I was surprised by how much I loved Qatar.
I really didn’t expect to find the country sitting firmly near the top of my list of favourite travel experiences, but here we are.
I tend to think of the Gulf States as being bland lands of sand. Kind of boring, kind of soulless, kind of samey. I hadn’t been struck by the UAE, for example. Dubai was fine, Abu Dhabi was fine. The country was fine.
It was fine!
I liked it just fine.
Fine, fine, fine.
I expected Qatar to be similar.
In fact, I only decided to spend time there because I needed to get from Thailand to the U.K.
That, to me, presented the perfect opportunity to work in a layover in a new country. It’s typically how I find myself in the Middle East these days. I visited Dubai on a layover between Cape Town and London, Muscat and Abu Dhabi on a layover between London and Saigon, and Qatar would be the perfect stop between Phuket and London.
Knowing very little about the country, I gave myself four days to explore.
I expected Qatar to be full of dust and sand and muted colours. I expected opulence and glitz. I expected shisha. I expected tea. I expected souks. I expected dozens of skyscrapers.
I found all of that, but what I didn’t expect was the incredible architecture. The green spaces. The street food trucks. The turquoise ocean lapping at the shores of a ghost town filled with sand.
Qatar was so much more diverse than I expected and I can’t wait to share why I fell so hard for this country.
Today, I want to delve into what it’s like to travel there.
The Souk Waqif Smells Amazing
I don’t think I’ve ever been to a city that smells as good as Doha.
The smell in the Souq Waqif — the main marketplace — had me drooling. There’s so much shisha here, and I loved the fruity smell intertwined with the scent of kebabs and freshly-poured cardamom tea. Spices, perfumes, and incense all filled the air, and it all made for the most heavenly blend of scents.
I spent most days wandering around this area wanting to dive nose-first into every restaurant and market stall I passed. When I think back to my time in Qatar, my memory is focused solely on the smells.
And Everyone’s Obsessed with Falcons
One of the most unexpected areas of the Souq Waqif was the falcon market. In Qatar, falconry is an obsession — much like football in the U.K. — to the point where there’s a specialist falcon hospital in Doha offering free treatment and even a falcon festival held every year. Falcon hunting is a huge part of Qatari culture and if you’re rich enough to fly first-class on Qatar Airways, your falcon can even travel for free with you on the flight. Oh yeah, and you can get a passport for your falcon, too.
Three thousand people own falcons in Qatar and if you don’t have a spare few thousand dollars lying around to buy one for yourself, fear not. You can usually hold a falcon and take some photos while you’re walking through the falcon market in Souq Waqif.
You could also opt to take a deep-dive into the Souq Waqif via a traditional market tour. You’ll pay $79 for a two-hour private tour, during which your guide will take you to falcon stores to get up close and personal with these magnificent birds. You’ll also be able to check out the spice souq, pet souq, gold souq, handicraft souq, and — most importantly of all — pick up some souvenirs without being scammed or overcharged.
It’s Easy to Visit Qatar on a Budget
While Doha has a reputation of being all about the
slave labour glitzy skyscrapers, Qatar is a surprisingly easy country to spend little money in.
Doha is home to the Q Hostel, where prices come in at just $16 a night for a dorm bed, so there’s somewhere affordable to stay for my budget travellers out there. Food is pretty cheap, too. I usually spent around $7 for a meal in Doha — less if I was grabbing street food from a hipster Airstream. I was surprised to see street food trucks all over Doha, selling anything from Chinese dumplings to hot dogs.
Transportation is inexpensive. You’ll pay less than a dollar to get around Doha by bus and maybe $3 or $4 to travel by bus to another city. Uber’s available in Doha, too, and I’d opt for that most of the time or ask my hotel to call me a taxi. Like many countries around the world, you’ll want to make sure the driver is using the meter and remind them that your fare is free if they don’t.
When it comes to activities, you won’t need to spend much on entrance fees. The fantastic Museum of Islamic Art is totally free to check out, and so is Al Zubarah’s UNESCO-designated fort. Other free attractions include the Abdul Wahhab Mosque — which is so beautiful — camel racing competitions at Al Shahaniya, complete with robot jockeys, and the Ras Abrouq Nature Reserve.
For something quirky, check out the Sheikh Faisal Museum, which is home to a Qatari businessman’s collection of Weird Shit — it’s 45 QAR (12 USD) and you’ll find 600 classic cars, ancient coins, dinosaur fossils, a peacock farm, a Syrian horse, random weapons, and so. much. more.
So Qatar can be pretty affordable, but there’s one exception and that’s taking tours as a solo traveller.
I shelled out a whopping $140 for my tour into the north of Qatar, and that was the cheapest option I could find anywhere online.
If you get lucky, Qatar’s luxury can be surprisingly affordable. I managed to score a heavily-discounted stay in a five-star hotel for just $90 a night for no other reason than it was a last-minute booking and they had a lot of rooms still available.
One final thing I want to mention is that Qatar Airways offers an incredible layover scheme that I’d highly recommend taking advantage of. You can spend up to four days in the country on a layover and the airline will put you up in a 4 or 5 star hotel without you needing to spend a penny. Seriously. For some reason, my flight didn’t qualify me for taking advantage of this, but if yours does, it’ll make for an exceptionally cheap trip to Qatar.
Doha’s Skyline is Exceptional
I always love a good city skyline, and Doha’s skyscrapers were made for taking futuristic photos.
The best place to take a photo of the skyline is either from the Islamic Art Museum or from MIA Park, which surrounds the museum. Take a picnic or grab something from one of the street food trucks and sit for a few hours, watching the boats go racing past.
It Gets So Hot in Summer
I visited Doha in February — Qatar’s winter — and it was the perfect time of year to visit. I encountered blue skies and sunshine, temperatures were usually around a perfect 23°C/73°F, and I was able to cover up without getting sweaty.
I think of travelling in Qatar as being comfortable and cool. In the summer, not so much. In July and August, temperatures regularly skyrocket up to 42°C/108°F during the day, dropping to 32°C/90°F at night.
I Highly Recommend Getting Out of Doha
I loved Doha so much more than I expected, but it was getting out of Doha that really captivated my heart.
There are three options when it comes to day-tripping from the capital: heading north, west, or south. In a country the size of Connecticut, it’s easy to cover a lot of ground.
I decided to go north. My tour took me to Al Khor, Al Thakhira, and Al Zubarah on a full-day exploration. We started by checking out Al Khor’s fishing village and market — it’s the second largest city in Qatar and home to a surprisingly lovely beach. Next, we headed into the mangroves to see parts of Qatar that aren’t filled with desert sand. The famous Al Zubarah fort is the only UNESCO site in the country and I was thrilled to see it with my own eyes. We rounded off our trip with a visit to the ghost town of Al Thakhira. I loved it. The sparkling sea washed up just metres from this abandoned old town, and it was so cool to wander around. I particularly loved wandering around the old mosque.
The other day trips sounded just as fun.
If you decide to head west, you’ll be taken to the 18th Century Zekreet Fort and Zakreet Film City — a replica town in the middle of the desert, which was intended to be used as a backdrop in movies, although nothing was ever filmed there. You’ll round off your time by wandering around a bizarre desert sculpture called East/West. It comprises four steel walls, each 17 metres high and stretching out over a kilometre across the sand. I’d have loved to have seen this if I’d had longer in Qatar, as it looks very Burning Man-esque.
The trip to the south of Qatar is all about the desert, too. You’ll ride camels over the dunes, strap in for an invigorating dune bashing session in a 4WD, and check out the famous inland sea, where turquoise waters are surrounded by white sand. Khor al-Adaid is one of just three places in the world where the sea meets the sand dunes, and here, it does so while you’re overlooking Saudi Arabia. Again, this is something I’d have loved to have seen while I was in Qatar, but skipped out on it because when I went dune bashing in Dubai it gave me nothing but nausea.
You could easily spend four days in Qatar, exploring Doha, the north, west, and south, and leave having seen practically all of the country.
Doha’s Corniche is Great
Doha isn’t all that set-up for walking, which is why its boardwalk was so wonderful. Shaped in a crescent, it stretches for 7 kilometres alongside Doha’s Bay, and offers so many great views.
You can walk from the Islamic Art Museum to Sheraton Park in the West Bay on this trail, and it’s where everyone gathers to watch the fishermen, to fly kites, to grab a kebab, or even to head out for a jog.
The best way to see the corniche, though, is by jumping on this traditional dhow boat to sail the Arabic Gulf as the sun sets over the skyscrapers. It’s priced at $60 per person and offers up a fresh view of that iconic city skyline from the sea. While you’re on board, you’ll also learn all about Qatar’s strong relationship with the sea, from pearl diving to fishing, plus trading with neighboring countries.
I Felt Exceptionally Safe in Qatar
Yes, I felt perfectly safe going for a run in Doha!
I always feel safe as a solo woman in the Gulf States, and Qatar was no exception. It’s actually one of the safest countries in the world, and occasionally ranks as the safest place on the entire planet. Violent crimes are extremely rare in this country, and when they happen, they’re not usually aimed at foreigners. I felt super-safe when wandering around on my own, whether it was in the middle of the day or at night.
Doha Has a Giant Golden Thumb
I loved it.
The golden thumb was placed in Souq Waqif to celebrate the Qatari football club’s win in the Asian Cup and it was so fun to keep stumbling across it while I was walking around.
The Karak is so good
Until I visited Qatar, I would have told you that the masala tea in Nepal is the best you could ever taste.
Well, I have a new top spot on my tea rankings, because the tea — the karak — in Qatar is so good that I want to drink it everyday for the rest of my life. Made from black tea, cardamom, cinnamon, saffron, cloves, and ginger it has such a rich, spicy flavour. Dump a ton of evaporated milk and sugar in and you find yourself with the most drinkable tea on the planet.
My favourite place for karak was Tea Time in Doha.
The Architecture Tho
I’m not an architecture buff at all, and it’s never something I care about when I travel, but in Doha, I was obsessed.
The architecture here is amazing! There are so many interesting lines and curves on all of the buildings, and they made taking photos so much fun. I think I walked around Doha with my jaw constantly open, snapping photos of absolutely everything.
Qatar’s Carbon Emissions are Ugh
What a surprise! A skyscraper-filled country that’s one of the richest in the world, that’s all about the desert and high temperatures, emits a ton of carbon into the atmosphere. Shock. Ing.
It’s true: Qatar has the highest carbon emissions per capita of any country in the world. It’s not as outrageous as it sounds, though, as you need to take into account the country’s small population and the fact that much of its produced carbon is exported elsewhere in the world.
The country is doing better, though, and recently claimed that the 2022 World Cup would be carbon-neutral and have the smallest carbon footprint of any series in history. It’ll be especially impressive if they manage it, as they’re building climate-controlled stadiums that will lower temperatures on the ground to just 20°C.
There Are Way More Men Than Women
For every one woman in Qatar, there are three men, making this a very man-dense country. It actually has the world’s highest male-to-female ratio, and it was definitely noticeable while I was walking around.
There’s a reason for this imbalance, though: 85% of the population in Qatar are expats, and the vast majority of these are men, building infrastructure for the upcoming World Cup. They’re treated appallingly in Qatar, abused and exploited and regarded as slaves, as you’ve undoubtedly seen in the news.
Qatar repeatedly promises labour reforms, and while there’s been progress, things are still looking bad. But that’s a topic for another blog post.
You Won’t Find Any Hills Here
It’s not exactly shocking, but the skyscrapers are the only place in Qatar that’ll allow you to gain some altitude.
While the Maldives wins the top spot for being the lowest country on the planet, Qatar is hot on its heels in second place. This is a country that’s seriously flat.
And greenery? Nope. There are only six countries in the world that don’t have a single forest on their land: Qatar, Oman, Nauru, Greenland, San Marino, and Gibraltar. Expect to see a hell of a lot of sand in Qatar and very few dunes.
You’re Going to Want to Cover Up
As with many conservative countries, you’re going to want to keep your knees and shoulders covered up, and you should keep your chest covered, too. I’d recommend also wearing loose clothing to draw less attention to yourself. This is the same for everyone, regardless of gender.
You can wear whatever you like in the hotels, though. I wore a bikini to the hotel pool, as did many of the guests.
You Can’t Bring Alcohol Into the Country
Qatar is an Islamic country and so alcohol is hard to come by. Fun fact: it’s totally prohibited to bring alcohol into the country, and there have been reports of people not being allowed into the country when they were found to be intoxicated when entering. I took a risk and opted for a glass of wine on my flight, then held my breath when I passed through immigration.
While you can’t bring alcohol into the country, you can still find it in a handful of places, like licensed hotel restaurants and bars, and expats in the country can get their hands on alcohol via a permit system. Keep in mind that drinking alcohol in public is banned, so it’s something to opt for in your hotel after a long day of sightseeing.
But not too often. Earlier this year, Qatar implemented a Sin Tax that doubled the price of alcohol overnight. A bottle of gin can now cost as much as $100 in the country; a glass of beer $16.
I personally just avoided alcohol while I was in the country altogether, and I’d recommend doing the same. There’s always shisha.
As a Traveller, I Really Enjoyed Qatar
Visiting Qatar was such a pleasant surprise!
I wouldn’t name it my favourite country in the world, and it’s not a place I’d want to live in — or even spend more than a week in — but I still had a great time. If you ever get the chance to have a layover there, I’d recommend leaving the airport and spending a few days having a look around.
I loved the food, the architecture, the scents (of course), and the scenery. I’d totally return if I ever find myself needing to stopover in the Middle East in the future, which may just be in a few months.
Have you been to Qatar before? If not, would you like to go?
[Photo of Qatar National Library via: Fitria Ramli/Shutterstock and Dominic Dudley/Shutterstock]