The desert collides with the sea in Qatar, and at this confluence you’ll find a delightful mix of contrasts: ochre dunes cascading toward blue waters, with a striking man-made skyline presiding as a shimmering gateway.
This Middle Eastern nation inhabits a peninsula jutting into the Persian Gulf, but it has amassed a global reputation that belies its petite size. Qatar is one of the wealthiest nations on the planet, the city of Doha is a booming cultural capital, and Qatar Airways regularly earns accolades as one of the world’s leading airlines. Millions of travelers transit through Doha’s Hamad International Airport each year — and there are countless reasons why now is a great time to turn a brief layover into a longer visit.
For starters, there’s a new visa waiver in place for U.S. citizens that makes flying here hassle-free, as does service on Qatar Airways, which offers daily and direct flights to Doha from 10 major U.S. cities. Then there are the bragging rights that come with getting ahead of the tourist crowds to experience Qatar and its intriguing mix of rich traditions, contemporary art, and hotels offering up affordable luxury. Here’s a closer look at what to expect…
With a cluster of skyscrapers curving around a bay, Doha cuts a striking figure as an ultra-modern oasis rising from the desert. But look beyond the high-rises and you’ll encounter the city’s soul: Age-old Bedouin hospitality is in full display at Souq Waqif, a re-creation of a 19th-century market that’s become the heart of Doha. There, amid the restored Qatari architecture, atmospheric alleyways, and stalls selling embroidered traditional dresses, spices, and oud incense, you’ll be graciously invited to try Arabic coffee and dates and find restaurants serving traditional fare like harees, makhboos, and mathrooba. Don’t miss a stop at the Falcon Souq, where you can see the popular Qatari pastime of falconry in full display.
While some of Qatar’s neighbors in the region have made a name for themselves as a playground for the wealthy, Doha is where travelers go to expand their minds. The I.M Pei-designed Museum of Islamic Art, an ethereal limestone building constructed on its own island on the Corniche, is often called “the eyes of Doha.” Now regarded as one of the foremost cultural institutions in the world, the museum’s collection spans 14 centuries and three continents—including 16th-century Ottoman ceramics, a 17th-century emerald plaque from Mughal India, and pieces of textiles that have been draped on the Ka’aba in Makkah, Saudi Arabia. Up next is a new National Museum of Qatar, set to open in 2018 in a Jean Nouvel-designed building.
These museums speak to the cosmopolitan nature of Qatar, which counts residents from nearly 100 countries and attracts international talents. Here, you can easily and happily check into the Ritz-Carlton, St. Regis, or Four Seasons—starting around $200 a night. Then continue to indulge by booking a table at Nobu, IDAM by Alain Ducasse, or Market by Jean-Georges.
But to understand what makes Qatar truly distinctive, you’ll also want to head deep into the desert of Khor Al Adaid, a UNESCO-recognized natural reserve where sands circle an inland sea. Go on an adrenaline-filled dune-bashing ride before settling in for the night at a Bedouin-style tent, sleeping beneath the starlit Qatari sky—another indelible memory and remarkable travel story to share with those back home.