The Travel Guides: What to Do in Doha
Doha is a city in transition. With ambitious architectural projects still underway, the fishing village turned metropolis appears unfinished. But the modernization of Qatar’s capital has not taken its soul. See what to do in Doha over a long layover or a few days.
The Short List
- Take in some Islamic art
- Explore Souq Waqif
- Visit Katara Cultural Village
- Watch a camel race
- Walk, shop and eat the Pearl-Qatar
- Visit Qatar’s nature reserves
- Dune bashing
- The Villaggio Mall
Take in some Islamic art
[Recommended for layovers]
An Instagrammer’s dream, the stunning Museum of Islamic Art (MIA) has no bad angles. Designed by I. M. Pei and opened in 2008, the museum is home to over 1,400 years of Islamic art. MIA is open daily (admission is free) with guided tours on designated days. Don’t miss out on tea and a small bite in the ground floor café. Or a fine dining experience at Alain Ducasse’s IDAM upstairs. MIA also maintains MIA Park. The urban green space runs adjacent to the museum and hosts a popular bazaar every Friday and Saturday. If you do only one thing during your layover in Doha, let a visit to MIA be it.
MIA is not the only museum in town. With recent billion-dollar investments in art and culture, Qatar is on its way to becoming a major destination for the culturally inclined. Qatar Museums has more on galleries and art spaces including the newly opened National Museum of Qatar.
Explore Souq Waqif
[Recommended for layovers]
Once a centuries-old Bedouin marketplace, Souq Waqif was revived and renovated in the early 2000s. The souk spans a few city blocks and consists of small shops (generally grouped by type), cafés and restaurants, shisha lounges, boutique hotels and an outdoor entertainment area. The best way to explore Souq Waqif is to get lost in its labyrinth of alleys. But if you need a couple of tips, here are some sights to consider.
Souq Waqif Art Center
The Souq Waqif Art Center exhibits local and regional artists. It also organizes calligraphy, sculpture and other art workshops. Admission is free. The center is located along the main pedestrian thoroughfare, where the majority of restaurants and cafés are clustered.
Learn about falconry at the Falcon Souq
The Falcon Souq offers an insight into a beloved Bedouin tradition. A myriad of shops sell falcons and equipment, with owners willing to display falcons to curious tourists. The souk also has a falcon hospital and hosts public falcon auctions. The Falcon Souq is located on the outskirts of Souq Waqif near the camel pen.
Artisans on Al Ahmed and Al Souq streets
The Gold Souq may get all the attention but the small craft shops along Al Ahmed and Al Souq streets are the real finds. Pop into one of the many shops and watch artisans forage swords, craft bangles or weave textiles. Or stroll farther down Al Souq Street for dates and Yemeni honey. There is also a Karwa taxi stand towards the end of the street.
Let your nose wander the perfumeries
Curious about the richly fragrant smell? It’s probably the agarwood resin oud. Used on the Arabian Peninsula for centuries, oud is a type of scented brick for the home, hair and body. The perfumeries in Souq Waqif will show you how to shop for and burn oud. Just keep in mind they probably won’t give you a sample. Oud is among the most expensive scented bricks — also known as bakhoors — on the market.
Tea Time‘s single counter shop in Souq Waqif feels like old Doha. A couple of rials will get you a sugary cup of karak — Qatar’s unofficial drink.
Tips for visiting Souq Waqif
Souq Waqif is located within walking distance of MIA. The souk opens in the late morning, closes from 12:00pm to 4:00pm and then reopens until late in the night. Keep an eye out for the street food vendors who tend to fire up their grills around dusk. Lastly, the souk is busiest on Thursday and Friday evenings when all of Doha comes alive for the weekend.
Visit Katara Cultural Village
[Recommended for layovers]
The Katara Cultural Village is a complex of seaside theaters, art spaces, mosques, souks, restaurants and cafés constructed in a mixture of architectural styles. Many of the buildings are impressive, and quite unique compared to Doha’s contemporary skyline. There is no admission to visit Katara and guests can freely stroll the complex. Among the best sites Katara has to offer are the blue and gold mosques, pigeon towers, Greco-Roman inspired amphitheater and The Force of Nature II sculpture.
Katara also has a number of art spaces — including the Katara Art Center and QM Gallery Katara — a lavish opera house home to the Qatar Philharmonic Orchestra and two of the cities most delicious restaurants — Mamig and L’wzaar Seafood Market. If you have yet to try Qatar’s addictively sugary tea, stop by Chapati & Karak for a small cup.
Tips for visiting Katara
Parts of Katara are still under construction. (The aforementioned points of interests are not.) Museums, shops and restaurants open in the afternoon until 9:00pm(ish). However it is possible to walk around Katara even when the shops are closed. Thursday and Friday evenings are the busiest. On these evenings the waterfront area fills with street food vendors selling everything from bowls of Egyptian koshari to chocolate-bathed churros. If your feet are feeling a bit sore, flag down one of the Katara-branded golf carts. The four-wheeled trip around the grounds is free.
Watch a camel race
While camel racing may have its roots in ancient history, the sport has been completely modernized in Qatar. Remote-controlled robots steer camels around the races, much to the enjoyment of first-time onlookers. The center of camel racing in Qatar is the Al Shahaniya Camel Racetrack. It’s located in Ash-Shahaniyah, around 45-minutes northwest of Doha.
How the races work
There are two ways to watch a camel race at Al Shahaniya: standing or driving. Standing is possible along select parts of the racetrack, while driving is possible in a designated lane parallel to the track. Personal vehicles can be used. Or, visitors can ride in the free bus provided by the track. If unsure, just ask. Eventually someone will point you in the right direction.
There is a season for camel racing in Qatar. It typically runs from November to February. Races are weekly in season and are usually held in the morning and afternoon. Camel enthusiasts can also visit the Al Shahaniya Camel Racetrack on off days to watch the camels train. Details can be difficult to find in English, so it’s best to enlist the help of someone who speaks or reads Arabic. An official racing schedule is available (in Arabic), and ILoveQatar has more about camel racing in Qatar (in English).
None. Races are free to watch the Al Shahaniya Camel Racetrack.
What to wear
Al Shahaniya is not Churchill Downs. Dress comfortably. Be prepared to stand. Bring your own water, snacks and sunblock. And assume toilet facilities are not readily available. Also assume that English will not be widely spoken so you can be pleasantly surprised when it is.
How to get to Ash-Shahaniyah
Getting to Ash-Shahaniyah from Doha is easy. Traveling back to Doha may be hard. It’s nearly impossible to find a taxi at the racetrack, so agree on a pick up time with your taxi driver before he departs. An even safer bet is to negotiate a fare that includes the driver waiting for you at the racetrack. Another option is to book through a tour company. Some companies will organize a car and driver upon request, even if the service isn’t advertised on their website. See Know Doha for more about taxis and getting around.
Walk, shop and eat The Pearl-Qatar
[Recommended for layovers]
The Pearl-Qatar is a luxury residential and entertainment complex known for its megayachts, Italian-inspired architecture and some of Doha’s best restaurants. Start in the Qanat Quartier, the pedestrian-friendly Venetian community with canals, shops and restaurants. Health enthusiasts will adore Evergreen Organics vegan café, while watersport lovers should stop by the Blue Pearl Experience. The adventure and outdoor tour company offers SUP yoga and evening paddles through the Qanat Quartier. They also offer a number of activities outside The Pearl-Qatar, including packages created with stopovers in mind.
Next, head to Porto Arabia for a bite and a bit of culture. The Australian transplant Jones The Grocer serves brunch until late. Tea lovers should visit the Tea Club next door. The lavishly decorated tea salon has an exotic menu of teas, like a South African rooibus steeped in palm water. Lastly, Anima Gallery doubles as an art space and restaurant, with contemporary works and healthy menu options.
The complex is still under construction but the Pearl-Qatar’s official website stays up-to-date with new openings and events. For more on restaurants in The Pearl-Qatar check out Eating in Doha.
Visit Qatar’s nature reserves
Surrounded by skyscrapers it’s easy to forget that just outside Doha is sparsely populated desert. Take a trip out of the city and see some of Qatar’s nature reserves.
Kayak the Al Thakira Mangroves
Just an hour north of Doha, the Al Thakira Mangroves are a bit of unexpected forest. The mangroves are indigenous to Qatar and Bahrain, and are located in the Al Dakhira Nature Reserve. Visitors can kayak through the extensive network of mangrove channels home to birds like egrets, herons and migratory flamingos (present from November to March).
Kayaking is tide dependent and a number of companies — like 365 Adventures and AquaSports — organize tours. Ask upfront if the company requires a minimum number of kayakers to operate the tour. Tours typically require guests to find their own transport to the nearby town of Al Khor. Thankfully, taxis will take passengers from Doha to Al Khor. So will the express bus (102X) from the center of Doha. See Know Doha for more on how to get around Doha without a car.
Camp the Inland Sea
Khor Al-Adaid (the Inland Sea) is a UNESCO-recognized nature reserve along Qatar’s southeastern border. Spending a night in this nature reserve feels other-worldly, and companies like Gulf Adventures, Arabian Adventures and 365 Adventures offer day trips and overnight camping options. It is possible to camp in the Inland Sea without a tour company. However, this requires local knowledge of the area, a trusty 4×4, camping equipment and all the food and water you’ll need for the trip. DIY’ers should talk to people who have camped the Inland Sea before. And download the Oredoo Inland Sea App prior to departing.
Explore the western desert
Commissioned for the Brouq Nature Reserve, Richard Serra’s East-West/West-East sculpture is as grand as the nature it surrounds. Also located in Qatar’s western desert, the Ras Abrouq limestone formations and nearby beach are popular for sightseeing and camping.
Hunt for desert roses
Desert roses are something of a national symbol in Qatar. In fact, the crystal “flowers” of gypsum and barite inspired the design of Qatar’s national museum. Desert roses are found within the sabkhas – flat, white crusty areas of evaporated mineral deposits – of western Qatar, close to Umm Bab. The fun is in the dig and discovery. Leave the rose behind for the next person to find.
Although they may be on sightseeing lists, reconsider the following activities during your visit to Doha.
Desert safaris, or “dune bashing,” crush the plants and organisms responsible for helping the desert retain water. No water means no plants. And no plants mean no wildlife. Desert nations are starting to acknowledge the harmful effects of dune bashing. Like the Ministry of Environment and Water in the United Arab Emirates that launched a number of campaigns to raise awareness and promote responsible use of the desert. It is possible to responsibly drive through the desert, so look for tour operators who keep conservation in mind on their desert excursions.
The Villaggio Mall
Located on the west side of Doha, the Villaggio Mall is a shopping and entertainment center similar to The Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas or Macau. The experience in not uniquely Qatari and many of the same luxury brands can be found elsewhere. Consider foregoing the trip, and traffic, for waterfront shopping at The Pearl-Qatar or a bit of culture at Katara Cultural Village.
Last updated January 2019.