Destination Doha: Why Qatar is more than just a World Cup hub
Arts, culture, desert and shoreline converge in the fascinating Arab peninsula.
I arrive in Doha just as the city is waking. As my Qatar Airways flight skims the desert landscape in preparation for arrival at Hamad International Airport, low-rise buildings and mosque minarets come into view before revealing a glittering skyline that hugs the waters of the Arabian Sea. Welcome to Qatar, the pearl of the Gulf.
Arriving in Qatar a month before the FIFA World Cup kicks off, the excitement is palpable. It’s the first time the sporting tournament has been held in the Middle East and despite the furore surrounding the moving of matches to coincide with the country’s cooler winter season, it’s most definitely Qatar’s time to shine.
I’m met at the airport by images of La’eeb, a cartoonish ghutra (Qatari headdress) that has become the World Cup mascot. The word in Arabic means “super-skilled player” and the playful La’eeb is the first of many promotions of Qatari culture and heritage that I will witness during my whirlwind 48 hours in Qatar.
Whilst the legacy of the games is yet to be seen, Qatar is representative of far more than just stadia and fan zones. In fact, Doha was recently named the ‘Cultural Capital of the Islamic World’. As I whizz through the city streets in a race to beat the sunrise, it’s easy to see why.
It’s hard not to feel an immediate affinity to Doha’s striking architecture, from the sleek curvature of the Zaha Hadid-designed Al Janoub Stadium that takes on the appearance of a traditional dhow to the floral design of The National Museum of Qatar, with its layered petals unfolding like the elusive desert rose. Traffic may be troublesome, but I don’t mind as we cruise along the picturesque corniche past the Burj Doha and a slew of luxury hotels. Think: Four Seasons, W Doha and Sheraton Grand.
I’m bound for Lusail City, 23km north of Doha. This modern hub of architecture, retail and business has been dubbed Qatar’s Future City, and it certainly feels as if I have stepped into a futuristic movie scene straight out of Akira or Blade Runner as I pull up at an abstract-looking building that resembles a falcon rising out of its nest – hello, Mondrian Doha.
Mondrian Doha is a hotel like no other. Funky, modern and known for hosting a clientele of celebrities and VIPs (Jennifer Lopez was a recent guest), this property flips hospitality on its head, resulting in a memorable stay amidst audacious design and fantastic food and beverage. Brought to the Qatari capital by Ennismore (the team behind SLS Dubai Hotel & Residences, 25hours Hotel One Central and the forthcoming SO/ Uptown Dubai), Mondrian Doha captures my attention from the moment I cross the threshold. An impressive feat for someone who spends more time in hotels than I do in my own home.
Mondrian is big and bombastic. A staircase in the lobby spirals skywards with no apparent destination, whilst the Alice In Wonderland-like aesthetics of coffee shop EllaMia boast a colour scheme of brilliant white punctuated by a fairytale scene where bulbous trees and wide colonnades provide the guise of a frozen forest.
The very definition of a lifestyle hotel, Mondrian Doha with its monochrome rooftop pool, boasts 270 bedrooms over 27 floors, some with impressive features that are only matched by the views over the Arabian Gulf. A tour of the SkyHouse reveals a private cinema bed adorned in red velvet and theatre-style curtains, the Penthouse boasts a games room with pool tables and a private elevator, whilst the Bridal Suite features a canopied four-poster bed, gold chaise lounge and impressive photography mirror for that perfect selfie. My spacious Deluxe Loft Suite is subdued in comparison. Still, it retains funky touches such as gold sculptures hidden beneath glass bell jars and intricate wallpaper detailing depicting mosques and Arabic lanterns.
A city of culture
Venturing out to explore Doha, I’m immediately impressed by the stature of Qatar’s capital. Spreading north to south along the country’s east coast, there is plenty to see and do, whether you’re a culture vulture (like me), a foodie, or a family in search of fun.
At the Pearl Qatar, an artificial island spanning nearly four-square kilometres and resembling (you guessed it) a pearl, I feel as though I’ve been transported to the Mediterranean thanks to yacht-lined marinas and replicas of the Venetian canals. As one of the largest real-estate developments in the Middle East and the first land in Qatar to be available for freehold ownership by foreign nationals, The Pearl is an expat haven and a hub of activity.
Whilst visiting Katara Cultural Village, I’m hit with a juxtaposition of old and new. A classic Greek amphitheatre and the exquisite shimmering tiling of the beautiful Golden Masjid butt up against the air-conditioned outdoor streets (yes, you read that correctly) of the luxurious Galeries Lafayette. It’s a perfect representation of Qatar, a place where heritage and modernity meld together in a vision for the future. A future where culture is not only preserved but proudly promoted.
Doha is a city of surprises. At Msheireb Downtown, the world’s first sustainable downtown regeneration project and one of the world’s smartest cities, driverless trams and modern architecture envelop an area of significant historical importance. Here, museums housed in Arabic mansions tell the story of Qatar including the portrayal of Qatari life inside Radwani House and a gut-wrenching exhibition on slavery inside Bin Jalmood House.
Doha is a city of delightful dining destinations, whether it’s local flavours or global brands such as Hakkasan, Nobu and Zuma you’re after. Dubai favourites including GAIA and Shanghai Me are present and correct, as are celebrity chef-fronted concepts from Alain Ducasse, Izu Ani, Tom Aikens and Wolfgang Puck.
The Doha outpost of Japanese hotspot Morimoto is buzzing on the Tuesday evening I visit. Entering through a copper corridor that leads into an expansive restaurant space complete with a thrumming sushi counter, I take a seat amidst glass cases filled with octopus and scallops for an eight-course omakase. Fronted by the only Japanese chef in Doha, Morimoto offers a top-notch, FACT Award-winning dining experience.
Should you find yourself in Qatar, I have two pieces of advice. Number one, don’t leave Doha without taking a trip to Souq Waqif. The fascinating marketplace sells everything from spices and abayas to handicrafts and pets and has been in operation for over a century. Its proximity to the Arabian Gulf made it ideal for trade, and whilst the area was modernised in 2006, the narrow alleyways are still home to plenty of exciting finds. Check out the fascinating falcon hospital, dine on Qatari cuisine or marvel at the spiral minaret of the Fanar Qatar Islamic Cultural Center.
If your schedule permits, head down to Sealine in the South East of Qatar for an Arabian adventure amidst the towering desert dunes. Whilst quad biking and camel riding are the trend de jour. Instead, I’d recommend finding a competent tour guide who can navigate the dunes and get you safely to the Inland Sea (Khawr al Udayd). Around two and half hours from Doha, the trip is well worth the effort, for it is one of only three places in the world where the desert dunes meet the ocean. Straddling the border between Qatar and Saudi Arabia, the Inland Sea offers crystal clear waters and stunning sunset vistas, resulting in the most memorable experience of my Qatari adventures.
12 Chairs, as the name suggests, is a 12-seat bar where caviar bumps and champagne are the name of the game. Waiting for my departure back to Dubai, I’m impressed by the discretion of this intimate venue at Mondrian Doha. Led by the charismatic Marcus and Hamza, 12 Chairs offers an omakase menu where caviar in various forms is the star of the show, amidst effortless luxury at ground level.
In fact, Mondrian Doha is the perfect microcosm of Qatar as a whole. A place that prioritises culture whilst making a push towards the future. As I sit contemplating my visit, which involved falcons perched atop chairs, crystal spa showers, skyline views and daring desert adventures, one thing is evident: FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 might be just a few weeks away, but the legacy will not be from the games but from the culture. For Qatar has so much more to offer than the football tournament. It’s a country of fashion, food, history and heritage.
Offering the ideal weekend break for GCC residents, Qatar is the short-haul destination that everyone is talking about right now.
Doha is accessible via direct daily flights from Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Jeddah and Riyadh with Qatar Airways.
GO: Visit https://visitqatar.com for more information.