48 Hours In: Doha
As the Qatari city prepares for its year in the sun as Arab Capital of Culture in 2010, Cathy Packe checks out what it has to offer
Saturday 26 September 2009
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Why go now?
The combination of the end of Ramadan, and the lowering of temperatures in the Gulf region towards something that most of us would consider tolerable, makes this a good time to plan a visit to Doha. This rapidly changing city, with its fledgling tourist industry, has a surprising amount to offer, particularly as it gears up for its role as the Arab Capital of Culture in 2010.
Qatar Airways (0870 389 8090; qatarairways.com) flies four times a day from Heathrow, and daily from Gatwick and Manchester airports. British Airways also flies daily to the Qatari capital from Heathrow. Doha's international airport is five miles from the city centre. Taxis from there to the Corniche area will cost about 40 Qatari riyals (£6.75) and take about half an hour. Alternatively, travel with the locals on the number 19 bus to the city centre bus station (1). Buy a ticket on the bus for QAR3 (£0.50).
Get your bearings
Often described by the locals as "son of Dubai", Doha began to turn itself from an oil town to a glistening modern city about 10 years ago. The heart of town has always been the 7km stretch of waterfront known as the Corniche, or main coastal road. Now, though, life is moving north, first to the Financial District, where many of the modern hotels are located, and further on to West Bay.
Like Dubai, Doha is expanding offshore too, with a luxury development called the Pearl, which will eventually house some 50,000 people, as well as a selection of shops and restaurants.
At any hotel it is worth trying to negotiate a better price than the one that is first quoted.
New deluxe hotels are opening in Doha all the time, and one of the newest is the Grand Hyatt (2), in a waterfront location on Lusail Street in the West Bay Lagoon (00 974 448 1234; doha.grand.hyatt.com). Double rooms here start at QAR1,500 (£253); breakfast is an extra QAR130 (£22).
The wonderfully atmospheric Hotel Souk Waqif (3) (00 974 443 3030; hotelsouqwaqif.com.qa) is in an excellent location on the edge of the souk, a block from the Corniche and close to the city centre. It has 13 rooms, which are available from QAR880 (£148) for a double; breakfast is an extra QAR79 (£13.40).
More moderately-priced accommodation is available at the New Capital Hotel (4) on Wadi Musheireb Street (00 974 444 5445; touristtravel bureau.com) where doubles start at QAR300 (£49) and breakfast costs an extra QAR20 (£3.50).
Take a hike
Start at the restored Al Koot Fort (5), first built during the period of Turkish occupation in the late 19th century, when Doha was no more than a village, and reconstructed in the 1920s. Look into the gold souk (6), where you can pick a piece of jewellery from any of the small stores and have it priced by weight. Then pass the Fanar Islamic Center (7) with its spiral minaret, on your way to the fishing harbour (8); here, although there are nets on display, many of the boats have been restored. Heading north you will come to the Clock Tower (9) – a pink, green and white structure set slightly back from the Corniche. The large white building nearby is the elaborate Diwan Emiri (10), the palace where the Emir, or ruler, has his offices.
Depending on the temperature, and your own energy levels, continue walking along the Corniche, past the Ministry of the Interior (11), the National Theatre (12), and the Oryx roundabout (13), named for the sculpture in the centre, and one of several decorative intersections in the city. From here the business district begins, its streets darkened by the tall buildings that continue to spring up all around. The pyramid structure at the far end of the Corniche is the Sheraton (14). This was the city's original hotel, and it is still popular with the locals as a meeting place.
Lunch on the run
In a fine position in the Balhambar building on the Corniche is Al Mourjan (15) (00 974 483 4423; almourjanrest.com), a wonderful spot to sit and look at the water, while enjoying a lunch of mezze or salad. Dishes are available from QAR10 (£1.70).
Doha's cultural jewel, and the attraction through which Qatar is hoping to develop its tourist industry, is the excellent Museum of Islamic Art (00 974 422 4444; mia.org.qa) (16). Open since November last year, it is located in a striking building designed by the Chinese-American architect I M Pei, and built on an artificial island just off the Corniche. Inside, the galleries offer an outstanding display of works, grouped to show the geographical spread of Muslim influence, from Spain to China. The exhibits cover everything from calligraphy to carpets. It opens 10.30am-5.30pm daily except Tuesday, when it is closes, and Fridays, when it opens 2-8pm.
Qatar is a relatively dry country. Any alcohol will be taken from you on arrival at the airport, and returned when you leave. Alcohol is served in the international hotels, although in deference to local sensitivities the bars are usually referred to as "lounges" and you will need to show your passport to get in, unless you are resident at the hotel.
Try the chic Crystal Lounge in the new W Hotel (17) in West Bay (00 974 453 5353; whoteldoha.com).
For the more wholesome experience of the Qatari lifestyle, join the locals who gather in the early evening along the main alley in the souk (18) for coffee, water, and shisha or hubbly-bubbly pipes.
Dining with the locals
The best choice of restaurants is along the main alley of Souk Waqif (18), where Western-style coffee shops sit side-by-side with restaurants offering a variety of cuisines. Most opulent is the Isfahan Garden (00 974 441 8737), which serves excellent Iranian food. Ask for a peep into the private room, designed for the royal family, who still come here from time to time. For good Qatari food – Arab cuisine influenced by Indian spices – try Al Tawash (00 974 498 2002). On the menu are locally-caught fish like safi, kingfish and hammour.
A walk in the park
Al Rumeila park (19) is a pleasant green space that is popular, especially at weekends, with families who come to enjoy attractions that include a children's play area, free Wi-Fi and views across the water.
Take a hike
Dhow trips operate from the landing stage on the Corniche opposite the Ministry of the Interior (11). The usual rate is around QAR20 (£3.40) per person for a minimum of four people taking a trip lasting 20 minutes. For longer trips a certain amount of negotiation may be required. Expect to pay QAR300 (£51) for a boat that will take a small group of people for an hour-long excursion right along the Corniche. Trips operate from morning until late at night, although tend not to sail in the hottest part of the day.
Out to brunch
The day for brunch in Doha is Friday, the Muslim day of rest. A copious spread is put on in many of the international hotels; a particularly popular choice is the one at the Café Restaurant in the Intercontinental (20) (00 974 484 4444; ichotelsgroup.com). It is served from noon-4pm and costs QAR250 (£42). If your stay in the city doesnot include a Friday, head instead for the Colombiano Coffee House (21), a small outdoor cafe in front of the Jimmy Choo store on the Pearl, the residential and retail development on reclaimed land in the West Bay Lagoon. The first part of the Pearl is now open, and the waterfront, close to a picturesque marina, is a pleasant place to enjoy a late breakfast. A latte, a croissant and a taste of South America will cost you QAR24 (£4).
For an Arabic experience, albeit a rather sanitised one, wander through the Souk Waqif (18). Doha's traditional market, with its narrow alleys and stalls, has always been on this site, although repeated renovations have robbed it of the atmosphere found in other parts of the Arab world. On the plus side, though, there are plenty of colourful stalls to investigate, including one specialising in falconry; and the souk is completely safe and hassle-free. For western-style shopping, the largest mall is the City Centre (22), whose stores open 10am-10pm daily. For more upmarket outlets, visit the Pearl development. Although by no means all of it is yet open, it already has plenty to offer the designer-minded shopper.
Go to church
The Anglican Church of the Epiphany (00 974 451 6798; epiphany-qatar.org) holds a service every Sunday evening at the Doha English-speaking School (23); go in through the entrance on Al Maarri Street.
The icing on the cake
One of the easiest ways to explore the desert landscape outside Doha is to take a trip to the Inland Sea. Excursions organised by Gulf Adventures (00 974 422 1888; gulf-adventures. com) will take you to the end of the paved road, an hour or more outside the city, and then transfer you to a 4x4 for a hair-raising ride over the sand dunes, a swim in the Inland Sea, and a glimpse of Saudi Arabia across the water. A four-hour trip costs QAR240 (£40) per person.
Cathy Packe travelled to Doha as a guest of Qatar Airways and the Grand Hyatt hotel.
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