Why go now?
Today, Qatar celebrates its 40th anniversary of independence from Britain. This autumn is an ideal time to visit: the intense heat of summer is finally on the wane and Ramadan is over. Artistic and sporting events begin once again, with Doha's Tribeca Film Festival, now in its third year (dohafilminstitute.com/filmfestival; 25-29 October) a highlight. This year, it hosts the world premiere of the Arabian epic Black Gold, filmed in the desert south of Doha.
Qatar is a small country with enormous ambition; its controversial hosting of the 2022 World Cup will inevitably transform the capital. Now is the time to catch Doha before it changes forever.
Doha makes an ideal 48-hour stopover if you are booking a long-haul flight from Heathrow or Manchester to Asia, Africa or Australia on the national airline, Qatar Airways (0870 389 8090; qatarairways.com). If, though, Doha is your final destination, the cheapest way to get there is likely to be on Emirates or Etihad via their respective hubs in Dubai and Abu Dhabi. In addition, British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) flies daily from Heathrow.
From the airport, catch a turquoise, government-owned, metered Karwa taxi (00 974 4458 8888; mowasalat.com) for the journey to your hotel. The five-mile journey to West Bay should take no more than 30 minutes, and cost QR25-40 (£4.20-6.70).
Get your bearings
Qatar is a small peninsula sticking out into the Persian Gulf from Saudi Arabia. Doha begins in the middle of its eastern side and expands further west daily. The core of the city's coastline is the Corniche, a landscaped seafront with a four-mile promenade. To its north is West Bay, an ever-changing area of high-rise office blocks and apartments. Further north is the city's cultural village, Katara (katara.net), and an incredibly ambitious development on reclaimed land, the Pearl (00 974 4446 3444; thepearlqatar.com).
Out to the west is Doha's "Aspire Zone", (00 974 4447 67 86; aspirezone.qa), built for the 2006 Asian Games, and several large shopping developments. The area to the south is largely taken up with Qatar's next big project, the New Doha International Airport, scheduled to open next year.
The Four Seasons (1) on the Corniche (00 974 4494 8888; fourseasons.com/doha) occupies a prime spot in West Bay with its own stretch of beach. Doubles start at QR1,100 (£186), room only.
For slightly lower rates, opt for the brand-new Oryx Rotana (2), close to the airport on Al Matar Street (00 974 4402 3333; rotana.com/oryxrotana), which has a great pool. Doubles start at QR900 (£152), room only.
The Ramada Encore (3), near Grand Hamad Street, (00 974 4444 3444; ramadaencoredoha.com) is not in the most attractive part of town, but it's cheap: doubles (with free Wi-Fi) are good value at QR340 (£58) a night in September, room only. The enclosed rooftop pool and clean, brightly furnished rooms set this hotel above its other budget rivals.
Friday morning: go to church
To experience traditional Muslim worship, the Qatar Islamic Cultural Centre, Fanar (4) (00 974 4425 0250; fanar.gov.qa) offers non-Arabic speakers the chance to hear the khutbah – Friday lunchtime sermon – in English, if you contact them in advance.
Friday is the first day of the Qatar weekend, and the best time to sample one of the city's friendly, cosmopolitan churches.
Both the city's Catholic Church (5) (rosarychurchqatar.com) and the Anglican Church (6) on Jasim Bin Hamad Street (epiphany-qatar.org) hold their biggest weekly service on Friday mornings – the former at 10am, the latter at 9am.
Doha's main market is Souq Waqif (7), which opens 10am-noon and 4-10pm. It may look old, but was rebuilt in 2004. Still, it retains tiny streets stuffed with stalls selling perfumes, herbs and spices, shisha pipes and traditional Qatari clothes.
Seek out the Falcon section, where you can see and handle these birds of prey, highly prized in Qatar for their hunting abilities. The best birds fetch thousands of pounds.
Out to brunch
Make a reservation at the Marriott (8) on Ras Abu Aboud Street (00 974 4429 8888; marriott.co.uk), where brunch is served noon-3.30pm on Fridays and Saturdays (QR325/£55 with alcohol; QR235/£40 without). Head straight for the beautifully displayed seafood buffet, then feast on the desserts.
Take a ride
To appreciate the city's skyline, retreat to the water on one of the traditional dhow boats available to hire from the Dhow Harbour (9) on the Corniche. Negotiate a fee of around QR80 (£13.50) for a half-hour trip for a minimum of four people.
Take a hike
Begin a four-mile stroll at the Dhow Harbour (9), where you can admire the traditional fishing boats up close. Then head north, stopping to sit under a palm tree as you go, to take in the view of West Bay, its skyscrapers twinkling and shimmering as dusk falls.
Walking further north, you pass a palatial white building, the Emiri Diwan (10), where the Emir of Qatar conducts his official business. Next is the Ministry of the Interior (11), and then, half way along the Corniche is Rumeilah Park (12), a lovely green space with refreshment kiosks.
Continue past Doha's main Post Office (13), a curious pyramid design dating to the 1970s, and then you will find yourself among the skyscrapers, looking back at the other side of the bay. The Corniche ends at Sheraton Park (14) - an ideal place to rest before dinner.
Drinks for the locals are strictly a non-alcoholic affair. Join them for a fresh fruit "mocktail" (QR25/£4) and shisha pipe (QR45/£7.50) at Al Mourjan (15) (00 974 4483 4423; almourjan.com), a Lebanese restaurant on the Corniche with a spectacular view of the bay – ask for a seat outside.
For an alcoholic alternative, try the chic poolside bar Wahm at the W Hotel (16) (00 974 4453 5000; whoteldoha.com) – a cocktail here will set you back QR50-QR75 (£8.40-£12.60). Or go for show-stopping rooftop views at the pricey Sky View Bar atop La Cigale (17) (00 974 4428 8888; lacigalehotel.com.) Bring your passport; Qatari law requires ID for entry to all bars.
Dining with the locals
At Doha's new cultural village, Katara, take your pick from several beachside restaurants. For live music and shisha, try the Egyptian restaurant, Khan Farouk Tarab (18) (00 974 4408 0840 ext 44). Doha's large Indian population bestows its culinary traditions with some great restaurants: Saffron Lounge (00 974 4408 0808; saffronlounge.net) is no exception.
Take a view
The city's newest piece of real estate is a man-made island known as The Pearl – brimming with luxury apartments, high-end restaurants and designer shops. Take a seat outside Bert's Café (19) (00 974 4495 3878 ext 1381) in the Porto Arabia enclave, and watch sailing boats, jet-skis and yachts jostle for space in front of a view of Doha's gleaming modern face – all soaring skyscrapers of various contortions and statures.
Lunch on the run
You'd be hard pressed to find a more loved local haunt than Turkey Central (20) on Al Mirqab Street (00 974 4443 2927). Ignore the construction work opposite and the strip-light lit dining room, and instead enjoy the incredibly cheap, tasty Turkish food. The flat bread, fresh from the oven downstairs, is particularly good. Tuck into a huge plate of mixed appetisers for QR50 (£8.40), and if you've got room left, order a plate of chicken shawarma for a very reasonable QR30 (£5).
On the same street, Thai Snack (21) (00 974 4432 9704) is another local gem. If it's cool enough, sit outside underneath the trees strung with fairy-lights, and make your choice from the huge variety of great value dishes.
A walk in the park
Aspire Park (22), Doha's largest open green space, is a short taxi ride from the city centre. Locals flock here at weekends, bringing picnics and setting up under a tree for the day. Grab an ice cream from the café by the lake and watch the world pass by.
Next to the park is the Venetian-themed Villagio shopping centre (23) (00 974 4413 5222; villaggioqatar.com) worth a visit if only to see its canal, complete with electric gondola.
Built on an island and connected to the Corniche by a bridge, the IM Pei-designed Museum of Islamic Art (24) (00 974 4422 4444; mia.org.qa) is Doha's most iconic landmark. The striking edifice displays manuscripts, ceramics, art and carvings from the Islamic world. It opens 10.30am-5.30pm daily, except Friday (2-8pm) and Tuesday (closed); free.
Opened earlier this year, Mathaf (25), Doha's Arab Museum of Modern Art (00 974 4402 8855; mathaf.org.qa) is also well worth a visit. Located in an anonymous-looking building on the edge of town in Education City, the varied, fascinating collection inside is a pleasant surprise. Open 11am–6pm daily except Monday; free.
The icing on the cake
If you don't want to travel all this way to the desert without actually seeing it, take a half-day 4x4 safari over the sand dunes to Khor Al Adaid, otherwise known as Qatar's beautiful "inland sea" from QR250 (£42) per person. Or, check out the camels at the purpose-built race track in Shahaniya for QR185 (£31). Qatar International Tours (00 974 4455 1141; qittour.com) can organise both.