As part of my recent trip to Kenya, I chose to take a 24-hour layover in Qatar so I could do a Doha city tour. I’d done a similar thing in Dubai a year ago and loved having the opportunity to explore a bit of the Middle East without adding the additional expense. My Doha city tour proved to be another excellent adventure!
Doha at a Glance
Located in the Persian Gulf, the peninsula country of Qatar is one of seven Arab states, sharing a small border with Saudi Arabia. Now claiming to be the richest country in the world per capita thanks to the discovery of the world’s third-largest gas reserves, Doha has transitioned from camels to high-end luxury cars (mostly all of them white). Qatar is scheduled to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup (soccer).
- Population: 1,850,000
- Currency: Qatari riyal
- Language: Arabic (some English, Urdu, French, Malayalam, Tagalog)
- Elevation: 33 feet
- Religion: Muslim
Though the country is small, the capital, Doha, has been on a fast cycle of development, offering lots of attractions to boost its tourism attractiveness.
Taking in the current opulence of Doha, it’s hard to believe the city was originally a tiny fishing and pearling village sitting next to a vast, empty desert.
Doha was founded in the 1820s as an offshoot of Al Bidda, was previously the largest town in Qatar in the 19th century. It was officially declared as the country’s capital in 1971 when Qatar gained independence from being a British Protectorate.
Income in Doha used to come primarily from the trade of freshwater pearls from the Gulf, but when Japan began harvesting pearls, it hit Doha hard and resulted in a depression in the 1930s.
Doha has been recently named as one of the 7 New Wonder Cities in the World.
Doha seamlessly combines cosmopolitan glam with traditional Bedouin culture.
My 24-hour city tour started in the old souk, progressed to museums and cityscapes, and ended back in the souk for dinner.
Visitors can study Doha’s culture at various museums such as Mathaf – Arab Museum of Modern Art, the Sheikh Faisal Museum – private collection of a billionaire sheik including fossilized dinosaur eggs a 120 million-year-old head and neck of a dinosaur, Qatar National Museum, Mohammed bin Jassim House which showcases Doha’s history and architectural heritage, and Bin Jelmood House traces the history of the slave trade in Qatar and other gulf countries and addresses the topic of modern human trafficking.
Like many other Muslim countries, local Doha women wore a black abaya (aka burqa) a loose-fitting robe that covers the entire body and head. This doesn’t mean tourists have to be fully covered or even wear a headscarf, but it’s always a good idea to be respectful to the customs anyplace you are visiting, so conservative dress is appropriate.
I was advised to keep my shoulders and legs above the knees covered, so that’s exactly what I did. Truth-be-told, I favor flowy Instagrammable dresses anyway, so it was not a hardship for me. You’ll also need a wide-brimmed hat, good sunglasses, ad apply sunscreen liberally because the sun is really strong. If you’d like to duplicate my Doha outfit, I’ve got you covered! Take a look below:
Here are my top ten things to do on a Doha city tour.
1 Souq Waqif
I have to be honest here, wandering around the Souq Waqif (“standing market”) was my favorite thing to do in Doha, and if it was the only thing I’d gotten to do, I would have been happy. It’s the city’s most popular destination, with good reason.
Exploring the labyrinth of narrow alleyways of the souq is like being teleported to a time-gone-by. The old souq dates back to more than 100 years ago when it was a bustling stopping point for nomadic Bedouins to trade meat, wool, silk, and camels. Unfortunately, a lot of the original buildings were destroyed by fire in 2003, but it was rebuilt with great care to replicate the mud-coated stone walls to look like the ancient, authentic Qatari structures.
The ambiance is a cacophony of merchants hawking their goods, aromas of BBQ camel meat mixed with pungent cardamom and saffron spices, incense, and sweet perfumes; vibrant textiles and handmade goods are displayed next to antique Aladdin brass lamps and glittering gold jewelry, and of course, there’s the occasional call of the mu’azzin to prayer.
If you’re looking for souvenirs, this is the place to find them. Expect to haggle for prices – this is their way.
If you can, try to visit the souq at night, when it really comes alive. We heard music coming from a doorway, and when investigated, it was a women-only gathering house filled with festive Arabic music and dancing.
We loved the food in Doha! Due to the influence of international flavors in the country, there are a lot of choices. We chose to dine in Souq Waqif and highly recommend it. Our alfresco dining at Al Terrace, a Lebanese restaurant, was perfect. Sitting squarely in the middle of the souq, the balmy night air enhanced the experience. Ambiance could not have been better while a live local band played and sang lovely Arabic music (some locals joined in singing).
Our meal was beyond fabulous. The hummus was the best I’ve ever tasted, and the mixed grill containing lamb, beef, and chicken was perfectly cooked and flavored.
3 Al Corniche
The heart of the capital, Al Corniche is the perfect place for a leisurely stroll or bike ride along the horseshoe-shaped promenade. Lined with palms and aquamarine Gulf water on one side and glitzy skyscrapers on the other, the four-mile waterfront is filled with cafes, restaurants, shops, and green spaces.
Land for the Corniche was reclaimed from the ocean in a dredging project to reshape Doha’s coast in the late 1970s to early 1980s.
The best place on the Corniche to capture the stunning cityscape is near the Museum of Islamic Art where you can also see the traditional wooden dhow boats bobbing in the bay.
4 Museum of Islamic Art
Considered the most important cultural landmark in Qatar, the Museum of Islamic Art is considered to have the largest collection of Islamic art in the world. Spanning three floors of exhibits the museum contains weapons, paintings, ceramics, textiles, metalwork, jewelry, calligraphy and rare manuscripts, and ancient artifacts from Turkey, Syria, India, Egypt, Iran, and other places in the Middle East, dating back to 1400 years.Sitting on its own island on the Corniche, the stunning, postmodern geometric building was designed by world-renowned Chinese-American architect I.M. Pei, who is also famous for designing the glass pyramid at the Louvre in Paris. The museum is also known as “the eyes of Doha” because it resembles a woman’s face shrouded by a burqa. Expansive plazas flank the sides of the museum, offering spectacular views of Doha’s modern cityscape. Pei recently passed away in 2019.
Note: the museum does adhere to a strict dress code, so shoulders and knees must be covered.
5 The Pearl
Nicknamed the “Arabian Riviera” the Pearl Qatar is a man-made island offering upscale cuisine, entertainment, a marina, and shops as well as opportunities to purchase the expensive waterfront villas. In fact, its claim to fame is that it was the first property in Qatar to be available for freehold ownership by non-Qataris.
The epitome of luxury, the Pearl covers an area of nearly 1,000 acres. Including ongoing construction, the total project has been estimated to cost $15 billion upon completion. Visitors can take a stroll along the boardwalk overlooking the marina filled with a variety of international cafes and restaurants or take a boat ride through the Venice-style canals. It’s a bit like Vegas, but worth a short look-around.
6 Katara Cultural Center
If you’re looking for an Instagrammable place in Doha, head to Katara Cultural Center on the eastern coast. Also known as the Valley of Cultures, Katara is filled with pretty places and beautiful traditional-style and tiled architecture, designed to transport back to traditional life with its maze of alleyways. The compound includes an opera house, art galleries, Greco-Roman amphitheater, modern sculptures, heritage center, eateries, and even a beach. Katara hosts creative workshops as well as events like the Doha Tribeca Film Festival, TEDx Doha, and Ajyal Youth Film Festival.
7 Imam Abdul Wahab Shaikh Mosque
One of the largest mosques in Qatar, the architecturally-understated Imam Abdul Wahab Shaikh Mosque is open to non-Muslims as long as it isn’t prayer time. If you choose to go inside (I did not), women will be given abayas and men must have knees and shoulders covered. The mosque is massive and can hold 30,000 people. Outside, looking away from the mosque is a dazzling view of the West Bay skyline.
8 Aspire Tower
The Aspire Tower, also known as “the Touch,” was built for the 15th Asian Games hosted by Qatar in 2006. The 984-ft-tall skyscraper, which is now a luxury hotel, is the tallest building in Qatar, offering stunning 360-degree panoramic views of the city. Evening dinner in the rotating 47th-floor restaurant will not disappoint.
Located on the edge of Souq Waqif, Fanar is the Islamic Cultural Center. The spiral mosque, a replica of the Great Mosque of Al-Mutawwakil in Samarra in Iraq, is one of Doha’s most recognizable landmarks. The exhibits in Fanar are aimed to help non-Muslims become more informed about Islam and its culture, and visitors can even get Arabic lessons there.
10 Camels, Falcons, Horses
I saved these attractions for last because I’m really not a fan of animal tourism. Within Souq Waqif, there are several opportunities to view and/or engage with animals.
Falconry is generally associated with the wealthy, so it’s no surprise that this is big in Doha and even considered its premier national sport. Historically, Qatar Bedouins trained falcons to hunt for prey and it continues to be part of the culture. Doha’s falconry has even been listed on UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity List for Middle Eastern culture and enjoys government investing to preserve the tradition. There’s a section in the souq dedicated to falcons where visitors are given demonstrations of the eerie birds perched on bars or even on the handler’s arm. While our tour spent some time there, I confess that I opted to explore the area outside – animals in captivity are just not my thing.
Falcons aren’t the only birds that Qataris can purchase. Walking through the souq, you’ll see and hear smaller birds in cages waiting to be sold.
Arabian horses are admired around the world. It’s possible to tour the royal stables located in the souq and see the horses up close, some of which are indeed treated like royalty.
Unlike the animal tourism above, a peek at the royal camels was fun! When we entered the wide open area where they were resting, the camels rose, obviously used to human visits.
As I was setting up to take a selfie with the camels in the background, I felt a nudge at my back. Sure enough, the culprit was a camel – I swear it was smiling to photobomb my selfie. I snapped a few but then walked away as he seemed to be eyeing my blonde hair as if it was hay! J
There are more things to do in Doha if you have more time, including beaches, dunes, art galleries, and shopping malls.
Is Qatar Safe?
With terrorism rampant in some parts of the Middle East, this is a valid question. The answer is yes, Doha is safe. I never felt threatened in any way, even walking around the souq at night with just a female friend. Perhaps because poverty is almost non-existent, there’s very little crime. However, I did not find the locals very friendly.
Interestingly, our guide (a 10-year expat from the Philippines)kept saying over and over that females in Qatar have equality, as if he repeated it enough times, we would believe it. But his reiteration was belied by his so-called examples of equality.
“If a man has three wives, he must treat them all equally,” he said. “If he buys one a Mercedes (the most popular car), he must buy all of them a Mercedes; if he builds one a palace, he must build all of them a palace.”
“But are women allowed to have multiple husbands?” I asked. Of course, the answer was no.
“Then there is no equality, no matter how many gifts are given.” I snorted.
INSIDER TIP: Never travel to any foreign country without travel insurance! Random, unplanned things can happen. I was involved in a horrendous car crash in South Africa in 2014. Use the form below to get a FREE, no-obligation quote.
Disclosure: The author was honored to be the guest of Tivoli Souq Waqif for her tour of Doha, but as always, the opinions, reviews, and experiences are her own.
Click on the images below to PIN so you can find Doha city tour info again:
This article may contain affiliate/compensated links. For full information, please see our disclaimer.
About the Author
Patti Morrow is a freelance travel writer and founder of the award-winning international blog Luggage and Lipstick and southern travel blog Gone to Carolinas. TripAdvisor called her one of “20 Baby Boomer Travel Bloggers Having More Fun Than Millennials.” Patti is the author of the book “Girls Go Solo: Tips for Women Traveling Alone,” and has over 150 bylines in 40 print and online publications, including The Huffington Post, International Living Magazine, Washington Post Sunday Travel, Travel Girl, Travel Play Live Magazine, and Ladies Home Journal. She has traveled six continents looking for fabulous places and adventure activities for her Baby Boomer (and Gen X!) tribe.