How to Turn a Qatar Stopover into a Bonus Vacation
If you want to plan a trip to Asia or Africa, but are dreading the long flight, here’s a tip: Break up the journey with a stopover so your body adjusts to the time changes — and you get a bonus vacation exploring a new culture and country.
Qatar, a tiny desert nation jutting into the Persian Gulf, is well-positioned for a stopover when you’re heading to these long-haul destinations.
First, you’re flying one of the world’s best airlines into the capital, Doha. (Skytrax rates Qatar Airways as a 5-star airline.) Second, you can get a free transit visa that allows you to spend up to 96 hours in country without additional fare charges.
There’s plenty to explore in this nation that’s slightly smaller than Connecticut — from incredible natural wonders and UNESCO World Heritage sites to traditional dhow cruises and Arabic markets. With nearly 100,000 American visitors in 2015, Qatar is not as foreign as you might think.
Here are some ways to make the most of your time there, whether you’re spending a couple of hours or a couple of days.
If you have 5 to 24 hours …
Stretch your legs
If you’ve only got a few hours to spare in between flights, head into the center of Doha, which only takes about 20 minutes from Hamad International Airport. Ask your taxi driver to take you to the Corniche, a four-mile stretch of waterfront promenade along the Doha Bay.
Here, traditional wooden dhow boats line the bay against the backdrop of a modern, cosmopolitan city. Locals use the promenade for biking, walking, and jogging. It’s also a great place to sit and people-watch.
See ancient art
Ask anyone what to do in Qatar with a few hours to spare and they’ll tell you to head to the Museum of Islamic Art, also called “the eyes of Doha” as it is along the waterfront. Designed by internationally renowned architect I M Pei, the Museum of Islamic Art is home to thousands of artifacts, ranging from ceramics and glass to weaponry and textiles, manuscripts and jewelry. Free audio guides are available in English in the atrium.
The current exhibit, “Imperial Threads”, is open through November and focuses on artistic and material exchanges primarily in carpets from the 16th-19th century among the Turkish, Iranian and Indian dynasties of that time.
Experience traditional sights and smells
Located near the Museum of Islamic Art are the bustling alleys of Souq Waqif. You’ll be greeted by an aroma of herbs and spices as you walk through the narrow streets of this traditional-style bazaar, which was rebuilt in 19th-century fashion when the old souq fell into disrepair. There are shops and restaurants on some of the main streets, so it’s a great place to sample Qatari cuisine and traditional dishes like machboos, a spiced rice dish, or thareed, a stew.
Try your bartering skills in the little alleyways at stalls selling spices, traditional rugs and textiles in mainly black, white and red traditional color schemes; clothes, wooden-carved shisha pipes (water pipes with flavored tobacco), and tea sets with little cups for drinking traditional sweet mint tea.
Meet some other frequent fliers
It’s an understatement to say that falconry is a huge part of Qatari society. To really understand how much these majestic birds are loved and revered, head to the Falcon Souq. Located just off the Souq Waqif, here is where falcons sit on perches, some hooded in black leather, waiting to be purchased. All manner of falcon gadgetry can be bought here as well. The Souq Waqif Falcon Hospital is located next door.
If you have 1 to 2 days …
Play in the sand …
If you have more than a day in Qatar, it is an absolute must to head southeast into the desert and see this impressive natural wonder in the Khor Al-Adaid area.
The Inland Sea is no mirage – this is one of the few places in the world where the ocean makes its way into the desert. The sea measures about 9 miles from north to south and up to 7 miles from east to west. It is connected to the Arabian Gulf by a relatively narrow, deep channel, about 6 miles in length.
Only go with a tour company or experienced off-road drivers to this UNESCO recognized natural reserve, as it’s extremely easy to lose your sense of direction in the desert.
Along with taking tons of Instagram-worthy shots, you can also go scuba diving in the Inland Sea. In addition, there are quite a few desert activities you can do once out of Doha as well. Camel riding and dune bashing (a form of off-roading on sand dunes) are both available, and Bedouin-style camping trips can also be arranged.
… and on the water
Heading north of Doha also leads to something you might not expect in a desert nation: clusters of mangrove forests along the coast. In Al Thakira and Al Khor, you can kayak or canoe by yourself or with organized tours in the mangrove forests and get up close to the wildlife and migrating birds like herons and flamingos. Springtime is also when the sea turtles arrive to lay their eggs in nearby Ras Laffan, and while these areas tend to be protected, you can watch the sea turtles from afar.
Once back in Doha, many companies offer dinner on a traditional dhow cruise, which allows you to see a panoramic view of the city skyline and take in a gorgeous sunset. Guests are encouraged to relax with a shisha, dance on board to the Arabic music playing, or even take a moonlit swim.
If you have 2 to 3 days …
Beat the heat
Temperatures range from 80 to 100 degrees Fahrenheit in the spring, so you’ll want to spend some time inside. Head to those air-conditioned malls, of which there are plenty in Qatar. Malls aren’t just about shopping here — they are all about entertainment. Just remember to bring a sweater as it’ll feel pretty Arctic indoors.
Doha Festival City, brand-spanking new as it just opened April 5, not only has an indoor snow-sport park, but also a theme park based on the Angry Birds game and movie, a space city for kids, a video-game destination for adults, a movie theater that serves Michelin-chef-created cuisine as well as 4-D movies and oh yeah, over 500 stores and two food courts. That is all in one mall.
Villaggio Mall draws its inspiration from Italy, offering Venetian-style gondola rides and a Via Domo luxury shopping area with brands like Bottega Veneta, Dolce & Gabbana and Emilio Pucci. Of course, it’s in Qatar so it also has a movie theater, a theme park and an ice rink.
Then there’s the Pearl-Qatar, a man-made island spanning nearly 43 million square feet. (The complex is so named because pearl diving used to be Qatar’s main industry before oil was discovered; the island is being built on one of Qatar’s former major pearl diving sites.)
Located off the West Bay coast in Doha, the complex has yacht-lined marinas, residential towers, villas and hotels, as well as high end shopping. The waterfront promenade is a popular dining spot and the cafes and restaurants serve local and international cuisine.
If you have 3 to 4 days …
Pay homage to history
Before you catch the next flight to your final destination, there are still some more gems to see in Qatar. On the country’s northwest coast, you can check out Al Zubarah Fort and the surrounding archaeological works of this pearling and trading center.
A UNESCO World Heritage site, the harsh desert environment actually preserved this walled coastal town as it was covered by sand after it was abandoned over 100 years ago. Visitors can see the remains of the site’s palaces, mosques, streets, courtyard houses and fishermen’s huts as well as the defensive walls, a canal and cemeteries.
Be a little quirky
Go west of Doha and check out Sheikh Faisal’s private museum in Al Samriya. For reference, Sheikh Fasal’s holding company owns more than 20 hotels around the world and he is worth around $2.3 billion at press time.
Officially called Sheikh Faisal Bin Qassim Al Thani Museum, this place is an eclectic hodgepodge of more than 15,000 items that the sheikh has collected in his global travels for over 50 years. These include Arabic manuscripts, fine arts, unique fossils, rare coins, prehistoric figurines, Islamic textiles and an extensive collection of vintage cars.
Enjoy the fine arts
Make your last night in Qatar a lively one at the Katara Cultural Village on the eastern coast, where no two weeks are the same. The complex hosts culture from all over the world and is home to an opera house and an amphitheatre with various concerts and shows throughout the year, plus a gallery with rotating exhibitions and workshops. The village also has a variety of dining options and a public beach for that last cooling dip.
What you need to know about the transit visa and visiting Qatar:
• You must be booked through Qatar Airways and not a codeshare partner. Book your flight first, as the ticket number will be needed to reserve the visa. More details are available here.
• The single-entry visa is valid for 30 days from the date of the issuance, so apply for it about two weeks before departure.
• Women should dress modestly. Carry a pashmina as it’ll come in handy. Covering your hair is not necessary unless it’s for sun protection.
• One Qatari Rial (QR) is equivalent to about 25 cents, so 4QR is roughly $1 (US). An 11.2 oz bottle of water is about 1.23QR. Expect to pay about 30QR ($7.50) for a meal at an inexpensive restaurant or about 200QR ($50) for a three-course meal at a mid-range place.
• If you’ve already booked to connect through Doha and your layover is less than five hours, fear not. Qatar Airways and Qatar Tourism Authority already offer a 3-hour complimentary city tour of The Pearl-Qatar, Katara Cultural Village, Souq Waqif and the Museum of Islamic Art for its connecting passengers. This tour is roundtrip from the airport and a complimentary visa is included.
Ready to go? Check out special offers from Qatar Airways for flights to Doha and beyond.