The 7 best things to do in Doha, the capital of Qatar
Doha is the capital of the tiny nation of Qatar located on the Persian Gulf. The dazzling skyline of the city keeps changing with the seemingly ever-present development and massive investments from the Qatari government and business leaders. Some of these iconic developments — the Museum of Islamic Art, the Doha Corniche, and the Pearl for example — have become massive tourist attractions and are considered some of best things to do in Doha.
There are so many things to do in Doha, now one of the fastest growing cities in the world, from cultural and historic to traditional and modern. And with all of the build-up and development because of Qatar hosting the 2022 FIFA World Cup, Doha, already worthy of a best place to travel nod, is now even more worthy of a visit.
Despite the air, land and sea blockade that started in mid-2017 as a result of a diplomatic tiff with Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt, Doha’s Hamad International Airport has become a significant transfer point connecting over 100 global destinations. Tourism has taken a hit, though, and visiting Doha as a final destination appears to be less common than it is to simply pass through.
As we were checking in for our Qatar Airways flight from Berlin to Doha, the agent asked us where we were headed. We said, “Doha,” quite cheerfully. To which he looked up at us and queried, “And then where?” Puzzled, we replied, “Just Doha.” The agent appeared surprised and responded with an “Oh?” that had a very “are you seriously just going to Doha?” sort of tone.
For those who wonder what to do in Doha even for just a day, we spent an amazing four days in Doha, including for Qatar’s National Day — and four days were hardly enough. We can say without hesitation that even if you are planning to transfer there, you should plan on at least 24 hours and preferably 48 hours (or more!) to explore the tiny Gulf nation of Qatar, still considered one of the safest countries in the world for tourists. Doha is a city of lights, with modern development and a rich culture that celebrates food, ethnic diversity, warm hospitality, and plenty of sunshine, while still struggling at times with its rise-to-riches past.
Our 7 best things to do in Doha
In a city that is not so pedestrian-friendly, the 7-kilometer (4.3 miles) so-called “Corniche” crescent-shaped waterfront path becomes an exception. In the cooler morning and evening hours, the Corniche is filled with all nationalities enjoying a sit or a stroll. The best — and as a result the most photographed views along the Corniche — are from the water’s edge including around the Museum of Islamic Art at the south end with dhows (traditional sailing vessels) in the foreground and the spectacular skyline of Doha as a backdrop. If you wish to walk its length, we would recommend starting at Costa Coffee in “I Park” at the north end and then walking south toward the Museum of Islamic Art. Plan on about 1.5 to 2 hours for a leisurely stroll.
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Museum of Islamic Art
Designed by architect I.M. Pei, the Museum of Islamic Art is a stunning architectural landmark that stands out at one end of the Corniche. Inside are collections that present Islamic art from three continents. The building is a wonder unto itself. It stands on an artificial island that I.M. Pei “suggested” being constructed in order to ensure no other buildings would obstruct the view of either it or its views toward Doha. There are two outdoor patios that are a must see, located at either end of the museum. Both offer superb views of downtown Doha. The museum is free. Tip: At night the thick column at the top has slits that are lit so it somewhat resembles a woman wearing a hijab with a face veil – quite beautiful and eerie.
Follow the path around the Museum of Islamic Art to enjoy this peaceful green space beside the Doha waterfront. At the far end of the park, just beyond the MIA Park Café (an outdoor café) sits a vertical steel sculpture, known as 7, by the sculpture Richard Serra. This was his first commissioned piece in the Middle East. Walk through the sculpture, made up of seven steel plates, stare up at the sky. Why seven? The number seven has special spiritual significance in both Islamic and Qatari culture. From the grassy hilltop in the park, nighttime views of downtown Doha are spectacular and very popular for couples, photographers and kids.
This is where the modern city of Doha meets an ancient market site, one where centuries ago, Bedouin would reportedly bring sheep and wool to trade. In 2003, much of the original market was destroyed in a fire, but a significant reconstruction effort resulted in the “new” buildings looking very much as they did in the 19th century with mud-walls, narrow alleys, and exposed timber beams. While the Souq Waqif has become a major tourist attraction, the primary purpose is that of a traditional marketplace where shoppers will find national Qatari dress, fabrics, spices, perfumes, incense and much more. Most shops and stalls in the Souq close around 1 pm and reopen at 4 pm, but the cafes and restaurants stay open all day. The best time to visit the Souq Waqif is in the late afternoon and early evening when the entire area really comes alive with people, music, and often performers. Be sure to turn off the main thoroughfares for a real feel.
The Msheireb area is the world’s largest LEED gold development with 100 buildings constructed on the street footprint of the original city intended to become “downtown” Doha. Just a short walk from the Souk Waqif, the Msheireb Museums are actually four separate buildings. Each are somewhat near each other, but each somewhat frustratingly hard to find. Signs help but are also confusing. A map is hard to orient. Which is why you may find yourself chased down by a museum guard or attendant who is merely trying to help direct you and invite you inside. Each museum focuses on a different story Qatar’s history, culture and development. You will learn about the story of oil and gas exploration and its importance, pearl diving (once a primary economic driver for the country) and trade. In our view though, the most impactful and eye-opening museum is the one focused on slavery, including an honest look at Qatar’s part in this. The museums are free, and the areas around them are also worthy of a look.
Katara Cultural Village
Located north of the corniche area, between downtown Doha’s West Bay to the south and The Pearl to the north, Katara Cultural Village is a shining diamond representing Qatar’s art, music and culture scene. This is where local students come to take music and art lessons, and where locals and tourists come to experience a vibrant music, art and food scene. There’s also a pretty spectacular beach too. Every building is a sandy yellow and each is modeled after traditional Qatari buildings, with the intent to reconnect the old with the new and the youth. The passageways are narrow and winding adding an element of mystery and wonder. Suspended overhead between the buildings are fabric canopies to help shade from the intense Gulf sun.
Dubbed the “Arabian Riviera” by locals, The Pearl is a very pedestrian-friendly artificial island that becomes a scene during cooler evenings and winter months as tourists along with the rich and famous mingle. Shaped like a pearl (hence the name) and covering approximately 1.5-square-miles, the island offers high-end cafes, restaurants and shops. Canals and bridges add to a bit of a Mediterranean feel, a little bit European, and indeed every bit contrived – very pleasant and fun to see, but still contrived. The promenade around the harbor is a nice place to wander and gaze at very expensive yachts.
Two more places to visit in Doha
You’ll need to have a car or join a tour
Located approximately 60 kilometers (37 miles) west and slightly north of Doha (at the peninsula’s other coast), here is where you will find the second of sculpture Richard Serra’s installations – East-West/West-East. The four massive steel plates, each 15 meters tall (just over 49 feet) stand like sentinels in a line, spread out evenly along a one-kilometer (0.6 mile) corridor between sandy ridges.
Not too far from here one can also find a replica village known as “Film City,” which is a fun to wander around and take photos. You are advised to go with a guide or rent a 4WD vehicle before driving to this area since it is not easy to find and easy to get lost.
Sheikh Faisal Museum
We didn’t get to visit Sheikh Faisal Museum on our last visit, but teachers at the American School in Qatar tell us this is a must-see and a place they take students and tourists to frequently. Named for a Qatari billionaire Sheikh Faisal Bin Qassim Al Thani, this museum is, quite simply, his private collection of random artifacts that fascinate him. Collectible cars, carpets, a completely furnished traditional Qatari home, a dhow boat replica, guns, swords, a dinosaur egg, … you name it. Is it one of the best things to do in Doha? You decide.
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Michael – Doha is a city I’ve always wanted to learn a bit more about and your post was the perfect introduction! I’ve never been very inclined to visit Dubai because it just looks so touristy, but Doha looks like a perfect balance between tourist attractions and authentic culture! All your photos are really well shot, and I think I’d definitely check out Katara Cultural Village and Zekreet!
What an intersting sounding place! I don’t understand why your flight attendant was so skeptical. I’d love to visit the Souq Waqif – those ancient buildings look so neat! And Zekreet – the sculpture seems so eerie, out there in the middle of nowhere. Thanks for sharing!
Well, the counter checkin person was skeptical, simply because he’d never been and everyone for the most part he deals with simply uses Doha as a point of connection to other parts fo the world … not a destination. The sculpture in the desert is outstanding to see.
Doha is a lovely destination in itself with so much to see and experience. Though it remains in the shadow of Dubai and Sharjah, it is a real gem of a destination. We missed going there due to time constrains when we visited Sharjah and Dubai a couple of years ago. Hope to get to Doha soon. There is so much of art and culture in the museums of Doha and of course heading to the Corniche would be a lovely experience too.
You will love the art and culture in Doha … equally the rival of Dubai. And certainly with all the construction going on as a result of the upcoming World Cup, Doha has its eyes on being the envy of the region.
Doha really seems to be an interesting blend of old and new, ancient and modern. The lights themselves, and their reflection in the water are absolutely stunning and make the city sparkle at night. I don’t know much about the history of Doha or its relations to other countries, but do find it a shame when politics interferes with our ability to visit and explore and build relations with our world neighbors. The Msheireb Museums and Katara Cultural Village both look like places that I would enjoy spending some time visiting.
It is a city built out of the desert sand … on the money from natural gas. So yes, it is a blend of old (as they try to hold onto their heritage) and new (it seems everyone wants to outdo the other when it comes to new buildings and architectural design. Which makes for an interesting contrast to be sure.
I really don’t know this part of the world at all, so I read about Doha with great interest. The Souq Waqif fascinates me (so happy they rebuilt it authentically after the fire) and I love your tip to go there in the evening when it is just buzzing with life! Your photographs and writing have enticed me to put Qatar on my radar and experience all that Doha has to offer.
Doha (and the rest of Qatar) is truly amazing. And the Souq at night is just so much fun. Can’t wait to hear how you enjoy Qatar when you go.
Doha does look like it’s got a lot to do – you don’t read about it very often. I’d like to head to the souqs for a bit of shopping, and the Katara cultural village looks like it’d be really interesting to visit. Worth the trip!
I am sure you will be reading about Doha more and more. The Souq Waqif is so much fun to wander through, for photographs, people watching and shopping. And Katara is fantastic too.
Doha looks like an amazing city to explore and I cant wait to get to this region. I love walking around historical sites. Would love to check out the East-West West-East monument outside Doha during sunset. That would be an amazing experience.
The East-West West-East sculpture is stunning to see in any light. It defies imagination.
What a beautiful and enchanting city! I love your tip about the day tours from the airport – even if I’m not able to stay for a few days, it would be awesome to at least get out for a bit on a layover. I will definitely think about that next time I’m in the region!
It is quite the thing to do on a longer layover in Doha … in fact we have heard some travelers even plan it into their itineraries, which seems a bit extreme, but there you go. Any time in Doha is time well spent.
i have been coming across a lot of articles on Doha of late. It is said to be a great alternative to Dubai. Now after seeing this post of yours, I am inspired to go and explore it for myself. The old town is beautiful.
You will fall in love with Doha I suspect. It is becoming more on the radar of travelers and tourists as you have noted and for good reason.
Doha look so beautiful. I don’t know why I have not heard much of the Doha. The museum architecture is so amazing and built in the middle of water reminded of Jal Mahal in Jaipur, India. Souq Waqif looks like straight out of Game of Thrones setting.
I have heard Doha is very expensive city. How much does it cost to travel in Qatar.
Doha is not that expensive, at least from our experience. Restaurants were reasonably priced, transportation (we took uber a lot) is very reasonable. Perhaps some food items and such are more expensive now due to the blockade … but don’t let that deter you. We had, as you read, and amazing time and will be back.