DOHA. YOU KNOW to expect dust, heat, and a futuristic landscape full of architectural wonders. You know there is glamor, luxury, ostentatious wealth … and lots of shiny new soccer stadiums, eight, to be precise. But maybe, like me, along with smooth surfaces, you crave some grit. I found myself searching for it: the elusive sense of authenticity, something old, something not constructed or recreated. So much has been built over or reimagined in Qatar; it can be hard to see hints of what came before new money reshaped the landscape both physically and psychologically. But those layers of complexity are there — if you look closely.
Walking is the best way to discover all the subtle striations of this extraordinary place. Yes, walking in the automobile playground that is Doha is not only possible, but can be an enjoyable antidote to the time you’ll surely spend in the car. My suggestions focus on mini walking itineraries — well, except the kayaking, which gives your arms a chance to get some exercise too.
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While it’s easy to mock Doha’s nouveau-riche ambitions, its grandiose hotels and massive shopping malls — and it’s also important to critique its human rights record — don’t overlook the very significant investment the ruling Al Thani family has made in education and art in a region where it was needed. Explore, and ask questions — although you may not find many native Qataris to speak to, as foreign workers make up approximately 88% of the population. More than anything, take in the massive societal experiment that is transforming this small peninsula, and remember that what you see is just a snapshot. It will continue to change at an exponential pace, at least until the natural gas runs out or the seawater rises enough to slow things down.
While Doha is admittedly very car friendly, and often hot or dusty, if you’re lucky enough to be there from October through March, these walkable spots are the best way to experience Qatar. You’ll find many interesting stops in each of these locations without the need for much advance planning.
Souq Waqif is a welcoming crossroads in the heart of Doha, an ideal place to meet a friend, stroll, and explore a traditional Arab souk, or marketplace, while surrounded by a cross section of Doha’s very global population. The best time to go is at sunset or soon after when it’s most bustling.
Leave yourself some time to wander; Souq Waqif is just large enough to get pleasantly lost but not overwhelmed. You can find countless curiosities in the various stalls and shops, taste delicious food from myriad cuisines, and puff on the sweet, cool smoke of a hookah, or nargile, like the locals (try double apple, it’s better than it sounds). I recommend the classic gathering place Damasca One for its upstairs seating and delicious Syrian food. Or walk through a glittering, mirrored hallway to the fantastical bejeweled interior of Parisa, a Persian restaurant that will romance you with its architecture and food. Try Georgian food at Al Terrace, a more recent local favorite, for its lovely setting, warm hospitality, and authentic khachapuri.
Some of the best things in Doha are not what you expect. People-watching is a great pastime. Just sit in one of the souk’s many cafes, cooling off under a fan while taking in the passersby, Parisian-style, with a lemon-mint juice or a Turkish coffee. The flow of humanity strolling the car-free main drag of the market will easily represent a dozen countries at any given moment.
Souq Waqif, which means “standing market,” was rebuilt in 2006 on the site of a former souk; it sells useful, everyday goods in addition to tourist fare like handicrafts and souvenirs. Souq Waqif is still a place Qataris go to enjoy a nargile, and for some of the older generation, to play Dama at the Majlis al Dama (a game club for men). It offers a refreshing, folksy antidote to the endless push for luxury, a glimpse into simpler times in Doha.
The building alone is remarkable, from outside and within. This, combined with the incredible use of inside surfaces for multimedia projections, makes the experience here resonate more than the typical white-box gallery.
Architect Jean Nouvel modeled the museum after a desert rose, a natural formation of crystallized sand that occurs in the right conditions, after some rain and wind (yes, it does rain in Qatar in winter). These roses appear like little miracles in the sand. The space is built around the old national museum, which is the former palace of Abdullah bin Jassim Al Thani (1880–1957), one of the first Emirs of Qatar. A visit here grants the viewer another opportunity to reflect on the rocket-like velocity of Qatar’s transformation. The museum’s exhibits of archaeological artifacts, Bedouin ethnographic objects, pearling equipment, and much more, aim to tell the story of Qatar, and illuminate the ways this nascent country is making sense of itself.
Have lunch at one of the options within the museum, at the casual, vegan Thalatheen cafe or the white-tableclothed Jiwan, where Alain Ducasse has reimagined regional flavors. You can then walk about 20 minutes from here, carefully crossing the corniche, to head to another one of Qatar’s showpiece museums.
The Museum of Islamic Art is a jewel of a building designed by I.M. Pei that houses thousands of artifacts and artworks from around the Islamic world, some religious in nature, but many secular as well. After exploring some of its exhibits, stroll along the corniche to the south of the museum. At the end of its arch you’ll find the striking Richard Serra “7” sculpture standing watch. It was Sheikha Al Mayassa’s first commission from Serra for Qatar, made in 2011, and he chose to use seven steel plates to reflect on the spiritual significance of the number seven in Islam. Al Mayassa, as chairperson of Qatar Museums, led the cultural arm of the national project of building soft power.
Continue strolling through the park to reach the MIA Park coffee shop, a lovely cafe at water’s edge, where you can relax and have a coffee and ice cream, write some postcards (does anyone except me do that anymore?) from the comfortable chairs, and ponder the gleaming West Bay skyline across the water.
“East-West/West-East” is made of four giant 70-ton steel plates that stand like stark, mysterious voids between two desert plateaus not far from the Dukhan Field, where the country’s first oil well was drilled. This area is called Zekreet, and specifically the Brouq Nature Reserve, and Serra describes engaging the space between the plateaus by ensuring that each of the top of his steel monoliths stood at the same height as the surrounding plateaus. He called it “the most fulfilling thing” he has ever done.
“East-West/West-East” is a spectacular work, yet remains little known, seen only by intrepid visitors and Qatari residents willing to make the off-road journey. Again, most people will just drive around the stunning half-mile-long artwork. But you should walk. Walk around and between and above these sculptures, as Serra intended.
I was lucky to film the entire installation process, and can assure you it was a Herculean task. I then visited many times, usually with some friends and a picnic, always feeling a kind of awe — both at the artwork and the surreal pairing of the ancient landscape with a master of modern art. Take the time to scramble up the surrounding hillside to view the installation from afar.
Serra’s work is about space and time, not sociological commentary. However, he did once say of Qatar, “I think this country is trying to jump centuries, and that’s a hard game. But it is a phenomenon; there’s nothing quite like it.”
To reach the installation, you’ll need a good guide (try Salah at Qatar Inbound Tours) or a friend who knows the area, plus a four-wheel-drive vehicle, as it’s located far off Qatar’s main roads. But that only adds to the mystery of it all.
Katara is a fascinating labyrinth of galleries, art studios, restaurants, and cafes, as well as the home of Qatar’s philharmonic orchestra, with occasional live music programming in an outdoor amphitheater. The space is peppered with sculptures and mosaics, and to wander and get lost is the point. Some highlights here include:
The Blue mosque, which features exquisite mosaics and ornamentation, is designed by architect Zeynep Fadıllıoğlu, a Turkish woman who specializes in mosques. It is open to all visitors. The Gold mosque is closed inside to non-Muslims, but can be enjoyed from outside, its exterior gleaming with thousands of golden chips.
This is a local favorite for a sweet, hot drink and a quick snack. Watch Qataris drive up, honk, and get their fix, the Doha version of a Starbucks drive-through. Karak is from “Kadak chai,” and is a local adaptation of a South Asian specialty.
This is an Armenian Lebanese restaurant — if you’re not familiar, it’s amazing cuisine. Try the mezze, which is a varied and tasty spread of small dishes with specialties like sujuk, a spiced sausage. Tables upstairs are in high demand, so score a spot on the breezy terrace for a memorable and delicious meal.
There are many other galleries and art studios worth exploring at Katara, as well as beach activities for kids.
Qatar’s mangroves offer a lovely bit of green, dotted with pink flamingos if you’re lucky. The combination of water and plants is the perfect antidote to all the dust, heat, and new construction in the rest of the country. You’ll want to go with a guide. And take a picnic; hopefully, while sitting on the beach after a paddle, you can marvel at the flamingos.
Header image: Photography by Adrian Gaut/Trunk Archives
Charlotte Buchen Khadra Writer
Charlotte Buchen Khadra is a video producer and director who lives in Oakland, California. Khadra recently developed and produced a trio of pilot episodes for AJ+, as well as a season of KQED’s award-winning series “If Cities Could Dance.” The series was nominated for a Webby and won several regional Emmy awards, as well as an SPJ NorCal award. Khadra has led video teams at startups like Timeline Media and Ozy Media, and has filmed and produced stories for outlets such as PBS FRONTLINE/World, PBS NewsHour, the New York Times, the Discovery Channel, and Pop-Up Magazine, from California, Pakistan, Egypt, India, and France.