It’s easy to be swept away by Doha’s cultural attractions, thriving food scene and glittering malls. But beyond these big-ticket must-visits, there are a number of experiences that offer a bit more local flavor.
Whether you’ve been to Doha on numerous prior occasions or just traveling there for the first time, these are five unique experiences to have in Qatar’s desert capital.
Visit the spice souq in Souq Waqif
Souq Waqif is a must-visit destination, but it has more to offer than people watching, haggling and falcons on display. Deep inside its winding alleys, you will find a direct link to Doha’s past as a trading village: dozens of small shops heaving with mounds of colorful spices from India, Pakistan, the wider Middle East and Africa. Don’t leave without tiny containers of precious saffron threads from Iran or a decorative jar of layered spices.
For something distinctly Qatari, ask for a machboos spice mix, the secret ingredient for the local rice dish of the same name. Also keep a look out for dried limes (known as loomi), which lend a powerful and sharp flavor to regional dishes like saloona, a vegetable stew often incorporating lamb or seafood.
If you want to take some of the spices and herbs home, ask the vendors to vacuum-pack them. Nearby, you will also find stores selling mountains of sweets and nuts that you can buy by the kilo — most hawkers will even let you sample them before you decide.
Camp overnight at the Inland Sea
One of Qatar’s natural wonders, Khor Al Adaid (or Inland Sea) promises adventure before you even arrive. Roughly 37 miles south of Doha, this UNESCO-recognized natural reserve boasting its own ecosystem is one of the few places in the world where the sea reaches deep into the heart of the desert. It’s also inaccessible by road — you can only get to this spot by an exhilarating 4×4 drive over rolling sand dunes.
With its abundant wildlife (including endangered turtles and birds), the secluded area is a popular place to escape the city. While you can visit for a day trip, it’s best experienced with an overnight camping excursion complete with a beach barbecue and sunrise swim. Go by yourself or join a tour group, depending on the level of luxury you want to enjoy.
While one of Inland Sea’s biggest draws is unwinding, other outdoor adventures include fishing, quad biking, camel rides and sand boarding on the pristine dunes.
Attend a race at Al Shahaniya Camel Racetrack
Camels are not only an obsession in Qatar, they’re serious business — the prized animals can sell for millions of dollars. To experience traditional sports with the humped mammal firsthand, head about 40 minutes west of Doha to Al Shahaniya Camel Racetrack, where competitions take place on Fridays from October to February. The season’s highlights, including the famed Emir’s Cup, fall in March and April.
Entry to these competitions is free for spectators, and you can even board a minibus to follow the racing camels around the track — an experience not to be missed. The animals are “manned” by colorfully dressed robot jockeys that are controlled remotely by their handlers or owners, who are racing next to the track in pickups or 4x4s.
If you miss racing season, you can still catch the camels training every morning and evening. Handlers are used to visitors and will often let you get up close for a selfie with these long-legged beauties.
Take a sunset cruise
Doha’s iconic skyline is best seen from the waters of its historic port. During the weekend, hop on a two-hour cruise from manmade islands of The Pearl Qatar to the mooring next to the Museum of Islamic Art.
You can go one way for QR90 (around US$25) or enjoy a round-trip journey for QR150 (about US$41). Cruises embark every two hours starting at 3 p.m. and, in true Doha style, you are treated to tea onboard a traditional wood dhow boat while you watch the world go by.
If you want to go it alone, approach any of the dhow operators moored on the Corniche and negotiate your own private cruise, from a quick sprint around the bay to a longer, more luxurious venture.
When on the high seas, head up to the roof of your dhow, where there are often cushions from which to soak up a 360-degree view of the sunset over the cityscape.
Explore a UNESCO World Heritage Site
In the 18th and 19th centuries, the township adjacent to Al Zubarah Fort was a thriving pearl fishing center. It’s now a UNESCO World Heritage Site and encompasses not just the striking fort, but a fascinating nearby archaeological site, the largest on the Qatar Peninsula.
The abandoned fortress is remarkably well-preserved with its distinctly Qatari turrets, three-foot-thick walls and ground-floor iwan (small porticos overlooking the courtyard through square arcades). Inside the rooms that were once used as barracks for soldiers you will find an exhibition of pottery and other objects found on recent digs in the area.
The adjacent town of Al Zubarah dates back more than 200 years. It was burned to the ground in 1811 (its mercantile success apparently earning the jealousy of nearby rulers) and was abandoned by the early 20th century. If you are planning to visit, make sure to bring your own snacks and water — the nearest store is a good drive away.