Until the discovery of oil in Qatar in the 1970s, Doha was a tiny city of Bedouin (descendants of desert nomads) and Hadar (descendants of pearl divers who lived on the gulf). In the mid-‘90s, however, Qatar went through a boom-time, ramping up their oil production, starting the news channel Al Jazeera and the award-winning airline Qatar Airways, and becoming an influential global player. Now, it’s a shiny capital in the desert with a picturesque skyline.
Despite the fact that Qatar is under a trade and travel blockade enforced by its Gulf neighbors (one of the demands is that Qatar shuts down Al Jazeera), the city is still growing. The unbelievable Desert Rose-inspired National Museum of Qatar (by Jean Nouvel, the architect of the Louvre Abu Dhabi) should be completed late this year; the Doha Metro, an estimated $36 billion rail network is scheduled to open in 2019; and, of course, the World Cup will arrive in 2022. Here’s our guide to a city that bursts with opulence and growth.
Where to Stay
Locals love the Six Senses Spa tucked inside of the resort for its highly specialized holistic treatments, yoga, and mindfulness classes, and spacious gym. The food at Al Liwan buffet is a flavorsome mix of grilled seafood, Arabic mezze, and Qatari sweet—and is actually a local favorite for weekend brunch. Those looking for a bit of fun can stop by the Cigar Lounge, which hosts a lively karaoke night on the weekends. Big spenders can live like princes and princesses by splashing out for the $7000 a night, 21,000 square-foot Royal Villa, with it’s own indoor pool and blue mosaic Jacuzzi baths veined with 18-karat gold.
Where to Eat
Al Mourjan is a cute Lebanese restaurant under the shadow of Orry the Oryx, a giant statue of the 2006 Asian Games mascot on the Corniche, the city’s waterfront promenade (the Arabian oryx is the national animal). Snack on delicious hummus, succulent barbecued meats, and grape leaves while looking out over the bay.
Ask any Qatari what Qatari food is, and they’ll say there isn’t much of a cuisine, but that it’s a mix of influences from the region—Persian, Lebanese, and Ard Canaan specialty, Palestinian, are all well represented. So eating Mansaf (lamb and yogurt over rice), Chicken Musakhan with Taboon bread, and bulgur soup done the Palestinian way is a good start to finding local flavor. Start the meal with a lemon and mint juice, and end it with a selection of honeyed pistachio delights.
La Spiga by Paper Moon
Situated in the W Hotel (drinking is legal in hotels, which means you can sidle up and grab a cocktail in front of a pizza oven that looks like a disco ball), La Spiga is Doha’s spot for a hearty Italian meal. There’s outdoor seating, and tasty dishes like seared local hamour fish with braised lentils, and a giant tiramisu for dessert.
Where to Shop
There are few rollercoasters in Doha, but dune bashing is the next best thing. Drive out towards the Inland Sea about 40 miles away from Doha, keep going past the camel rides, and you’ll find yourself on the soft silver rolling sands of the Qatari desert. Expert dune bashers like those at Sand Dunes drive Toyota Land Cruisers, deflating the tires enough to allow them to carve around the dunes like a figure skater. Follow the right path, and you might end up out at the Inland Sea in a spot where the Emir’s family is known to camp out, looking out over the warm crystalline waters into Saudi Arabia.
Fire Station is a nine-month artist residency program held in the former fire station, hosting artists, curators, and writers from around the world. This year, the program asked the artists to respond to the blockade, and the resultant work—paintings of the Emir, messages in various languages—appear on the façade of the art center. There’s also a gallery inside that presents temporary international contemporary art exhibitions year round.
Qatar is a dry country, except for in hotels. Thursday (weekends in Qatar are Friday and Saturday) is the best night to head out to one of the few genuine nightclubs in Doha: IllusiOn. Housed in the Marsa Malaz Kempinski Hotel on a manmade island called The Pearl in the north of the city, IllusiOn is a restaurant and lounge concept that’s meant to have a private Soho House-type vibe to it. Get past the large bouncer at the door (don’t forget to bring your passport for ID), and you’re in. They get traveling DJs from around the world, and it’s one of the few places you might catch Qataris and ex-pats on the dancefloor together.
The Museum of Islamic Art
The story of one of the most spectacular structures on the Courniche is almost as spectacular as the building, with the Qatar Museums Authority, chaired by Sheika Al-Mayassa bint Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani (the Emir’s sister), coaxed architect I.M. Pei out of retirement to design the building. Then 91 years old, the late legend embarked on a journey around the Muslim world for six months, and the result is a limestone and marble wonder, topped by a set of arched oculi that resemble eyes peering out over the city. Inside, the building is serene and spacious, with collections of artifacts from Islamic history—tablets, rugs, ceramics, manuscripts, and metalwork—dating back 1400 years tucked into mood-lit galleries.
A short drive north in the city past the embassies (most of them empty from the blockade) and royal villas, The Katara Cultural Village isn’t quite finished—it soft-opened in 2010, but the ambitious mini-city still has a ways to go before its estimated completion next year. Filled with artist studios, art galleries, an auction house, a massive Greek-inspired amphitheater, an opera house, a theatre, a falconry museum, four giant pigeon huts, and even an Arab Postal Stamp Museum, Katara is aiming to be the multi-purpose hub of Qatari art.