City Guide

Four Hours in Doha 2005

1 Nov 2005 by business traveller
Sarah Maxwell plots a tour by taxi through the capital of the wealthy state of Qatar, soaking up the old and the new, and trying to resist the glittering temptations of the old souqs 1. City Center Mall Navigating Doha independently can be hard as there is no public transport - taxis can be hailed from the roadside, but it's easy to get stranded in a pedestrian-unfriendly area where it's difficult to flag one down, so you need to plan carefully. Start with a visit to City Center Mall: it's the largest in the Middle East and gives a good introduction to the wealth of the country, plus a chance for some great people watching. Young Qatari men wearing national dress and designer sunglasses talk animatedly into their hands-free sets as they glide past on the travelators. There's a scattering of storefronts catering to Arabic tastes with gleaming gold and silverware, lush carpets, and mannequins adorned in long, flowing abbayahs (the head-to-toe gown worn by Qatari women), but these are outnumbered by a profusion of stores overflowing with gleaming plasma TVs, laptops, mobile phones and designer jewellery. It's easy to see what the young, wealthy population is spending its spare money on. 2. Old souqs Time for a contrast. Take a taxi to the old souqs tucked away on either side of Grand Hamad Street, behind the Corniche. Go through Souq Al Ahmad and out the other side, which will take you to the jumble of covered walkways of Souq Waqif, the most authentic of the old souqs, where stalls sell everything from tools and hardware to perfume, fabrics and traditional clothes. Some of the other markets in the area now look more like mini-shopping centres, but make sure to visit the gold souq, just off Al Ahmed street. Tiny jewellery shops are packed together and each window is crammed to the rafters with mesmerising gold earrings, necklaces and bracelets: pure dazzling eye candy for jewellery lovers. 3. The Corniche Take a stroll along the Corniche, the 7km stretch of promenade bordered by a sculpted grassy verge and peppered with monuments in homage to Qatari history (a giant oyster shell containing a pearl is a reminder of the country's pearl-diving roots). The best time for a walk - and to do any sightseeing in Doha, including the souqs - is after 5pm when everything starts coming back to life after the afternoon siesta. The most pleasant time on the Corniche is after 8pm when Qatari families arrive, set up their picnic chairs and relax in the cool air. Traditional wooden fishing dhows bob around in the harbour, framed against the high-rise modern five-star hotels at the northern end of the Corniche. 4. Harbour tour On the jetty outside the Balhambar restaurant, about two-thirds of the way towards the northern end of the Corniche, half a dozen dhow-style canopied boats sit, waiting to ferry customers around the harbour to view the city from the water. The journey takes you past the Palm Island development to the outskirts of the harbour. In the muggy heat it's an excellent way to feel refreshed, and for 30QR (£4.60) you can sit back and watch as the fairy lights of the Corniche recede and the brand new towers at the northern end of the Corniche, including the Four Seasons hotel and Qatar telecoms tower, slide by. After a few stuffy hours of friendly haggling in the souqs, it's a good way to wind down, and you may even find it's your own personal service; I was the only passenger on board during my tour. 5. The Pearl Lounge, Marriott The social scene among the expats and foreign workers - who make up three-quarters of Doha's population - is found in the hotel bars, many of which open late and offer live music and, of course, alcohol. Take a taxi to Marriott's Pearl Lounge, which opened in April and opens 7pm to 2am, closed Saturdays. (Qatari men wearing national dress are not allowed here, to avoid embarrassing the conservative local culture.) The bar serves a mean range of cocktails and has dark, moody lighting. Note: women travelling alone should avoid the orange and white cabs, which are unlicensed minicabs, and instead order a "Karwa" taxi, by calling 458 8888.
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