Jenny Southan spies long-lashed camels, ancient art and spectacular structures in Qatar’s fast-changing capital.
In Doha, sights tend to be spread out and can really only be accessed by car – avoid rush-hour if you can and get a driver, as taxis are scarce.
Forget the glitzy shopping malls the city is known for and begin your tour somewhere a bit more authentic – the local camel market. There are two species of camel – the one-hump Arabian and the two-hump Bactrian – and in Qatar, there are two main uses for them, racing and eating. The race season is from October to May, an exciting time for locals, who go to cheer on their favourite beasts. In the past the jockeys were young children but thankfully this has been outlawed and they have been replaced with robots controlled remotely by their owners (although there have been reports of cheats who fire electricity into their camels to make them run faster).
To get up close and personal with the creatures, head to the market at Ain Khaled on Salwa Road (10km south-west of the centre), where you can observe them as they paw the hot sand in their enclosures and blink their long eyelashes. Be warned that they do smell a bit, and it can be a tad upsetting to see them getting winched into the back of a truck by a small crane before they are led off to slaughter. Open daily except Friday from 8am-2pm.
If you have a flexible itinerary, it’s worth getting out of the city and into the desert, which is closer than you might think – within half an hour of downtown, the tarmac road gives way to sand. Destination management companies such as Gulf Adventures offer a selection of desert safaris, some including swimming in the Inland Sea (Khor Al Udaid) and a barbecue dinner in a traditional Bedouin camp. But if you simply want the thrill of careering up and down the 40-metre-high dunes, with slipfaces of up to 55 degrees, this can also be arranged. It’s an adrenalin-fuelled experience, and you will need to strap yourself in and hold on tight as your 4×4 takes on gravity-defying angles in the baking sun. Gulf Adventures; tel +974 4422 1888; gulf-adventures.com
MUSEUM OF ISLAMIC ART
If you don’t have time for the dune bashing, head into the city centre. Located on the glittering aquamarine crescent of Doha Port, by the Dhow Harbour and up a palm-lined walkway, is the I M Pei-designed Museum of Islamic Art, which opened in 2008. If you are a fan of architecture, the building alone will satisfy – its Escher-esque exterior features smooth angled planes, each reflecting the light in a different way. Inside, the airy entrance hall sits beneath a majestic atrium.
The 3,800 sqm of gallery space houses a beautifully presented collection of hand-painted ceramics, textiles, manuscripts, jewelled artefacts and scientific instruments from countries such as Turkey, Egypt, Syria, Iran and India. Open daily except Tuesday 10.30am-5.30pm (Fri 2pm-8pm); entry is free, as are the audio guides. Visit mia.org.qa. For more on the museum, see “Ultimate collection”.
SPICE MARKET RESTAURANT
About 3.5km from here is the five-star W hotel, in the West Bay area. It opened in March last year and offers a good selection of bars and restaurants dishing up high-quality international, Arabic, French and Asian cuisine. The 270-seat Spice Market specialises in Vietnamese and Thai food, and you can order a 20-minute express bento box lunch for QR80 (£14) if you are pushed for time. Options might include Mongolian lamb satay, chicken in coconut soup, crunchy mango salad, and local hamour fish served with Malaysian chilli sauce. Otherwise, the à la carte menu offers up dishes such as chilled watermelon soup with tomato, cucumber, red pepper and basil (QR35/£6), black pepper lobster dumplings (QR70/£12) and spiced chicken samosas with cilantro yoghurt (QR50/£8.50).
The décor in Spice Market is flash, with cream and orange lighting and red and black furniture and crockery. Japanese-style screens add an exotic feel, and there are private dining areas for groups. Open 12pm-4pm and 6pm until late; tel +974 4453 5000; whoteldoha.com
Doha is constantly evolving so if you haven’t been for a while you will notice some changes to the cityscape, as well as encounter a number of new cultural attractions. One of the newest projects is the US$82 million Cultural Village, also in West Bay. It occupies a 99-hectare waterside site opposite the Doha Exhibition Centre. When it opens (officially expected by the end of the year), it will sport a 5,000-seat outdoor amphitheatre overlooking the Gulf, plus shops, restaurants and an opera house. The QMA Gallery (qma.com.qa) was unveiled in September and hosts regular exhibitions of international photography. Open Sat-Thurs 11am-9pm, Fri 2pm-9pm. If you don’t have time to take in everything here, it’s a pleasure simply to wander around the village and admire the dazzling Arabic architecture. Visit qatartourism.gov.qa
- Try a refreshing glass of Middle Eastern lemonade, known locally as “lemon mint” – it’s made with fresh lemon juice, sugar, orange blossom water, crushed ice and fresh mint.
- Smoking a shisha pipe is also an experience – the tobacco is mixed with molasses and flavours include apple, grape, cherry and peach.