Logistics have it that when you take any long-haul flight, more likely than not you’ll spend a few hours in an airport or a country you never thought you’d visit. While airports in major hubs like Doha, Qatar have invested millions into creating comfortable spaces for travelers in transit, far more preferable to me is to seize the hours that might have been spent waiting and step out into the country, if only for an afternoon.
I traveled with Qatar Airways on a recent trip to Cambodia and Vietnam. With easy flights from ten major hubs in the U.S. (and one more—SFO—on the way!), I went to sleep after a glass of carefully curated champagne and woke up the next morning at the glistening Hamad International Airport in Doha, Qatar’s capital city.
Completed in 2015, Hamad International Airport was designed with customer experience in mind. The structure itself was inspired by the concept of an oasis. Over 8.5 square miles of space house 12 unique lounges, a luxury hotel, and an airport spa and wellness center, complete with an indoor pool. Water motifs are a constant, with wave-styled roofs and desert plants growing in recycled water. Compared to domestic airports back home, the airport felt positively delightful.
Despite the comfort of Italian leather chairs and quiet departure lounges, I opted to take advantage of Doha’s complimentary transit visa—fees are waived if you request the visa in advance—and explore one of the most dynamic cities in the world.
I caught a cab and drove a quick twenty minutes to the Doha Corniche, a cheery waterfront promenade hugging roughly 5 miles of coastline around Doha Bay. Palm trees dotted the sandy landscape. A few brave joggers passed. In the distance, skyscrapers of the most imaginative shapes glistened in the afternoon sun on the other side of the bay.
My first taste of visiting this new place: I hadn’t anticipated that everything would be closed in observation of Ramadan! During the month of June, the city becomes nocturnal. In the daytime, streets are still, public markets and museums are closed, and food is not typically served. The Museum of Islamic Art and Souq Waqif would not open until sundown.
I called an Uber and traveled to the Four Seasons Hotel on the opposite side of the Corniche. Finding a comfortable lounge seat beachfront at the property’s private beach, I kicked off my shoes and buried my toes in the sand. The water felt warm. I wished I had packed a swim suit in my carry-on.
The sun sank and the city sprang to life. The soft smells of rose and cherry-flavored shishah wafted from the terrace lounge. Families in finery filled the comfortable outdoor couches around us. I hadn’t realized how hungry I felt. I ordered a meze feast of warm pita, hummus, tabbouleh, and olives. Hot tea was served.
Around 8pm, I left the hotel and returned to the steps of the Museum of Islamic Art. This time, passing the Doha Corniche was a festive sight. Large groups walked together along the promenade. Dhows, traditional wooden boats, ferried families and friends around the harbor. The reflections of each boat’s elaborate neon lights danced on the surface of the bay. Rudimentary sound systems bumped local pop music.
Walking the remaining length of the promenade to the entrance to the Museum of Islamic Art, you can’t help feeling a sense of awe. The museum is spectacular. A limestone and granite structure, the building itself a breathtaking work of art by world-renowned architect I.M. Pei, glowed bright against the night sky. The Museum houses a collection that highlights artwork and cultural artifacts from over 1,400 years, spanning 7,000 miles across the Islamic world. A special exhibition in partnership with leading cultural institutions showcased intricate tapestries—woven histories from across the Islamic world.
I could've spent an entire afternoon wandering the peaceful exhibition halls. But before long, it was time to travel back to Hamad Airport and continue on to my final destination.
Qatar is a land of contrasts: dynamic, exciting and steeped in tradition, with a sense of timelessness and tradition. Having spent the afternoon and evening breathing fresh ocean air and exploring the rich culture, history, and dining in Qatar, I was ready to change into my Qatar Airways sleep suite, tuck into my comfortable Business Class seat, and wake up in Saigon.
Have more than 9 hours to spare in Qatar? Check out some of the activities and experiences I’m trying next!
Souq Waqif—For an authentic taste of traditional street life, commerce, and local architecture, nothing beats wandering through the bustling alleys of this lively labyrinth of shops and eateries.
Katara – Ideal for a relaxing day of culture, entertainment, and family fun. Katara features impressive theaters, performance venues, and a public beach with water sports, cafes, and restaurants.
Al Zubarah – A UNESCO World Heritage Site, visitors can experience a well-preserved and restored 18th century fort and archeological site, learning about life in an urban-trading hub sustained by pearl-diving.
Khor Al Adaid – One of Qatar’s unique natural wonders, the dramatic ‘inland sea’ where the water of the Persian Gulf encroach deep into the heart of the desert.
Richard Serra: East West/West East—One of Qatar’s most impressive public art installations, East West/West East is a breathtaking sculpture spanning nearly one mile of desert close to Zekreet on the west coast of Qatar. The installation comprised four steel plates, each more thank 14m high.
Dune Bashing and Desert Camping – Taking full advantage of Qatar’s complimentary, 96-hour transit visa, visitors can spend time in the desert, taking 4X4 safaris through the dunes, experience the thrill of camel racing, and ‘glamp’ in a luxury tent in the desert.