Art and culture, intense races, and shopping straight from a boat – Qatar is not your usual fare of Middle Eastern travel stories
1. Bite into Camel Milk Chocolate
Doha International Airport
All journeys must start on an auspiciously sweet note. And what better than some camel milk chocolate? Or dark if you prefer it? With some macadamia nuts thrown in for added flavour. The short shelf life of fresh camel milk proved to be a little difficult when it came to adapting it to life’s simple pleasures like chocolate. But now with pasteurized camel milk powder a delicious range of chocolates, camel milk ice cream, camel-cinos and camel lattes are up for grabs. The milk is slightly saltier than cow’s milk, so prepare yourself for a gourmet experience akin to salted caramel lattes. If you are a choco maniac, go through the chocolate lover’s guide through the world and know exactly is worth exploring in the world of chocolates. Don’t be left behind as there is still lots worth checking out.
2. Visit the cultural oasis, Katara
Katara Cultural Village, West Bay Lagoon
The beautiful spread of Katara is engaging enough for you to spend a full day at. The ‘cultural oasis’ as it’s aptly named was set up in 2010 during the Doha Tribeca Film Festival, and since then has become a centre for hosting some of the world’s most exciting art and cultural events, including TEDxDoha. There are galleries and auditoriums that are usually host to interesting exhibitions and performances through the year, as well as an exhaustive museum. It’s entirely possible to spend an entire day here as well – there are a number of great restaurants to lounge around and tuck in, as well as a host of water sports, including parasailing and paddle boating.
3. Shop at Souk Waqif
Once in the Middle East, of course the malls and souks are a must-visit. But Doha makes sure you have an experience to remember, and not just a generic wandering past boutiques. The Souk Waqif has been renovated to resemble a 19th century market and is something out of the Arabian Nights, complete with little shops selling spices and Arabic textiles and jewellery. The mood here is distinctly touristy – so bargains are aplenty, provided you know what you’re looking for. You’re going to need an extra suitcase once you get out. Check out diverse hotels in Souq Waqif and select a suitable stay to fall within your budget.
4. Catch the Camel Races
This is an opportunity to immerse yourself in a culture and tradition that has been around for more than a millennium. Camel racing is an adrenaline pumper, a day spent out in the desert in the outskirts of Doha, watching these magnificent beasts across golden sands. The owners also accompany the camels, in 4X4s, controlling the ‘robot’ jockeys that are affixed, cursing and encouraging their investments and bets. It might sound inauthentic, but when in Rome… The robots or wireless controls came around once the government banned young children who were being kidnapped and used as jockeys. Be prepared for heat, dust and a lot of shouting.
5. The Pigeon Towers
The ever changing skyline of Doha obviously spells a bright future. However, some of its more traditional outlines also give you a glimpse into its fascinating culture, one that reveres pigeons. Among the steel giants that are the skyscrapers are these mud structures, soaring pillars skewered with holes and sticks that serve as homes for pigeons. The birds are not exactly worshipped here, but are favoured. Their cooing sounds like Arabic for ‘uzkur Allah’ that roughly translates to ‘remember God’. The relentless and gentle cooing creates a strangely calming environment around these towers, making you feel thankful for the universe and its wonders – especially when you’re by these massive pigeon mansions and escape without them dropping anything on you. There are countless hotels in Doha so you may pick from the multitude of the Doha Hotels the one that best suits your present needs.
6. Drop by The Pearl
Named after the fact that this man made island has been built on what used to be one of Qatar’s most prolific pearl diving sites. This huge bit of reclaimed land is the Middle Eastern answer to a posh French Riviera set. It’s the only bit of land that allows foreign nationals to own land, and the whole space is given over to high end luxury stores and restaurants, including the Armani Café and a number of exclusive cigar lounges. This is haute couture living at its best, and perfect for a visit as a short dip into the lifestyles of the rich and famous.
7. Shop on a gondola
Villagio Mall, Al Waab Street
The Villagio Mall is the complete opposite of the Souk Waqif. The traditional mould gives way to this Vegas-inspired model of mini Italy, complete with canals and some of the biggest designer labels. The canals literally run through the length of the mall, and the idea is to board the gondolas moored on the side and hop from store to store. Instead of singing your odes to your love, you’re going to dedicate the tunes to the labels you love. Stock up on the latest that Dior, Chanel and Armani have to offer and stop by the numerous cafes with tables set up outside to fuel up.
8. Tuck into gourmet camel meat
Evidently the camel is quite an influence on the culture, food and general activity schedule in Qatar. While camel meat isn’t exactly a new addition to the menu, the many varieties it’s now available in do deserve a mention. You should start off traditional – camel stew from Bedouin tents out in the desert and then gently graduate to the more gourmet options. Somewhere on the menu features generously stuffed camel meat burgers as well, succulent, tender and delicious. The crème de la crème, quite literally is renowned chef Alain Ducasse’s braised camel with foie gras and black truffle sauce at Idam, the restaurant at the Museum of Islamic Art. Simply sublime.
9. Get to an arty party stat
Mathaf and Museum of Islamic Art
Two of the biggest centres for art in Doha are entirely different in character. The Mathaf is a contemporary art gallery and museum and over the years have showcased some of the world’s best pieces, as well as chronicled modern and contemporary Islamic art. Its aim is to create dialogue through culture and it does so by engaging the public as well as the works. The Museum of Islamic Art on the other hand holds some of the Islamic world’s best examples from over a millennium, collected from across the world. Both galleries and museums are worth a visit, impossible to cover in one day, but so beautifully and thoughtfully laid out that they will entice you to return, if not extend your stay in Doha by a few days.
10. The Middle Eastern Plate
Al Mirqab Street, off Airport Road, Abu Hamour, Al Sadd next to Centre Point, Souk Waqif
Some believe that the best way to understand what a new place is all about is by trying out their street food. In Doha, Lebanese cuisine dominates most of the street food outlets, not something to complain about seeing just how delicious the fare is. Try the chicken and beef shawarmas and falafels at the creatively named Lebanese Shawarma, hot flatbreads with humus and garlic sauce at Turkey Central, and rotisserie roasted chicken wrapped in fresh hot bread at Marmara Istanbul. Try the ragag, the omelette like crepe with mayonnaise at Souk Waqif, where you should also pick up the many varieties of pickles and preserved lemons.
Look around for a while at Souk Waqif for the Falcon Souk. Falconry is a national sport in Qatar, and it’s no surprise that an entire street is dedicated to the birds of prey. This is where you can buy (of course your luggage restrictions permitting!) the birds, training materials, hoods etc. These birds are gorgeous, but remember they’re birds of prey, so pretty dangerous as well. Also, they’re highly prized and can cost more than a sports car!
Best time to Visit:
The weather is pretty dry and arid through the year except during winter when it rains sporadically. However to make the most of the outdoors, visit between November and February to beat the heat and escape surprise showers.