When Hamad International Airport opened in 2014, it was a statement of intention from Qatar to the world about Doha’s emerging position within the framework of international travel. It didn’t take long for the impressive hub to establish itself as a major thoroughfare for passengers crossing large distances, becoming one of the world’s 50 busiest airports in just two years. But Qatar’s ambitions neither start nor finish with being a transit link between hemispheres: much like Singapore’s Changi Airport, the facility’s construction was meant to attract visitors in its own right as an architecturally significant development and one of the world’s most luxurious travel experiences.
Hamad is just one example of the rapid development in Qatar that is increasingly catching the world’s eyes. The effort to boost tourism in the lead-up to the FIFA World Cup in 2022 epitomizes the old adage of “build it, and they will come,” while the city gracefully balances its age-old traditions with creating state-of-the-art and top-of-the-line attractions. The saying holds true in this case, with more than 80% of Doha’s (and Qatar’s) population being foreign-born. While the international influence is undeniable, and evident in the architectural and gastronomic landscape of the city, Qatari culture still endows Doha with a distinct sense of locality.
In the buzzing and brilliant souqs (markets of winding alleyways) of Waqif and Al Wakrah, you can sample affordable, delicious, and authentic Middle Eastern cuisine while browsing craftsmen’s wares and admiring elegant falcons, or simply take a seat at one of many cafes to watch the people go by — both on foot and horseback. While rapidly modernizing cities like Doha have a reputation for their opulence, you don’t need to be a millionaire to enjoy many of the very best local treasures. From roaming these markets to exploring the vast, untouched dunes on the city’s outskirts, there are unforgettable experiences for every kind of traveler.
While there are plenty of indoor activities to enjoy during the hot summer months, it’s best to plan your trip for September or later to take most advantage of the manifold outdoor activities in Doha. Locals will also have returned from their summer holidays by then, making for a livelier city and potentially a better overall experience. But if you’re more of a homebody and like a calmer vibe, book away for midsummer! For those looking to get out in the desert, decide exactly what adventure you’d like with Doha Bus. With just a half-day, you can conquer the sand in an all-wheel-drive SUV or hop on a dhow, a traditional sailing boat, for a cruise into the Persian Gulf that stops at the sandy Al Safliya Island. Just head to the Corniche, the city’s waterfront promenade with sweeping skyline views, and find any number of boats offering trips on the water.
Whether you prefer art or adrenaline, the attractions in Doha do not disappoint if you choose to spend most of your time in the city itself. A walk along the city’s waterfront is the best way to take in everything Doha has to offer, and it’s easy to start from whatever point is nearest your accommodation. At the southern end of the Corniche, one can find a pair of world-class museums in the Museum of Islamic Art and the National Museum of Qatar. Both are masterpieces of architectural design, with the former being a project by the legendary I.M. Pei, whose signature glass pyramid at Paris’s Louvre will be known to all. This museum contains manuscripts, tapestries, rugs, ceramics, weapons and more from across the Muslim world stretching from the times of the Ottoman and Mughal empires all the way back to the founding of Islam in the 7th century.
The nearby National Museum and the Katara Cultural Village, at the northern end of the Corniche, are specifically dedicated to the history of Qatar and its people. Besides just their educational value, both of these institutions also present great Instagram opportunities: the museum is a colliding and overlapping amalgamation of discs, interpreting the form of a desert rose in another marriage of postmodern and traditional local elements. Katara features several stunning mosques, a beach, a planetarium, and a museum of Qatar’s maritime culture — between all these exhibits and the famous Pearl Monument, you will quickly learn that Qatar’s first fortunes came from pearl diving and sea trade.
This national industry is also commemorated by the name of Doha’s artificial island and its accompanying marina, the Pearl-Qatar. In addition to gorgeous pastel facades that line imitation Venetian canals, there are picturesque marinas, beaches, and retail spaces. A water taxi can take you from one end of the Pearl to the other, giving you another great photo opportunity. Make sure someone has a good vantage point if you try your hand at Blue Pearl Experience watersports. Paddleboarding, kitesurfing, kayaking, and foiling are all available, giving you the options of a chill afternoon on the water or a real heart-stopping joyride.
However you decide to pass your time in Doha, you’ll quickly discover how much it has to offer as more than just a layover destination. The only way from here is up for the city, an already world-class metropolis that you can still see modernizing and innovating before your very eyes. With ancient architecture and otherworldly natural formations springing up from unspoilt deserts just a stone’s throw from the hustle and bustle, activities you may never have imagined are easily accessible with comfort and class in Doha.
Words by Joseph Ozment, header photo by Florian Wehde.