Tourism is still in its infancy in Qatar, but in the space of a few years this little Middle Eastern Arab state has gone from a near-wilderness that registered on few travellers’ radars, to greatly increased awareness following the decision for it to host the 2022 World Cup.
An explosion of mega-development projects have been emerging from the sands that are giving Dubai a real run for its money. The latest of these is the new massive and striking structure that is the National Museum of Qatar, which opened at the end of March.
Other new developments include luxury hotels and resorts, huge shopping malls and newly constructed islands. Here’s a guide to what to see.
National Museum of Qatar, Doha
Even if this building designed by celebrated French architect Jean Nouvel contained no exhibits, its architectural magnificence makes it worthy of a visit. Taking 18 years to build, and with nearly a mile of galleries under its 539 interlocking discs ranging from 14 to 87 metres across, the museum traces the country’s growth from earliest times to now, where it’s the world’s wealthiest country per capita, courtesy of its transformational discovery of oil and natural gas. Archaeology, wildlife, geology, its pearl divers and nomadic bedouins, cultural traditions and the lineage of its sheiks are all comprehensively covered. As well as thousands of artefacts, there are specially commissioned site-specific artworks from artists from Iraq, Syria, France and Qatar.
The Corniche, Doha
A walk along part of this 7-kilometre crescent-shaped waterfront strip that stretches from the Sheraton Hotel to the Museum of Islamic Art is another priority on the must-do list. Qatar’s seamless merging of old and new is encapsulated here, with its traditional dhows on the waters of Doha Bay with a stunning modern skyscraper skyline beyond. There are a few green spaces dotted along the Corniche for kids to play or pause for an ice cream. Tip: take your stroll at sunrise or sunset: in the middle of the day you’ll frazzle faster than a frying egg.
Museum of Islamic Art, Doha
This spectacular building, designed by celebrated Chinese-American architect IM Pei of The Louvre fame, houses priceless artworks from a host of countries around the Islamic world, from medieval Spain to Mughal India and Central Asia, spanning 14 centuries. English descriptions are insightful, and galleries display ivory, ceramics, manuscripts, metalwork, jewellery, glass, woodwork and more. I was surprised at how entranced I was by its beautiful displays. Conspicuously located on the capital’s Corniche, it’s impossible to miss.
Dhow Boat Cruise, Doha
Spend a delightful day, half-day or evening sightseeing aboard a traditional wooden Qatari dhow, used by pearl divers and fishermen in days gone by. Most set off from the dock by the Museum of Islamic Art. The relaxing cruises help you really get a feel for the scale of the place.
Souq Waqif, Doha
Wander the bustling alleyways of the traditional souq for an authentic taste of Arab street life. Shops and stalls sell gold, spices, antiques, perfumes, textiles and traditional crafts, and there are shisha lounges and art galleries too. It’s a welcomed respite from the skyscrapers and modernity of much of Doha and also a popular spot for dining, people-watching and entertainment, especially after sunset.
Qatar’s huge expanses of desert and high dunes are ideal for a jeep safari, plunging down the dunes in a 4X4 or self-driving a dune buggy. Try an Arabian feast and overnight stay in a desert camp, enjoying the spectacular landscapes, the sunset and sunrise, and the clear night skies that are bliss for stargazers. If you head for the impressive Khor-Al-Udaid, a UNESCO-recognised natural reserve, it features extensive inland waters, often referred to as an inland sea. Numerous tour operators offer various desert activity options.
The Pearl-Qatar, Doha
This artificial island and home to villas, residential towers and Mediterranean-style yacht-lined marinas is located just off the West Bay coast. It’s a popular visitor attraction, having nearly 30 restaurants, nearly 20 cafes and bakeries and lots of upmarket shops.
Located on the north-west coast, this settlement, mostly destroyed in 1811 and abandoned in the last century, is the only remaining complete urban plan of an Arabian pearl-merchant town. Qatar’s one UNESCO World Heritage site, as well as architectural ruins it has a splendid fort to explore, built in 1938.
Al Thakira Mangroves
In striking contrast to the surrounding desert, this large expanse of natural greenery north of the city of Al Khor attracts a wide variety of birdlife including herons and flamingos. It’s ideal for exploring by kayak.
Camel Racing, Al Shahaniya
This thrilling spectacle, held during the racing season (October-April) is a long-held Qatari tradition for celebrating special occasions. Today, the sport has a bizarre twist, as remote-controlled toddler-sized humanoid robot camel jockeys in colourful racing silks are used, speeding their (real) camels across the sands at the track in the small town of Al Shahaniya, a 45-minute drive from Doha. +974 44 87 2028
Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art, Doha
An extensive collection of modern and contemporary art from the Arab world, with both permanent and temporary exhibitions. There are also works from Africa, Asia and Europe that are historically connected to Qatar.
Imam Abdul Wahhub Mosque, Doha
This, the Qatar State Mosque, which opened in 2011, is big enough to accommodate 12,200 worshippers. A contemporary design with traditional Qatari flourishes, it has 93 domes, many intricate doorways and carvings, and interiors adorned with chandeliers.
Qatar Airways flies to Doha from the UK from £458.