x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Doha: Practically next door

A weekend guide to Doha Only an hour's plane ride away, Qatar's capital offers visitors an old-style souq and a new museum of Islamic art.

The new Museum of Islamic Art on Doha's Corniche was designed by the world-famous Chinese-American architect IM Pei.
The new Museum of Islamic Art on Doha's Corniche was designed by the world-famous Chinese-American architect IM Pei.

Only an hour's plane ride away, Qatar's capital offers visitors an old-style souq and a new museum of Islamic art.

If you think there's nothing to do in Doha, think again. Partly in the hope of boosting its tourism industry, Qatar's capital city has been investing heavily in its cultural future, and the payoffs are starting to be seen. Its big reason to boast is the Museum of Islamic Art, which opened last November, and for it alone, it is worth a visit to the city. In many ways, Doha is similar to Abu Dhabi. Qatar, which sits on a peninsula just west of the UAE, declared its independence from Britain on Sept 3, 1971. While Doha was traditionally known for its pearl fishing, its oil and natural gas industry has placed it among the richest countries in the world. It has a long, sweeeping Corniche, with a newer city of designer towers - many under construction - at one end, and the older city with its rebuilt souq and new Islamic museum at the other. Most of Doha's tourist culture centres around hotels, spas and desert or dhow tours. But Doha has two things that Abu Dhabi doesn't, at least for now: the newly opened museum, designed by a renowned architect, and an eclectic outdoor souq, with plenty of stores to browse and places to eat while people watching. Each of these could easily take an afternoon to explore.

On Fridays, the Museum of Islamic Art doesn't open until 2pm. After brunch, head to the area around the museum and wander through the nearby marina with its moored dhows and panoramic view of the more modern part of the city in the background. The museum itself (admission free) is easily the most impressive part of Doha's cityscape; it was designed by the Chinese-American architect IM Pei, who is known for the Louvre Pyramid in Paris. Give yourself a few hours to wander the dimmed rooms, designed around pieces of the collection of mostly decorative arts dating from the seventh to the 19th century. Begin in the introduction room, perfect if you only have time for a quick visit, then branch off into the other rooms that are well-organised under themes such as calligraphy and science and art. Look out for the art and empire exhibit, which is being co-ordinated with the British Museum, and will be coming to Doha in April. Souq Waqif, a reconstruction of Doha's old market, is only a short walk away from the museum, but give yourself enough time to browse the stalls and stores that line its cobbestone alleys. You'll find for sale: caged birds, antique teapots and daggers, vintage pop bottles and radios, photos of the sheikhs, decorated boxes carved from camel bone, woven cushions, spices, silver anklets, pearl necklaces, and just about anything else you can imagine. At the end of your day, it is worth paying a visit to one of Doha's big-name spas. The Four Seasons' spa is one of the best in the world (www.fourseaons.com/doha; 00 974 494 8888), and fans of New York's Bliss spa (www.blissworld.com; 00 974 453 5555) will be thrilled to know that the brand's first branch in the region has opened at the W Hotel. It has all of Bliss spa's signature features and treatments, including a brownie bar and the hot milk and almond pedicure. The Sharq Village and Spa (www.sharqvillage.com) features a Six Senses Spa in an environment reminiscent of a traditional village, with rustic-style wooden beams and lanterns.

Budget Doha isn't big on budget hotels, but a few can be found online: Al Mourouj Inn Hotel (Museum Street, 00 974 442 2426) is located near the Qatar National Museum, and has double rooms that cost from US$140 (Dh500), per night. The city also has a Doha Youth Hostel on Al Lakta Makka Street, that has 16 rooms with 56 beds, available for $27 (Dh100) per night for non-members (www.qyha.com; 00 974 486 7180). Mid-range The Hotel Souq Waqif is a small stylish hotel that recently opened at one end of Doha's souq, and is designed in keeping with the surrounding architecture. From the hallway on its second floor, you look out on both the museum and souq in one view. The hotel is full of nice little touches: the lobby is fragrant with lillies, and upstairs you can hear the occasional chirp from its two resident birds. A double room costs from $268 (Dh985) per night. Hotel Souq Waqif, Al Jasra Street (www.hotelsouqwaqif.com.qa; 00 974 441 9292). Luxury The W Hotel is the newest and most stylish of Doha's hotels in West Bay and costs from $330 (Dh1,210) per night for a double room (www.whotels.com/doha; 00 974 499 6530). The Sharq Village and Spa, which costs from $397 (Dh1,458) per night for a double room, is closer to the museum than the W and has a fabulously opulent shisha terrace (www.sharqvillage.com; 00 974 425 6666).

Breakfast When it comes to traditional Friday brunches, you pretty much have your pick with any of the established hotels in Doha. If you're starting off the day at the souq, try the Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf, where you can have a simple eggs Benedict with free coffee refills for $5.50 (Dh20). Lunch You will want to take advantage of dining outdoors as much as possible in the souq. One of the best people watching spots is Tajine, a Moroccan restaurant that is open 24 hours per day. Its Couscous Royale for $13 (Dh47) comes with vegetables, chicken, lamb and sausage, and is big enough for two. Order some Moroccan tea for $2.70 (Dh10) to finish and watch from the terrace the action at the souq. Dinner For the latest hotspot, try Spice Market, a restaurant in the new W Hotel by the Michelin-star chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten. Food is served for people to share and the room is designed in dark wood with red lanterns. Try an avocado and radish salad with Chinese mustard and tempura onions for $8 (Dh30), or the spicy Shanghai noodles with chilled silken tofu, garlic and herbs for $23 (Dh85). For more casual, but still trendy dining in the souq, there's Soy, a new Asian fusion restaurant that serves up fresh sushi, Thai and delicious Chinese food. Doha isn't known for its nightlife, but on Thursday and Friday nights, the Four Seasons' "Hip India" event is the place to be seen. The hotel hosts this special evening on the spa terrace, and features food from an Indian grill and Bollywood films projected on the hotel's walls.

There are a number of flights to Doha from Abu Dhabi every day. A return flight on Qatar Airways (www.qatarairways.com) costs from $302 (Dh1,110), including taxes. A return flight on Etihad (www.etihadairways.com; 02 505 8000) costs from $225 (Dh980) including taxes.

mgannon@thenational.ae