In December 2018, we decided to layover in Doha, Qatar for a little over 24 hours to explore the city on our way to Bali. We arrived to DOH – Hamad International Airport in early afternoon and departed the following afternoon which gave us and afternoon and a morning to explore the city. In this post, we share information about where to stay, things to do, and general tips to plan a visit to Doha, Qatar’s capital city.
Doha is Qatar’s capital and also the largest and most well-known city in this Gulf nation. Qatar is a relatively small country with an estimated population of 2.6 million people and of those, 1.35 million people live in Doha. Like other nations in the Gulf, Qatar depends on foreign labor and this population is estimated at being 88% of the total population of the country.
Similarly to Dubai, Doha was a small fishing and pearl village until the 1970s. Qatar went from being one of the poorest countries in the Middle East in the mid-20th century to one of the richest once the discovery and production of oil began.
Like other cities in the Middle East, there is a lot of development in Doha, especially now as they get ready to host the 2022 World Cup. There is definitely a lot of glitz and glam but there is also an effort to preserve historical and cultural landmarks as Doha continues to focus on becoming more of a tourist hotspot.
Things to Do:
Most travel guides will list very similar recommendations of things to do when visiting Dubai that range from shopping, shopping and more shopping to visiting the souqs, hanging out at the beach or the Corniche, and watching camel races. During our visit, we spent time at the Museum of Islamic Art, Souq Waqif, walking around the Corniche and relaxing at our hotel.
- The Museum of Islamic Art:
Located on the Al Corniche waterfront walkway, the Museum of Islamic Art is not only an architectural gem but a cultural one too with its Islamic relics from all over the region and special exhibitions. You can easily spend hours here and leave feeling as though you didn’t get to see everything. We like the concept of museums but don’t always enjoy visiting them but the MIA was really interesting and definitely worth our time. The great thing about the museum is that admission is free and it’s open daily from 09:00-19:00 (except Fridays when it is open from 13:30-19:00). If you are visiting during the summer when it’s very hot, the museum is air conditioned. Please note that a dress code is in effect (see Dress Code Tips below).
More information: http://www.mia.org.qa/en/
- Souq Waqif:
Souq Waqif translates to “standing market” and is one of the oldest souqs in Doha. As consumer trends shifted to shop at the new fancy malls, the souq wasn’t as popular and in 2003, a major fire destroyed most of it but due to its cultural and historical importance, it was fixed and is now a popular tourist attraction. Yes, Souq Waqif is touristy but it is also popular with locals, which makes it feel more authentic. Souq Waqif is a place to wander around the labyrinth of alleys; shop for everything from spices to sandals; stay at a boutique hotel with character; enjoy coffee, tea, shisha, food, or just to people watch. The market starts early in the morning and most things close from noon to 16:00 but you can still visit when things are closed as it is easier to get photos when it is less crowded and some food vendors stay open.
- Animal Market: Avoid the animal market if you are sensitive to animals being caged.
- Access to WIFI: The free WIFI at the market requires you to share your cell phone number to receive a text with an access code but doesn’t work.
- Credit Cards: Many places only accept cash so bring Qatari riyal. We ran out of cash and ate at Zaatar W Zeit because they accept credit card and despite the restaurant being busy, the food was mediocre.
Where to Stay – Ritz Carlton Sharq Village & Spa:
We decided to stay at the Ritz Carlton Sharq Village & Spa as it is a Marriott property and is located a quick and cheap Uber ride away from the airport. We chose the Sharq Village because the rooms have balconies and a nice beach front setting as opposed to the Marriott next door which looks more like a standard airport hotel.
As Marriott Platinum, we were aware we wouldn’t get perks like free breakfast since Ritz Carlton doesn’t offer that but we did get a room upgrade to a sea view room but not on the higher floor as we requested. The room was very nice and comfortable and I liked the Arabian style décor a lot more than Jason did.
You cannot drink the water in Doha and the hotel supplied enough water to drink and make coffee. The bathroom was equipped with a shower and a soaker tub. Like most hotel showers, it leaked a lot when in use.
Our balcony wasn’t the most private as we were on the ground floor but it was a nice space to sit in the evening or in the morning. We also had to keep the blinds closed most of the time due to the pathway by our room.
The hotel is beach front but you are near a port and so there is debris in the water and we did see jellyfish which made it unappealing to use the stand-up paddle boards and swim in the ocean. We opted to use the pools instead.
In the morning, I decided to use the gym and was offered access to the coed section or the ladies only. I chose to work out in the ladies only section and was pleasantly surprised by how much equipment there was; unlike other gyms, the ladies section wasn’t an afterthought. It had lots of cardio machines, spin bikes, free weights, Pilates equipment, and other strength training/functional training equipment.
After my workout, I used the complimentary spa facilities which included a hot tub, cold plunge bath beside the hot tub, steam room, sauna, shower and lounge area. I was the only person using the spa and enjoyed how quiet and serene it was.
Where to Eat:
We had limited time in Doha so we were not able to eat at all the places on our list. Here are a few places we do recommend.
Parisa is a Persian restaurant with two locations in Doha, one in Souq Waqif and other at the Ritz Carlton Shark Village where we were staying. The location at Souq Waqif offers a dining experience in a closed in space that’s very unique as it features hand-painted Persian artwork and lots of chandeliers and mirror while the location at Shark Village offers indoor or outdoor dining in a more modern setting.
We skipped breakfast so we had an early lunch outside on the patio. We had the patio to ourselves for a while but then when others arrived, they started smoking which was a downside of sitting outside even if you have a nice view. We ordered the watermelon feta salad and the lamb and chicken skewers to share and it was more than enough food, especially since they serve a welcome appetizer of break, cheese, and veggies. Jason had a beer and I had an iced tea followed by some complimentary Iranian tea. The server was very keen to have us enjoy the tea and we are so happy we made the time for it as it was quite unique and refreshing after the meal. Despite the fact it’s served like Turkish tea, Iranian tea is very different as it has notes of cloves, cinnamon, pepper, ginger, and cardamom.
Information about the Souq Waqif location: https://www.tripadvisor.ca/Restaurant_Review-g294009-d12537777-Reviews-Parisa_Souq_Waqif-Doha.html
- Shujaa Restaurant:
Shujaa is a small outdoor restaurant located in Souq Waqif. It is known for grilled meats and other Middle Eastern foods. Don’t get stressed about the crowds, join them! Meat is only available after 16:00 and your order at the counter and go grab a seat after, just be prepared to share the table. We had hummus and 3 lamb skewers each that were served with flatbread. We didn’t take any photos as it was very crowded and we wanted to respect people’s privacy.
- Al Aker Sweets:
Al Aker is a small dessert café in Souq Waqif renowned for “kunafa” a traditional Arab dessert made with thin noodles soaked in sweet syrup and topped with cheese. It’s sweet, salty, crunchy, and creamy making it a very unique and addictive dessert.
- Al Manchab:
Al Mancha is a restaurant that serves Qatari cuisine and is located in the Hazm Mall. We really wanted to have dinner here but ran out of time and energy. The reviews are mixed but the food looks delicious and I trust my friend’s opinion as he ate here and had a very positive experience. It is a lot easier to find international cuisine than Qatari cuisine at a restaurant in Doha and so Al Manchab is a good place to go to experience Qatari food.
More information: https://www.instagram.com/almanchab/
- Getting Around: While in Doha, we walked a lot and also used Uber. Our hotel was just under 4 kilometres away from Souq Waqif and we walked once, following the Al Corniche walkway. It is best to follow the walkway as there are limited sidewalks due to all the construction taking place in the city.
- Alcohol: Alcohol is available at licensed hotels and bars but be prepared to pay a lot of money for it. It is an offence to be drunk in public so if you are drinking, keep your behavior under control. At the airport and on the airplane, it is fine to consume alcohol even if others don’t.
- Dress Code: The dress code in Doha is more relaxed for men than women but women do not need to cover their heads unless they are visiting a mosque. Men and women should still dress modestly. Jason wore jeans and button down shirt and I wore ankle pants with a loose fitting long sleeve top that covered my shoulders and chest area.
- Etiquette: We limited personal contact with another, so no holding hands in public. We also didn’t shake hands with people as this is not the norm here. People also seemed to address Jason more than me, so I respected that and let him do the talking and paying for things.
- Photos: We only took photos when others were not in them as we were too shy to ask. We try to follow this practice everywhere, but especially in more reserved countries.
Overall, we really enjoyed our stay in Doha because we experienced more of the Arabic culture we were looking for in Doha than when we visited Dubai. We wish we’d have had one more night to go have dinner at Al Manchab, spend more time at the Souq, and go back to the Museum of Islamic Art to visit the exhibits we missed out on. We would recommend spending 2-3 nights and having 2 solid days in Doha. When scheduling your visit, keep in mind that many things are closed or open later on Friday as that is the day of important prayers for Muslims.
Have you ever visited Doha? Have you ever experienced Arabic culture? If so, where? Do you think all museums should offer complimentary admission? If so, would it encourage you to visit?
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