8 of the best things to do in Qatar

With jaw-dropping architecture, extraordinary art and fascinating traditions, Qatar is this year's FIFA World Cup host and one of the Gulf region's most exciting destinations...

4 mins

Qatar is in the spotlight, thanks to the FIFA World Cup – and it’s determined to knock your socks off. It has been prepping for this moment for years, spending lavishly on new museums, star-studded art galleries and jaw-dropping architecture, quietly becoming one of the Gulf region’s most exciting destinations. But for all its big-budget draws, Qatar’s humble roots – such as its pearling history and its artistic traditions – are just as rich, and prove equally (if not more-so) compelling. From the spice-laden souq to modern art in the desert, here’s how to see it all for yourself.

1. Soak up the culture

National Museum of Qatar (Qatar Tourism)

National Museum of Qatar (Qatar Tourism)

To those who scoff that the Gulf region 'has no culture' – watch out. Qatar’s state-of-the-art museums and galleries are here to prove you wrong. The National Museum of Qatar charts its rise from an impoverished desert nation to oil-rich powerhouse, via original artefacts, photography and video interviews. Its architecture, by Jean Nouvel, is modelled on the interlocking crystals of a desert rose. Nearby, the Museum of Islamic Art – designed by I.M. Pei – features a world-leading collection of paintings, calligraphy and Qur’an illuminations, dating back 1,400 years.

Insider tip: The Sheikh Faisal Bin Qassim Al Thani Museum also has an extraordinary array of Middle Eastern art, jewellery, ceramics and coins – plus an entire house from Damascus, Syria.

2. Step back in time

Katara Cultural Village (Ilhan/Qatar Tourism)

Katara Cultural Village (Ilhan/Qatar Tourism)

In true Gulf style, Qatar’s skyline defies belief: from its claw-shaped Lusail Tower, to the curvaceous heights of Burj Doha (Is it a narwhal? A bullet? You decide). But its modern-built ‘traditional’ architecture is the most captivating, with all the wind towers, narrow sikkas (alleyways) and ornate tilework you’d expect from old Arabia. Exploring the fine heritage collections of Doha’s Msheireb Museums – set across four mudbrick-style houses – feels like you’re wandering through pre-oil Qatar. Katara Cultural Village is also a joy to get lost in, with its winding streets and gold-studded mosque. It’s all a mirage, yes, but it’s a darn good one.

Insider tip: Look out for live music and opera at Katara’s open-air amphitheatre too. Modelled on Ancient Greek designs, this sea-view concert space hosts performers from all over the world.

3. Haggle for treasures

Souq Waqif (Ilhan/Qatar Tourism)

Souq Waqif (Ilhan/Qatar Tourism)

Souq Waqif has been the heart of Doha for centuries: its name means ‘standing souq’, a nod to the returning seafarers who’d dash there for a long-awaited taste of home, so keen to devour their food that they didn’t sit down. The souq you see now is a modern (yet very convincing) take on the traditional style, its stalls piled with spices, coffee and trinkets, and the air heavy with incense. Pearls are also popular here, due to Qatar’s pearl-diving heritage, and the 87-year-old owner of Pahlwan Saad Ismail Al Jassim shop is one of the nation’s last-remaining divers. His stories – and jewellery – are fantastic.

 Insider tip: While you’re here, ask for directions to Majlis Al Dama (it’s not on Google Maps), to sip free qahwa (cardamom-spiced coffee) and watch locals play the old game of dama – like draughts.

Read next The best things to do in Bahrain

4. Eat like a local

Luqaimat dumplings (Shutterstock)

Luqaimat dumplings (Shutterstock)

Souq Waqif is still the spot to feast on Qatari cuisine. For a breakfast of ​​balaleet (saffron-laced noodles) and regag pancakes dripping with honey and melted cheese, head to Shai Shamoos Restaurant, which is owned by a Qatari mother of five. For supper, the market’s street food area (near Jasmine Thai Restaurant) sees local dishes served from a cluster of trestle tables: luqaimat dumplings drenched in date syrup, biryani-style chicken machboos… they’re all freshly cooked by local women, for around QR5 (£1.10) per dish.

Insider tip: On The Pearl-Qatar island – an affluent neighbourhood to the north of Doha – Yasmine Palace Restaurant serves local fare in a sumptuous setting: think throne-style seating, dancing fountains and huge chandeliers.

5. Cruise the Corniche

Dhow with skyline of West Bay (Qatar Tourism)

Dhow with skyline of West Bay (Qatar Tourism)

Unmissable in every sense, the Corniche and West Bay are home to Qatar’s most audacious architecture. Overlooking Doha’s harbour, their glittering glass towers are topped with ritzy bars, observation decks and helipad platforms – while runners, ramblers and picnickers enjoy the promenade and parks below. At night, the towers are lit up like beacons; for the best view of this surreal scene, book a dinner cruise or tour on a wooden dhow (fishing boat).

Insider tip: Or, explore the Corniche on two wheels: its wide, traffic-free promenade is a breeze to pedal. Saikl Bike offers good-quality rentals, and is located in the park beside the Sheraton Hotel.

6. Go shopping in ‘Venice’

Villaggio Mall (Shutterstock)

Villaggio Mall (Shutterstock)

Only in Qatar will you find an indoor shopping mall modelled on Venice, complete with meandering ‘canals’, classical architecture and a fake painted sky. Villaggio Mall is just as bizarre as it sounds, but is also great fun: you can travel between shops by ‘gondola’, and cross the canals on Rialto-style bridges. Or, check out the glamorous Galeries Lafayette Doha, near Katara Cultural Village. While its Qatari-label fashions are impressive, they’re nothing on the Paris-inspired architecture: all wide Haussmannian boulevards, soaring columns and immaculate cream-coloured façades.

Insider tip: During the day, Qatar’s malls are eerily quiet – but at night, the crowds descend. Msheireb Downtown Doha is a great spot for dinner and people-watching.

7. Find art in the desert

Firestation (Qatar Tourism)

Firestation (Qatar Tourism)

Comprising four steel monoliths out in the desert, Richard Serra’s East-West/West-East sculpture might sound (whisper it) a little underwhelming – until you arrive, that is. Framed by Ras Brouq’s wind-whipped rocks and surrounded by endless sand, these simple structures spark contemplations on isolation and survival, or at least make a novel backdrop for a picnic. The 70-minute drive from the capital should only be attempted in a 4x4. In Doha, look out for Tom Claassen’s gleaming golden falcon sculpture outside the airport, and Damien Hirst's gigantic foetuses – The Miraculous Journey

Insider tip: While most of Qatar’s public artworks are by international stars, Fire Station in Doha is the place to see local talents. As well as several art galleries, it offers drawing and craft workshops too.

Read next Ras Al Khaimah: Discover the UAE's cultural and adventurous side

8. Discover a wildlife haven

Shallow waters of the Inland Sea (Qatar Tourism)

Shallow waters of the Inland Sea (Qatar Tourism)

Between November and April, hundreds of flamingos flock to the salty shallows of Khor Al-Adaid – the ‘Inland Sea’ – on their migration between Europe and Africa. An 80km drive south from Doha, this is where the Gulf sea meets Qatar’s sand dunes: a UNESCO-listed haven for birdwatching and wild camping. Spend the night at the nearby Regency Sealine Camp, for deluxe tented suites and beach barbecues under the stars. The flamingos also visit Al Thakira Mangrove Forest: you can see them on kayaking trips, and from its wheelchair-accessible wooden walkway.

Insider tip: The Pearl-Qatar, famous for its designer shopping and luxurious villas, also offers kayaking trips around its marinas and beaches – an original way to explore this affluent man-made island.

Qatar Airways flies direct to Doha’s Hamad International Airport from both Heathrow and Gatwick, six times a day. For more details and to plan your trip, see visitqatar.com.

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