It’s not often that while you’re procrastinating about writing a blog guide to a certain city, a global pandemic makes all travel impossible. However I’m going to optimistically hope that visiting the pearl of the Gulf, Doha, will be possible again one day in the not-too-distant future. In case you’re lucky enough to visit, I’ve put together a rough guide of the best things to do and see while you’re there.
I spent a week in Doha back in February (2020), and I reckon that during that time I managed to see more or less everything. Many visitors don’t stay that long, and if you’re going to be there for a short stop of 24 hours or less, I recommend you check out my handy guide on what to do during a layover in Doha. However if you’re going to be staying a little longer, read on to find out some of the best things to do!
I mentioned this in my stopover guide, and for good reason as it’s Doha’s most famous sight and where almost any tourist would want to start their tour. Souq Waqif is the historical part of Doha city with old-style buildings and a traditional market, whereas almost every other part of the city is super modern with skyscrapers to rival Dubai’s. This is the area of the city to relax and soak up the traditional Arabic culture – market stalls full of colourful goods, outdoor cafes where you can drink Turkish coffee or exotic juices, shisha bars, restaurants serving cuisines such as Iranian, Iraqi, Azeri and Moroccan…
The souq was definitely my favourite part of Doha and a place I could come back to over and over again to just browse and stroll or to drink coffee, smoke shisha or eat dinner at one of the great restaurants. Being the city’s most touristic area and the number 1 destination for tour buses, the prices of cafes and restaurants are pitched a little higher for tourists rather than locals. Overall I found the prices mostly reasonable, but you can get much, much cheaper food elsewhere (I’ll mention a few places later). In any case you can’t miss this bustling hub of Qatari culture, and it’s worth eating here a few times if your budget is moderate.
The Museum of Islamic Art
Apart from the souq, this is definitely Doha’s biggest tourist attraction and most famous sight. A ticket costs just 50 QAR and you can re-enter for three days after purchasing, so if you don’t manage to whizz round all the exhibits in one go, you can come back the next day and continue to browse. The museum is located in a beautiful building with an inner courtyard that looks out over the bay. Inside you’ll find a range of art treasures from across the Islamic world – pottery, calligraphy, carpets, jewellery and much more. I strongly recommend a visit if you have even a passing interest in the culture, as there really is an impressive overview of the Arabic art tradition, with very digestible information alongside the exhibits.
The Corniche is Doha’s seafront area, which is a very popular place for both tourists and locals to take a stroll, especially in the evening when it’s cooler. You can also take a boat ride around the bay in a traditional boat. You should also check out the pearl monument here – a symbol of Doha’s past as a settlement mainly built around pearl diving.
Katara Cultural Village
This is the point at which I’ve passed the major tourist must-sees and gone onto some places that I wouldn’t put into a super short itinerary as some of them are a little… odd. Katara Cultural Village is one of them. Qatar is a tiny country with an insane amount of money, and a lot of that money has gone into building rather bizarre things. One of them is Katara Village. Contrary to the name, it’s not really a village but more of a touristic area that tries to replicate traditional buildings and showcase Qatar’s culture in a compact area.
The Cultural Village is quite hyped by a lot of Doha tourist guides, and I can see that the intention is to turn this into a huge tourist destination, but I don’t think it’s quite got there yet, although maybe I just visited in the off season? Everything looks very new and lacks the authentic feeling that I think they were probably going for. It looks a bit more like a movie set for an Arabic town, although still a nice place to walk around. There’s a beach but there wasn’t anyone on it, two very beautiful mosques and some sculptures to see while you’re there. We also found a very nice Lebanese restaurant with a beautiful roof terrace with a great view while you eat. I can recommend eating there, although the prices of every eatery in the cultural village are a bit high. Go there, walk around and have a look though – maybe you’ll get it more than I did. You can reach the Cultural Village by metro – it has its own stop.
West Bay is the super modern area that you can see on the other side of the bay from the historical/old part of the city. And from a distance (from the plane or from the Corniche) it looks spectacular. Going to visit it another experience though… You can reach it with one of the buses that goes around the Corniche – I don’t remember the bus numbers but you can easily find out at the bus station, which is a short walk from the central Souq area.
I was hoping for a bit more to do in the West Bay – maybe some fancy bars or terraces where you can sit with a drink by the water? Actually it’s just loads of offices, banks and embassies in huge, towering glass buildings. There weren’t even any restaurants there (as far as I could find), but there is a mall so we finally went and ate in there. Eating in a mall is definitely a top tip to save money on food as you can usually get more affordable meals in a food court.
You might wonder why I’m recommending places if I didn’t think they were very exciting, but I tend to think almost every place is worth visiting at least once. I just want to give my honest impression of each place so that future visitors can decide where they want to spend their hard-earned holiday time.
I almost didn’t visit the Pearl because it’s a pain to get there. Unlike almost anywhere else you might want to visit in Doha you can’t easily reach it by metro or bus. However an Uber over there wasn’t particularly expensive so in the end I took one there and back. And actually it was a pretty enjoyable place to spend a day.
The Pearl is an artificial island and the playground of Qatar’s rich. It’s filled with stunning-looking apartments that are obviously inhabited by people with more money than you or I could probably imagine, an extensive harbour and a lot of fancy shops and restaurants. Basically it’s the Monaco of the Gulf – so decide for yourself whether or not that’s appealing.
If you do want to eat at a fairly fancy waterfront restaurant, then this is the place to be. It’s not the place for cheap eats, obviously, but I think it’s worth putting an afternoon or evening of pretending to be rich on your agenda and enjoying the vibe.
Other than the Monaco-esque harbour area, the Pearl also boasts a replica Venice. Because of course it does. There’s a replica Rialto bridge, canals and Venetian architecture galore. With almost no one there, which is yet another weird thing about it. As I mentioned before, Doha often gives the impression that huge amounts of money have been spent on developing tourist attractions and luxury residential complexes, but the actual number of people visiting those places lags way, way behind. So the result is an almost ghost-town feel where you can walk around a creepy replica Venice where everything is way too clean and almost no one else is there. Now if that doesn’t sound like an ideal way to spend an afternoon to you then I don’t know what does.
Aspire Park and Villaggio Mall
I’m mentioning these two place together because the mall is located inside the park, so it makes sense to visit them at the same time. You can reach the Aspire Park via either bus or Metro (it has its own stop).
Aspire Park is Doha’s biggest park and a pretty impressive green space for a country that’s located in a desert. It’s the number one place for anyone local to relax and enjoy sports or a stroll, or to take the kids to play. It has various cafes for a coffee stop, and is just generally a nice park for a walk or to relax a bit in a green area.
Villaggio Mall is a rather quirky mall that you’ll either love or hate. I personally really enjoy bizarrely themed malls, so it was right up my alley.
Once again, strangely, the mall features another replica Venice, complete with a canal running through the middle of it, on which you can even take a gondola ride (which of course I did – well worth it!). The shops are beautifully designed and themed and the ceiling is painted like the sky. It felt a bit like walking around a nightmarish vision of an apocalyptic Italy where the air outside has become so toxic that everything had to be encased indoors in a giant mall.
There are many expensive designer shops and luxury brand here, plus some American chain restaurants if you want to eat. Top tip – the coffee at the Cheesecake Factory was incredible.
I’ve saved my personal favourite highlight for last. The Torch is a tall tower located inside Aspire Park, and in itself is a popular landmark. You can’t really go anywhere inside unless you’re booked into one of the restaurants or the hotel which are located inside. However, doing so is very much worth the cost in my opinion. There are various restaurants inside on different floors including a panoramic 360-degrees restaurant at the top. We decided to visit the Torch Tea Garden on the 21st floor instead, and, as someone with a fear of heights, it was certainly high enough!
Apart from being terrified while going up the stairs to reach the restaurant, this was my favourite experience of the whole trip, and in my opinion a must-do. The Tea Garden is absolutely beautiful inside, with an incredible view of the park and the city. If you can, go before sunset so you can see the view both in daylight and at night, and experience the sunset.
You can get an amazing afternoon tea here for QR 150 or around 32 GBP per person. Not cheap, but also not outrageous for such an amazing experience in my opinion. If you have any kind of special occasion to celebrate, then this is a great place to go. The tea includes a mocktail (no alcohol is allowed in Doha), tea or coffee and a range of canapes and snacks. Many of the snacks contain meat or fish but I asked and the staff were happy to change a few options for me! The service was amazing, and I absolutely loved the whole experience.
(Top tip in case you are scared of heights like me. You have to take a nightmare glass lift to reach this floor, which believe me you do not want to do. However it’s possible to take the normal lift to reach the gym on the 19th floor. From there you can take stairs up the last two floors. I’m not going to lie, it’s still scary, but just about doable if a glass lift sounds like your idea of hell.)
Where to eat for less
Nowadays when I’m on a holiday as opposed to just travelling around ‘digital nomad’ style, I don’t like to pinch pennies too much. If I want to eat at a fancy restaurant or treat myself with a nice meal, drink or experience then I will. However sometimes it’s definitely a big plus to find an affordable spot to eat, and you don’t always want to pay tourist prices.
If that’s the case, you definitely want to avoid the Pearl area or the Souq to eat. Once you’re out of those major tourist/expat areas you can find much cheaper places to eat.
If you want a cheap and very authentic meal, my favourite recommendation is the Hamous and Foul restaurant which was located next to my hotel. They don’t have a menu because they just serve two things: hamous (hummus) and foul (a delicious bean dip), with pitta bread and pickles on the side. You can get a filling and super authentic meal here for just a few pounds between two people (I think we spent QR 25). It was shockingly cheap – by far the cheapest meal we had in Doha – and really really good. The owners of the restaurant looked a bit surprised to see us, but they were friendly and we had a very good meal.
PS – near to this restaurant, on the main road to/from the souq there’s also a Persian bakery where you can buy 5 (yes 5!) freshly-baked flatbreads from a traditional oven for just QR 1. Yes, 1. There’s a good reason that it’s surrounded by locals, because the bread is incredible and costs almost nothing (they make it with government-subsidised flour). I recommend grabbing some bread here too!
So that just about concludes everything that I did during my trip to Doha. Yes I do have varying opinions on some of the city’s attractions, but overall I had a fantastic trip here and I recommend it as an alternative to Dubai and co. If you’ve been, feel free to drop any tips and opinions in the comments! Or, if you’re planning a trip, let me know any questions and I’ll try to answer them.
Thanks for reading!