I first visited Qatar in early 2013 as part of a graduate school program since my school, Northwestern, had a campus there. We spent five days in Doha doing a reporting project on food and water security—a fascinating topic, given the country’s desert climate and heavy reliance on imports.
While the project may have been interesting, though, the city… still seemed like it had a ways to go. In short, there aren’t that many things to do in Doha. Our first full day, we did a city tour, and it took us to see the local Shake Shack. I kid you not.
It’s not just food and water that Qatar is importing; the wealthy country is working to bring in culture from all over the world in an attempt to put itself on the proverbial map. That process takes time, though, and for now, while it does boast a handful of tourist sights, some of them still leave a bit to be desired.
That’s not to say that you can’t enjoy a short stay in Qatar, though, especially if you’re intentional about it! Below are a few options for making the most of your Doha layover or stopover.
OPTION No. 1: HIT THE LOUNGE
This is going to sound like bad tourism advice, but I’ve spent some of my favorite Doha layovers at Hamad International Airport. Two things Qatar does do well are luxury and food, and the airport’s lounges have both. If you don’t have elite status with Qatar Airways or Oneworld and you’re not traveling on a first- or business-class ticket, fear not! You can still access my favorite lounge, the Al Maha Transit Lounge, if you have Priority Pass, which is a benefit that comes with several travel rewards credit cards (for tips on selecting the best travel rewards credit card for you, check out the 52 Cities free resource library).
Otherwise, you can pay your way into the adjacent Oryx Lounge for about $55, which I’ve definitely done and not regretted for a second. Food is great and unlimited in both, and wine is unlimited too, which is especially helpful if you arrive for your Doha layover in the late afternoon/early evening and have your second-straight overnight flight coming up. Hang out in the lounge for a few hours, and going back to sleep after boarding will be no problem.
OPTION No. 2: DO A TOUR
If your Doha layover is longer than five hours, you can do a cheap (about $11) city tour offered through Qatar Airlines and Discover Qatar. As I mentioned earlier, there aren’t that many things to do in Doha. So while the tour is pretty short at about two hours, it’s definitely long enough to see the major sites and get a feel for how weird a city Doha actually is.
We did the city tour in April on our way to the Maldives and it happened to be at night, which wasn’t ideal for photos but did make for some cool views of Doha’s futuristic skyline and the Museum of Islamic Art, designed by I.M. Pei (of Louvre pyramid fame).
After that, the tour went to Katara Cultural Village, which has a pretty mosque but not a lot to do unless you’re seeing a performance; The Pearl, which essentially a giant outdoor mall; and Souq Waqif, a “traditional” Middle Eastern market that was designed to look much older than it is and has a distinct Epcot Center feel about it.
WITH MORE TIME
With a longer Doha layover, if you’re arriving at the right time, you can head out to the desert on an “off-road monster bus” that’ll take you on a thrill ride around the sand dunes. We did something akin to this on my grad school trip, and it was actually the only thing we did that was legitimately fun, but it does have a bit of a roller-coaster feel so if you’re not into that, skip it.
If you’re thinking of venturing out of the airport and don’t have an overnight stay, I don’t recommend doing it on your own. It’s not that it’s impossible, but it’s just not worth it. Sights are very spread out, and since you don’t need a ton of time at each, you’ll need a stream of Ubers (and you’ll have to lug your carry-ons, too). Passport control lines for leaving the airport can also be VERY long, so it definitely helps to have the guide ushering you along and keeping an eye on the clock. Plus, the tourbus comes with free water bottles! It is the desert, after all.
To book a tour, head to the Discover Qatar Tours desk in Concourse A on the departures level.
OPTION No. 3: FOOD & SUN
If you’ve got an overnight stay in Doha, I highly recommend picking a hotel with pool access, beach access or both… and spending most of your day there. In my opinion, Qatar’s sights aren’t can’t-miss, and you can always do a tour on a future layover! A pool day can also be a really nice way to break up a long journey, so if you can convince yourself to press pause on “tourist mode,” this is a good time.
On our way out of the Maldives in May, we stayed at the Hilton Doha, which was affordable (about $131 for the night), by the water, and not too far from the airport. It also had the best breakfast buffet (with both Middle Eastern and Western options) I have ever seen IN MY ENTIRE LIFE. Seriously, I would stay here again just for that reason. I didn’t eat again the rest of the day, and I am a person who takes lunch VERY seriously. Plus, breakfast is free for some elite Hilton Honors members (read more about how I got my Diamond status and how you can, too, in this post.)
The Hilton also had really nice showering/changing rooms, which definitely came in handy since I had already checked out of my room by the time I went to the pool. If you’re looking to earn or spend hotel points in Doha, though, there are lots of other options, and I imagine they’re all decently nice! You can use this tool to see them; just type in “Qatar” and a list will appear on the right. To filter, click the colored squares in the “Hotel Chains” box on the right. (Note: One appears to be missing. I considered the AlRayyan Hotel Doha, part of Hilton’s Curio Collection, for this stay, but ultimately decided against it because of its distance from the airport. It gets design points, though!)
OTHER THINGS TO DO IN DOHA
One thing not on this list that I suspect is actually cool: the Museum of Islamic Art. I still haven’t had the chance to go inside or admire the building up close. The collection looks impressive, though, and I hope to get there on my next trip (because let’s be honest, I’m definitely going to end up on a long Doha layover again one of these days whether I want to or not).
Have you been to Qatar? What are your favorite things to do in Doha, and how would you spend a layover there? Let me know in the comments! >>
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