Quick Visit to Qatar

Published: 10/22/2014

This is a short guide of things to see in Qatar if you only have a little time. One of the first things anyone notices about the country is how fast it is growing and changing (10% annual population growth, sky scrapers popping up everywhere, etc.), so hopefully it remains useful for a little while. Though, with the rate of change in the country, it could be quite soon before this is obsolete. I'm writing this in 2014 after having spent the better part of the last year living in Doha and working at QCRI - part of the Qatar Foundation. I hope this guide is useful to any international visitor to Qatar who only has a couple days to sightsee. I'm putting this list together in part because I have numerous colleagues about to head out to one of our annual professional conferences (EMNLP) which is located in Doha this year, and I keep getting questions about what to see there. However, this should be of interest to anyone who plans on visiting Doha. I've broken this up into a few categories: Must See, Recommended, If You Have Time, and If You Have Finished All of the Above. I hope this helps.


MUST SEE:

As of 2014, I would argue that there are 2 must see attractions in Qatar that no visit there is complete without: The Museum of Islamic Art and Souq Waqif.

The Museum of Islamic Art:

It is a beautiful building designed by I. M. Pei and built hanging out into the West Bay which Doha is built up around. The museum is the first of its kind in the Gulf region devoted solely to art from the Islamic World. This covers works from Western Africa and Moorish Spain, and then everything to the East, all the way to the Indian subcontinent. The works spans many centuries and is a great introductory sample to the styles and forms of Islamic Art extending beyond Arab Culture to include Persian, Indian, Moorish, Pakistani, etc. Entrance to the museum is free and you can also get a free audio guide of the place. There are nice permanent exhibits and gernerally some interesting temporary exhibits focused on a more specific aspect of Islamic culture. My favorite part of the permanent collection is the Astrolabes and other tools used for finding the Qibla (direction to face during Muslim prayers). These are neat because they demonstrate the technology developed, and artistically embellished, for monitoring time so that the Muslims can know when it is prayer time.

Museum of Islamic Art
View of the Museum of Islamic Art from its Park

The museum can take as much or as little time as you like, and since it is free, I'd recommend stopping by even if you are not a big museum person. It is worth going to see the view of Doha across the water from the Cafe inside and to walk around the grounds outside even if you don't see any of the exhibits. There is a nice park with great views of lots of Doha, along with another nice cafe outside to sit and take in the sights. However, even spending half an hour or an hour inside the museum is totally worth it. MIA Website


Souq Waqif:

Souq Waqif was my favorite place in Doha and an integral part of any visit. It is one of the last traditional Souqs (Arabic Markets) in the whole Arabian (Persian) Gulf region. It is best to go around dinner time and much of it may even be closed during the day. The souq is full of restaurants from around the world and probably one of the best places for a tourist to find some good Arabic cuisine. Most of the other Arabic restaurants are in residential areas far from hotels and difficult for tourists to get to easily, so definitely try some places in the Souq. The souq is open relatively late - later than most of Doha, so you can still get food around 9:00 pm, and often even past midnight. With the cooler weather at nights, it is quite pleasant to sit outside and enjoy a long meal and a Shisha. The Souq is also the best place to get souvenirs from Qatar. Spend some time getting lost in the back alleys amongst the colorful stalls and maybe pickup up some traditional Qatari clothes.

souq waqif
View from the center of Souq Waqif

The Souq is also one of the best places to actually see the locals around. Many families will go there at night after work or on weekends - unlike many of the other tourist areas. Note that while the locals are wearing the traditional thobes, niqabs, ghottras, etc., it isn't recommended to take pictures of them - especially of the women.

Within the souq, there are a lot of smaller souqs to find, but they can be damned near impossible to find. Chances are if you wander around a bit you will come across the Bird Souq. It is hard to miss as you see hundreds of birds, rabits, turtles, fish and other smaller animals in cages squaking like crazy. On the outskirts of the Souq, there is the Falcon Souq. This is one of the few places in the Souq that may be busier in the morning. The falcons are very expensive - tens of thousands of dollars or more - but there probably will be someone walking around willing to let you take a picture of the falcons. Also in the Souq is the Gold Souq, which is easy to find and indoors. It is fancy and modern. It reminded me of jewelry shops in the US, so I wasn't as fascinated by it. If you are feeling a bit more adventurous, you can head south from the Gold Souq about 1/4 to 1/2 a mile and find another Gold Souq that is much more traditional. It has tiny shops in a maze of alleys with prices by the gram and changing daily. When I went, I was the only Westerner around. However, it was quite tough to find, so ask around.

On the North Side of the Souq, just past the Falcon Souq, is the Amiri Diwan - the Royal Palace. This is the working palace where the Emir receives foreign dignitaries and governs the country. You cannot approach it, but it is neat to get a picture from across the street. Just to the East of the Falcon Souq, where you can get some pictures of the Amiri Diwan, is a stable full of Arabian horses. You can just walk around there and look at the horses.




Recommended:

If you have a bit more time than just being able to see Souq Waqif and the Museum of Islamic Art, there are a few other things I would recommend doing - Take a Dhow ride and go visit the Wahhab Mosque.

Dhow Rides:

West Bay is full of traditional Arabian (Persian) Gulf ships called Dhows - particularly near the Museum of Islamic Art. Historically they were used for fishing, pearling, and moving goods for trade around the gulf. Today, I believe they are still used for a few such tasks, but not nearly as much. However, many are available for short tours around the harbor. You can find them docked along the Corniche and the operators will often be trying to get you to come for a ride. Generally, you can haggle with them a bit, but the price seems to be around 100 QR (about $30), though they often give discounts based on the number of people in your party. Most of the operators are Indian immigrants so you can get a much better deal if someone can negotiate in Hindi or Malayalam. The best time to go is at sunset and you get some great views of Doha as night falls.

dhows
Dhows in West Bay

Grand Mosque:

Most Western (non-Muslims) refer to the giant mosque just on the outskirts of West Bay as the Grand Mosque, however it is really the Imam Muhammad ibn Abdul Wahhab Mosque. The State Grand Mosque is technically adjacent to the Amiri Diwan (Emir's Palace) and I was told that one wasn't open to non-Muslims. The Imam Muhammad ibn Abdul Wahhab Mosque opened in the past couple years (dates are hard to come by in English) and it is dedicated to the Imam that led a puritanical revitalization of Islam in the 18th century. Imam Wahhab's followers are known as Salafi (also referred to as Wahhabi but that can be considered derogatory). Saudi Arabia and Qatar are the only two countries that considered Salafi states. The mosque is extremely beautiful and spacious. Aside from Fridays and during prayer times, anyone can enter the mosque and look around. Visitors should be clean - there's no need to "make wudu" the Islamic washing before prayers, but you should still be clean. Remember to remove your shoes. Seeing as it is very difficult for non-Muslims to get into Saudi Arabia, this is a unique opportunity to see a Salafi mosque. However, I was never able to get much information about the mosque. I even went at times they were advertising tours, but never succeeded in getting one. Fortunately, I was always allowed to tour the place by myself and I was told that I was allowed to take pictures. Women can visit by entering through the Women's door where they are provided an Abaya. Being male, I can't really offer any more information aside from that for the female perspective.

Wahhib Mosque Interior
The interior of the Wahhib Masjid

Despite the lack of information, the mosque is worth a visit. It can hold over 11,000 male worshippers and over 1,000 female worshippers at once inside. During Rammadan and Eid, I believe even more people pray outside, but I never experienced that first-hand. The sheer size and opulence are worth seeing by themselves. If you are walking around, be wary that in the bathrooms (and this is true throughout Qatar - even in mall bathrooms) that some of the things that look like urinals are NOT and urinating in them can result in jail time.

Wahhib Mosque Outside
View of the Wahhib Mosque



If You Have Time:

Qatar has a few other things worth checking out if you have time. I'd recommend these slightly less than the previous section, but they are still worth checking out. Mostly, these are the odd tourist things that come to mind when you think of rich Arabic Gulf States.

Villagio Mall:

The Villagio Mall is an interesting sight to see mainly as it is one of the odder construction projects that Westerners associate with the rich gulf states. The mall looks like the Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas (though they seem to have copied the name from the Bellagio). There are gondola rides through canals inside the mall. However, they are just motorized boats on a track. The rest of the mall is nicely decorated, but the shops are standard luxury shops you see in any major mall around the world. The mall is quite far from other tourist sections of Doha, but can be worth a visit if you have some time. Unless you feel like shopping in a standard mall, it won't take more than 30 minutes to see it. It is merely worth seeing the odd take on copying Italian culture.

villagio
Villagio Mall

The Pearl:

The Pearl is also one of Doha's odd construction projects indicative of how much wealth the nation has. It is a "Reclaimed Land" project. In other words, it is land that is built up from the water. The most famous of these projects are the Palm and the World developments in neighboring Dubai. Essentially, sand is "reclaimed" from the sea to build new land masses. The Pearl is Doha's version of these. As with the Reclaimed Land projects of Dubai, foreigners are allowed to buy property on the Pearl. However unlike Dubai's Palm, alcohol is not sold at the Pearl. That rule changed right as the development opened and many restaurants went out of business. The Pearl is not the only reclaimed land project in Doha. The Gulf is surprisingly shallow, so in that light, these developments don't seem as ridiculous. The brand new Airport and the Museum of Islamic Art are also built on reclaimed land.

The Pearl is full of luxury developments and yachts, but many of the buildings are still under construction. There are numerous signs of wealth throughout the Pearl including Ferrari and Rolls Royce dealerships. There are fancy coffee shops and restaurants around the Pearl. I really like the Lebanese Restaurant "Burj al-Hammem" (The Pigeon Coup) which has meals for around 100 QR ($30). However, I always found the Pearl a bit odd because it seemed to be always empty and devoid of people. I never could figure out why. If you have time, the Pearl is worth stopping by to see the wealth and excess that is the stereotype of the Gulf.


Katara:

The Katara cultural village is still partially under development, but the first few phases have completed and it is open. Katara is an ancient Greek name for Qatar. There are lots of restaurants and some small, rotating artistic and historic exhibits in some of the buildings. I did walk into one building one day, which turned out to be Sotheby's show room where you could buy art from famous artisits for tens of millions of dollars - with no real advanced warning: no glass protecting them, only one or two guards, and no real sense or feeling that this would be odd to a non-Qatari to see these expensive items just displayed nonchalantly.

There are quite a few good restaurants in Katara. My Turkish friends really liked the Sukar Pasha restaurant for some authentic Turkish food. Meals are around 100 QR ($30). I also liked the Khan Farouk Tareb cafe for some good Egyptian food.

Everything in Katara is built around a nice amphitheater where shows are sometimes staged. There are also two neat mosques to check out: The Blue Mosque and the Gold Mosque. Both are rather pretty to look at from the outside and are rare instances of decorative mosques in Qatar, which tend to be much more subdued than mosques in many other countries.


Dune Bashing:

Dune Bashing is another one of the stereotypical touristy things to do in Qatar. In the Southern part of the country, the desert turns into huge sand dunes and professional tour guides will take you in a Toyota Land Cruiser SUV to drive maniacally over the dunes - many of which can be 100's of feet high. Around Doha, most Qataris drive Land Cruisers, which is partially a status symbol and partially for going Dune Bashing on the weekends. Your guide will drive like crazy over the dunes and it will definitely get the adrenaline pumping.

Dune Bashing is lots of fun, however, it is quite time consuming. I think the shortest tours last at least half a day. It is an hour drive to the dunes and an hour back, so it takes some time. For a longer experience, you can do an overnight experience where they take you to a camp with a beach for a night after you have been bashing. This is definitely a fun experience, and the only reason I don't recommend it higher is because of the time commitment. I know Dubai offers similar tours, and they are pushed on you by the concierge of any hotel you stay at in the UAE. Dubai's dunes are closer, to the city than Doha's, so if you are planning on spending time in the UAE, you may want to go bashing there instead.

Car Insurance in Qatar is weird in a few ways. It is tied to the vehicle, not the driver, which means bad drivers and good drivers have the same rates for the same car. However, it is applicable here as insurance does not cover off-road driving. So, unless you are willing to risk a hefty charge if anything goes wrong, I'd recommend not driving yourself when dune bashing. It is worth hiring a tour company and letting them worry about potential accident costs. Though, if you don't want to take a tour in a Land Cruiser, you can rent ATVs (Quad Bikes for the Brits out there), and drive yourself. Be warned that you may get ripped off. The bikes aren't maintained and we had one stop working on us, which they then extorted an extra 400 QR (over $100) out of us for repairs ... even after we got police involved.


View From the InterContinental's Strata Restaurant and Bar:

There are two InterContinental hotels in Qatar, one near Katara and one in West Bay. The names can be a bit misleading. The one next to Katara is called InterContinental West Bay and the one in what I would call West Bay is called InterContinental Doha - The City. The City location is in a tall skyscraper and on the 55th floor, there is a restaurant and bar called Strata. It is only open at night. I never tried the food as it was quite expensive, but would go and get a drink just for the view. You can see all around Doha and get some amazing views. Bear in mind there is a dress code and sandals are not allowed. This is worth checking out just to see the views of Doha from above. If you do fancy an alcoholic drink, I really liked their Arabian Martini. It was made with Arak (an anise flavored liquour from Lebanon) with some Gin, bit of honey, and garnished with dates instead of olives.

strata
View from Strata



If You Have Finished All of the Above:

If you are spending quite a bit of time in Qatar, here are a few other things worth checking out, but they are far from necessary to see. Mostly, these are for people who may be on a couple week business trip, who have some time on the weekends to really explore the country, and also have a car to get places.

Wholesale Market:

I really like this market as it has a more authentic feel, however it is hard to get to and the hours can be bad. Saturday mornings seem to be the best time to go, and I'm not sure if it is open other times. There are a bunch of names for this market, and in reality, I think it is really a collection of markets. There is a livestock market - which is definitely NOT for any sort of animal lover. You can go in a slaughter house and watch animals being slaughtered for their meat. You can buy an entire lamb, but not any sort of individual cuts of meat. Nearby, there is also a fish market with tons of local fish and people haggling. There's also a nice fruit market close by where you can get lots of fresh produce. Finally, there is the Omani Market - which is impossible to find, but has some nice dates. You are more likely to find the dates and any other markets around than find the Omani Market.

As I mentioned, this is very hard to find. Here are the coordinates of the livestock market: 25.239138, 51.486072. The others markets are a bit North-West of this location - maybe half a mile.


Education City:

Qatar is using some of its vast wealth to look to the future and bolster education and research. Many international universities have branch campuses in Qatar and they are all about 5 miles from the city center in a brand new development called Education City. There is nothing in particular to see there, but like many university campuses around the world, it is nice to walk around and see the architecture. There's a bit of Arabian influences in many of the buildings, which is cool to see. Also, it is nice to see the money from natural reserves being put to a good use.


Shaikh Faisal Museum:

This museum is literally one of the important members of the Royal Family's estates. He collects all kinds of random things and puts them in his castle. You name it, he has collected it. It is simply his personal collections which he is nice enough to open to the public. As it is his personal residence, you have to call ahead and make sure that they are open that day. Finding this place is very difficult. I'll write an entire blog post on visiting this in the future, but in the mean time just Google it. As an added bonus, you can go a bit past the museum towards some houses and see an Oryx farm. This is another thing worth checking out if you are in Qatar for a substantial amount of time, but not for most visitors to the country on a short time window.


Al Zubarah Fort and Nearby Village:

Al Zubarah Fort is a small fort on the North-West part of the penninsula. About a mile from the fort, there is also a village which is Qatar's first and only World Heritage Site. It is neat to see some history of Qatar, but don't expect this to be the same as most World Heritage sites from across the world. This is about as far as you can get from Doha and still be in Qatar, so this is an all-day trip.


Zekreet Fort, Mystery Village, and Film City:

Zekreet Fort is hardly a fort. There are some tiny ruins in the desert on the Western part of the penninsula. Nothing is more than 2 feet high. I had friends who saw them and did not realize they had. No information is available about the ruins at the site.

Past Zikreet, you have to go off-roading to find Mystery Village and Film City. These are two small construction projects in the middle of the desert. I don't think (but could be wrong) that anything substantial has been filmed at any of these, but they are kind of funny to look at. You can drive out and look at them, which makes for a nice day trip, but I'd only recommend going here if you are in Qatar for an extended period of time. The desert here is flat and rocky, unlike the dunes in the South, so you can make it in a Toyota Camry, but it made for some screaming from my passengers ...


Camel Races:

The camel races are definitely worth checking out, but they are only in the winter (sorry EMNLP attendees). They are smack dab in the middle of Qatar, far from anything (except the Shaikh Faisal Museum). Finding information about them is incredibly hard. I went multiple times before actually seeing a race. Even having friends who speak Arabic try and find information about them online yielded little results. Eventually we found a calendar, but it was difficult to find and confusing even for the Arabic speakers (for a while they were looking at Abu Dhabi race times on the same site because the information was so confusing). If you want to see the races, it is best to find a local who is into the scene and get info from him (and yes, only using the male pronoun is correct in this instance).