Qatar wasn’t on my travel radar at all until my brother & his family moved to Doha for a new job. Never one to pass up an opportunity to visit a new place – I naturally started looking at flights to visit! I quickly discovered that Qatar is a place full of history and contrast, so much more than a stopover destination. Here are my top things to do in Doha and surrounds, Qatar (and they’re all free!).
Museum of Islamic Art
A short 15-minute taxi ride from Hamad International Airport, the Museum of Islamic Art is a must-do activity if you’re only passing through Qatar for the day. Built on its own little island of reclaimed land at the southern end of the Doha Corniche – it’s also just a short walk from the famous Souq Waqif.
I’m certainly no art aficionado, but I still thoroughly enjoyed strolling through this museum and taking in the many collections of ancient Islamic art. The building that houses the museum was designed by Chinese architect Ieoh Ming Pei – the same man behind the Louvre pyramid in Paris. The architecture of the building is as captivating as the art it houses.
English guided tours run every Wednesday and Thursday at 2 pm, and Saturday at 4 pm. Alternatively, you can pick up a free audio guide at reception. The Museum is open every day except Tuesday but has varied opening hours. See the MIA website for further information.
Al-Zubarah Fort & Ruined Village
105km from Doha lies Qatar’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site – Al-Zubarah ruined village and fort. Formerly a pearling and fishing village, Al-Zubarah was abandoned in the early 1900’s and was largely buried by sand until archaeologists began excavating the area in the 1980s. You can take a self-guided tour around a small area of the site – follow the signposts or ask at the fort for direction.
The more recent Al-Zubarah Fort was constructed in 1938 using traditional Qatari materials – coral stones, limestone and compacted mud. It was once used as a military and police base, but now houses a visitor centre with exhibitions telling the tale of the town’s history and culture.
Although possible to get public transport to Al-Zubarah – buses take approx 2 hours and are few and far between. The fort and village will keep you busy for a couple of hours, but past that there is nothing more to do in the area. Give this one a miss if you haven’t got your own car to explore.
The Doha Corniche
If you’ve ever googled Doha, at some point you will have stumbled upon a breathtaking photo of the cityscape which was no doubt taken from the Doha Corniche. Stretching several kilometers in length, the corniche runs in a horse shoe shape from the West Bay business district to the Museum of Islamic Art, and offers unparalleled views of the City.
The palm-tree lined promenade makes the perfect place for a walk or a jog when the weather allows. If you’re looking to relax, there are plenty of green spaces to grab a coffee and sit down under the shade of a tree to people-watch.
Tip: Sheraton Park at the West Bay end of the Corniche offers free wifi – look out for the iPark sign to connect.
Doha’s oldest souq – Souq Waqif – went through an extensive revamp in the mid-2000’s and is now widely regarded as the cultural heart of Doha. An excellent place to shop for gifts or souvenirs, there are a range of goods on offer – from spices and traditional clothing; to local artwork and antiques. Unfortunately, the souq isn’t immune to the odd shop selling cheap and cheerful tourist paraphernalia either.
Souq Waqif is open 10 am – noon and again from 4 pm – 10 pm, but it’s in the early evening that it really comes to life. Sit down for a shisha and refreshingly cool mint soda at one of the lounges lining the alleyways, or sample the middle-eastern fare on offer at a number of restaurants in the souq.
Tip: Skip the animal market within the Souq – if you’re sensitive to animal suffering it will upset you.
Al-Jassasiya Rock Carvings
Al-Jassasiya rock carvings are a little-known gem in Qatar. There are no signposts, no directions, and very little to tell you you’ve arrived at the right place once you get there. Despite this, it’s well worth the trip to see approx 900 well-preserved petroglyphs depicting cup-shaped holes, boats with oars, fish, scorpions, donkeys and turtles. The age and purpose of the glyphs is still in debate, but they give an impressive glimpse into the ancient roots of Qatar.
The rock carvings are located about an hour north of Doha. Take the Doha Expressway north and merge onto Al Shamal Rd. Take a right at exit 66 and then take the first paved road on your left. Drive down this road for approx 3kms until you see a large area with a simple wire fence surrounding it. Leave your car outside and go exploring by foot.
East-West/West-East by Richard Serra
“East-West/West-East” by renowned sculpture Richard Serra is an art installation of grand scale set deep in the Qatari dessert. Four towering steel posts span over a kilometre through a corridor framed by limestone cliffs. Each post reaches 14 – 16m above the desert service, but they are all level at the top.
This is an art installation that is best admired from all angles. Get up close to appreciate the rusty tones of the oxidising steel and the sheer height and size of the posts. Climb the crumbling cliffs on either side to take in the grand scale and contrast against the dusty desert bed.
Located approx 80kms West of Doha in the Brouq Nature Reserve – you’ll need a 4WD to access the East-West/West-East sculptures.
Sand dunes in Qatar
No visit to a desert country would be complete without doing the obligatory sand dune climb. We drove south of Doha to Mesaieed Beach where you can enjoy a not-too-strenuous climb and be rewarded at the top with spectacular views over the endless dunes and waters of the Persian Gulf.
Those looking for a bit more adventure can rent 4×4’s for a fun day of dune bashing or head out on a desert safari.
Tip: Make sure you wear closed shoes to climb the dunes. I learnt the hard way that the dunes get super hot and sandals do nothing to protect feet from the scorching sand!