Qatar is a destination on the Arabian Gulf that offers a captivating blend of ancient traditions and modern marvels. This small Middle Eastern country is a gem that might not be on your radar screen. In fact, some people may not have even heard of Qatar until recently. Qatar was on the world stage in 2022 as the host of the FIFA (Soccer) World Cup. More recently, Qatar has been in the news because of its role as a mediator in the Israel-Hamas War.
My husband and I recently visited Qatar on our way home from a trip to The Maldives. Qatar Airways (which has won multiple awards, including World’s Leading Airline 2023 and World’s Best Business Class 2023) offered the best flights to The Maldives. On the way to The Maldives, we had a layover in Qatar’s capital city, Doha. On the way home, we opted for a four-night stopover instead of a layover.
I had heard good things about Doha. It’s one of the destinations listed in my ebook about the World’s Most Surprising and Breathtaking Destinations. So, I was eager to experience it myself.
I found Qatar utterly fascinating with its juxtaposition of ancient traditions in an ultra-modern metropolis. But before we get into that, I want to share some basic facts.
Basic Facts about Qatar
Let’s start with the size. Qatar is small. It’s a peninsula that juts out from Saudi Arabia into the Arabian/Persian Gulf. It is about 100 miles from north to south and 50 miles from east to west. The total area is roughly that of Connecticut and Rhode Island combined.
Qatar is also one of the richest countries in the world because of its reserves of oil and natural gas.
One of the most fascinating facts about Qatar is that a whopping 89% of its population is from 180 other countries! That makes native Qataris a small minority of the population. Even though the official language of Qatar is Arabic, with so many foreigners living there, the most common language is English. Most signs are written in both Arabic and English, so it was easy to find our way around.
Most of the people that tourists interact with (hotel workers, waiters, shopkeepers, etc.) are foreign workers. We met people from Nepal, Yemen, Sudan, Tunisia, and other countries, and enjoyed talking to them. The downside is that you could spend several days in Qatar without meeting a native Qatari. Eventually, we met Ibrahim, a native Qatari, who was the driver on one of our tours.
A Doha city tour is a great way to see the sights. Most of the year, it is much too hot to walk around during the day. Locals go outside only after dark. Fortunately, Doha is a very safe city and we never felt unsafe walking around after dark. You should also know that there is a dress code. Shoulders and knees must be covered and clothing should be modest and loose-fitting.
The skyline of Doha is dominated by towering futuristic skyscrapers.
One of the best ways to appreciate Doha’s skyline is by taking a ride on a traditional dhow boat.
At night, many of the dhow boats are lit up with festive strings of lights. It’s an impressive sight. A dhow boat ride is a nice way to appreciate Doha’s skyline at night.
The Pearl in Doha is a man-made island and one of the most prestigious and luxurious destinations in Qatar. This stunning development is reminiscent of a Mediterranean Riviera and features a series of stunning marinas, waterfront promenades, and a variety of high-end residential, commercial, and retail spaces. There are several luxury hotels in The Pearl. It’s a favorite spot for locals and tourists alike to indulge in shopping, dining, and leisure activities.
Qanat Quartier is an enchanting district located within The Pearl. Inspired by the architecture of Venice, this unique neighborhood radiates charm and elegance. With its intricate canal system, arched bridges, and soft pastel-colored buildings, Qanat Quartier offers boutique shops, delicious cafes, and charming restaurants serving a range of international cuisines.
Katara Cultural Village
Katara Cultural Village is a remarkable cultural hub that showcases the rich heritage and diverse arts of Qatar. The village is home to art galleries, performance spaces, and theaters that host a variety of cultural events, including concerts, exhibitions, and theatrical performances throughout the year.
National Museum of Qatar
One of the most impressive buildings I’ve ever seen is the National Museum of Qatar. The inspiration for the design is a rock known as a Desert Rose. One of our tour guides gave me one as a gift.
Now compare that to the building.
Amazing, isn’t it? But don’t settle for just a view of the outside of the National Museum of Qatar. Inside the museum, we learned a lot about the history and culture of Qatar. You can explore the exhibits on your own or listen to an audio tour.
We also had the opportunity to tour the Imam Abdul Wahhab Mosque, also known as the Qatar State Grand Mosque, the largest in the country. The mosque’s architecture is a blend of traditional Islamic influences and contemporary design. Its white exterior is adorned with intricate geometric patterns. As many as 11,000 men can pray in the large central hall. (Women have a separate space.)
I toured several mosques while in Türkiye, so I anticipated having to remove my shoes and cover my head with a scarf. This mosque tour goes a step further. We had to wear robe-like garments over our clothing (which the mosque provided for us). The women’s garment is black and is called an abaya. Mean wear a white thawb (or thobe).
Our tour was given by an American woman from Texas who moved to Qatar twenty-some years ago and subsequently converted to Islam. We learned not only about the mosque, but also about Islamic culture. After the tour, we were invited to take a complimentary book about understanding Islam.
We visited a few other mosques but our visits coincided with prayer time, which meant that only men could enter. I got to peek in from the doorway though.
Old Town – Msheireb Downtown
But not everything in Qatar is ultra-modern. The old town of Doha, also known as Msheireb Downtown, is a captivating neighborhood that takes visitors back in time. This revitalized district is a celebration of Qatari heritage and culture, carefully preserving the traditional architectural style of the region.
Narrow alleyways, beautifully restored buildings, and ornate mosques create a charming authentic atmosphere.
The highlight of the old town, in my opinion, is Souq Waqif, a bustling marketplace. This vibrant souq, which translates to “the standing market,” has been a center of commerce and trade for over a century. It is popular with both locals and visitors.
Souq Waqif has been meticulously restored to reflect its traditional Qatari architectural roots. It is a treasure trove of sights, sounds, and scents, offering a wide array of shops, from colorful stalls selling spices, textiles, and traditional garments, to stores showcasing handcrafted souvenirs and local artwork. There are even sections for hardware and pets. I was amazed at how many shops are devoted to falcons and falconry supplies. One of the falcon sellers allowed me to hold one on my arm.
In another section, there were Arabian horses. And in another area, camel rides for children were offered.
Souq Waqif truly captivates the senses and is an essential stop for those looking to discover the authentic charm of Doha. We visited Souq Waqif twice during our stay. In addition to shopping for a few souvenirs, we enjoyed trying authentic local cuisine, both in sit-down restaurants and at food stalls.
One of my favorite sections was an open area where local women sell homemade local specialties.
Several women make something similar to crepes called ragag. There were several different types of toppings offered. We opted for Nutella. Yummy!
In Souq Waqif, I felt like I’d been transported back in time. Many of the men and women wear traditional abayas and thawbs. Many (but not all) of the women covered their faces with a veil called a niqab and wore black from head to toe. It was hard to believe we were in the same city as the futuristic skyscrapers.
Outside of Doha
Because of Qatar’s small size, you can take a day trip to any part of the country. We visited several places outside of the city.
On the outskirts of Doha is a camel race track at Al Shahaniya which was unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. In another combination of ancient traditions and modern technology, we watched remote-controlled robot jockeys riding on camels and racing to the finish line. Cars ride next to the track with their windows rolled down and men shout encouragement to their camels. There were also television cameras filming the race.
Near the race track, we saw dozens and dozens of camels.
Sand dunes and the Inland Sea
One day we went on a late afternoon tour of the sand dunes of the Arabian Desert followed by a Bedouin-style picnic on the shores of the Persian Gulf. They have a term for their adventurous driving on the dunes: dune bashing.
While riding camels on the dunes was an option, it was nearly 100 degrees out, so I preferred an air-conditioned vehicle. Speaking of that vehicle, our driver played music during our drive. It turned out to be a local radio station. As crazy as this sounds, we were listening to 1990’s American Country music (Faith Hill, LeAnn Rimes, etc.) while driving on sand dunes in the Arabian Desert. At one point, my husband pointed out a cell tower in the dunes. On the way home, the music morphed over to pop music and then to rap. And then they interrupted the rap music for the evening call to prayer, which is a chant in Arabic.
Qatar is one of the few places in the world where the desert meets the sea. It is known as Khor Al Adaid or the Inland Sea and is on UNESCO’s tentative list.
We stopped at a few different viewpoints. At one point, we could see the mountains of Saudi Arabia in the distance.
Our Bedouin-style picnic was set up on the shore of the Arabian/Persian Gulf. While our driver guide set up the picnic, I went for a quick dip in the sea ( because why not?!). The picnic was a feast with way too much food for two people, but with so much variety, there was surely something everyone would like. We enjoyed the sound of waves lapping on the shore while we watched the sun set over the dunes and paragliders soar overhead. Simply magical!
On another day, we ventured to the western and northern parts of Qatar. One of the attractions is a modern sculpture by Richard Serra named East-West/West-East. It consists of four steel plates in a desert nature reserve. It’s basically in the middle of nowhere, without a paved road leading to it, so I’m not sure how many people actually go see it. I was glad we had a tour guide and a professional driver take us there.
We also visited the ruins of the 18th-century Zekreet Fort.
Al Zubarah Archaeological Site
The main attraction for me that day was Qatar’s one and only UNESCO World Heritage Site, Al Zubarah Archaeological Site, near the northern tip of Qatar.
The site is home to the ruins of the historic town of Al Zubarah, which was once a thriving center for trade and pearling during the 18th and 19th centuries. We toured the impressive fort, which was built in the 18th century as a defensive stronghold for the town of Al Zubarah. Made of sturdy limestone, the fort features high walls, watchtowers, and a central courtyard. It served as a vital strategic point for protecting trade routes and defending against invasions. We enjoyed the exhibits that taught us about the pearl industry. We also got to climb to the top of the fort’s towers and appreciate the view.
I’ll end this article with an embarrassing story about how I nearly walked into the men’s restroom at Al Zubarah. Although most places in Qatar have signs in Arabic and English, whoever designed the restrooms at Al Zubarah thought that symbols would be sufficient. Looking at the signs now, side by side, I can figure out which one is the women’s room (the men have a pocket). However, the restrooms weren’t side by side and I came across the men’s room first and nearly walked in. Thankfully, a nice man redirected me to the women’s room.
I think it’s a growthful experience for us to get out of our comfort zones and explore other cultures. I’m so glad I decided to visit Qatar.
Are you interested in visiting Qatar?
I hope you enjoyed this article about this fascinating and sometimes contradictory country. There are just so many possibilities of things to do in Qatar. I would love to use my personal experience and industry connections to help you plan a custom trip to Qatar. Read about how my services work here and then please get in touch to set up a complimentary consultation.