I have flown in and out of Hamad International Airport in Doha on a Qatar Airways stopover a bazillion times, travelling to and from Hong Kong. However, for this flight I booked a long layover in Doha just so I could spend 24 hours in Qatar and finally see more than just Doha’s airport!
I actually really enjoyed my layover in Qatar, getting out of the airport and into the city, and highly recommend venturing out if you’re in transit in Doha with Qatar Airways. So, here is the story of my 24 hours in Qatar, how I made the most of a long layover in Doha and some Doha travel advice for anyone looking to do Qatar Airways stopover.
Disclaimer: I’m not 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.
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Is it Safe to Travel to Qatar?
Update: I visited Doha, Qatar in December 2016, in transit from Hong Kong to the UK. Since my visit, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt have cut diplomatic ties with Qatar, which could lead to some travel disruptions, but – as far as I am aware – this has no impact on overall safety.
For more information, you can see the UK government’s Foreign Travel Advice for Qatar, The US’s Travel.State.Gov advice for Qatar, or your own country’s equivalent. I am also following the news closely and will update this post with any relevant details if needed.
Qatar Airways Stopover: Doha’s Airport
The first couple of times I flew in and out of Hamad International Airport in Doha, 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 Doha’s airport alone that you could easily make the most of a long layover in Doha without ever actually venturing out into Qatar itself (and I have done that too).
Aside from the obvious restaurants and shopping, Doha’s airport has art galleries, lounge facilities (all-inclusive food/relaxation areas starting at US$55), an airport transit hotel and a spa with massage packages and even a swimming pool! More information about Doha’s airport can also be found on the Qatar Airways website.
Doha City Tours
If you have a slightly shorter (but still long) Qatar stopover than me (for example, 10 hour layovers in Doha are quite common), you can also book transit tours such as the Doha City Tour. There are four tours per day and they’re first come, first served, booked at the airport. The Doha City Tour lasts 2.5 hours and includes the Pearl-Qatar, Katara Cultural Village, Souq Waqif and the Museum of Islamic Art.
Anyway, all that is worth a future Doha airport transit 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 loved my 24 hours in Qatar and I wouldn’t hesitate to do another long layover in Doha next time I fly through.
Do I Need a Qatar Visa to Visit Doha?
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 for a layover in Doha. I was familiar with Doha’s airport already, but a little unsure how to actually leave it.
Rob and I wandered a little trying to find luggage lockers, but ended up at Immigration instead. For our UK passports, our Qatar 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).
Qatar Airways Stopover Package (STPC)
Qatar Airways also have a “Free Stayover” stopover package (sometimes referred to as Qatar Airways STPC). The conditions are that you book a flight with them that has a long stopover in Qatar when there are no short layover times available. Rob and I did not qualify as we deliberately chose the longer stopover in Doha, but it’s always worth contacting them to ask.
Doha Airport Luggage Storage
If you are looking for Doha airport’s luggage lockers, be warned there are none in the Arrivals Hall. There are rumours of luggage lockers inside the terminal itself (I can’t find any solid information about this online), 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.
What is the currency in Qatar?
The currency in Qatar is Qatari riyal.
Leaving Doha Airport
As we left Doha’s airport, we didn’t need to worry about getting ripped off by taxis (been there, done that enough times leaving an airport) because Qatari 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).
What to see in Doha in One Day
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, almost rivaling Hong Kong’s epic views. The lines of traditional dhow boats that are tied up along the waterfront are really pretty and the architecture is also quite cool. 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.
Things to Do in Qatar: The Souq Waqif
One of the best things to do in Qatar is explore the Souq Waqif. 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. 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 more than happy to get lost inside, smelling the spices and getting Christmas present ideas.
The goods on offer are nothing like we’d seen before, even from markets all around Asia. As we were there early in the morning, we drank tea and watched the shop owners setting up and had a nose at what was for sale.
Aside from the standard souvenir shops, there are 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.
Things to Do in Doha: Museum of Islamic Art
We had spied the Museum of Islamic Art (MIA) building as soon as we arrived in Doha, though had to wait until it opened later in the day to visit. When you’re considering what to do in Doha, this museum is a must-see, even if just from the outside.
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, so I took an obscene amount of photos of it, as you can probably tell just from reading this blog.
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 MIA exhibits fascinating. They mostly focus on Islamic art throughout different periods of history. The style of art is intricate and visually stunning. There was also an exhibition about Muhammad Ali on the top floor, which was a surprise to me as I had no idea he was Muslim.
The grounds of the MIA are beautiful too, with lots of open spaces and pretty fountains. 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 images (I was hungry and just wanted to eat, OK?). For lunch, we ate lunch at a cafe/restaurant in the Souq Waqif, but because it’s such a maze around there, I’m not sure I could now tell you where it was.
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, basically.
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.
Doha Travel Advice: 5 Things to Know About Qatar
1. Qatar’s Weather
Qatar is not as warm as we thought it would be. To be fair, our little Qatar stopover was in December, which is also their winter. But, although it was hot in the sun, it was also quite windy.
2. Dress Conservatively
It’s respectful to dress conservatively in Qatar and to cover arms and legs (that goes for everyone, not just women). 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 Doha who dress exactly how they like.
3. Men and Women
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 Visiting Doha
Unmarried couples visiting Doha 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! Also, holding hands and PDAs aren’t appropriate.
5. Language Barriers
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 Doha’s airport and spend 24 hours in Qatar by booking a long layover in Doha to get to see the city and the country. I absolutely loved my Qatar stopover and would definitely visit again or book another Qatar Airways layover flight with Doha transit.
Before I booked my flight, I was worried that I wouldn’t have enough time or that the things to do in Qatar would be far from each other and Doha’s airport. But, if you’re also considering a a long layover in Doha with a Qatar Airways stopover – get out of the airport and into the city!
I promise you won’t regret it.