Qatar is a country inextricably tied to the sea, skirted by clear aquamarine waters and sandy beaches. Like Dubai, Qatar’s capital Doha is another fantastic destination for northern hemisphere travellers seeking winter sun.
Wherever you are, it’s impossible to escape the sea in Qatar, a country with a Bedouin heritage and rich traditions inextricably linked to the ocean – to fishing, pearl diving, and sailing old wooden dhows.
After the UAE and Oman, Qatar is my next favourite country on the Arabian Peninsula and its capital, Doha, with its gorgeous bay, Bedouin culture on full display, and outstanding Museum of Islamic Arts, one of my favourite cities for a few days away or a short stopover.
Qatar is a Country Inextricably Tied to the Sea
Skirted by clear aquamarine waters and snowy beaches, the petite Qatar peninsula juts off the northern coast of Saudi Arabia and the larger Arabian Peninsula into the Persian Gulf.
Qatar’s capital Doha, which sprawls around a beautiful bay, has a splendid Corniche or seaside boulevard to rival the finest waterfront promenades in the region, in Beirut, Abu Dhabi and Muscat.
Lined with date palms, a wide walking path follows the curve of the harbour, from one end to the other.
As in Dubai in winter, in the cooler months, locals and expats slip on their running shoes for morning jogs and early evening strolls along the seaside. The rest of the year, it’s too hot to walk, let alone run, very far at all.
Even in Qatar’s interior, much of which consists of empty, sandy plains, there is a beautiful inland sea, the breathtaking Khor Al Adaid, an inlet surrounded by softly-undulating, camel-coloured sand dunes. Not far from the border with Saudi Arabia, the stunning sight has a tentative UNESCO World Heritage listing.
Surrounded by so much water, it might be hard to imagine that the desert is just beyond the city limits, so make sure you drive out to the desert or sign up for a desert safari, where you can make like a modern day Bedouin with some dune driving, a camel ride, some sand-boarding, and an Arabic barbecue by moonlight. Some tour companies also offer the option to sleep under the stars, which we highly recommend.
Sadly, most of Qatar’s population now lives in Doha and the city’s days as a diminutive pearling and fishing village are ancient history.
Taking its queues from neighbours Abu Dhabi and Dubai, over the last decade Doha has been positioning itself as a tourist destination, with art, culture and sports thrown into the usual mix of sun, sea, sand, and shopping that draws visitors to the Arabian Gulf cities.
Doha is home to the world-class I. M. Pei designed Islamic Arts Museum (one of our favourite things about the city), for a few years it hosted Robert De Niro’s annual Doha Tribeca Film Festival, it held the Asian Games, hosts the annual Tour of Qatar cycling and Women’s Tennis Association Qatar Ladies Open, and won its bid to hold the 2022 FIFA World Cup.
Like its Gulf neighbours, Qatar has also embarked on some crazy over-the-top developments to lure foreign tourists and expats to its shores. The Pearl Qatar, an artificial island 350 metres offshore from Doha’s West Bay Lagoon, was built on a former pearl diving site.
Shaped to resemble a string of pearls, the development added 32 kilometres of new coastline to the city and features swanky residential towers, sumptuous hotels, impressive marinas, and swish shopping and entertainment complexes.
Another ambitious development is Lusail, a city still under construction on the coast north of Doha, and a short drive from West Bay Lagoon. Lusail will be home to even more luxury resorts and residences, sleek new marinas, and posh shopping malls, as well as two golf courses and a long list of facilities, including a monumental stadium.
It’s these extravagant developments that lead Doha’s critics (like Dubai’s) to accuse the city of being “artificial” and “manmade” (well, all cities are) and having no culture or history. In fact, it’s quite the opposite.
Relics discovered by archaeologists in Qatar include flints found on the coast that once belonged to Stone Age settlers, and a fish-trap dating back some 7,500 years. Those interested in archaeology and the country’s fascinating history should read about the Origins of Qatar and Doha project.
Qatar’s rich Bedouin culture, with its long traditions of oral storytelling, music and dance are easy to access too. Then there’s the Museum of Islamic Art, many small historical museums, a vibrant contemporary art scene, and myriad galleries, which make Doha one of the most compelling cities on the Peninsula to visit. And now is the time to go.
How to Get to Qatar
You can fly to the Qatar capital, Doha, with Qatar Airways (www.qatarairways.com) or via Dubai with Emirates (www.emirates.com). Once at Doha’s immigration desks, citizens of some countries (including Australia, the UK and US) will be asked for a credit card with their passport so their visas (valid for one month) can be processed.
How to Get Around Qatar
A taxi from the airport into Doha takes around 15 minutes. Most of what will interest you in Doha lies in a fairly compact area in the centre. At this time of year you can walk almost everywhere. For the rest of the year expect to use taxis a lot to get around as the heat makes it difficult to walk anywhere for long. To explore the country, you could hire a car with an international driver’s license but there are also excellent tours you can do.
The local currency is the Qatari Riyal (QR) and it is fixed to the US Dollar; credit cards are accepted almost everywhere and ATMs are plentiful. Shopping malls are open all day until late at night, except Friday when they open after lunch, while smaller shops and the souqs close in the afternoon for a siesta. Doha is very safe; petty crime and pickpockets are virtually non-existent and visitors are treated with the utmost respect.
Our Qatar Tips
Qatar is a Muslim country and Friday is the day of prayer. This means it is the quietest day of the week, like a Sunday in Australia, the US or Europe, and many things are closed; plan to relax by the hotel pool and head out in the evening.
Note that despite the heat in Qatar, locals expect visitors to dress very modestly. Leave the summery dresses and shorts at the hotel and wear loose linen and cotton clothing and long sleeves and trousers or long skirts.
While Qataris have a reputation for tolerance and open-mindedness, they still frown upon overt public displays of affection.
See www.qatartourism.gov.qa for more information
UPDATED January 2017