“Not everything in Qatar is artificial,” our tour guide assured us. Just a few decades ago, the minarets of Doha’s mosques were the tallest structures in the city. Today, the capital of Qatar features a glittering skyline, manmade islands, and sprawling projects ranging from supermalls to luxury hotels to a sustainable city. We were 50 kilometers north of Doha to see something else entirely: a forest of mangroves — something you don’t picture when you think “Qatar.”
Even in Doha, people once made a living by diving for pearls in the summer and herding camels in the winter. But sand gave way to concrete after the discovery of the world’s third-largest natural gas reserves. There’s beauty in the Arabian Gulf and the sand dunes, but also in the architecture and the cultural centers. And you’ll find the “real Doha” as much in the luxury hotels and extravagant dining that the Qatari capital wants to offer to the world, as well as the magnificent mosques and Arabian traditions that you’ll find if you know where to look.
1. The Museum of Islamic Art
The Museum of Islamic Art is located on one end of the Corniche in Doha, Qatar. | Qatar Tourism Authority
Before your first trip to Doha, you probably have an idea of what to expect: sunlight, Islamic art, and cutting-edge architecture. You can see all three at the Museum of Islamic Art at one end of the Corniche. Designed by I.M. Pei, the museum houses art and artifacts originating in Iran, Egypt, Syria, India, and Turkey, spanning 1,400 years. Each gallery is curated to highlight similarities among artistic traditions and the worlds they came from. Floors of galleries rise around the museum’s soaring atrium toward a dome, a signature of Islamic architecture.
Even if you suspect that your eyes will glaze over after a few galleries, the museum is worth a visit just for the view. At the end of a lush, palm-lined walk, the exterior is all corners and dramatic shadows. Some observers say the structure looks like a veiled woman, with one set of eyes looking back toward the city and another looking out over the gulf. And don’t miss the terrace accessible from inside the museum for a spectacular vista of the West Bay and the Corniche.
2. The Corniche
Take a dhow cruise for a spectacular view of the Corniche and the Doha skyline. | Qatar Tourism Authority
Speaking of the Corniche, the seven-kilometer waterfront promenade arcs along the edge of Doha, and sits on land reclaimed from the ocean in a dredging project to reshape the coast. As recently as a few decades ago, Qataris subsisted on fishing and pearling. But you’d never know that by walking under the palm trees along the Corniche to take in views of the gulf and the dramatic skyline of the central business district.
Enjoy the view from the Corniche itself — or from the deck of a traditional Qatari dhow. Many of these wooden boats are available for cruises. (Some feature strobe lights and loud music, while others keep things more relaxed, so choose carefully!) The dhow will take you out into the bay. If Doha’s weather treats you well, the bay is the perfect spot to be in the early evening, when the sun sets in a blaze of color, the temperatures dip, and a cool breeze blows in across the gulf.
3. Souq Waqif
Get lost in the Souq Waqif in Doha, Qatar. | Qatar Tourism Authority
No guide to what to do in Doha would be complete without mention of the Souq Waqif, or “standing market.” The bazaar’s mud-coated stone walls look ancient, but were recently reconstructed to look as they would have originally. A Bedouin market once stood on the site to facilitate trading of meat, wool, and silk. Today, the souq’s labyrinthine alleys are the place to go for handmade goods, traditional garments, spices, souvenirs — and even falcons, with whom you can get up close and personal at the falcon souq.
The souq is also the perfect place to get lost as you wander from shop to shop, following your nose — often literally. Spice shops offer cardamom, saffron, and rose. Perfume shops abound, selling incense, scented oils, and perfumes. Antique dealers offer wares that may (or may not) have quite a history. Artisans have shops selling everything from instruments to glassware to textiles, and many items are even made on-site.
Some vendors will even tell you their stories, including a pearl seller who was once a pearl diver. You can also stock up on obligatory souvenirs. And don’t miss the chance for a delicious meal at Parisa, which serves up classic Iranian food in a lavish space with sparkling mosaics, a water fountain, and dangling chandeliers.
4. Al Mourjan
Enjoy spectacular views of the Doha skyline from Al Mourjan. | Qatar Tourism Authority
When you arrive at Al Mourjan, the only restaurant on the Corniche, request to be seated outside. The casual outdoor dining area juts out into the water, and the street lights across the bay look almost like twinkle lights across the water. With comfortable wicker chairs, the patio offers a relaxed place to take in views of the West Bay, breathe in the ocean breeze, and, of course, sample the menu of Lebanese food.
Though Lebanese food isn’t rare in Doha, Al Mourjan offers some of the best — and you can’t go wrong by starting with the hummus, some of the most delicious in the city. The menu offers an extensive array of hot and cold mezza, grilled dishes, and seafood. Like many places in Doha, Al Mourjan also offers an array of fresh juices, plus traditional desserts including the delicious oumali and mehlabiya. You can also experience the Middle Eastern pastime of shisha, usually known in the west as hookah, right on the terrace.
5. Mondrian Doha
Swim in the rooftop pool at the Mondrian, Doha. | Mondrian Doha via Facebook
The Mondrian Doha is a standout property in a city with no shortage of luxury hotels. Whether making a quick stopover — nationals from more than 80 countries can take advantage of visa-free entry into Qatar — or staying longer, you’ll want to experience the Mondrian for its engaging juxtaposition of the trappings of modern opulence with playful nods to Arabian tradition. Marcel Wanders studied traditional Arabic patterns and the imagery of One Thousand and One Nights to design the interior of the hotel.
You can see the influence of the iconic Middle Eastern folk tales in the golden eggs adorning the columns in the lobby and the ice-white “frozen forest” of cloud-topped trees in the lounge. You’ll also find mosaic floors, a stained glass dome set high above a black-and-white pool, and a black “staircase to nowhere” that spirals down into the atrium like an enormous plume of smoke. In every room, you’ll see a version of the mural that Wanders designed for the hotel, depicting the story of a Dutchman’s travels through the desert.
Even if you opt to stay somewhere else — though we can’t recommend the capacious bathtub in each room enough — you’ll still want to stop by the Mondrian for its restaurants and bars. There’s something for everyone, but Walima stands out for its focus on Qatari cuisine, with a shisa terrace and garden. Other choices include CUT by Wolfgang Puck, Hudson Tavern, and Morimoto, plus the Rise bar, the Black Orchid nightclub, and the Smoke & Mirrors lounge.
6. Msheireb Museums
Experience Qatar’s history at the four houses of the Msheireb Museums. | Qatar Tourism Authority
The Qatar Museums Authority sponsors a network of museums and galleries across Doha, from the Museum of Islamic Art to the Mathaf Arab Museum of Modern Art. And you can’t miss the National Museum of Qatar, which will soon open in a desert-rose-inspired building designed by Jean Nouvel. Another name to know is the Msheireb Museums, four historic houses in the oldest part of Doha, just a five-minute walk from the Souq Waqif.
The Mohammed bin Jassim House showcases Doha’s history and architectural heritage. The Company House illustrates how Qatari petroleum industry workers and their families helped modernize the country’s society. The Radwani House presents traditional Qatari family life. And the Bin Jelmood House traces the history of the slave trade in Qatar and other gulf countries, even addressing the topic of modern human trafficking, including the “contract slavery” that still happens in the gulf.
7. Mesaieed desert
Take an excursion out of Doha to visit the desert near the Khor Al Adaid. | Qatar Tourism Authority
The main sights in the Qatari capital are scattered, and the city isn’t known for being pedestrian-friendly. (That will change with the launch of the Doha Metro, the first phase of which will soon become operational.) If you feel up to the adventure of navigating Doha’s roads yourself, you can easily rent a car. Otherwise, hiring a driver is an easy way to open up numerous avenues for exploration in and around the capital.
You’ll find sand, sun, and heat no matter which direction you choose out of Doha. But we’d recommend heading south toward the Mesaieed desert. You can ride a camel if you’re in search of a traditional desert experience. But if you hire an expert driver, you can also go dune bashing, navigating up and down steep sand dunes at adrenaline-pumping, heart-pounding speeds and angles.
Depending on the strength of your stomach, you may love the ride. Or, you may find yourself breathing a sigh of relief when the driver stops the vehicle so that you can take in the panoramic vistas across the top of the otherworldly dunes. There are no signs and no roads, but experienced drivers know the way, even at night and even when a sandstorm has wiped away all the tracks.
8. Regency Sealine Camp
Leave Doha for a few hours to visit the Khor Al Adaid, or Inland Sea. | Qatar Tourism Authority
When the dust settles and you reach Qatar’s southernmost point, the forbidding desolation of the desert is tempered by the sight of the Khor Al Adaid. The Inland Sea separates Qatar and Saudi Arabia, and you can see Saudi Arabia across the water through the haze, a stark image in the current political climate. (Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have led a blockade against Qatar, involving a sea and air boycott.)
Continue driving through the desert and you’ll arrive at the coast of the Khor Al Adaid — and the Regency Sealine Camp in Ash Shaqra’. The resort camp offers overnight accommodations in Bedouin-style tents with traditional rugs and comfortable beds — plus air conditioning, an en-suite bathroom, Wi-Fi, and even a large-screen TV. But you’ll want to be out on the beach, where a line of plush gazebos parallels the surf. Listening to the stillness of the desert, looking out into the deep blue gulf or admiring an orange moon hanging over the sea, you don’t need distractions.
9. Al Shahaniya camel racetrack
Watch camels training for a race at the Al Shahaniya racetrack. | Jess Bolluyt for The Cheat Sheet
Qatar will host the World Cup in 2022. But in the meantime, football isn’t the only sport you can enjoy during your stay in Doha. Traditional Qatari sports include falconry, horse racing, and camel racing. You can learn about the Bedouin tradition of falconry at the Souq Waqif and the role of Arabian horses in Qatar’s history at Al Shaqab. But the most exciting place to see the animals who are part of life in the gulf is the Al Shahaniya camel racetrack north of Doha.
Camel racing dates back to the 7th century and remains a popular pastime. Races don’t happen every day. But each morning at 9:30 a.m., you can watch young camels training for future races. Handlers ride mature camels during training, but on race days, you’ll only see remote-controlled robotic jockeys on the track, which both protect the camels and prevent children from working as riders.
On the way to the racetrack or on the drive back to Doha, make sure to stop at a local tea stand. Just honk your horn and a server will come to you. The selection of beverages varies, but you can’t go wrong with karak, a warm drink made with black tea, milk, sugar, and spices, chief among them cardamom.
10. Al Thakira
Explore the mangrove forest at Al Thakira by kayak. | Qatar Tourism Authority
Another worthy excursion out of Doha is the trip to the mangrove forest at Al Thakira, just north of the seaside city of Al Khor, an hour from Doha. In addition to the improbable juxtaposition of desert and ocean, the region also boasts the Al Thakira Nature Reserve, an island with a beach and a forest of mangroves, growing out of channels that fill and empty with the tide.
You can take a kayaking tour with a variety of providers, including Discover Arabia. You’ll kayak from a beach on the gulf into the mangrove forest, paddling through shallow waterways with trees on both sides. The guide will stop the group to take in the sights at a remote beach before you turn back. If you time the tour correctly, you may find yourself paddling back across the gulf during sunset — or at the moment that the call to prayer rings out from a nearby mosque, carrying across the water.
“Hayya’ala-salaah,” the call will come across the gulf if you’re in the right place at exactly the right time. “Hayya’alal-falaah.” Translated, “Come to prayer, come to success.” If you’re like many travelers, you’ll probably visit a mosque during your time in Doha. But hearing the haunting call across the water may be one of the most poignant moments that roots you in an unmistakable sense of place for Qatar.
Editor’s note: All trip accommodations were provided by Qatar Tourism Authority. Opinions and recommendations are our own.
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