If you fly a bit between Europe and Asia, at some point you’ll probably have, or have had, a layover in Doha. Much like Istanbul or Paris Charles de Gaulle, Doha’s Hamad airport is one of the biggest ‘hub’ airports linking East and West, where a lot of people regularly change between flights. If you too find yourself with a few hours or even an entire day to spare between your flights, you might be wondering what to do in this city which isn’t always on everyone’s travel itinerary otherwise.
Well, in case you were wondering that, I’ve put together some ideas of what you could do on a short layover of up to 24 hours in Doha, Qatar.
If you have less than 4 hours
If you have 4 hours or less I probably wouldn’t recommend leaving the airport at all, as a little bit of bad luck with traffic could potentially mean missing your connection. However all is not lost as Doha Hamad Aiport has been voted the world’s fourth best airport, so there are worse places to be stuck for a while.
If you’ve got a lounge access pass or don’t mind spending on entering a lounge, you could pass the time in the Transfers Lounge. It’s probably not the most luxurious lounge in the world but it certainly does the job to pass a few hours. There are enough tables and chairs to eat, work or just chill, decent food and drink offerings, wifi, bathrooms and newspapers etc. I usually try to enter a lounge if I have more than 2 hours to wait for a flight, rather than be crammed in to usually limited seating in the main airport for ages and ages. Although Qatar is a completely alcohol-free country, the airport lounge is an exception unless you come during Ramadan.
If you don’t want to splash the cash on entering a lounge, or you don’t have enough time to be worth it, the rest of the airport is still clean and uncrowded. There are enough shops and cafes for you to wonder around and have a drink or a snack while you wait.
If you have around 6 hours
If you have a little more time and would like to get out of the airport but you don’t have enough time for an entire day in the city or an overnight stay, your best bet is to take the Qatar Airways organised tour. It costs 75 QAR which is about 18.50 euro, and will whiz you around the city’s highlights including the Pearl, Souq Waqif and the Islamic Art Museum, which honestly does cover most of what you might actually want to see there, albeit in a pretty perfunctory manner. If it is at all possible for you to fit this in, I definitely recommend it as Doha is really worth having at least a quick look at even if you don’t intend to make it your final destination.
You can book the tour upfront on Qatar Airways’ website or visit their desk at the airport.
If you have 6+ hours
If you have more than 6 hours, maybe even an overnight stay, then you might want to take matters into your own hands and get out and explore by yourself. I certainly recommend it!
Get to and from the city:
There are 3 main ways to get to and from the city, which is only about 20 minutes away by taxi or 30 by public transport. If you’re fairly low on time you could get a taxi (I haven’t got any experience of this though). Otherwise, there’s either the metro or various buses – there’s signage to point you to either of these. Actually public transport in Doha is very affordable. You can take most bus journeys for less than a euro, with the bus card which you can purchase from the machines at the airport or bus station. You can take buses including the 777 or 727 which will ultimately take you to the bus station very near the Souq Waqif which is the touristic centre. You can check all bus information here.
I’m sure it goes without saying to make sure you leave enough time to get back to the airport in time for your flight!
Once you’re in the city centre, you can actually see most of what you might want to see on foot, unless you want to venture further afield to West Bay, The Pearl or Katara Village, which I’m not going to recommend in my itinerary.
Start in Souq Waqif
Souq Waqif is by a long way the biggest touristic highlight of Doha and it’s definitely where I recommend you start your exploration, and the number one place you should visit even if you don’t get round to anything else.
It’s the closest thing to a historical and cultural centre Doha has – almost everything else is painfully modern and a long way ahead of itself, with nowhere near enough visitors or residents to actually justify the money that’s gone into it. I’m not sure how historical or authentic it really is, but the Persian-style architecture is wonderful and there’s a really great atmosphere among the narrow streets and alleyways stuffed with stalls, shops and cafes. Unlike some other souks you may have visited in places like Marrakech or Cairo, the hustle and bustle here isn’t too much, and the amount of hassle and hard-selling from vendors is minimal, so it’s a very pleasant place to stroll around and soak up the local vibe – presuming it isn’t too hot (I visited in February!).
You can probably explore the whole thing in around an hour, depending on how much time you want to spend looking in shops, drinking coffee, smoking shisha or whatever other activities you might wish to indulge in. You could probably dash round it and get the idea in 20 minutes, or spend an entire afternoon here – your choice. Personally it’s my favourite part of the city as you really do get to immerse yourself in the culture, enjoy the sun and marvel at all kinds of things on sale. There are also loads of restaurants and cafes here, and if you don’t mind paying (not unreasonable) tourist prices, I’d recommend to eat here. There isn’t a lot of evidence on display of a specifically Qatari cuisine or tradition, but there’s an interesting mixture of Middle Eastern cuisines, products and handicrafts on offer. In terms of restaurants you’ll find Lebanese, Azeri, Persian, Iraqi and Moroccan all muddled in together, and all offering variations on the region’s cuisine.
Head to the Corniche (and maybe take a boat ride)
The Corniche is the long strip that runs along the edge of the bay just outside the Souq Waqif. It’s a very short walking distance from there. It’s definitely worth a short or long stroll along the seafront to just enjoy the weather, the water and the view of the impressive skyscrapers over in the West Bay. If you have a bit of time and cash, consider taking a 1-hour round-trip boat ride around the bay to get a closer look at West Bay without actually going there (spoiler – you’re not missing much). Remember to haggle at least a little bit with the boat drivers as (especially in off-season), they’re not getting a whole load of custom, and the tradition is to haggle over prices anyway.
Look at the Museum of Islamic Art
This museum is Doha’s most famous sight and a huge cultural treasure in the region. It’s not overly expensive to enter (50 QAR at time of writing) and the ticket is valid for three days, so if you are staying longer you can re-enter at will.
It has 5 floors, but it seems that only the 2nd two are generally open for visiting. The first floor mainly features toilets, shop and cafe, whilst the top two floors only seem to open for events. There’s still a lot to see and you could potentially spend between 1-3 hours in here. It’s also a nice cool place to avoid the sun if you’re there during a hotter period.
The museum boasts a selection of Islamic art pieces from all around the world, such as Persian carpets, calligraphy, pots and vases, statues, tiles and more. It’s definitely a must-see for an overview of Islamic artistic traditions with about the right amount of information along the way.
Eat at Parisa restaurant
Of course there’s a huge choice of restaurants in Souq Waqif and also elsewhere around the city but I can really give a special mention to Parisa, which is located on the main street of the souq. You might spot it as you’re walking down, as it really has an extremely eye-catching entrance. Once you go in, though, it’s like being transported into an Arabian Nights fantasy world of colour, lights and elaborate tiles. The interior is so stunning that a lot of people just poke their heads in to take pictures but I do actually recommend eating there too as the food is almost as good as the design.
As almost everywhere in Qatar, no alcohol is served in any of the restaurants around here, but I recommend to enjoy a tea or a fresh juice and forget about the European expectation of having wine or beer with your meals. For any other vegetarians such as myself there’s a lot on offer and I didn’t struggle at all to find a good meal anywhere I went.
I also recommend to smoke a shisha at any one of the many places offering it around the souk. The price is almost always 50 QAR.
This definitely doesn’t constitute everything that there is to do in Doha, but I think this itinerary would keep you busy for up to a day depending on how long you wish to spend on each step – you could spend more or less time in each place depending on your schedule. Whilst of course it isn’t possible to see all of any city in one day or less, Doha’s really interesting parts are mostly concentrated in a small area and are easy enough to see in a day. Whether you choose to take the Qatar Airways tour or a variation of the above itinerary you’re sure to get a good overview of the city during your layover.
I stayed in the city for a whole week and will be following up this post with a more in-depth post on what to do if you are there for longer.
Let me know in the comments if you’ve visited Doha and what your favourite thing is to do there.