I'm embarrassed to admit that I barely knew anything about the country of Qatar a few months ago. I knew it was a gulf state that was also a transit hub to other destinations in Europe or Africa, and that was the extent of my knowledge. ? Asking my friends and relatives what they thought of Qatar brought about the same answers - but surely there was more to this country than just a layover destination?
Thankfully I got the chance to visit the country first-hand in July 2019 (in the middle of summer!) and experience Qatar's unique culture and welcoming hospitality in person. ? I never expected to fall in love with the country, and I wish I'd been able to extend my stay to see even more of the country. Hopefully this guide to what a first-time visitor to Qatar will need to know will clarify your impressions of the country, and will make you want to visit Qatar too!
#HHWT Tip: During my stay in Qatar I had guides from Q Explorer drive and show me around the city. Having a guide is definitely a good idea as they can instruct you on certain cultural cues or taboos of Qataris. Qatari hospitality is very welcoming and friendly but it's always awkward to realize you've committed a social faux pas and personal guides will help ease that awkwardness. ☺️
Getting to Qatar
The most direct way of arriving in Qatar is to take a Qatar Airways flight. I'd had friends recommend the airline to me before, and when I finally had the chance to fly with them in July I wasn't disappointed! The staff were all very kind and responsive even though I faced some issues with check-in on my flight back, and the cabin crew chatted with all of us as they handed us our meals so the atmosphere in the cabin was a very easy-going and relaxed. ☺️
Lunch was Ikan Gulai Padang with soft, tender fish in a creamy coconut milk gravy. There were chickpeas as a side salad, and the softest chocolate gateux I've ever had for dessert! ?
Speaking of meals, all of the meals provided are halal (although they do serve alcoholic beverages) and they tasted amazing. What a way to start an 8-hour flight! ? Even though I was in Economy class I received a small toiletries kit that included lip balm, socks, and ear plugs that made my flight so much more comfortable. It almost felt like a Business-class experience - though when I peeked into their actual Business-class section I was in awe of how spacious it was. ?
Credit: @nck.prz on Instagram
Arriving at Doha's Hamad International Airport, the first thing that struck me once I'd cleared customs was the heat. It was mid-July when I arrived, right in the middle of summer. Stepping outdoors felt like walking into a kiln - just a dry, warm heat all over that had me grateful I'd slathered on sunscreen before my flight landed. Thankfully HIA was just a short 15-minute drive to downtown Doha so I didn't have to wait too long to get out of the heat!
#HHWT Tip: Singaporeans, Malaysians, and Indonesians all have visa-free entry to Qatar so you don't have to worry about getting a visa as you'll receive a visa-waiver upon arrival! For Malaysians the waiver is valid for 180 days from the date of issuance, and you can spend up to 90 days in Qatar (single/multiple trips). For Singaporeans and Indonesians, the waiver is valid for up to 30 days from the date of issuance and you can spend up to 30 days in Qatar with a possible extension of 30 more days (single/multiple trips).
Credit: @hiaqatar on Instagram
I didn't get to explore HIA very much, but what I did see of it was sleek and sophisticated - lots of large windows, open space, glass, and chrome. But the airport was also full of families (Qatari families are very close-knit and it's common to take trips with the extended family!) and has every amenity and facility you could dream of. There are prayer rooms, quiet rooms, and even activity nodes in each Concourse for kids to play and enjoy themselves while waiting for their flight.
P.S. If you haven't booked a driver or tour for your time in Qatar, I highly recommend renting your own car to drive around while you're in the country. There's not much public transport in Qatar at all, and since vehicle and gas prices are low it's common to see even Range Rovers on the road! Taxis can be very expensive (some may also try to inflate their fares when they realize you're a tourist) so having your own car is definitely one of the best ways to travel.
When's the best time to visit Qatar?
Summer (Jun - mid-Sep) is definitely a unique experience, but I wouldn't recommend it without making lots of preparations beforehand and ensuring that you feel well enough to travel. I'm not a big fan of extremely hot weather, but the daily temperatures during my visit all crossed 40 degrees Celsius. ? I recommend bringing a portable fan, lots of water, sunglasses, and dressing in light and cool clothing.
The Souq Waqif was almost empty during the day! Anybody in the Souq before Maghrib was either indoors, or resting under the shade. ?
The dryness made it slightly more bearable (unlike in Singapore I barely broke a sweat!) but I had to keep drinking water and taking breaks to keep myself from getting too dizzy. My guides did reassure me that most Qataris would stay indoors or visit the city's huge air-conditioned shopping malls until after Maghrib (sunset) so I didn't have to feel bad about being indoors too. Even after Maghrib the temperature was still as high as 30 degrees! ?
#HHWT Tip: To stay close to Doha's main attractions, pick out a boutique hotel within the Souq Waqif! The Souq is also nearby the National Museum and Museum of Islamic Art, and is a short 10 to 15-minute drive away from HIA.
Autumn (mid-Sep - Nov) is a breath of fresh air after the stiflingly hot summer. As the temperature starts winding down closer to October (averaging 16-26 degrees Celsius) this is the time when you'll see people start to visit the beaches. The sun isn't as hot during this time so you'll even find some people sunbathing and squeezing in outdoor time before the (minimal) winter rains arrive.
Winter (Dec - Feb) is the start of Qatar's tourist season as you'll see plenty of Americans and Europeans visiting to escape from the biting cold and snow. With temperatures of 15-25 degrees Celsius and some occasional rain, you can enjoy activities around the country without having to worry.
Spring (Mar - May) is also regarded as one of the best seasons to visit as the weather remains cool and breezy and there's a very slim chance of rain. Seaside activities are very popular in Qatar (there are private and public beaches available to all) and you can enjoy water sports before the weather gets too hot by mid-May. If you're visiting during these seasons, make sure to bring along a light but waterproof jacket as well as a water bottle. Though there are showers during this time, it won't be as humid as in Southeast Asia so you might still feel dehydrated.
What to see and do in Qatar: 4 iconic attractions
1. The Pearl
Credit: @foldnik on Instagram
If there's one attraction Qatar is known for it's definitely The Pearl-Qatar, more commonly known as just the Pearl. The Pearl sits entirely on reclaimed land and consists of housing, shops, and entertainment areas for both residents and visitors. Luxury is the name of the game here, with plenty of penthouses, personal yachts, and limousine rides available for residents. Despite this, anybody is free to visit the Pearl even if they aren't residents there - it's actually a popular hangout spot for some Qataris as there's a Megapolis entertainment hub for the whole family, and many restaurants serving up a wide variety of cuisines. ?
The different areas of the Pearl each have their own unique design and if you drive around the complex you'll see plenty of IG-worthy spots too. Make sure to visit Qanat Quartier which is a Venice-inspired area with colourful buildings lining the waterways!
2. Souq Waqif
You can't visit Qatar without spending at least a day at the Souq Waqif! Meaning 'standing market', the market's name originates from merchants having to stand and lift their goods in the air during high tide. Nowadays there's no chance of that happening anymore but you can still find a rich variety of goods in the Souq. The market is split into more specific areas such as the Spice Souq, Gold Souq, Clothing Souq, and even an Art Souq but as they're all congregated in one large area you might not even realize you're in a 'different' Souq until you see that the displays have changed.
P.S. Make sure to visit the Falconry Souq if you're here in February! That's the peak season for falconry in Qatar and the Souq will be full of falcon merchants displaying their best birds for offer.
3. Museum of Islamic Art
The Museum of Islamic Art is another major attraction you need to visit when you're in Doha. Their full collection has over 10,000 pieces but only about 400 are on display or accessible via their online catalogue. As the guide described it to me: nothing in this museum is older than 1,400 years old because then it would be pre-Islamic! ? The museum itself has a very modern exterior, designed by the legendary late I.M. Pei and inspired by a mosque in Cairo.
The script is written without dots (to aid in vocalizing specific tones and accents) because the entire Qur'an would be memorised!
It was truly a beautiful and awe-inspiring museum - they even had one of the oldest pages of the Qur'an in the world, dating back to the 7th century! Where else can you find so many artefacts across the Islamic world ranging from the Middle East to India to China all in one place? ? It was so captivating to explore the exhibits and a beautiful reminder of the diversity and history of Islam too.
4. National Museum of Qatar
The National Museum of Qatar (NMoQ for short) is one of the newest attractions in Doha, having opened in March 2019. I thought it would solely focus on Qatari customs and culture but it even covers the history of Qatar from prehistoric times until today! The exterior was inspired by the 'desert rose' which contrary to its name is not a flower, but a type of rock formation that naturally occurs in the desert. ? The exhibits were very interactive - large floor-to-ceiling displays, interviews being projected onto walls, themed play areas for kids and more! - and it was one of the most immersive experiences I had during my entire trip. I learned a lot about traditional Qatari culture (did you know that Qataris used to seasonally migrate from the desert to the coast in order to farm for pearls?) and there are several halal restaurants in the complex where you can sit and refuel for the day ahead!
#HHWT Tip: To find out what else you can do in Qatar, check out this 4D3N itinerary that our writer Santriani experienced for herself!
Seasonal attractions in Qatar: 4 attractions to enjoy before they're gone
1. Summer Entertainment City (Summer)
Credit: Summer Entertainment City on Facebook
Every year during the summer months, several convention centre halls get booked out for Doha's signature Summer Entertainment City which is a kind of huge carnival-festival-market hybrid held entirely indoors out of the blistering heat. When I visited the 2019 edition, there were multiple bounce houses, a skate park, a VR zone, a shopping area with stalls selling local goods and more! There are enough activities for the whole family, and of course you'll get some respite from the heat!
P.S. If you're planning to visit, schedule it during a weekday. On weekends the place can be completely packed!
2. Water sports (Autumn)
Credit: @bananaislandresort on Instagram
Water sports such as jet-skiing, scuba diving, or snorkelling can be done year-round but autumn is a great time for them as the weather won't be as hot as summer! There are some facilities in Doha itself where you can rent equipment for these, but why not venture to the nearby Banana Island resort to have some fun? ? You could spend your whole stay on Banana Island itself enjoying its water sports and spa facilities, or get a day pass for a quick escape to an exclusive getaway.
3. Katara Cultural Village (Winter)
#HHWT Tip: The marble flooring is burning hot during the summer so be careful not to scald yourself!
Katara Cultural Village is the epicentre of Qatar's arts and culture scene. There are art galleries, live performances, eateries, and so much more here! As the complex is outdoors winter is a great season to spend an afternoon there as you won't be melting underneath the sun. You'll find the streets full of families catching a live performance, or heading to the Galeries Lafayette luxury shopping mall next door to enjoy some retail therapy. The amphitheatre also holds larger-scale performances and is free to visit if there are no shows scheduled. Did you know that the acoustics in this outdoor amphitheatre are so good, if you stand in the middle of the stage you'll hear yourself echo? ?
4. Desert activities (Spring)
Credit: @desertsafariqatar on Instagram
Desert activities such as desert safaris, dune bashing, and camping can also be done all year-round - but the cool weather will be a relief if you're going to be out in the sun for the whole day! You may even be able to visit some local falconers during this season depending on the tour you sign up for, and if you book an overnight stay out in the desert you can fall asleep under the stars. ?
What to eat in Qatar: 3 must-try eateries in Doha
1. Shay al-Shomoos
The walls of the eatery are lined with photographs of the chef/owner with her famous visitors!
Located in the Souq Waqif, Shay al-Shoumous actually has an amazing story behind it. It's run by a grandmother of 10 who bucked tradition to set up her own eatery specializing in local Qatari breakfast favourites! Though the eatery is small, it's even been visited by members of the Qatari royal family and other celebrities. ? However the owner (Shams Al-Qassabi) has kept the menu simple and super affordable, and even takes a break from cooking to come out and greet her customers! I recommend trying out the rogag which resembles Indian thosai but is chewier and has a slightly more pronounced sourness. Make sure to wash it down with some karak tea, which is a type of spiced tea that's so good you'll want to have a hot cup of it even in the summer. ?
2. Parisa Souq Waqif
Credit: @tintinnabulation.20 on Instagram
Located deeper within the Souq Waqif is Parisa, a Persian restaurant serving up familiar Iranian fare. You'll feel like royalty dining here, especially with the beautifully decorated interior, as dozens of mosaic tiles line the walls and even the ceiling! ? Make sure to try their kebabs, which come in a sharing platter so you can try a little bit of everything!
3. Five Guys, Shake Shack, and other international eateries
It looks messy, but the beef patty was so tender and juicy! You can even customize your own burger - well worth it especially since I won't be able to eat it in Singapore. ?
Not having to worry about finding halal food is definitely one of the best parts of visiting Qatar. Because of this, I took it upon myself to finally try a fast food place I'd wanted to try for a long time - Five Guys Burgers and Fries! Classic American fare seems like the opposite of what you might want to eat when you're in Qatar, but after a few days of local Middle Eastern food I was ready for a cheeseburger, salted fries, and a milkshake. ?
Where to pray in Qatar: 3 beautiful mosques you can't miss
If you're visiting an Islamic country, you can be sure that its mosques aren't just places of worship, but beautiful locations on their own. These are just 4 of the most well-known mosques in Doha that will absolutely dazzle you with their size and beauty.
1. Education City Mosque
Credit: @fauziichsn on Instagram
Education City is a complex dedicated to housing research facilities and international campuses for major universities such as Carnegie Mellon, Georgetown, and UCL. So it's only befitting that its mosque also hosts plenty of educational events and talks to share knowledge with its visitors. The Education City Mosque is also one the most photo-worthy spots in Doha, with gorgeous calligraphy of verses from the Qur'an on its walls. ☺️
P.S. The mosques are open for visitors at any time, but if you wish to pray the Friday jumaah prayer it's best to ask your hotel receptionist or tour guide for advice. As most other Qataris will be flocking to the mosques for this, it may be difficult and disorienting for you to join in without a guide to help you along.
2. Golden Mosque
Located in Katara Cultural Village (the center of Qatar's arts and culture scene), the Golden Mosque is visually stunning even from afar as its covered in tiny golden tiles! The beauty of it is difficult to capture in a single photo, but the way the tiles shone underneath the sun was absolutely amazing. ? Katara Cultural Village actually houses another mosque (the Qatara Mosque) that has more Central Asian influences with turquoise-coloured decor, however the Golden Mosque will be a unique view you can only get in Qatar.
3. HIA Mosque
Credit: @moon_ceph on Instagram
If you're heading back to HIA to catch your flight home, why not spend some time completing your prayers at the airport's public mosque first? While HIA does have several prayer facilities within the airport itself, paying a visit to this uniquely teardrop-shaped mosque is a gorgeous way to end your trip. ?
Where to shop in Qatar: 3 shopping spots for every budget
1. Souq Waqif
Make sure to visit the Spice Souq while you're there - the smells of the spices around you are intoxicating! Even if you're not able to buy some back as a souvenir, it'll be one of the most authentic experiences of the trip.
The Souq is outdoors and, as mentioned above, quite empty in the day during summertime. However it comes alive after sunset with families staying out as late as midnight to enjoy the cooler weather, eat at one of the dozens of restaurants, and shop for just about anything you could need. The Souq is the cheapest shopping spot in Qatar, and you'll find plenty of locally-made handicrafts, garments, or even produce amongst its streets.
#HHWT Tip: Bring along cash when visiting the Souq rather than card. Although some shops and eateries do accept card payments (especially if you're in the Art or Gold Souqs where purchases are more expensive), cash is the way to go for many of the smaller stalls.
2. Doha Festival City
Qatar's mega-malls are amazing to visit year-round, but you'll be especially grateful for them when it's the middle of summer. Since it's so hot out, there's no better way to spend your day beating the heat than at Doha Festival City! ? There are 418 shops open at DFC as well as various entertainment options including indoor Snow Dunes and even a theme park. Lots of major international brands can be found here too including eateries such as Shake Shack, Texas Roadhouse, and Five Guys Burger and Fries that are all halal! ?
The outdoor slingshot ride was empty in the middle of the hot summer day, but thankfully there's an indoor section too!
Families will enjoy visiting the Angry Birds World theme park that's part of the mall too. Half indoors and half outdoors, there are rollercoasters, rides, games, and lots of activities to keep both kids and adults entertained throughout the day!
3. Mall of Qatar
Credit: @ts_8008 on Instagram
If you haven't fulfilled your shopping quota yet, head over to the Mall of Qatar for even more mega-mall fun! Similar to DFC, this mall is huge and even hosts weekly shows throughout the year. DFC is slightly newer, but there are hundreds of shops here too to ensure that you'll never get bored. Make sure to snap a photo with the towering 'trees' inside the mall before you go, as well as the huge stage located right in the middle of a fountain! ?
#HHWT Tip: Looking for some souvenirs to bring back home? Look for the stalls selling fresh dates, or seek out a jewellery store that sells Qatar's signature pearls!
I didn't think I'd get a chance to visit Qatar so soon and was apprehensive about my trip - but I truly fell in love with the country once I arrived! It was a huge step out of my comfort zone, but the warm hospitality of Qataris and the amazing museums, mosques, shopping malls and food truly captivated me. Hopefully this guide has helped to introduce you to some of Qatar's best attractions too. ?