To watch a great city being built right before your eyes is a rare experience. The apartment complexes, malls and stadia being built at breakneck speed in Doha can’t be dismissed as construction boom; there’s a method to the madness. Sand dunes have made way for skyscrapers and art galleries promoting cutting edge work have mushroomed all over the city. Downtown Doha is home to some of the coolest restaurants and cafes and the postal code to aspire to.
The ever so sophisticated Mandarin Oriental has opened its doors in this neighbourhood just a few months ago and is already become a venue of choice not just for travellers such as myself but local Qataris too who host weddings and engagements here. The Mandarin stands just a few hundred meters away from Souk Waqif, the old ‘standing market’ of Doha. Further down from the souk is Corniche, the seven km-long promenade where, on weekends, the entire city seems to descend. Weekends in Doha are Thursday and Friday, though select offices do follow the Saturday-Sunday weekend.
With Qatar Airways flying multiple times from various Indian cities to Doha, the Qatari capital makes for a convenient weekend getaway. Flights from Mumbai and New Delhi land at convenient timings at Doha’s swanky Hamad International Airport giving you the entire day to explore the city.
What to see and do in Doha
There’s much to see and do in Doha but with just a weekend in hand, it helps to have a shortlist ready. Of course, you could throw out this list altogether and go shopping – Doha has a thriving luxury goods market – at any of Doha’s exclusive shopping malls. Alternatively you could...
1. Shop at Souq Waqif
Loosely translated as ‘standing market’, Souq Waqif gets its name from the fact that the waters of the sea would come all the way into this low-lying neighbourhood making it impossible for the traders to sit down and sell their wares. As a result all business was conducted while standing, giving Souq Waqif its name. The restored souq doesn’t, of course, get flooded anymore and neither are the traders on their feet. Souq Waqif is a maze of a market that sells practically everything you’d need – from everyday household goods to fabrics and spices to artefacts and fridge magnets. A part of the souq is dedicated to birds and animals, specifically falcons, with entire stores selling only falcon accessories and feed. Souq Waqif has a thriving dinner and shisha scene that will keep you occupied the entire weekend. Do note that alcohol isn’t available nor permitted.
2. Walk along Corniche
The seven-km promenade is the equivalent of Chennai’s Marina Beach and Mumbai’s Marine Drive and offers unrestricted views of Doha’s skyline. Since the street is one of the main thoroughfares in the city, expect traffic along Corniche during peak hours. Even so, walking along this promenade on a winter evening is easily one of the most relaxing things you’d do on your trip. The seven-km stretch has interesting restaurants and open-air gymnasiums for public use. This is also the point from where you can rent a dhow (traditional Qatari boats) for a joyride into the bay.
3. Learn about Qatari history at the National Museum of Qatar
The high-tech National Museum of Qatar can easily take anywhere between half a day and a full day to cover, depending on your interest in history and the country’s culture. Designed by the French architect, Jean Nouvel, the museum building is in the shape of a desert rose. Within it is narrated the story of the evolution of Qatar starting from (and this is true) pre-historic times. Section after section is immaculately curated and contains artworks, artefacts, murals, replicas as well as videos, pictures and photos as well as immersive experiences that reflect various aspects of Qatari history and culture. At its very heart is the restored palace of Sheikh Abdullah bin Jassim Al Thani the son of the founder of modern Qatar. The building used to be the home of the ruling Al Thani family and also the seat of the government.
4. Visit the Museum of Islamic Art
Designed by the legendary architect, the late IM Pei, the Museum of Islamic Art is built on a specially created island. It was Pei’s idea to have the museum on a standalone island so that no upcoming buildings would ever obstruct the view. So, as you look out from certain points of the Corniche, the Museum of Islamic Art seems almost as if floating on water. The museum itself boasts of an impressive collection of Islamic patterns, textiles, jewellery and calligraphy among other items collected across three continents with some artefacts going back to the seventh century. The Museum of Islamic Art also features rotating and pop-up exhibits all year round so do look up the website for the schedule.
5. Go dune bashing
Should you find yourself short on time, dump the rest of the things on this list and head out into the desert. The dunes are steep and high, making your ride a memorable one. There are several operators who organise dune-bashing expeditions and provide pick-up from and drop to your hotel. Most operators advertise it as a four-hour trip the duration is inclusive of the time taken from the hotel to the dunes and back. The actual desert safari doesn’t last for more than an hour.
Where to eat in Doha
Know that alcohol is banned in most restaurants in Doha so don’t expect a nightlife like, say Dubai. Alcohol sale is restricted mostly to bars of large hotels, which makes drinking in Doha a very exclusive activity. Ambar in Mandarin Oriental is one such bar that offers a sophisticated ambience but also a progressive menu. Named after the glow of the setting sun Ambar is the kind of place you’ll see yourself winding down after a long day’s meetings, nursing your poison as you strike a conversation with your fellow drinker.
Also inside Mandarin Oriental is Izu, the Mediterranean restaurant that has been inspired the eponymous chef’s travels around France, England, Spain, and the Middle East. Izu has three seating areas with the mezzanine level featuring an exclusive alcohol menu.
Walk down to Souq Waqif for a plethora of dining options. Al Adhamiyah Iraqi Restaurant is a budget restaurant serving Iraqi breakfast and some mean kebabs. For an authentic fine dining experience, Parisa is Souq Waqif’s most popular option. The brightly coloured, mirrored interiors of Parisa serve as a great setting for its Middle Eastern fare that’s as ‘grammable as the restaurant itself.
The thriving expat community in Doha has contributed to the diversity in the city’s culinary landscape. Al Mourjan at Corniche is a great place to not just try out Lebanese food but also enjoy views of the city’s skyline that the restaurant offers thanks to its unique location. And if you’re feeling homesick, head inland towards Al Makhriya Street where stands Delhi boy Zorawar Kalra’s Farzi Café.
Finally, there is Idam, the innovative restaurant located inside the Museum of Islamic Art. The French chef Alain Ducasse first Middle Eastern outing offers contemporary French Mediterranean cuisine designed with a distinct Arabic twist. Idam’s setting only rivals its food – the Philippe Starck-designed décor overlooks Doha’s skyline offering spectacular sunset views.
Where to stay in Doha:
You could, of course, check into an Airbnb but you’d be remiss to ignore the luxury hotels scene in one of the world’s richest cities. Conveniently, Mandarin Oriental is located in the heart of Msheireb Downtown Doha and within walking distance of some of the city’s top attractions such as Souq Waqif, Museum of Islamic Art and the National Museum of Qatar. Also not very far is the sprawling promenade, Corniche.
The Mandarin Oriental’s architecture blends contemporary design with Qatari heritage. With 249 rooms, suites and serviced apartments, nine distinct culinary experiences and a beautifully appointed spa, Mandarin Oriental is where Middle Eastern charm meets Mandarin Oriental’s trademark hospitality.
Truth is there’s more to Doha than tall buildings, supersized malls and posh hotels. I couldn’t put my finger on it for the longest time till I casually asked a young Ugandan guest relations manager to guesstimate how many nationalities may have made Doha their home. “At the airport alone there are people from more than 90 countries,” she replied without having to squint her eyes or to look heavenwards to come up with the answer. I imagine it’s this motley crowd that arrived on Doha’s shores for better prospects that’s making the Qatari capital a thriving metropolis even in the face of the economic blockade that over a dozen countries have imposed upon Qatar. “Almost all of us stayed back (through the crisis),” an expat who’s been in Doha for nearly 20 years told me on another occasion. “At first we thought we’d spend ten years or so here and then go back home. Now Doha is home. We’re in this for good, blockade or not.”
(Seen in the picture above is a portion of the College of Islamic Studies at the Hamad Bin Khalifa University in Doha. The two spires point to Mecca, the holiest of the pilgrimage sites for Muslims around the world.)