48 hours in Qatar: a perfect cultural stopover
In Doha, the capital of Qatar, skyscrapers rise out of sand like some kind of futuristic mirage. But this is no hallucination. With 115 towers in the West Bay area alone, Doha is a sight to behold.
It is also one of the most welcoming of Middle Eastern countries thanks to its visa exemption policy, and citizens of 80 countries can enter Qatar visa free. For those who make the journey it is an intriguing and spectacular place to be
The art of the matter
Qatar’s reputation as a cultural destination has grown rapidly in recent years and The Qatar Museum of Islamic Art, which celebrated its tenth year in 2018, is the perfect place for a culture fix.
The permanent collections house many wonders from over 1,400 years of art and design – manuscripts, ceramics, glassworks, and other priceless objects from Islam's rich past – all within a striking building designed by the Louvre pyramids’ architect, I.M. Pei as a homage to traditional Islamic architecture.
Highlights of the museum include a beautiful 17th century jewelled falcon and a 15th century steel war mask with a gold inlay, which bears a surprising similarity to the Guy Fawkes mask appropriated by activist groups around the world.
While at the museum you can also enjoy an evening concert of Handel or Mendelssohn with the Qatar Philharmonic – a relaxing way to finish the day.
One experience visitors to Qatar mustn’t miss is a trip out to the southern desert for a thrilling dune-bashing ride in a 4x4, driven by highly trained drivers.
Qatar International Adventures offer a desert safari with a visit to the Khor Al Adaid inland sea, the natural border between Qatar and Saudi Arabia, at a stylish Bedouin camp. Here you can ride a camel, try out sand boarding or snorkelling and just swim in the cooling Persian gulf.
Making a splash
Water sports are very popular in Doha, and back in the city you can try out jet skis, banana boats and doughnut rings. Or for a more leisurely activity, step back in time onto a dhow boat, once used for pearl diving and now offering tours around the port.
The coming 2022 Fifa World Cup will be a huge moment for Qatar. Construction sites are everywhere, but the construction boom began well before Qatar was named host, really beginning back when Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani took control of the country from his father in 1995. The incoming emir immediately opened the country up to foreign investment and began construction of the world's largest liquid natural gas terminals.
Oil and gas have played a massive part in Qatar’s meteoric rise from a country built on pearl diving to a significant player in the world’s economy. The Company House museum in the Msheireb area of downtown Doha tells the story with perspectives of former workers of Qatar’s first oil firm.
The impending World Cup has also led to questions about whether alcohol laws will be relaxed. At present, alcohol can only be served in licensed hotels and sold at rare outlets to those with a personal licence, and never to Muslims. A licensed hotel isn’t hard to find in Doha, and nightlife for expats in tourists is thriving. There are salsa nights on Fridays at the Hilton DoubleTree in the old town, and fantastic cocktails at the Grand Hyatt, alongside premium cigars.
“The cocktail menu has taken inspiration from the twenty provinces of Isaan, with flavours and smells that are unique to the area,” explains the Grand Hyatt’s Director of Marketing Communications, Eilis Carr. “We have bridged the gap between the kitchen and the bar by using traditional Isaan fruit, herbs and spices and cooking techniques to create a bespoke cocktail menu that transports you straight into the heart of Isaan.”
Pearls of wisdom
The Grand Hyatt itself sits opposite the Pearl-Qatar, a man-made island 350 metres off the coast of the West Bay area. Residential parts of the island take in aspects of Arabic, Mediterranean, and European culture, including the Qanat Quartier, a Venice-like community with an extensive canal system, pedestrian-friendly squares and plazas, beachfront townhouses and a replica Rialto bridge. The Pearl-Qatar is home to many ex-pat communities and here you will find many Western food outlets such as Carluccio’s, Just Burger and Nando’s.
Like a local
For more authentic flavours, venturing into the Souk Waqif offers a dining experience like no other. This Iranian restaurant has stunning interiors covered in hand-painted Persian myths and legends, intricate mosaics, ornate chandeliers and thousands of tiny mirrors that were handpicked from Iran and assembled in Doha over three and a half years.
The food is excellent, hearty and filling, with the mixed grill a particularly popular dish. Definitely try the delicious sweet walnut and pomegranate chicken stew coupled with a refreshing rose water mocktail.
The nearby Al Najada by Tivoli hotel, just across from the souk, is another must-go if you love seafood. The seared tuna is and the baked harmour are two unmissable highlights.
Until you drop
While the souks offer more authentic souvenirs, the many shopping malls present a chance to spend your money in top designer stores from around the world, as well as high street shops like H&M, Zara and Topshop. Both souks and malls are open past 10pm, so when you’ve shopped until you’re ready to drop, you’ll want to retire to a hotel.
A perfect stay
The Kingsgate in Old Al Ghanim and the the Ezdan in West Bay are available at budget prices. Or for sheer opulence, try the Ritz-Carlton, home to the largest chandelier in the Middle East. Personal touches like bespoke chocolates in the room show the care the hotel puts into its hospitality, and with a five-star spa, you’d be forgiven for wanting to spend your whole stay there.
Qatar Airways flies direct from London Heathrow to Doha (round-trip) from £602 per person six times daily. www.qatarairways.com
Stays at Al Najada Doha Hotel starts from 425 QAR (approx. £94) for a standard room. www.tivolihotels.com/en/al-najada-tivoli
Tours and activities with Qatar International Adventures can be booked through qia-qatar.com
For more information go to www.visitqatar.qa