I have flown in and out of Hamad International Airport in Doha, Qatar, a bazillion times, travelling to and from Hong Kong. However, for this flight back to the UK, I booked a long layover in Doha just so I could spend 24 hours in Qatar and finally see more than just the airport!
I’m not in any way sponsored by Qatar Airways (I wish I was), but they are genuinely one of the best airlines I’ve travelled with, hence why I’ve done it so often. They’re cheap, they fly where I need to go and their service is always of a high standard.
So, here is the story of my 24 hours in Qatar, how I made the most of a long layover in Doha and some travel advice for anyone looking to do the same:
24 Hours in Qatar: Hamad International Airport
The first couple of times I flew in and out of Hamad International Airport, it was nothing but a shack with a duty free section and nowhere to exchange money!
Now, the new fancy terminal is like a miniature city in itself. There’s so much to see and do in the airport alone that you could easily make the most of a long layover in Doha without venturing out into the city (and I have done that too).
Aside from the obvious restaurants and shopping, Hamad International Airport also has art galleries, lounge facilities (all-inclusive food/relaxation areas starting at US$55), an airport hotel and a spa that has massage packages and even a swimming pool!
You can also book a Doha City Tour at the airport (no visa required). There are four tours per day and they’re first come, first served. Sights include the Pearl-Qatar, Katara Cultural Village, Souq Waqif and the Museum of Islamic Art.
Anyway, all that is worth another future blog post in itself. But for this trip, I really wanted to escape out into the city and see it for myself. I’m so glad I did because I absolutely loved my 24 hours in Qatar and I wouldn’t hesitate to pot for another long layover in Doha next time I fly through.
24 Hours in Qatar: Arrival, Immigration & Logistics
With five years worth of HK stuff in my suitcase and hand luggage (and smiling sweetly at the check in staff who kindly didn’t charge me for being well over the weight limit), I arrived in Doha, Qatar. I was familiar with the airport already, but a little unsure how to actually leave it!
So, Rob and I wandered a little while trying to find luggage lockers, but ended up at Immigration instead. For our British passports, our visas cost £20, but note that this can only be paid with card. (If you’re more organised than we are, you can apply for a free Qatar Transit Visa in advance).
Note: if you are looking for luggage lockers as we were, there are none in the Arrivals Hall. There are rumours of luggage lockers inside the terminal itself, but we couldn’t see how to get to them without sacrificing our trip through Immigration. So, I was carrying 7kg+ of hand luggage all day!
We exchanged money at the airport, though I would advise against the ‘buy back’ deal they have, which promises that you can exchange any leftover money back at the same rate. However, we had no money left by the end of our day, so we didn’t need the deal anyway.
As we left the airport, we didn’t need to worry about getting ripped off by taxis (been there, done that enough times leaving an airport) because taxis are monitored by the national transport company.
The distinctive turquoise-coloured taxis are metered (though tipping is always appreciated) and display the ‘Karwa’ banner.
Our taxi driver, to our surprise, was not Qatari-born, but from the Caribbean! He blasted reggae in his car as we made our way into the city. The driver was really friendly, chatting about politics back in his home country and why he’d moved out to Qatar (essentially, because it’s awesome).
24 Hours in Qatar: Walking Around Town
Our flight got us into Qatar at ridiculous o’clock in the morning, though we didn’t feel particularly tired as we were running on HK time. We watched the sunrise as we took the taxi into the city, then spent most of the morning just walking around town and getting our bearings.
This was a first-time trip to the Middle East for both of us, so we were in awe of everything.
The harbour is beautiful, especially with the view of the skyline on the opposite side of the water. The lines of traditional dhow boats that are tied up along the waterfront are really pretty and the architecture is also quite something. Here are just a few things that caught our eye:
We walked around part of the Doha Corniche, which is the waterfront promenade that runs along Doha Bay. Also, there are loads of cafes, tea shops and things to see around the Souq Waqif, so we hung out around there for most of the day…
24 Hours in Qatar: Souq Waqif
Basically, the Souq Waqif is an Aladdin’s Cave of treasures and sells all the dream things I would decorate my apartment with. If I had an apartment. Or anywhere to live. Or any money. Oh, or any space in my hand luggage.
Sadly, I had none of these things, but it was wonderful just walking around and window shopping. The souq is a labyrinth, so it’s easy to get lost, but we were happy to get lost inside! The goods on offer are nothing like we’d seen before, even from markets all around Asia.
In the morning, we drank tea and watched the shop owners opening up, having a nose at what was for sale.
Aside from the standard souvenir shops, there were jewellery and home decor items; lanterns and glass ornaments; gorgeous clothes and shoes; Christmas decorations (yes, really); and bags and bags and bags of aromatic spices that I was desperate to buy.
However, it’s really in the evening the souq truly comes alive. The atmosphere is great: there are performances, loads of things to sample or try and of course, a good bit of haggling!
Also, I was intrigued by a stand between a few of the shops displaying leaflets and books about Islam (pictured above). With all the crap going on in the world at the moment and the rise of Islamophobia, I found this really touching and took a few leaflets to better educate myself.
24 Hours in Qatar: Museum of Islamic Art
We had spied the Museum of Islamic Art (MIA) building as soon as we arrived in the city, though had to wait until it opened later in the day to visit.
The building itself is an incredible work of art, designed by famous architect I. M. Pei. Pei is also the genius behind the Bank of China building in Hong Kong and the Louvre in Paris. The museum literally looks stunning from every angle, in all weather and all times of the day. I have so many photos of it!
Also, the museum is free and you can leave your bags in the cloakroom, so you don’t have to carry them around. My shoulders greatly appreciated this after more than half a day carrying my overweight hand luggage on my back!
I found the exhibits fascinating. They mostly focus on Islamic art throughout different periods of history. The artworks are intricate and visually stunning. There was also an exhibition about Muhammad Ali on the top floor, which was a surprise to me! I had no idea he was Muslim.
The grounds of the MIA are beautiful too, with lots of open spaces and pretty water features. The views out across the bay are grand and the cafe in the main entrance hall was a great place to stop and rest our weary feet. The near-panoramic views of the ocean helped a little bit too.
24 Hours in Qatar: Qatari Food
Oh my god, Middle Eastern food is so delicious! Apologies for the dark and bad-quality image above (I was hungry and just wanted to eat, OK?). We ate lunch at a cafe/restaurant that was next to (or part of?) the Souq Waqif (no idea where it starts and ends).
We had no clue what to expect, so we just ordered random things off the menu that we liked the sound of. This included a flatbread with spices, a flatbread with cheese and meat paste (that looked a lot like pizza) and fried potatoes with cheese and pine nuts. So, super-healthy choices.
Of course, the rule is that it’s not a trip to the Middle East until someone eats some hummus! For dinner, we wandered back to the Souq Waqif again around sunset as there are so many food options around there and even the more upscale restaurants are still reasonably priced.
I ordered bread with all the dips! It was absolutely delicious.
5 Things to Know About Qatar
1. Qatar is not as warm as we thought it would be. To be fair, we were there in December, which is also their winter. But, although it was hot in the sun, it was also quite windy.
2. It’s respectful to dress conservatively and to cover arms and legs (that goes for both sexes). I brought a scarf with me just in case I needed to cover my head and hair, but it wasn’t necessary. Plus, there are plenty of expats living in Qatar who dress exactly how they like.
3. Typically, men do not talk to women they don’t know. It felt a little strange to be ignored, but I know it comes from a place of good intentions and respect. My boyfriend was addressed, greeted and spoken to, but I wasn’t. I didn’t mind, but it’s just something to be aware of.
4. Unmarried couples can’t stay in the same hotel room. Supposedly, you have to produce a valid marriage certificate upon checking in. Rob and I were looking into getting a place to sleep for a few hours or dump our stuff for a day, but on realising this detail, we decided against testing this out!
5. The official languages of Qatar are Arabic and English. We didn’t have any problems with a language barrier, as English is spoken widely and well. I do have a (tiny) smattering of Arabic, but the accent is different, so I didn’t try and use it other than to say thank you (shookran).
24 Hours in Qatar: A Long Layover in Doha
In summary, I’m so glad that I decided to finally leave Hamad International Airport and spend 24 hours in Qatar. I’m also so glad I booked a long layover in Doha to finally see the city and the country! I absolutely loved Qatar and would definitely visit again or book another long stopover.
Before I booked my flight home, I was worried that I wouldn’t have enough time or that visiting Doha wasn’t doable in a day. But, if you have a long layover in Doha and you’re wondering what to do with your time – get out of the airport and into the city!
I promise you won’t regret it.