might put you right off a cocktail with a 100 percent tax increase recently imposed on all imported liquor (weep!). Amidst the buzz of the World Cup and the large scale construction underway to accommodate the expected influx of tourism, murmurs of designated fan zones suggest that Qatar is aware that rules must be loosened in order to accommodate the drinking culture associated with the tournament. It might cost you an arm and a leg though!
What to wear
Both men and women alike are required to be respectful of Islamic beliefs by covering the knees and shoulders in public. For women, long floaty dresses are perfect but if you’re going sleeveless, sweep a shawl around your shoulders and you’re good to go.
How to get there
Qatar Airways Q-suite
As the national airline, we opted for a flight with Qatar airways from London Heathrow to Hamad International Airport and gave the aircraft’s Q-suite business class pods a whirl. As the industry’s most luxurious business class, we were indulged with a fully lie-flat bed, cotton pyjamas courtesy of The White Company and best of all, a plentiful supply of champagne which featured in several poorly shot and completely shameless Instagram boomerangs. An a la carte menu featuring middle eastern mezze and a selection of succulent mains is served at your leisure and the massage (yes, massage!) chair is transformed into a wondrous bed by the hostesses upon request – a total game changer for night-time flying! Of all ways to travel to the world’s wealthiest country, the Q-suite will have you feeling like royalty from take-off to touch-down.
Tivoli’s 9 boutique hotels are also just a 15-minute drive from Hamad International Airport – perfect for those wishing to make a short stopover as part of a longer trip, and still absorb the essence of this refreshing and culturally rich city.
Qatar Airways flies to Doha 6 times a day from London Heathrow. Return economy fares from London to Doha are available from £619 for more information or to book, visit qatarairways.com