On one of my many searches for cheap flights I came across the option to have a layover in Qatar’s capital city: Doha. I have to admit that I didn’t know a single thing about this city (full disclosure: I didn’t even know it was the capital of Qatar) and as I would have a pretty bad layover (2 am to 7 am) I didn’t get the chance to leave the airport. Still, I was eager to find out more about this city and country.
Recently, I spoke with fellow traveler Witold from Poznan (Poland) and he mentioned that he too was intrigued by this wealthy Arab country. His curiosity got the best of him, and he decided to book a 2-night stay in Doha to see what the city has to offer. In Witold’s first guest post ever, he shares his experiences and tips on how to make the best of a long layover in Doha. Qatar sure seems to have a lot of “wow”!
Qatar is a tiny Arab state located in the center of the Arab world. Its size can be compared to that of large cities such as New York City and Tokyo. As the vast majority of this territory is desert, it might seem that there isn’t much to see and only hardcore travelers would visit this country. However, Qatar has its strengths it could bring an interesting twist to a long layover.
Qatar Airways is one of the Qatari’s major assets and its flagship brand. The second is Hamad, one of the most modern airports and major hubs in the world. Qatar Airways has been among the top carriers for years and even won the title of “World’s best airline” four times, most recently in 2017. Some people claim that it was through corruption, but nevertheless, as a frequent flyer on many different airlines, I must concur with the high standard of Qatar Airways’ services.
It was my desire to fly with Qatar Airways and its interesting network of flight routes has encouraged me to extend my layover in Doha to see what Qatar has to offer. I was not disappointed.
Getting into Qatar
Qatar is an easy country to get into. As of the 9th of August 2017, nationals of these 80 countries do not require prior visa arrangements and can obtain a visa waiver upon arrival in Qatar which is valid for 180 or 30 days (depending on the country). Other nationals can enjoy the Transit Visa free of cost when you add a short transit or stopover between 5 and 96 hours in Doha to your itinerary without any additional fare charges.
Qatar airways holidays stopover program
But wait, that’s not all! If you book a flight with Qatar Airways (no code-share flights) and include a transit in Doha (for a minimum of 12 hours) before the 28th of December 2017 and you will get a free stay in one of Qatar’s hotel partners for one night. Or, if you really want to take it up a notch and book a 4 or 5-star hotel, you can book one of the Qatar Ultimate hotels and pay only USD 100 per room (max 2 adults and 1 child under 11 years old) for two nights. All these hotels have to be booked at least 3 days before arrival. There is some small print so make sure you have read this as well before booking.
Getting from Hamad Airport to Doha city
There are two ways to get from the airport to the city: by bus or by taxi. Most people use taxis as they are generally not expensive – USD 12 to the port district or USD 18 to the business center. To pay as little as possible you will have to exchange your dollars into Qatari riyals in advance; this can be done at the airport upon arrival. Corporate taxis officially only accept payments in local currency, but drivers will often take dollars with their own (bad) exchange rate and commission.
Corporate taxis officially only accept payments in local currency, but drivers will often take dollars with their own (bad) exchange rate and commission.
Taking a taxi around the city and from the city to the airport will be your cheapest options, as the airport charges taxi drivers extra for dropping off travelers at the airport. If you’re short on cash and/or like some risk, there is a way to avoid this extra fee. You can take a lift from the arrivals hall to the departures hall (they are on different floors) and hail a taxi there. As the passengers get out, you can quickly get in (of course checking with the cab first, it’s a common practice and they will usually play ball). Since the cab driver doesn’t have to pay the extra fee you will get charged less as well. Make sure to keep an eye out for the airport staff, as you might have to play the “stupid tourist” card when you get caught. I know that many expat locals pull this trick off successfully. Is it worth the risk? You decide…
There are a handful of buses that travel between Doha’s city center and Hamad airport, starting from about 4 am to about 11 pm and running every 20-30 minutes. To use the bus you must buy a Karwa Smartcard first, this can be done at the “Mowasalat Information Desk” near baggage claim belt 5 & 6.
You will have a few options:
- QR10 Card (USD 3): two inner-city trips within a 24 hour period
- QR20 Card (USD 5): unlimited trips across Qatar within a 24 hour period
- Regular Karwa Smartcard QAR 30 (USD 8): QAR 10 for the card with QAR 20 value, available to be topped up for future journeys. A bus fare will typically be around QAR 2.5 (USD 0.70) to QAR 5 (USD 1.40) every time you use the bus.
Traveling by bus is not common in Qatar; fuel is cheaper than water here and Qatar is a very affluent society. This results in stops being badly marked and difficult to find and buses not always running on time. Buses are used almost exclusively by immigrants who, in this country, are often treated as cheap labor.
Museum of Islamic Art and the Arab Museum of Modern Art (Mathaf)
These two museums tell you more about the driving forces and dynamics of Qatar’s development. You need to visit them to better understand the culture of the region, especially since the admission is free.
Main Market (Souq Waqif)
In hot climates, life takes place at different times of the day. The main activity at the market (Souq in Arabic) starts at 4 pm and ends around 12 am. In the morning and around midday the city looks deserted and the 40+ degrees Celsius heat in summer is unbearable. The Waqif market is divided into zones where vendors trade in strictly defined goods. You can find art galleries, restaurants for any budget and some hookah shops, all set in a building that has been founded at least a century ago. It was renovated in 2006, with respect to the traditional architecture. The souq is often viewed as one of the few places in Doha where you can get an authentic feel of the past with its colors, smells, and little alleyways.
Corniche Park and Skyline panorama
The panorama is worth seeing both in the day when the district is presented in full glory and at night when the reflections and the game of lights show a completely different dimension to the city. The Corniche Park is one of the few green places (which is, of course, uncommon in a desert) and there are some spectacular views of the city’s skyline here.
Here you can charge your electronic equipment free and use the free WiFi. Strolling down the avenue you will pass by numerous monuments and you will get a great overview of the brave and modern architecture of the city; the best example is the National Museum of Qatar which is currently under construction but set to be ready in 2018.
If you have more time then it is worth heading a bit north to walk between the skyscrapers, visit The Gate Mall or cool down at the ice skating rink. If you’re into luxury you can visit the Katara Cultural Village and have a look at the Pearl Qatar which is an artificial island that, according to the trends in this part of the world, is full of luxury apartments.
In general, the Corniche waterfront promenade is a great place to hang out on a long layover. It is close to several of Doha’s major attractions and to the airport, so when you find a nearby place to stay you can leave your luggage at your hotel and get the most out of your last moments of freedom before hopping on your next (hopefully not too long) flight.
Where to stay in Doha
Qatar is not prepared for the arrival of tourists with a thin wallet. For budget travelers, the cheapest accommodation in a hotel starts at about USD 40. When booking a hotel be sure to include breakfast; mainly because it is hard to find any place that is open in the morning, but also because it will be cheaper than getting a meal in the city.
Hostels are highly uncommon, and I was only able to find one youth hostel on Hostelworld, and as a 4-bed male dorm room will cost you about USD 35 you’re getting close to the price of a cheap hotel.
Airbnb is getting more popular here and it will be your cheapest option for accommodation. You can get a room for USD 20 if you’re not too picky about location and interior design.
Qatar, where wealth is the standard
Qatar has one of the largest economies in the world based on GDP per capita, with petroleum and natural gas (perhaps unsurprisingly) being the major contributors. Another fact is that Qatar is the world’s richest country with an average of annual “individual wealth” of 129,726 USD per person. This takes into account an average Qatari person’s salary weight up against how much they are able to buy.
Access to museums and cultural facilities is free for everyone.
In early 2017, Qatar’s total population was 2.6 million: 313,000 Qatari citizens and 2.3 million expats. Living in Qatar comes with many perks. Any native Qatari citizen (both parents must be citizens) receives free electricity from the state, free access to health care and education at every including scholarships for studying abroad, alimentation and accommodation. If they decide to marry, they will also receive free land to build a house for themselves. My observation is that Qatar citizens are only interested in pursuing occupations considered “clean”; all “dirty” jobs are done by immigrants.
This high standard of living translates into the tourist attractions as well, as access to museums and cultural facilities is free for everyone.
Is Qatar safe to visit?
My experience was that I didn’t feel threatened at any moment during my stay. There aren’t many people out in the late hours of the day, but I spent plenty of time on the streets at night without feeling unsafe. If you look at the common conception that a lot of crime originates in poverty, you can expect the wealthy country of Qatar to have a low crime rate. I also didn’t encounter any form of religious intolerance and most women, for instance, were dressed in a European style.
You can expect the wealthy country of Qatar to have a low crime rate.
Is Qatar all just about luxury?
Yes and no. You will see and feel true luxury all around you during your stay in Qatar, but turn a corner and you will see old barges and traditional markets. Although the touristy areas of Doha are frantically kept clean, you will find scattered debris and trash in “poorer” neighborhoods. The general luxurious habits of the Qatari cause social inequalities which are clearly visible in day-to-day life. When shopping, for example, the buyers will often be followed by a “servant” (often an immigrant) who deliver their loot to their cars. As a traveler in Doha, you will likely see extreme poverty as well as extreme wealth. My visit was too short however to meet and really get to know the locals.
Did the city of Doha (including its citizens) feel “fake”?
No, not necessarily. The grandeur and the sport of “one-upping” other people’s luxury are typical for the wealthy countries in this region. On the other hand, you won’t be treated like a walking wallet like in some North African countries, where hawkers will run behind you to try to sell you something. The Arabs in Qatar seem to very aware of their own dignity, perhaps even with a little sense of superiority. Then again, they are also very helpful if you ask them for help.
An example: I left something in the taxi from the airport to my hotel, and I had no idea what the taxi driver’s name was or what the taxi looked like. The reception of the hotel I stayed with searched through the security camera’s footage, found the car number, contacted the taxi company and got hold of the driver’s cell phone number. Then they called the driver who drove to the hotel to bring back what I was looking for.
In terms of cultural heritage, I wasn’t able to find much – but maybe I wasn’t in Doha long enough. However, Doha is definitely looking towards the future in an attempt to build such a heritage for itself.
- You may have heard that in 2017 the Gulf states have imposed economic sanctions on Qatar, closed diplomatic missions and prohibited Qatari aircraft to use their airspace. Only Iran did not join this embargo. The official reason is Qatar’s support of terrorism; interestingly enough these accusations are coming from Saudi Arabia and the US. This has influenced the country’s inbound tourism, as the average flight time to and from Qatar has increased.
- Qatar will host the FIFA World Cup in 2022 (allegedly with corruption playing a big role). However, this will be a great opportunity to visit the country.