Everyone should visit Qatar and the urban oasis that is its capital city: Doha. Daring, construction projects whose space-age designs are repeatedly shortlisted for international architecture prizes, a quietly impressive cultural scene with a proud appreciation for Islamic art, plus the serene beauty of the desert beyond.
Innovation and cosmopolitan sophistication is everywhere. From the Doha Tower, the Torch Doha and the Pearl Qatar, Doha offers a glimpse of the world as it might be in several centuries time. Or, if you prefer, step back in time and into traditional marketplaces with their old-world hospitality and to enjoy a fascinating time-travelling story played out in reverse.
1) The desert
Qatar has so much to offer, but for me, the adventure begins in the desert: If you have never stood in a desert before, if so far, your holidays have been spent on paradise beaches, or rubbing shoulders with the multitude in bustling cities, then fair enough. Yet this incredible planet we call home has so many amazing possibilities, so many unique environments, from teeming jungles, towering woodlands, to majestic mountains – and one of my favourite habitats – deserts.
Imagine, for a moment, facing an ocean of stillness, made up, not of nautical blues, but wave after wave of golden browns shimmering in the haze, eclipsed by skies the most vivid shade of blue. The sensation is one of awe; this is beauty on an epic scale. And if you ever have the opportunity to visit the inland sea of Khor Al Adaid, then you should count yourself lucky. Forty miles from Doha and accessible by crossing an ocean of dunes, it is one of Qatar’s most impressive natural wonders.
The desert is not merely a place of stillness and contemplation. It’s a playground for those who love adventure, from dune bashing, sand boarding and camel-riding. Plan a visit to stay in a comfortable camp, and when you return sun-bronzed from your activities, expect to find an unrelenting, rejuvenating silence as night slowly descends; but never as a blanket of darkness.
First a most magnificent sunset turns the blue sky pink, then a slow unveiling of the glittering cosmos above. Why spend your whole life trying to catch a glimpse of the Aurora Borealis, when you can catch a glimpse of heaven every night in the deserts of Qatar.
2) The Souq Waqif
Only a fifteen minute drive from the marinas, hotels and restaurants of the Pearl Qatar, you will find the Souq Waqif. The scenery changes from the remarkable feats of engineering of Doha’s skyscrapers, as you drive into a district made up of low-rise sandstone buildings. The streets are filled with vibrant colours, of clothing, food and furniture.
With its desert-centric values everywhere you look, I love being immersed in cultures that are considerably different from my own. Touring Doha is an education in itself.
The ‘hustle and bustle’ of everyday market life is addictive, and as we headed deeper into the souq itself (giving our best bartering impressions along the way) we were met by the aroma of local spices, fragrances of oudh and other oils and attars, coupled with the natural scent of live animals. I was stunned by just how much local produce was on offer, from food stalls to tailored suits, handmade sculptures and jewellery; even live falcons!
We stayed for hours, with so many narrow alleyways and indoor mazes to explore. Near the centre of the souq, we stopped for a refreshing mint tea and some local cuisine. And I’d recommend you do the same, just pause, sit back and soak up the atmosphere.
When the sun goes down, the souq becomes even more captivating. Tea lights are lit at pavements cafes, restaurants and at shop entrances. Shisha pipes are puffed and passed, board games are presided over. It’s an enchanting snapshot of everyday life. Once again I found myself wishing I had more time. This is what travel means to me: constantly wishing I had more time to spend in truly exotic places like Qatar.
3) Islamic art
Islamic art is another great reason to visit the Middle East and nowhere is its influence more prominent than in Qatar, from carpets sellers in marketplaces to huge construction programs on man-made islands offshore. Every aspect is interconnected, with studied thought and purpose throughout.
It is not by happy accident that the Museum of Islamic Art faces the modern skyline of Doha across the waters of the Arabian Gulf, book-ending the Corniche, looking on in wonder at the Pearl Qatar. The museum itself is a stunning building (particularly when floodlit at night). The ancient artwork exhibited within provide a poignant mirror image to the futurist architecture of Doha today.
A guided tour of the museum provides valuable cultural insights into the abstract patterns you see everywhere in Islamic art. Here, you can study the arabesques in calligraphy or set beneath glazed ceramics, or curled within the intricacy of leaves and flowers repeated over and over in painstaking wood carvings.
Then, with more appreciation of these arts and crafts suddenly the arch porticos and domes, the crisp lines and large open outdoor spaces of State Grand Mosque (Abdul Wahhab Mosque – one of the largest mosques in Qatar) and the Katara Cultural Village, a beacon of culture and art; suddenly it all makes perfect sense. Qatari’s are proud custodians of Islamic art and its delicate forms are on display wherever you roam.
For me, this is why Doha is a fascinating city break or even a stopover en route to say, the Indian Ocean or the Far East. When you board your flight for new pastures, you’ll leave Qatar with that rare privileged feeling that you have witnessed something great in the making. If you’re new to this region, see this as an introductory course in Middle Eastern studies. If only I had more time, I’d become a scholar.
If you’re thinking of visiting Qatar, but need a little more advice and inspiration, visit our Qatar pages and start planning your Middle East holiday today.
For more exciting destination ideas, browse these Doha pages and start planning your next adventure.
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