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48 Hours In

Doha, Qatar

Its mix of traditional souks and modern luxury hotels is helping to turn this seafront Gulf city in Qatar into a must-see destination

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December's Asian Games, with their extravagant ceremonies, transfixed television viewers. Doha is making claims to be the next big travel destination.


Doha's airport (1) is served from Heathrow, Gatwick and Manchester by Qatar Airways (0870 770 4215; www.qatarairways.com) and British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com), and via Dubai from Heathrow, Gatwick, Birmingham, Manchester and Glasgow on Emirates (0870 243 2222; www.emirates.com). British citizens are asked for a credit card with their passport at immigration desks and visas are quickly processed (price 100 rials (QR), or £15) and valid for one month. A taxi to the centre takes 10 minutes and costs 8QR (just over £1).


Diminutive Doha sprawls out from its stunning seafront, seeping into the sandy desert. Somewhat of a construction site, the sparse city has pockets of pulsating life in its bustling souks and along the attractive Corniche that curves around the beautiful bay. The airport (1) is at the eastern end, the souks in the centre, and the Sheraton (2), Four Seasons (3) and City Centre mall (4) at the western end. Taxis are cheap, but rare; hotel limos are twice the price. The Marhaba guidebook includes a bus map.


The sumptuous Four Seasons Hotel (3) in West Bay (00 974 494 8888; www.fourseasons.com/doha) is the city's most lavish, with sweeping staircases, plush furnishings, and a stylish spa. Opulent doubles from 1600QR (£225) have exquisite sea views and include an expansive breakfast. The paint is still drying on Doha's newest boutique hotel, Sharq Village and Spa (5), five minutes from the airport (00 974 425 6666; www.ritzcarlton.com). The low-rise seafront resort is designed in the style of an old Qatari village. The occasional plane could prove an annoyance. Traditionally decorated doubles starting at 1,280QR (£178) including breakfast. Centrally situated Rydges Plaza (6) (00 974 438 5444; www.rydges.com/doha) is a 10-minute walk (in winter) or 3QR (50p) taxi ride (the rest of the year) to the souks and Corniche. Comfortable doubles with views start at 400QR (£60), excluding breakfast but including airport transfers.


A leisurely stroll along the palm-lined Corniche is obligatory. For Doha residents it's a daily ritual. It's hard to tire of gazing at the azure waters. Start at the kids' park at the bay's western end, near the Sheraton (2). Get a closer look at working boats in the dhow harbour (7) and get a snap of the enormous pearl in a colossal shell. Don't miss the Tower of Babel-like Islamic Bank (8).


On the seafront in a traditional Qatari building, Balhambar (9) (00 974 483 4423; 8am-11pm daily) is a sublime spot to refuel. Sit under hanging lanterns overlooking the sea for an aromatic rose drink (8QR/£1.10) and grilled kebab (7QR/£1) or inside in a traditionally decorated dining room for delicious Gulf Arab cuisine at the all-day buffet (100QR/£15 per person). The brainchild of a local Sheikh, Balhambar is one of the few cafés in the Gulf to be staffed only by Gulf Arabs - service is elegant and hospitable.


Doha has several recently restored museums that are about to open their heavy wooden doors to the public. In Fariq Al Salata Palace (10), dating to 1901, the Qatar National Museum (00 974 444 2191; 8am-noon and 4-7pm daily, closed Friday and Saturday; 5QR/70p) has compelling displays, including old maps, antiques, costumes and jewellery, in its courtyard. The rest of the museum is scheduled to open shortly. Adjacent to Souq Waqif, Al Koot Fort (11) (00 974 429 1777), built in 1880, is Doha's ethnographic museum, and opens in the spring. But the one Qataris are most excited about is the imminent opening of the striking new Museum of Islamic Arts (12), stunningly situated on the bay, it will house a world-class Islamic arts collection.


Looking wonderful after a whitewash for the Asian Games, Souq Waqif (13) is one of the Gulf's most atmospheric bazaars. The high ceilings of the covered souks, and the wide lanes running between them, make shopping more relaxing compared with other Middle Eastern markets. It's also one of the few souks in the region where you'll see artisans working. Goldsmiths sit cross-legged on the floors in tiny shops hammering out intricate pieces while makers of ouds (Arabian lutes) discuss which wood to use for the instrument. Open 9.30am-noon and 4-10pm, the souk is liveliest in the evenings.


Worlds away from Doha's souks is the "gentleman's club" atmosphere of The Library Bar at the Four Seasons Hotel (3) (00 974 494 8888; 5pm-midnight). While the bar-staff are particularly proud of their whisky menu, including 30-year-old Glenfiddich, their Vodka Martinis are also outstanding, as are the mouthwatering rosemary-roasted potato wedges with truffle mayonnaise. If you prefer to down a Fosters instead, though, you can soak up some kitsch Australiana alongside the expatriate oil workers at Aussie Legends at Rydges Plaza (6) (00 974 438 5444).


Swish Il Teatro, a fine dining Italian restaurant at the Four Seasons Hotel (3) (00 974 494 8888; 6pm-midnight), is Doha's best. Allow 600QR (£85) for two diners, with wine. Expect to see real-estate entrepreneurs discussing Doha's latest property development over their risotto. For a more casual local experience try the tasty thyme pies (a bit like pizza; three for 6QR/90p), washed down with mint tea at Al Khariss (14) (00 974 5066 954; 10am-11pm, from 3pm Friday), in a beautiful sandstone building on a bustling lane in Souq Waqif (13). Afterwards, head around the corner to smoke sheesha (20QR/£3) on the rooftop terrace of traditional coffee shop Eshairiq Coffee.


You won't find any churches in Doha and its many mosques are off-limits to non-Muslims. All the same, it's hard to ignore the haunting sounds of the call-to-prayer echoing through the streets. The squat multi-domed Al-Jabr mosque (15), in the new souk, between Al Mahmal St and Al Jabr St, can be appreciated from the adjoining car park on Ali Bin Abdullah St. Hundreds of pudgy pigeons make the whitewashed domes their permanent home.


Palm-tree shaded Rumeilah Park (16) on the Corniche is popular with Arab families who like to picnic in the evenings. It's perfect for whiling away an hour watching the expat kids on the skateboard ramp, or - during Eid holidays and other celebrations - learning about local history, and pearling in particular, at the park's Qatari Heritage Village.


Expats are addicted to Friday brunches; the best is the "Sparkling Brunch" with an expansive seafood buffet, bubbles, and spectacular sea views at the Sheraton (2) Al Shaheen Rooftop Restaurant (00 974 485 4556; 11am-3pm Friday; 165QR/£24 per person). If in town on Europe's weekend (Qatar's is Thursday and Friday) try Assaha Lebanese Village (17) where Hamad Al Kabir Street meets Airport Road (00 974 435 5353; 8am-midnight) in a big stone house for scrumptious Arabic pastries, mezze and grills (100QR/£15 for two with juices).


There are few more atmospheric places to write a postcard - with sheesha pipe in one hand and pen in the other - than from the terrace overlooking the marina at Café Royal (18) in the Ras Al Nassa restaurant complex (00 974 436 7036; 9am-midnight).


Do as the locals do and pack olives, hummus, Arabic bread and mango juice from Carrefour (19) in City Centre mall - and hire a dhow (20QR/£7 per person) for a late afternoon cruise.