Photo Courtesy of arwcheek
Winning the bid for the FIFA World Cup 2022 helped put Qatar and its capital, Doha, on the map, kicking off a frenzy of growth and infrastructural makeover. Cutting-edge technology is being used to build the city, with luxury hotels and shopping malls, world-class restaurants, and mind-blowing archi…tectural feats popping up constantly. Yet along with this World Cup–oriented rapid development is a strong desire to revive and strengthen the country’s cultural heritage, with such communities as the self-contained Katara Cultural Village leading the way. Beneath and beyond the glitzy hotels and gleaming skyscrapers of Doha is a country rich in Bedouin traditions and with a long and storied history.
What to know before you go to Doha
Doha has mild winters and very hot summers. June, July, and August are the hottest months, with temperatures reaching over 120 degrees Fahrenheit. July and August are also the most humid months. October through March is the best time to visit, with daytime temperatures typically around 70 to 90 degrees.
Hamad International Airport is the primary point of arrival and departure for international flights. Opened in 2014, the airport has received numerous accolades. The country’s official carrier is Qatar Airways, but the airport is also served by British Airways, Emirates, Etihad Airways, Flydubai, Jet Airways, KLM, Lufthansa, and more. Taking a taxi from the airport to town is easy and safe, and costs around 50 Qatari riyals to the business district. Metered, turquoise-colored Karwa taxis are permanently available in front of the arrivals hall.
Driving in Doha is not for the faint of heart, though visitors over the age of 21 can easily hire a car if they have a driving license from their home country and are prepared to navigate such obstacles as roundabouts with traffic lights in the middle of them. (Do note that Qatar has a strictly enforced zero tolerance policy for drunk driving.) Luckily, taxis are readily available and fares inexpensive.
Eating out is a national pastime in Qatar for locals and visitors alike. Make sure to try national dish machbous, a stew of richly spiced rice with meat, and ghuzi, a whole roast lamb on a bed of rice and nuts. Finish with a cup of qahwa helw, a coffee infusion served with saffron, cardamom, and sugar. Five-star hotels house restaurants serving the finest international cuisine, and Friday brunches are hugely popular, especially among the expat population. Alcohol is available only at hotel bars and a few clubs. The only place in Doha to buy alcohol (and pork) for consumption at home is the Qatar Distribution Company—but this is no use for travelers since you need a permit, and that requires a letter from your (local) employer.
Doha is sometimes characterized as a vast construction site without history or art, but the truth is that Qatar’s capital is making a significant effort to boost its art scene. The Museum of Islamic Art, Arab Museum of Modern Art, QM Gallery Al Riwaq (known for having hosted a Damien Hirst retrospective), and Katara Art Center (showcasing local and international visual art), are just a few examples of the arts blooming in Qatar. Classical music also enjoys prominence, with the Qatar Philharmonic Orchestra boasting highly trained musicians from over 30 countries.
Doha hosts numerous festivals, most of which take place November through March. The most important religious celebration is Ramadan, the holy fasting month, followed by Eid al Fitr, the festival marking Ramadan’s end. The entire city is illuminated and beautifully decorated, and families, friends, and loved ones gather in parks, food joints, and shopping malls to celebrate. Because the Islamic calendar is lunar, Ramadan takes place at a slightly different time each year in the Gregorian calendar. Other festivals to watch for include the Emir GCC Camel Race, which takes place each winter at the Shahaniya camel racetrack; National Day, on December 19, which involves equestrian shows, camel races, sword dances, a military parade, and more; the Marmi Falcon Festival, in January, which showcases the best-trained and most expensive falcons in the region; and the Spring Festival, a ten-day event held each January at Souq Waqif that includes acrobats, dolphin shows, music, dance performances, and an impressive variety of regional food.
Foreigners should make an effort to be considerate of local culture, and it’s important to dress and behave modestly in public. For both men and women that means covering shoulders and knees (there is no need for women to wear a headscarf), avoiding public displays of affection between sexes, not being visibly intoxicated, and so on. Note that not all Arab men and women shake hands with those of the opposite sex; for men, if in doubt, it’s best to place your right hand on your chest when greeting an Arab woman. A traditional greeting among Qatari men is rubbing noses.
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