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Doha for Forbes Travel Guide

Articles, Forbes Travel Guide


This travel guide was commissioned by Forbes Travel Guide and published in August 2012. 

By Christina Maria Paschyn


Think of Doha as the little city that could. A decade ago, few had heard of the sleepy desert capital of Qatar, an unassuming peninsula the size of Connecticut that juts out into the Persian Gulf. Since 2004, Doha has undergone a makeover of epic proportions thanks to the tiny country’s massive oil wealth and not so small plan to become the powerhouse of the Middle East. Outlandish high-rises, lavish hotels and extravagant malls have replaced the large swatches of undeveloped land that once covered the city’s landscape; historic markets have been renovated to reveal modern twists. Someday the city may even emerge as the region’s cultural Mecca — only here can you catch a Hollywood film at the Doha Tribeca Film Festival, listen to fusions of Arabian-European melodies by the Qatar Philharmonic Orchestra and peruse exquisite artifacts at the Museum of Islamic Art, itself a work of art designed by architect I.M. Pei. If you’re looking for a Gulf metropolis with a touch of glitz, a touch of class and a whole lot of heart, then Doha is the place to be. No other city in the Middle East is so seamlessly intertwining Western pizazz with its Arab-Islamic roots — and it’s only just getting started.

What are the best things to see and do in Doha?

Doha is a rapidly developing desert city, but one still deeply connected to its Arab-Islamic past; you can find heritage and culture at nearly every turn. Here are Forbes Travel Guide’s editors’ picks for the best things to do in Doha.

1. Souq Waqif. Old meets new and East meets West in Doha’s historic market, said to be at least 100 years old. Back in the day, local families and nomads called Bedouins would come here to sell animals and purchase spices and textiles from Bahrain, Iran, India and beyond. Not anymore. In 2007 to 2008, the souq’s dilapidated stone buildings were refurbished and today they house an array of gimmicky souvenir stands, art galleries, European cafés, ethnic-themed restaurants and even a Dunkin’ Donuts shop. Nevertheless the souq is worth a visit if only to get a taste of what life in Doha was like before the city grew rich on oil. Explore its labyrinthine interior where Indian spices and incense are still sold, then find the Bedouin stalls on the main street and buy some traditional sadoo — handicrafts, pillows and garments weaved with colorful threads.

2. The Corniche. Doha’s scenic waterside esplanade offers the best views of the city’s skyline. Many Qataris and expats come here to walk or jog during the cool winter and spring months. Stroll along its four-mile length to snap pictures of the city’s main landmarks, including the Museum of Islamic Art, the pyramid-shaped Sheraton Hotel and the Amiri Diwan, the old royal palace. Then pop down in the evening for a romantic dinner at Al Mourjan, the seafront Lebanese restaurant.

3. Catch a dhow ride. Dhows are traditional sailboats still used in the Gulf today. You can hop on a slightly more modern version (don’t worry, they come equipped with engines) along the Corniche. Rides can last as long as an hour and, depending on your musical tastes, you can have your pick of Michael Jackson tunes or something a bit more appropriate to listen to during this quintessentially Qatari pastime.

4. The Museum of Islamic Art. Designed by the celebrated architect I.M. Pei, this museum is truly the apple of Doha’s eye. Besides its aesthetically stunning exterior, the museum boasts an impressive collection of Islamic art, including ancient sculptures, pottery, jewelry and astronomical tools from throughout the Middle East as well as Turkey and Central Asia. Entry is free.

5. Dune Bashing. The desert may still be visible in Doha, but to truly experience it you’ll have to leave the city for an adrenaline-pumping adventure. Book a desert safari with a private tour company (we recommend Qatar International Adventures or Regency Travel & Tours) who will pick you up at your hotel in Doha. Then, it’s off to the country’s south, where your guide will scare the pants off you by driving up, down and sideways around gigantic sand dunes. Calm your nerves at a tent camp where you can smoke shisha (a water pipe) and enjoy traditional Middle Eastern kebabs.

What are the best places to stay in Doha?

Visitors to Doha won’t be hard-pressed to find places to stay that suit their needs, although you may have to dig deep in your pockets to afford it. Here are Forbes Travel Guide’s editors’ choices for the five of the best places to stay in Doha.

1. Four Seasons Hotel Doha. Though the city offers many luxury hotels, the Four Seasons Hotel Doha possesses a kind of timeless charm along with a pool so splendid — with slides, waterfalls and more — that you won’t even want to visit the hotel’s private beach.

2. W Doha Hotel. Like the Four Seasons, the W is located in the West Bay neighborhood, the city’s urban hotspot. It’s utterly sleek and modern, with indulgent pampering services, state-of-the-art gyms and solid restaurants and cafés.

3. Hotel Souq Waqif. If you’d rather swap modern amenities for cultural immersion, the Hotel Souq Waqif, located right in the heart of the city’s traditional market of the same name, offers quaint, antique accommodation. Its location is truly ideal — you’ll only have to walk outside the hotel door to explore Qatari history and culture.

4. Sharq Village & Spa. This truly exceptional Doha hotel will transport you to the 19th-century Orient; it’s designed like a traditional Qatari village and guests can meander about in the hotel’s very own Arabic bazaar. Plus it’s located only five minutes from the airport.

5. Shezan Hotel. Shezan is conveniently located about six miles from the airport and close to the city’s waterfront walkway, the Corniche. The hotel is small and the decor looks somewhat outdated, but it is a good value for those who want more affordable accommodations. Locals rave about the hotel restaurant’s Pakistani cuisine.

What are the best places to eat in Doha?

Doha is a cosmopolitan city with a variety of sumptuous restaurants and cafés in which to eat. Whether you’re in the mood for sweets or something savory, you can take your pick among Doha’s classiest establishments. Our Forbes Travel Guide editors’ recommendations for the five best places to eat in Doha include:

1. Three Sixty. This is Doha’s revolving restaurant, located at the top of the 300-meter-high Torch Hotel, a tower that served as a flaming torch for the Asian Games in 2006. Today you can feast on the restaurant’s mouth-watering Greek, Italian and Middle Eastern cuisine as you enjoy a 360-degree panoramic view of the city. This is a great choice if you want to impress a client or date.

2. L’Wzaar. For the best seafood in town, come to L’Wzaar for a delicious plate of fish and chips. Or if you want the full experience, choose your own fish or lobster from the fresh fish market at the restaurant’s entrance. The restaurant is located in the Katara Cultural Village, a cultural center home to a number of ethnic restaurants, an outdoor amphitheater and even an opera house. Katara embodies the country’s goal to blend Western development with its Islamic heritage, and the center’s Arabic architecture is truly a site to behold. This is where the Qatar Philharmonic Orchestra performs, so come here for dinner before catching a show.

3. Pampano. This Mexican restaurant is a favorite among many expatriates living in Qatar. It’s located at the Pearl-Qatar, a man-made island where wealthy Qataris and expats come to buy high-end designer fashions. Munch on a delicious guacamole concoction while people-watching from Pampano’s outdoor seating on the marina — but just know that a meal here will set you back a pretty penny.

4. Spice Market. This is the W Doha Hotel’s best restaurant; its Southeast Asian cuisine and trendy atmosphere make it the perfect place for a night out. Try the Spicy Thai Shrimp Cake for an appetizer that will truly awaken your senses.

5. Al Mourjan. Located on the Corniche, Doha’s picturesque waterfront boulevard, this Lebanese restaurant offers authentic Middle Eastern cuisine in an utterly romantic outdoor setting. Sections of the seating jut out into the sea, and it’s the perfect place to celebrate an anniversary in virtual seclusion. Come in the evening for a breathtaking view of Doha’s skyline.

What are the best things to do with kids in Doha?

Doha is one of the most child-friendly cities in the Middle East — as it should be, since most Qataris favor large families. Read on for Forbes Travel Guide editors’ choices for the top five things to do with kids in Doha.

1. Doha Zoo. Your kids can learn all about the animal and plant life in Qatar at the charming Doha Zoo, which is also home to exotic animals from Africa and elsewhere. There is even a kid’s zone equipped with slides and swings. Your tots will also have fun feeding and petting rabbits, camels and donkeys.

2. Aqua Park Qatar. If you visit during the summer and Doha’s sweltering heat starts to get to you, head to Aqua Park Qatar, where your kids will love splashing about and getting soaking wet down twisting slides.

3. Circusland. Located inside Doha’s Landmark Shopping Mall, this mini amusement park has bumper cars, carousels and arcade games. Let the kids play as you and your spouse chow down on fast food at the food court.

4. City Center Doha. Desperate to escape the sizzling sun? Check out Doha’s premiere mall, where many Qataris spend most of their summer. As Doha’s largest mall, you can browse five floors of high street fashion while your tots twirl and glide around the expansive ice skating rink on the bottom floor.

5. Rumeila Park. Whether you fancy a family picnic or are just sick and tired of the city’s chaotic traffic, Rumeila Park will keep children of all ages entertained. Locals say it offers the best children’s play area in Doha, and teens can show off their skills on the skateboarding half-pipe while mom and dad take a lazy stroll through the gorgeous water garden. Heritage Village, a faux traditional Qatari village, is located at the south end of the park and showcases arts, crafts and the occasional folksong performance.

Where is the best shopping in Doha?

The best shopping destination in Doha depends on what exactly you want to buy. If high-end fashions are what you seek, then visit the Pearl-Qatar, a man-made island that spans nearly 4 million square meters (or almost 4.5 million square feet) and is said to be the most exclusive address in the Middle East. Visitors will enjoy walking along the Pearl’s striking marina in between shopping for designer wear, like silky Vera Wang dresses and sleek Armani suits. There are even Ferrari and Rolls-Royce showrooms. If you don’t want to break the bank, there is much more affordable retail for sale at City Center Doha, the city’s largest mall, located in Doha’s West Bay neighborhood.

The Arabic market Souq Waqif is the best place to pick up a traditional souvenir for your friends back home, like pashmina scarves, an Arabic oud (a lute), dhow (traditional Gulf boat) replicas and even Qatari antiques. Across the street is the Gold Souq where you can splurge on the many glittering rubies, gold and pearls for sale. Just don’t be afraid to haggle with the friendly shopkeepers to get a good deal.

Where is the best nightlife in Doha?

Although Qatar has embraced Western-style development and its accompanying luxuries, the fact remains that the country is still very protective of its Muslim beliefs and traditions. As such, alcohol does not flow freely here, and any nightlife in Doha remains centered in the hotels. Our Forbes Travel Guide editors recommend heading to Doha’s West Bay neighborhood, where a number of luxury hotels are located, including the Four Seasons Hotel Doha and the W Doha Hotel. If you want to sip your cocktail in an art deco setting, the W Doha Hotel is where you should go. But if your goal is to have rip-roaring fun, the InterContinental Doha Hotel’s Belgian Café, located in the nearby West Bay Lagoon district, is always guaranteed to be a boisterous good time; get to know the city’s many British and American expats who can’t help but let loose on a Thursday night (the start of the weekend in Doha; Sunday is a workday). Most of the hotels have nightclubs with resident DJs as well, the best being the W Doha Hotel’s dazzling and stylish Crystal Lounge.

If you’d rather mingle with Qataris, then jump in a cab to the exclusive Pearl-Qatar, Doha’s latest luxury residential and shopping compound. Alcohol is currently banned here, which is why so many Qataris patronize it. But tourists can still enjoy themselves by dining at one of the many award-winning restaurants along this man-made island’s scenic marina.

What are the five best Doha food experiences?

Whether you like European, American or Middle Eastern cuisine, your taste buds will be satisfied in Doha, a city that offers some truly unique food experiences. Try Forbes Travel Guide’s editors’ choices for the five best food experiences Doha has to offer:

1. Weekend brunches are a national pastime here, and the city’s many fancy hotels offer seemingly endless buffets on Fridays and Saturdays (the weekend in Doha). Depending on where you go, you can gorge on crepes, oysters, sushi, noodles, grilled meats and, of course, rows upon rows of chocolate treats. Don’t forget to try the beef and chicken bacon — pork isn’t allowed in this conservative Muslim country. Our top brunch choices: The Four Seasons Hotel Doha, The W Doha Hotel and the Oryx Rotana hotel.

2. If you want a meal that will be a cultural experience in itself, then head to Souq Waqif. In this Arabic bazaar there sits a popular bread shop that sells crispy Iranian bread baked in a traditional stone oven. Next to it, an Arabic café sells tenderly grilled chicken, lamb and beef kebabs. First grab a seat on one of the café’s cushioned outdoor booths, and then send a friend to order a batch of Iranian bread — 10 delicious round slices for only five Qatari riyals (about $1.40). As you’re eating this cheap yet utterly satisfying meal, bask in the hustle and bustle of the souq’s crowded but colorful alleyways. The café and bread shop are located close to the souq’s mini pet market, but if you get lost ask any of the friendly vendors for directions.

3. Every evening in Souq Waqif a group of Egyptian housewives gather to cook and sell homemade food, like Arab-style crepes and spicy meat and rice blends. It’s all delicious and extremely cheap, and you’ll feel good helping these women to earn a living.

4. If you’re craving sweets, book a table at the W Café in the W Doha Hotel. The café’s charming, colorful and kitsch décor, like something out of a storybook, makes it the perfect place to host a girly tea party. But more importantly, it sells some of the most divine cupcakes. You might just melt in your chair.

5. You may think we’re joking when you read this suggestion, but believe us we’re not: Order delivery from McDonald’s, KFC or Burger King. The keyword here is delivery. Only in the Gulf can you get American fast food delivered right to your doorstep by a guy on a motorbike. So go ahead and spoil your diet.

What is the best way to see Doha in one day?

The best way to see Doha in one day is to begin by heading straight to the Museum of Islamic Art, the country’s finest museum and most exalted cultural project. Designed by architecture genius I.M. Pei, the museum’s unique geometric exterior makes a stunning background for a family photo, and inside you can explore ancient artifacts from throughout the Middle East, Central Asia and Turkey. This is also the best place to catch a leisurely and satisfying breakfast or early lunch, and the museum’s café offers a picturesque view of the surrounding grounds and park.

Either on your way to or from the museum, make sure your taxi drives along the Corniche, Doha’s popular waterside promenade. Have your driver pull over so you can snap photos of the old royal palace the Amiri Diwan, the pyramid-shaped Sheraton Hotel (Doha’s very first hotel) and the stunning West Bay district skyline. If you have time, catch a ride on a dhow, a traditional Gulf sailboat.

At around 4 p.m., drive to Souq Waqif, the traditional Arabic bazaar and the city’s No. 1 tourist destination. Here you can buy antique jewelry, colorful Bedouin handicrafts, Indian spices, Persian rugs and even exquisite sets of pearls. For dinner, choose from among the souq’s ethnic restaurants — Egyptian, Moroccan, French, Italian and many more. Or if you fancy something a bit more traditional, explore the souq’s labyrinthine interior until you find the Iranian bread baking shop close to the mini pet market. Most of the restaurants offer shisha (flavored tobacco) in a waterpipe for you to puff during your meal.

For after-dinner drinks, Doha’s West Bay district is the place to go. Party it up at either the W Doha Hotel’s posh and sleek Crystal Lounge or head to the InterContinental Doha Hotel’s casual and boisterous Belgian Cafe. Or if you want to be closer to the airport, the Oryx Rotana hotel’s Jazz Club is an equally happening scene, and the club’s four-piece live band will make sure you end your visit to Doha on a high note.

What is the best thing to bring home from Doha?

If you bring home only one thing in Doha, Forbes Travel Guide’s editors suggest making sure it’s a pearl necklace. Before the discovery of oil, the country’s economy depended on pearl fishing, and Qatar was once known as a prime exporter of these beautiful white little gemstones. But since cultured pearls from Japan began to overrun the global pearl market in the 1930s, this ancient Qatari profession has largely died out. The tradition somewhat lives on, however, in the Arabic bazaar Souq Waqif, where some former local divers now sell beautiful sets of white, pink and black pearl necklaces, earrings and bracelets. Sure, they may not be selling Qatari pearls — those are sold abroad for thousands of dollars each. But they are real pearls nonetheless, imported from India, Australia and Japan. And you won’t be able to find them cheaper anywhere else. Here, a necklace can cost anywhere from 150 to 1500 Qatari riyals or more (about $40 to $400). But even at the high end of the range, they are still relatively inexpensive. Across the street, the Gold Souq also sells some truly unique sets of pearl jewelry along with rubies, emeralds, sapphires and gold.

How should I dress in Doha?

First-time visitors to Doha may feel out of place among the many Qatari men and women who proudly dress in white thobes and black abayas, robe-like tunics and dresses common in the Gulf, even during the sweltering summer months. But no more out of place than Qataris themselves feel among the sea of foreigners who make up the majority of their country’s nearly 1.8 million population. You’ll quickly discover that most of the expats dress in American and European clothing, but there are some restrictions.

Women should avoid tank tops or short shorts; wear blouses and shirts that cover your shoulders and skirts or pants that hit at least below the knee. Leggings are fine as long as your dress or shirt covers your posterior. Men should also refrain from exposing too much skin. That means no shirts that expose the shoulders; long shorts are okay. This may seem like an excruciatingly painful rule to adhere to during Doha’s unbearable summer, when temperatures can reach as high as 50 C or 122 F. But remember, Qatar, although liberal compared to other countries in the Gulf, is still a relatively conservative Muslim society. Qataris have been known to complain about scantily clad Westerners, even going as far as to ask security guards to remove offenders from shopping malls and other public spaces. Dress modestly and you will be fine. Besides, during the summer, malls, hotels and buildings gleefully crank up the air conditioning — so don’t forget to pack a cardigan.

Forbes Travel Guide Correspondent

Doha, Qatar, Middle East

Christina Maria Paschyn is a Forbes Travel Guide correspondent who lives in Doha, Qatar, and covers the Middle Eastern city for Startle. She is a freelance multimedia journalist and has travelled the globe covering under-reported issues such as the effects of globalization on Qatar, international maternal mortality, the freedom of press in Ukraine, the Israel-Gaza War and the Chernobyl and Fukushima nuclear disasters.

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