It’s now been over a week since I arrived back in rather snowy Edinburgh and the days I spent visiting my Dad in Doha, Qatar already seem like a distant memory but what better way to keep the memory alive (and avoid the endless other tasks I have to do) than to tell you all about it.
I have to say that before I left I was very apprehensive and unsure what to expect from a city I had only been to once before and where I had been made to feel insecure, embarrassed and, to put it simply, a bit wrong. Five years ago, Doha was a place which was definitely up and coming but which was in the very early days of this future glory. It only had a very small airport, as blonde, white females my mother and I were very much in the minority and the location itself was somewhat intimidating to someone who had never fully experienced a Muslim country before. And my Dad certainly isn’t the best tour guide when left to his own devices. I did have a nice time but I was in no hurry to go back and could never see myself ever feeling comfortable in a place which, to me, was quite so alien to everything I had ever known.
In 2018, Doha is still very much this up and coming city which has the resources and ambitions to rival Dubai one day, it is still very different to a lot of the places I have visited over the years but I can also say that in so many ways Doha has changed. I do think a lot of this change in perspective is to do with my own maturation and ability to cope with things but, if a city can progress towards modernity and, let’s face it, build such impressive infrastructure in such a short time one can’t help but be impressed.
Even as soon as I stepped off the plane I knew this time would be different. Hamad International Airport is multiple times bigger than the one I arrived at last time and instead of feeling in the minority it was clear to me that the majority of the flight I arrived on were other European visitors like myself. This just shows that Doha’s hard work and effort is beginning to pay off as more and more people see it as a viable tourist destination. And this time my aim was to be the proper tourist and not wholly rely on my Dad’s rather shocking knowledge of what is good to do and see while in the city and here I want to share some of these things with you.
Souq Wakif is one of the only places I fully remember visiting from the first time I was in Doha and is definitely one of the key tourist centres in the entire city. As far as I know, the souq itself is entirely artificially constructed and is not a traditional souq as you may be led to believe but it is not hard to see why people could be fooled into thinking this. It captures the Arabian culture and historic aspect which is missing from a lot of the rest of the architecture that you see. It is always bustling with activity and contains winding little streets filled with small shops, as well as a number of bars, restaurants and cafes and is a perfect place to sit, try out a shisha pipe and watch the rest of the world go by. For all those animal lovers out there like myself however, watch out for the tied-up camels on one side of the Souq and the small section where animals are kept in cages as it is not pleasant and is probably the only drawback I see for the whole site. I do highly recommend visiting this area both during the day and at night though.
The Museum of Islamic Art
I have to admit that this location as a museum did not interest me very much at all. Museum’s can be a bit hit and miss and I think a lot of the displays here miss quite spectacularly. Call me uncultured but there are only so many Arabian style vases, buckets and bowls with no other significance other than that they are old that you can look at. Despite this, the Museum of Islamic art as a building in itself is definitely worth a visit. The architecture is stunning and the museum has one of the most impressive views of the Doha skyline you are likely to see. I would recommend going mid-afternoon and heading to the perfectly placed café at the far side of the museum as it looks out at the river and is ideal for watching the sun go down. It was beautiful. There is also a really nice courtyard off to the side for great photo opportunities. Oh, and it has a pretty nice gift shop too.
Whilst on the subject of good views of the impressive Doha skyline, the Corniche is a walkway which curves right round the bay and goes basically from one end of Doha to the other, leaving you with numerous vantage points to take in the skyscrapers that dominate one side. Once again, great to experience both day and night and is one of the only places really where you can enjoy a leisurely walk and explore within Doha outside of your car. Lots of families come here to have picnics at the side of the Corniche and there are a number of small boats which, for a fee, will take you around the bay and back if you aren’t in the mood for the walk in the intense heat. Definitely one of my favourite places.
Malls, Malls and More Malls
This is one aspect of Doha which I think they are really starting to try and rival Dubai on because, for the amount of people and built-up land here, there is an insane amount of shops. There is the City Centre Mall, Landmark Mall, Villagio, Mall of Qatar to name but a few of the biggest and best shopping malls in the city and they are still building more. My two favourites are Villagio and the Mall of Qatar so I will focus on them but just know that whatever capitalist, material (and often flashy and expensive) item you could imagine they’ve got it. Qatar is a very rich country and they certainly show it.
The Mall of Qatar is relatively new and is a bit more difficult to get to than some of the others yet the scale and choice of shops there is amazing. It has well-known brands like Nike, Topshop, Pull and Bear, Victoria’s Secret and Next as well as many restaurants and cafe’s including Le Pain Quotidien, Starbucks, The Cheesecake Factory and the odd chocolate café too. It would take a whole day at least to get round it and you still probably wouldn’t be satisfied. Oh, and if all this wasn’t extra enough, they have a collapsible stage in the middle of the centre that hosts impromptu performances throughout the day too.
Now Villagio, although a bit older, is just plain cool. It is Venice themed with the gondolas and canals included and it’s high value quarter with every designer label imaginable is certainly worth a browse – even if you can’t afford to buy anything like me! The selection of shops and restaurants is just as insane and at the end of the ‘expensive’ part there is a Laduree Macaron café, just in case the Venice theme wasn’t obvious enough. You honestly have to see it to believe it.
Katara Cultural Village
Katara is basically a man-made beach with, you guessed it, yet more shops round the side, just in case you hadn’t quite got your fill of materialism quite yet. Although I wasn’t overly impressed with this area and there really isn’t that much to do it’s still pretty to have a look around as the architecture and small streets at the back are still pretty nice. One thing I did notice is that Katara is very popular with the tourists and is probably the place where i felt most in the minority and judged for my choice of clothing so be prepared to dress conservative or cope with a lot of staring.
Now the Pearl to me is one of the gem’s (pardon the pun) of Doha. It is absolutely stunning and although it is basically yet another shopping district, it is a beautiful area where you really feel like you’ve entered paradise. It also felt a lot more Westernised and is where I saw majority of tourists. Saying that, the place is almost always deserted and it can feel like a bit of a ghost town which is a real shame because it really does feel like a missed opportunity. If I was to live in Doha this is where I would like to live however, and I know, that as the popularity of Doha as a destination increases, the Pearl’s popularity will increase too. It’s just stunning.
Eating and Drinking in Doha
Another thing I was really worried about before I travelled to Doha was the fact that I didn’t expect the knowledge of veganism to be very good but boy was I surprised. Sure I went to the odd place where they looked at me like I’d just fallen from Mars but the majority of places I went were happy to accommodate my needs and I didn’t worry about my meals too much. (I have to say that the website Happy Cow helped immensely with picking places to eat however, and if you are travelling as a vegan I couldn’t recommend it enough.) As I was only there for four days I didn’t get to try out too many places but below are my top two locations to eat in Doha from this trip:
Usually I would save the best until last but in this case I just can’t. Evergreen Organics is that good. Yes, being in the Pearl area of the city, it is somewhat pricey but it is the only fully vegan café in the whole of Doha and it boasts an extensive menu, the best selection of vegan cakes and bakes I have seen anywhere in the world and it also has possibly the most chilled out and wonderful vibe and atmosphere ever. Can you tell I loved it? It is hard to find and a little out of the way but basically whether you’re a vegan, vegetarian or meat-eater then please try this place because it is worth it. In fact, if I ever go back to Doha then I think I will spend the majority of my time here.
I think the first thing I need to say about Spice Market is that it is located within the W hotel in the heart of Doha and so is incredibly expensive. This is a place to go if you don’t mind spending a bit but I have to say the meal we had there was amazing. My Mum and Dad were probably more impressed than me as I believe both of their meat dishes were out of this world but I too had a really nice stir-fry and the manager of the restaurant was happy to alter any of the dishes on the menu to my liking and my server was also very knowledgeable about veganism too. They also had some really nice sorbets for dessert which I tried. Lovely restaurant, lovely staff but, to be honest, for the price you have to pay, I don’t think you could expect anything else.
For my Fellow Vegans (Other than just go to Evergreen Organics!)…
- Isaan is a restaurant in another of the hotels in Doha which makes it once again quite pricey but it actually has a fully separate vegan menu (they call it the healthy menu) with everything clearly labelled. This is a really helpful thing to know if you visit the restaurant.
- The Red Velvet Cupcakery is located within Katara and actually has a vegan chocolate cupcake on offer. I didn’t really like the look of the café itself as it was a bit dark and out of the way but the cupcakes looked great and would be lovely to take away.
- Go for traditional middle eastern foods! There are so many places offering your favourite vegan fares such as falafel (watch out for these containing honey, remember), hummus, pitta bread, olives – the list goes on! I was really surprised how easy it was to eat traditional and get by so Doha definitely is a much more vegan-friendly place than I had it down as!
- Know that vegan-friendly chains have made it to Doha too as Nando’s, Wagamama’s, Le Pain Quotidien and Pizza Hut all have a reasonably large presence among a number of other chains. Costa also had coconut milk on offer when I was there so there is still plenty of options if you are visiting Doha on more of a budget.
Another point to note, is that if you haven’t experienced a culture like that of Doha before, then you might not be aware that you can’t buy alcohol unless you go to one of the five star hotels around the city. If you go to a restaurant you will be served soft drinks only. This wasn’t a problem for me and I’d maybe take your trip as a time to ditch the drink and enjoy a break rather than pay extortionate prices for it but of course this is entirely up to you.
My Final Five Top Tips For Travelling to Doha
- Don’t go in the Summer. This one is pretty self explanatory because you will melt. Temperatures can reach the 50’s and it’s so hot outside that you basically just want to go from one air-conditioned building to the next. From my experience the best times to go are either March or October. February can be a dangerous time just simply because the weather is likely to break at some point before it starts getting really hot.
- Be prepared to dress conservatively and modestly. This is a Muslim country which has not yet embraced all of Western culture so wearing a crop top and shorts around will mean you get a lot of disapproving stares. I’m not saying I agree with it, but it’s definitely worth packing that extra light cardigan and some long trousers.
- Doha is not a walking-friendly city. You will have to pay for taxi’s and transport to get from place to place because you just can’t walk around the same as you can in a number of other cities. Hiring a car is possible but the driving can be slightly erratic and scary at times so it’s best to allow some money in your budget for travel once you get there.