When I moved from Malaysia to Doha to take up the position of Area Manager, Gulf Region with Ascott, many people told me the capital city of Qatar cannot quite compare to its more glamorous neighbour, Dubai. But having lived here for 6 years, I have to say that Qatar’s largest city has its own distinctive charms. You just have to know where to look; and, thankfully, with help from those who know the city well, it is not something hard to do.
The newly-opened Ascott Doha at the heart of the diplomatic district is a good place to begin. Located at the north end of Corniche Bay, it offers a breathtaking view of the Arabian Gulf while providing convenience to the business traveller by being near key ministry headquarters, embassies, consulates, major businesses and offices; as well as the leisure travellers, being just a short drive away from shops, restaurants and entertainment options.
If you are always looking for something new to see in the city, 10 minutes away from Ascott Doha is a place where the new and the old come together beautifully. Katara Cultural Village is an arts and entertainment space housing a cluster of gorgeous theatres, concert halls, and exhibition galleries designed to pay tribute to the city’s architectural past. With its cutting-edge facilities, it is the perfect place to host myriad multi-cultural activities. So, if you want a taste of Middle Eastern theatre, literature, art, culture, music and performing arts, as well as international samplings, this is the place to go. There is always something happening whether it is an exhibition, a musical or dance performance.
Another place where the old and the new are at home is the Museum of Islamic Arts. This cultural centre of Doha is, like Ascott Doha, located along Corniche Bay and boasts one of the world’s most complete collections of Islamic art, artefacts, and objects with pieces from Spain, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Turkey, India and Central Asia. While history lies within its hallowed halls, the building itself is state-of-the-art. Designed by world-renowned architect, I. M. Pei, it is iconic of Doha’s development with its modern look. Apart from its permanent exhibits, there are always travelling ones that take up temporary residence and this month, you can look forward to Arabick Roots. The exhibition traces the movement of scientific knowledge and cultural mores from the Muslim world to Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries.
During the winter months of November to February when the weather is nice and cool, a walk along the Corniche promenade is a great way to see Doha. You can stroll from the old Doha, the former city centre where the traditional bazaars are and where you can see the dhows (traditional sailing vessels) in the bay, to the new Doha in West Bay, where the new hub of the city has grown up and where the grand metropolitan skyline of West Bay can be appreciated. It is like walking through history as you see the city progress through the zones. End up at The Pearl, an artificial island set in a marina where expensive yachts line the waters and luxury boutiques line the streets.
From Ascott Doha, you can walk to City Centre Mall, one of the largest shopping centres in Doha. Villagio Mall, Landmark Mall, Salam Mall and The Pearl are all also nearby and they make for a wonderful escape from the heat during summer.
But in January, when temperatures dip, Souq Waqif, a traditional marketplace, is a perfect place to go for a rustic, Arabic shopping experience. Herbs and spices, local arts and crafts, fabric, garments, perfumes, Arabic lambs, shisha pots, kitchen ware, camel figurines made with real camel hair, jewellery, trinkets, bric-a-brac and even household pets – this bazaar about a 10-minute drive from Ascott Doha lets you soak up the hustle and bustle of Middle Eastern street shopping. You can spend a whole day wandering the alleys. I know I have.
When you need a break, duck into any of the al fresco restaurants or cafes at Souq Waqif for a cuppa. A warm chai (spiced milk tea) will bring much comfort. If you want to have a meal at Souq Waqif, choices abound. From Middle Eastern to Asia and Western fare, there is something for every gastronomic whim.
Dining Arabic style was a new experience for me. It is communal, even rowdy and worth a try for the new visitor. A restaurant at Souq Wafiq that I like is Isfahan Garden. It serves Iranian cuisine in an opulent setting. Try the kebabs and stews with their freshly baked flat bread, then finish the meal with Turkish coffee which refers to a method of preparing coffee in which fine coffee powder is boiled with sugar, and Persian ice-cream which is frozen clotted cream flavoured with saffron and rose water.
Alternatively, at Khan Farouq, the restaurant serves Egyptian food in a jovial, vibrant atmosphere scented with the sweet aroma of shisha. The food is fantastic and the portions are generous. It is definitely a great place for a value-for-money-meal.
For the freshest salads and perfectly grilled meats and seafood, go to Corniche Seafood Restaurant and Café. Try the Levantine bread salad or Fattoush. The dish is made with toasted or fried pieces of Arabic flat bread, herbs and chopped seasonal vegetables like tomatoes and zucchinis, and drizzled with sumac, giving it a refreshingly tart flavour.
Doha may not have the glitz, glitter and glamour of more ritzy cities but it is not short on new experiences for first-time visitors. Just circle the area around Ascott Doha and you will know what I mean.
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