A week in Doha!
What are you going to do for a week in Doha?
Why Doha? There’s nothing going on there!
These were some of the comments we heard when we told friends who had been to that city in the past. I’m not sure when they had actually been there, but my trip there in early February was far from boring. I actually did not have enough time to complete my list of must see places.
Qatar does not have much of a glamorous past as it’s neighbours who boasts of being a part of ancient empires, civilisations, and trading ports and routes.
The desert in Qatar was home to roaming Bedouin tribes while coastal areas were inhabited by deep sea pearl divers and fishermen. The ruins of old towns, villages and ports like Al-Zubarah, Al-Jumail and Zekreet only date back to the 18th century and these too did not play a major role in terms of trade and commerce in the region.
Qatar only started blossoming in the mid 1900’s following the discovery of vast expanses of oil and gas fields. This transformed the peninsular from a sleepy backwater into what is today one of the world’s richest economies.
This lucrative natural resource has afforded Qatar the financial means for rapid physical development and world class facilities and infrastructure. Following this the country is now entering the next phase of social and cultural development.
There are a large number of museums, art galleries and theaters targeted at socio-cultural enhancement, while a massive education city just outside Doha is driven to develop a knowledge based society.
The diplomatic crisis that led to Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Saudi, Egypt, Bahrain and several other African countries cutting off diplomatic and trade ties with Qatar seems to have left little impact.
Products and produce from Turkey, Iran, Oman and Asia have replaced products once imported from those countries.
A Qatari friend who travels to Dubai often to shop vowed to never set foot there again. “These countries were like family, and when family treats you this way, it is unforgivable.”
“There is bigger world out there, not just these countries, and we are doing okay without them,” said another friend.
Doha itself is quite cosmopolitan owing to the large number of expatriates from Europe, Asia, America, the Middle East and Africa. More than 80% of Qatar’s 2.6 million population is made up of foreigners.
Thus there is a wide selection of cuisines from all over the world here, and shopping in supermarkets in Qatar is an experience in itself as the shelves carry an assortment of spices and condiments for the various nationalities that patronise it.
Seven days was thus not long enough for me, as I have yet to tick off some items from my to-do list and will save it for my next trip there.
Below is a compilation of 10 things you must see and do in Doha and the places around it. The best time to visit Qatar is in winter when the weather is at its coolest and most pleasant. In summer, temperatures can rise up to 40°C.
1. Walk along the Doha Corniche
This seven kilometer stretch is the best place to take in the views of Doha Bay and the city skyline at various times of the day. The glistening steel and glass structures in the hot daytime sun transforms into a colourful display of lights in the evening. The Cornice that connects various parts of the city has wide walkways, with phone charging stations, benches and art installations.
Dhows or traditional sailing boats can be rented for a ride along the bay. This would be a good way to take in the view and admire the architecture of the various buildings along the bay including the Museum of Islamic Art (MIA), the Qatar Islamic Culture Centre, the Emiri Diwan, the Doha city centre skyline, Souq Waqif and the unique pyramid shaped Sheraton Hotel among others.
If you’re an early riser, watch the fishing boats come in with their catch of the day at the Corniche fish market at sunrise. The boats start coming in around 5.30am with an array of seafood from the Persian Gulf.
Also across the road from the Corniche fish market is the Qatar National Museum which is in the midst of construction. It is designed by Jean Nouvel in the form of desert roses.
2) City Skyline
Most cities can be identified immediately by one or two building that stand out in its skyline. Doha on the other hand has several of these. Many of these are ‘designer buildings’ commissioned to world renown architects. These include:
The Al-Bidda Tower
The Doha Tower that has many crude references is actually a prominent building from afar and which intricate Islamic design is best appreciated up close.
The Tornado Tower (also known as QIPCO Tower), is referred to by some locals as ‘the ice-cream cone’.
3) The Museum of Islamic Art (MIA)
Of all the The MIA is one building that deserves it’s own space, and I will be writing more about it in my coming post. This building designed by renown architect I.M. Pei who also designed the Bank of China Tower in Hong Kong and the glass and steel pyramid for The Louvre museum in Paris.
The MIA, when viewed from afar, resembles a veiled woman, with only her eyes showing. The angles of the building form shadows that vary throughout the day according to where the bright rays of the desert sun falls – giving it a different perspective each time you see it. At night it is lit in a way that accentuates the angles to give it a mysterious appearance.
Inside the design seems to be inspired and build around the 8-point star or Rub el Hizb Islamic design, and just like the outside plays with the hues and colours of the desert sun, sky and the Doha bay to create a mesmerising interior.
The 45,000 sq meters of floor space hosts some impressive Islamic art and artifacts.
4) Education City
The education city in Qatar built and launched by the Qatar Foundation for Education, Science and Community Development is a 14 square kilometer complex that houses schools for all levels, including university branch campuses.
The latest highlight in the city is the state of the art Qatar National Library that opened in Nov 7, last year.
It has over a million books, e-book collections, periodicals, newspapers, special collections, multimedia facilities and exhibition spaces.
The diamond shaped building with undulating glass panels on the side has bright and spacious interior that that is appealing to people of all ages and from all walks of life.
5) Katara Cultural Village
Katara is the ancient reference to Qatar. This cultural village is designed to showcase the cultural richness and diversity of the peninsular. Facing the bay, the Katara amphitheater has an amazing backdrop of the sea, sky and Doha skyline.
A selection of restaurants, street food and cafes for visitors. The Al-Jazeera Cafe is one of these. It is has an interesting collection of articles and items, some belonging to its journalists who were killed in the line of duty.
It also has an interactive studio that allows patrons to record themselves presenting the news after which they can take home a copy of the recording. It also features tables with interactive screens on which you can view the menu, the news and even play air-hockey.
The buildings here, especially the mosques feature beautiful and intricate designs including the Ottoman gold mosque, the Katara mosque designed by Zainab Fadil Oglu which features mosque designs from all over the world, the drama theater, the opera house and opulent halls and galleries.
Katara is designed to be a hub to showcase the various cultures, particularly that of the middle east.
6) Shopping in Qatar
The choice is yours, if you like a little bit of a rustic and rugged experience, then hit the souqs and markets like Souq Wakif, where depending on which section you enter through will hit your senses in different ways.
We entered through the pet section and were greeted with the chirping of birds, the squawking of parrots and the sight of colourful birds including pheasants.
There is even a falcon hospital in Doha – not surprising in a country where falcon racing is a big sport. There is also a horse stable and camel pen in the souq.
Turn a corner, and your nose will be hit by the pungent and aromatic aroma of spices, teas and Arabic sweets.
Along the food street are also souvenir shops where you can pick up some small, fancy or intricate souvenirs for home and if you don’t mind splurging, there is the gold souq where you can buy intricately designed jewelry and precious stones.
The shops in the souq close from 12.30pm till about 4pm for siesta time though.
In the winter the weather is pleasant the souq is a great place to wander around in.
A little further outside Doha is Souq Wakif Al-Wakara by the sea. It has some good eateries and shops or just nice for a stroll by the beach.
However, in the summer you may be better off visiting one of the many shopping malls like Doha Festival City, Mall of Qatar or Villaggio and AlHazm Mall if you fancy something more opulent.
7) Zekreet (Zikrit)
About an hour outside Doha, Zekreet is the place to be if you need to just break away from civilization and indulge in a bit of adventure. Noting quite like being the only person or group in a place with the open sea in front of you, the vast desert behind you and the blue sky above you.
It was quite an adventure to go off road in our Nissan Pathfinder and drive up and slide down steep hills and dunes all the way to the film city – a city designed as a film set for Arabic TV shows that was also used as a set for Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.
There’s also the Zekreet fort and East-West/West East by Richard Serra.
If you’re lucky you might even catch a glimpse of desert animals like the oryx, ostriches, gazelles and deers. Zekreet was one of my favourite parts of Qatar and I will do more justice to it in another separate post).
The Al-Zubarah fort and ruins of nearby villages is a piece of Qatar’s historical past and is listed as a Unesco World Heritage site. Al-Zubarah, about an hour’s drive from Doha. flourished as a pearling and trading port that was destroyed by invaders in the 18th century.
Just a few kilometers down the road from Al-Zubahar is Al-Jumail the ruins of a pearling and fishing village. It was inhabited till the 20th century when the discovery of oil and natural gas charted a new path for Qatar and Qataris altogether.
9) Qatar: Food Trail
A must on your Doha ‘Do List’ should be the markets and supermarkets, which as I mentioned earlier, are stocked full of exotic food, spices, fruits, plants, meats, cheeses and a mishmash of items that cater for locals and foreigners who call this home.
Then there is the food which simply assault your senses. I dislike lamb and mutton dishes, as I cannot stand the smell of the meat. There are only a few who can get it right for me, including my mum; but in Qatar (the places I had been to at least) had just the right blend of spices to serve up lamb dishes that I salivate over even as I write about it. Just the right blend of sweet, salty, sour and spice mix that gives the meat a great aroma a taste. It’s all best washed down with a cup of cardamon and saffron infused ‘Karak Chai’.
Also for those who have a sweet tooth like me, Qatar is dessert heaven!
More on Qatar food coming up.
10) Places of worship
The mosques in Doha have an eclectic mix of features and architecture from various parts of the Arab world. Some are rich, colourful and opulent, while others are understated and focused on making the Islamic elements stand out.
Doha’s Inter Denominational Christian Church (IDCC) Complex is an interesting concept that brings together Christian churches of various denominations in one area. These are the first Christian churches to be built in Qatar since Islam took root in the 7th century. In 2005 the Ruler of Qatar (Emir) authorised the leasing of this land to Christian churches for their spiritual and community needs.
Security is very tight in this area though, with barricades and police patrol cars around. Devotees also have to go through metal detectors and scanners before they are allowed into the complex.
More on Qatar coming up soon.