All eyes are on Qatar this year, the venue for the upcoming FIFA World Cup 2022. Meanwhile, the seaside nation’s crowning jewel — its capital of Doha — is at its liveliest and all ready to welcome travellers.
Landing at Hamad International Airport does feel like landing at one of the best airports in the world. I wake up gently, as the wheels of the plane hit the runway, to a sight for sore eyes. The sun is rising over the glistening Persian Gulf, right above my window seat. It reminds me of a Khalil Gibran poem: “We wanderers, ever seeking the lonelier way, begin no day where we have ended another day; and no sunrise finds us where sunset left us. Even while the earth sleeps, we travel…”
I’ve arrived in Doha, the capital of Qatar, located on the east coast of the peninsula. Seaside views aside, the airport’s architecture and design are impressive too. Designed by leading firm HOK, its wave-like facade is an ode to the ocean and the desert dunes, both essential to Qatar’s original landscape. About the size of 75 football fields, the airport is dotted with works of acclaimed local and international artists, such as the iconic Lamp Bear by Swiss artist Urs Fischer. Rooted in tradition yet forward-looking, the gateway to Qatar is truly symbolic of the country’s modern milieu.
High on heritage and culture in Doha
Day one in Doha begins with a metro ride to Msheireb Downtown Doha. With a step-free tramway creasing through a complex of over 100 swanky buildings, the neighbourhood prides itself on being the world’s first sustainable downtown regeneration project.
In alignment with Qatar’s National Vision 2030— that of an advanced society capable of sustaining its development and providing a high standard of living for its people—this old commercial district has been redeveloped over the last 10 years, utilising the latest in technology and green building. It features residential properties, hotels, as well as shopping and a variety of al fresco dining options, drawing a cosmopolitan crowd.
At the heart of downtown Doha is a bunch of four Qatari-style mansions, touted as Msheireb Museums, that walk me through the country’s history and tradition. Bin Jelmood House tells the story of slavery and how it shaped the social, cultural, and economic fabric of Qatar back in the day.
Mohammed Bin Jassim House celebrates the region’s architectural heritage, demonstrating how the traditional houses were built on either side of labyrinthine alleyways, and how they opened into a common baraha or open-air town square; audio-visual recordings of former residents recall Msheireb as the home to Qatar’s first hotel, bank, pharmacy, cafés, etc.
The third museum is set within a house that was once used as the headquarters for Qatar’s first oil company. Thereby called Company House, it throws light on the lives of pioneering Qatari petroleum industry workers and their families, complete with first-hand accounts on how the discovery of oil in Qatar in the 1930s changed the country forever. Radwani House is a restored 1920s home that has now become a museum of memorabilia that represents traditional Qatari family lifestyle. The tour proves to be a great way to familiarise myself with the country.
There are plenty of other venues that help soak up Qatar’s culture. Katara Cultural Village set along Katara Beach, for instance, is the perfect place to spend an evening. Retaining the old name of the country, Katara, the cultural village is atmospheric with its canvas-shaded alleys and blend of European and Islamic design styles. It houses a host of art venues, including an expansive amphitheatre, galleries, concert halls, and performance spaces—a way to encourage and enjoy the country’s art scene. Also nestled within its cobbled alleys are elegant restaurants and shopping boutiques that attract visitors.
Sports enthusiasts must visit the brand new 3-2-1 Qatar Olympic and Sports Museum. A state-of-the-art multi-storey museum spread over 2,04,000 square feet, it is a member of the Olympic Museum Network, which currently has 22 Olympic museums worldwide. Even for an un-athletic person like myself, the venue is an interactive place to be at, complete with trivia on some of the best sportspeople around the world and a floor dedicated to hands-on experiences.
Dining in Doha is a vibrant affair. A melting pot of cultures, the country has embraced many cuisines over the years. My culinary journey begins with a picturesque café on Aspire Park Road, called Sugar & Spice. In what feels like a scene straight out of Schitt’s Creek, the pastel-coloured, vintage-looking restaurant serves comforting dishes, including salads, burgers, pastas, and desserts. Turkey Central is a must-visit restaurant on Al Nasr Street. Always buzzing with people, it is one of the oldest barbecue establishments in the city.
Come here for the famous kebabs and kofte on tomato bread, accompanied by cold mezze and their signature creamy avocado juice. Continue with Middle Eastern fare at Damascus One in Souq Waqif. A traditional Syrian-specialty restaurant, it makes for a phenomenal dining experience amidst the bustling bazaar.
Pro tip: Visit Damascus on an empty stomach as the portions they serve are hearty and you’d regret wasting any of the food. For a fine-dining experience that you’d not easily forget, make a reservation at Jiwan, an Alain Ducasse restaurant located on the fourth floor of National Museum of Qatar. Featuring a contemporary Qatari menu made from indigenous ingredients, the restaurant is inspired by the ancient Bedouin way of cooking. Together with the diner’s plush white-and-gold interiors, and open-air seating overlooking the Doha skyline, Jiwan makes for a meal to remember.
Laid-back and luxe
As much as Doha is an exciting destination for an engaging holiday, it is a great place to let your hair down too. You could explore one of the malls in the city. Families love exploring Villagio Mall, an expansive shopping and entertainment centre housing local favourites such as Carrefour as well as high-end designer brands. Like in any new city, I find strolling through the good-old market—Souq Waqif—truly charming. The oldest souq in Doha, it is the place to be to surf through and get your hands on the Qatari artefacts, jewellery, spices, and street food.
To unwind in a rather lavish manner, head straight to The Pearl, Qatar. A human-built island on Doha’s West Bay District, you’ll find the marinas in this part of the town lined with yachts, the hotels extravagant, and the vibe Mediterranean. Most discerning travellers choose to base themselves in The Pearl, at plush stay options such as The Ritz-Carlton, Doha, Marsa Malaz Kempinski, Four Seasons Hotel Doha, and more.
Even if you’re not staying at The Pearl, you could easily spend a day enjoying its coastal vibe with water sports such as kayaking and paddleboarding, sipping margaritas at a waterfront restaurant. However, save one last evening in Doha for a traditional dhow cruise that you can hire from the Corniche, a seven-kilometre-long waterfront promenade Doha Bay. These days, it is also the spot for the exciting FIFA World Cup countdown clock.
Getting to Doha
Keen on touring Doha before heading to catch the FIFA World Cup? A number of airlines including Qatar Airways and Malaysian Airlines offer direct flights from Kuala Lumpur to Doha. The flight is around 7.5 hours.
Stay in Doha
The Marsa Malaz Kempinski, The Pearl – Doha over the Arabian Gulf is a luxurious stay option, with ritzy rooms that come with views of either the Arabian Gulf or the man-made island of The Pearl Qatar. Ultra lavish suites are also available, if you’re looking to truly pamper yourself.
This story first appeared on Travel + Leisure India & South Asia