"But Qatar is So Boring!"
My experience shopping in Doha
Places to visit
Ideas of things to do
Final thoughts about having fun in Doha
**Heads up: There will be an unexpected quoted F-bomb dropped in a bit.
The LEGO store at Doha Festival City
It was interesting to hear all the locals talk about how boring Doha (and by extension, Qatar) was! It was interesting because I thought Qatar was an absolute blast, especially Doha. Restaurants, malls, museums, beaches, parks, souqs, cinemas, the corniche, and all those random food festivals, cultural celebrations, and guest speakers! Plus, there was the desert—a real desert—with sand and everything! Listen, I know that people will always find boredom in their hometown, and I know that as someone new to the country I was easily entertained & impressed, but Qatar really felt like it genuinely had a bunch of stuff to offer.
Now, this isn’t exactly your standard, happy-go-lucky, “top ten must see destinations for tourists” kind of list, this is a list of the things I experienced. It’s a list of things I found interesting, entertaining, special, or just a worthwhile way to kill sometime. Some stuff is touristy, some stuff is seemingly random, and some stuff I only heard of and never actually got around to doing, but everything in this list was something I thought was worth sharing.
So, let’s get to listin’!
I quickly realized that shopping was a recreational norm for a lot of people Qatar, which explained why there were so many options of places to shop around Doha. Shopping felt like a national pastime, which is why it gets its own XL section within this post.
The VIP side of Villaggio Mall.
My experience with malls growing up was primarily Virginia Center Commons, which was . . . let’s just say its hay day had long since passed, even when I was a kid. My top memories from there were the Dairy Queen, being harassed by a saleswoman to buy a prom dress five months before prom, and getting a deep leg scratch on an absurdly sharp New York & Company table. This was all before White Oak Mall was built, which was closer to my neighborhood, but also outdoors and pretty spaced out, which made it easier to explore with a car rather than on foot.
Doha, however, had a lot of malls, each very different than the other. Many of them even had anywhere between two and five floors, and most stayed open really late (another thing Richmond isn’t known for . . . malls in Richmond tend to wrap up by 6pm). Some Qatari malls were fancy, some were simple, some were unfinished, some had VIP entrances (that led directly into the expensive parts of the mall), some had outdoor air conditioning, and all of them were full of places to eat and shop . . . among other things.
All malls had the basics, like food courts and cheap clothing stores, but a lot of them also had various combinations of grocery stores, cinemas, sit-down restaurants, cafes, dessert bars, mini food carts, specialty stores (like for bakeware), name brand stores (like an NBA store), and some very upscale stores. Versace, Hermes, Louis Vuitton—I had never seen those stores in person before, and they just casually existed in some malls around Doha. I remember that Villaggio Mall was described to me as “the shitty mall”, even though it was home to an array of fancy stores on one end, lots of regular stores on the other end, a few ceiling frescoes, a grocery store, a gondola ride, some tacky, but still appreciated facades of Italian houses, some nice restaurants (like P.F. Chang’s and Cheesecake Factory), some regular restaurants (like Hardees), and an ice skating rink.
See that fenced-in white floor behind me? Ice skating rink.
With all these things nestled cozily inside the “shitty mall”, it made me wonder what the nice malls looked like.
Well, the nice malls look shiny, seemingly gilded in gold and resting high atop manmade hills like miniature acropolises, complete with a miniature Louvres (see Al Hazm Mall . . . no, really, click that link).
Other malls, like Doha Festival City, had the coolest stuff, like a LEGO store and some mysterious, possibly temporary VR Stations. Malls often hosted random events or activities, like pop up fashion shows and life-sized, fully playable Monopoly boards, so it’s possible that the VR station fell into that category.
LEGO camel at the LEGO Store in Doha Festival City
I had never seen a LEGO store before, nor had I ever seen a real LEGO set up close. Cool, right?!
DFC also had a movie theater and a . . . laser tag place? Or was that a frozen place? There was some manner of fun-space that either involved lasers or ice lasers. Whatever it was, though, you could figure it out at the map navigation help desk. Yeah, instead of mounted plastic maps with the names of closed down stores scratched out amongst the surrounding grime that has built up over the years from the moist hands of lost patrons, DFC had a service desk, complete with multiple touch screen maps, 3D graphics, and actual humans.
There was also some sort of train for kids to ride on around the mall, and a roller coaster. I’m not talking about those cute mini coasters with half a hill, the kind that’s a blast for toddlers, I’m talking about a coaster of considerable scale with an Angry Birds theme. It totally blew my mind.
However, not all malls were incredible, some malls were objectively whack like B Square, which sat eerily off the highway, seemingly the only source of light in a very dark area (possibly that unfinished neighborhood people were talking about). Another one, the Children’s Mall, has plans to be really awesome, but it wasn’t yet open, meaning it resembled a dark & spooky escalator-filled, seemingly abandoned, but impressively shaped shell of a building.
Other malls I visited included the Mall of Qatar (which was fairly new with lots of stores & eateries), Gate Mall (fairly upscale), Landmark Mall (relatively close to Education City), City Center (five floors filled with lots of things), Medina Centrale (part town, part shopping center in The Pearl), and The Mall (yes, there’s a mall called “the mall”).
Despite all these mall visitations, though, I barely bought anything. Over the course of four months, this was my entire mall experience:
Visited my first P.F. Chang’s
Visited my first Victoria’s Secret (and had a mild panic attack)
Visited my first H&M (I visited one of these stores three times and bought five articles of clothing . . . then later got rid of two. Haha, that sounds like a math problem.)
Visited a Hardees (where the woman was really confused as to why I’d buy the medium curly fry when the large was only 60 cents more expensive)
Visited a Baskin Robbins cart
Visited my second Cheesecake Factory
Visited my first LEGO Store
Visited Carrefour twice (first to buy a tea mug, next to buy a Vanilla Coke)
Visited Payless (which was somehow a lot better than the ones in the U.S.)
I had to get some shoes for graduation and, wow, their BOGO sales were somehow exponentially better than Payless BOGO in the U.S. Even though I was technically getting the same deal, the shoes in Doha’s Payless were of a much higher quality than the shoes in (now liquidated) American Payless)
Visited Eatopia and Fanajeen at (where I had another panic attack)
And . . . that’s it. I can count all my Qatari mall experiences on two hands.
Fanajeen at Gate Mall
See, I’ve never been a “mall person”, or much of a shopper in general (and that goes for clothes and eating out). This is why I was more than content to just observe the mall culture in Doha. I couldn’t help but wonder why there were so many, though! But then it hit me that one reason for that could simply be because a lot of people in Qatar had money to spend (it’s no secret that Qatar has been the wealthiest country in the world for a while now).
Another reason why malls may have been so popular is because there sort of isn’t anything else to do. I know I opened the post talking about how there was so much to do in Doha, but I’m talking about something different here. See, alcohol isn’t really a thing in Qatar; restaurants don’t casually serve it, grocery stores don’t sell it, it’s stupid expensive when you do find it, and since the country is Muslim there isn’t a notable drinking culture anyway. You also aren’t going to be spending your time getting high because Qatar is really serious about recreational drug use and compared to the U.S. it’s incredibly hard to find non-prescription drugs. Even though there are a ton of things to do that don’t involve getting drunk or high, when you take it away as an option it suddenly makes everything you do have access to seem boring, sort of like presenting a dessert buffet and telling everyone they can eat everything except the cookies . . . it’s going to make people want to eat the cookies and dismiss every other sugary treat on the table.
However, there were still some non-illegal reasons why people seemed to think Qatar was boring. For one thing, the country isn’t known for its music scene, so there haven’t been many concerts & music festivals popping up, nor was there a much of a theater or dance culture . . . generally speaking, performing arts outside of cultural celebrations and private classes just didn’t seem to be popular. It’s also terribly hot for a third of the year and very windy very often, which gives further incentive to do indoor activities, like hang at a mall. Also, a lot of young Muslims have family curfews, especially women, which means exploring Qatar’s nightlife isn’t always an option for some people.
So, when you don’t have easy access to alcohol or drugs, when there isn’t much incentive to spend time outdoors for a third of the year, when performing arts isn’t really a thing, and when you’ve got a bunch of cash to burn, what do you do?
You shop and you eat.
I feel like I’m oversimplifying it, but I hope you’re picking up at least a fraction of what I’m putting down. Qatar had hundreds of halal entertainment options—it was basically a haven of “good, clean fun”—and the malls provided most of them.
My experience with souqs prior to Qatar had been Morocco, specifically the souq in the Fes Medina which was sprawling. Tight, crowded, loud, colorful, and very, very old, the souq was a sensory overload, and it’s why I was nervous about what the souqs in Qatar would bring.
Well, I visited two souqs while I was in Qatar: Souq Waqif and Souq Wakrah.
Souq Wakrah was the smaller of the two and seemed very, very quiet. I only visited it once, and when I was there it was evening (which meant a lot of shops were presumably closed for the night, though it was honestly hard to tell). Even still, though, all the restaurants were open (witch plenty of casual options) and there was a beach! The beach had artificial boat sculptures and a somewhat confusing sign (explaining that the park was only for families, not couples or singles). However, my friend and I walked along the beach no problem and I got to touch the Persian Gulf for the first time! I liked Souq Wakrah, it was simple, and probably would have been more exciting in the daylight hours without being overwhelming.
Souq Waqif, however, was quite different . . .
Souq Waqif at night. That oddly scaled building to the right is a tarp covering a construction project. The practice that walling off construction projects with printed images is a practice that a lot of countries do, come to find out . . . the U.S. is not one of them.
Souq Waqif was the larger one, the older one, the tourist attraction, and it was nothing like my experience in Morocco’s big, old, popular souq. Souq Waqif was gorgeous, and at times bougie as hell). It was clean and organized, there were maps on every walkway, there were plenty of (clean) restrooms, it had lots of parking options (paid by the hour), and there were seemingly no flies. The crowds were minimal, there were never any tight squeezes, it was filled with plenty of hotels and restaurants (many with shisha by the way) and it was generally quiet (a rarity in souqs & bazaars, as I’ve learned). Also, the salesmen didn’t get pushy until I physically walked into their store, as in to say, they weren’t intensely yelling at me from the street. It was . . . chill. As far as Arab markets go, Souq Waqif was chill.
You see what I mean? It’s very spacious and has multiple entrances. That white fence leads to/from the underground parking lot.
The main path in Souq Waqif is definitely the tourist trap . . . you’ll know it when you see it. However, as you gravitate down the side paths, you’ll run across the other areas of the souq, like the Bird Souq, the Fabric Souq, the Gold Souq, the Falcon Souq (which was different than the Bird Souq apparently), and areas to buy kitchenware, antiques, locally-made goods, and snacks (including packaged goods, fresh juice, local food like manakish and Arabic crepes, and dessert . . . getting Turkish ice cream is an activity all its own). Once there was even a random parade, an extension of the Spring Festival come to find out, that excitedly marched pass my window seat at a juice bar in the souq.
Since Qatar didn’t have the equivalent of a PetSmart, the Bird Souq seemed like where most animals for sale lived. I saw birds, bunnies, turtles, cats, dogs, and fish.
Cool stores inside Souq Waqif
Things I found in Souq Waqif
Al Qudsi Sweets in Souq Waqif
Truth be told, though, I had some people badmouth the fact I enjoyed the souq, arguing that it was too touristy (and because they themselves were “not a fucking tourist” that somehow dismissed my interest in the souq). Well, ignoring the fact that I was a tourist and thus touristy things naturally attracted me, I actually didn’t think that the souq was too touristy. It wasn’t filled with big tour groups, or foreigners taking pictures and deciphering Google Maps amongst tight crowds, or salesmen loudly encouraging you to enter their stores only to severely upcharge you. There were even a substantial number of locals in the souq, probably because it’s 1) A good place to buy certain items at a decent price (like fabric, pets, and giant food platters) and 2) Simply a pleasant place to hang out.
The pleasantry of just hanging in the souq is really what I enjoyed the most about it. I enjoyed just sitting and people watching, or walking around, or drinking tea & juice, or getting dessert. I enjoyed the multisensory window shopping—all the different things to see and eat and smell, and sometimes touch. I enjoyed the way it lit up at night, and I enjoyed the random events that seemed to pop up every so often. I enjoyed being surprised, seeing things that had never once crossed my mind as even existing, and experiencing an environment that simply didn’t exist in the U.S.
Venturing into the Fabric Souq
Just shopping in general
I want to tell you a story about one of my few experiences shopping in a store that wasn’t inside a mall or a souq.
Toys“R”Us in Al Sadd
I decided to visit a Toys“R”Us, specifically because all the U.S. ones would be shut down by the time I came back to the States (so they said). C’mon, you remember when Toys“R”Us was closing, right? Generations of people were sharing their nostalgic Toys“R”Us memories (mine was getting a toy every time my grandmother got her hair done because the store was next to her hairdresser), and then that really sweet “goodbye” message from Geoffrey came out. Of course I wanted to experience potentially my last Toys“R”Us! Plus, I was super curious to see how different the Toys“R”Us in Doha were compared to the ones I’d visited in Viriginia.
Well, the one I went to was a little . . . lack luster. It was big, sort of warehouse-y, and didn’t have the huge signs, cardboard cutouts, or pops of color that I was anticipating. It did have a whole room dedicated to Barbie stuff, I believe, but otherwise it was just a really big toy store . . . which is technically what all Toys“R”Us are, but this one was bare bones. I feel like the one inside Doha Festival City would have been a bit more up my alley. Oh! But that’s not to say that this standalone Toys“R”Us wasn’t up my alley. After all, they had a LEGO table! And yes, I played on, but I did it alongside one of my friends so I wouldn’t look like a solitary weirdo. Even still, though, two 20-somethings playing with blocks in a near empty Toys R’ Us is by far not the craziest thing people have seen.
Places to visit
Some of these places I visited, and some of these places I just wanted to visit, but here they all are!
Turns out the amusement park is called “Entertainment World Village”. The way it was described to me, well, it sounded like a slightly more legitimate version of those suspicious pop-up fairs that show up in abandoned mall parking lots. However, turns out it’s actually super legitimate in that there’s a lot of food, all the rides are clearly safe, and they often have cultural celebration events (as in to say, an entire day at the park will be dedicated to celebrating the culture of a particular country). It’s pretty small—if you look at Google, it says people usually spend only two hours there—and it seems to only be open during the evenings in April & May.
Qatar naturally had a lot of beaches, but come to find out, not all were fully accessible, as in to say, some were private and charged an entry fee. However, most others were free—your standard beach situation—and some were just sort of . . . there. I was at Souq Wakrah, for example, and when I reached the end of the souq I was met by the coastline, complete with those dhow boat sculptures I mentioned earlier. This was where I touched the Persian Gulf for the first time!
There was also a beach outside Katara, one of the pay-for-entry ones. There was no one at the beach, so perhaps it wasn’t . . . open? I thought the whole thing was strange, but something I thought was cool were the beach tents! Apparently, you can rent beach tents and wow they were a lot classier than the $20 DIY white canopies from Walmart.
It’s a lovely place to walk around and I think it looks good from almost every angle. The Museum of Islamic Art is right next door, it’s corresponding park (MIA Park) overlooks the Corniche, the Corniche itself has a walkway with people selling food and, my favorite part, the water is always littered with dhow boats! Boats usually make me motion sick, and too much stimuli (like music and flashing lights) usually make me feel awful, but the dhow boats were great! The water was gentle and the boat party atmosphere wasn’t overwhelming at all.
The first, last, and only time I saw camels in Qatar. I saw them while in the desert.
I had technically seen a desert when I went to Morocco, but I was on the outskirts of the Sahara, the part that’s just flat, dry, and coastal (as opposed to covered in giant sand dunes). This is why the desert in Qatar completely blew my mind! There was so much sand, you guys! I know, that sounds obvious, but when you’re looking at a natural landscape you’ve never seen before, the little things blow your mind because everything is new.
This is me standing on a giant sand dune pointing at more giant sand dunes!
There were more things to do in the desert than I anticipated. I didn’t go too deep into the dunes, but around where the desert begins there were a few resorts, a small beach, a World Cup stadium, and oil refineries (which you should not photograph, by the way), camel rides, and a variety of ATV’s. Having “barbecues” (which apparently meant going out to the desert and building a bonfire) was also a thing people did, so I learned, and camping was always an option (because were plenty of organizations that hosted trips). While I was there, I rode an ATV (in wedge heels because I had no idea that was on the agenda) and it was incredibly fun to ride full speed down a sand dune . . . even though I got it stuck in the sand that one time. I also took dramatic photos in one of those H&M dresses I bought because, hey, why not?
Desert photo shoot
Katara Cultural Village
View from the back of a golf cart
Katara is home to a lot of stuff, including a gallery, some cafes, a beautiful mosque, a pigeon tower, an amphitheater, and lots of art offices. To get around, you can walk, or you can ride on one of their nifty golf carts.
Katara Cultural Village
Real talk, I never had the desire to visit the mangroves, just an hour outside Doha. My idea of a mangrove forest was a swamp . . . still water, mosquitoes, algae, splotchy bits of land, weird trees, a dense canopy, and water so murky you can’t see what’s underneath. However, come to find out, the mangrove forest in Qatar is not nearly as swampy as I envisioned. In comparison to the Florida mangroves, for example, the Qatar mangroves are dryer, sparser, and in my opinion, less ominous. It’s more like a small bay, deep enough for canoes to travel, sustainable enough for plants & animals to inhabit, but not a dense & damp forest of green.
Qatar’s national mosque, the Imam Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab Mosque
I visited two mosques in Doha: The national mosque and the Education City Mosque, which are both open to the public outside of prayer time. General mosque rules: Everyone must dress modestly, women have to cover their hair, there are separate prayer halls for men and women, and you can’t wear shoes in the prayer hall. Both the mosques I visited adhered to these rules, so be aware.
I minored in art history with a partial emphasis on Islamic art, so perhaps I was understandably a little “extra” when it came to how excited and impressed I was with the mosque—but—I also think it’s an objectively beautiful building, and that you don’t have to be an artist, religious peep, or history nerd to appreciate how gorgeous it is inside and out. I was told that they give out free abayas to the female visitors, but that is so untrue. Instead, they just gave me an abaya and shayla to wear while in the mosque (you just throw it on over your day clothes and the attendants will help you if you need it).
The national mosque
The Education City Mosque is part of a larger building that also housed classrooms and a little museum space. It’s an impressive feat of architecture and design, and a very different aesthetic from the national mosque. My favorite aspects of it were the tiny interior lights that looked like stars, the Arabic scripture sculpted into the building, the twin minarets that looked like they were from the future, and the five columns that represented the five pillars of Islam (also inscribed with Arabic scripture). The fact that the building is almost entirely white was also a striking image.
The women’s prayer hall in the Education City Mosque.
There’s the Msheireb Museums, which are located in Qatar’s newly renovated city district, Msheireb Downtown Doha (Doha’s historic commercial center). The Msheireb Museums are split into four houses: The Bin Jelmood House (about slavery in Qatar and its neighbors), the Company House (about the history of petroleum in the country), the Mohammed Bin Jassim House (about Msheireb Downtown Doha), and the Radwani House (about family life in Qatar). Each of the Houses are literally renovated houses, and each serve to comment on some aspect of Qatari history (in a way that is meant to tie into the present and Qatar’s image of the future).
There’s also the Museum of Islamic Art and the National Museum of Qatar, which opened in March 2019 (months after I’d already left the country). The National Museum looks incredible inside and out (as in to say, the inside is full of interactive tech and the outside is shaped like a desert rose!).
Museum of Islamic Art
Even though Qatar is literally a desert, there were a substantial number of parks (complete with grass and ducks). The ones I went to included Aspire Park (across from Villaggio Mall), Oxygen Park (in Education City), MIA Park (behind the Museum of Islamic Art), and Sheraton Hotel Park (adjacent to the Sheraton Hotel). There was also Al Bidda Park, which opened in 2019, and seems to be very dog friendly (which is notable because Doha definitely had an affinity for cats).
The Pearl is a manmade island, a fun fact I didn’t learn until after I had left the country, oddly enough. It’s primarily a commercial district with lots of stores, restaurants, entertainment, resorts, and some apartments. Some places were naturally a bit pricey, but it was definitely a pedestrian-friendly place to walk around (unlike much of Doha). Although, when I visited The Pearl it was awkwardly empty . . . perhaps it was simply the time of day.
The canal at The Pearl
I have only bounced on a trampoline once in my life, but it’s on my bucket list to do it at least one more time, preferably in a supervised room covered with trampolines, harnesses, and perhaps a pit of foam blocks. Similar to Jumpology in Richmond, Doha had a place called Bounce.
Just like Richmond has Water Country 45 minutes away (in Williamsburg), a 45-minute drive from Doha could land you in Aqua Park. It is as it sounds, a water park with all the joys water parks typically have. The only difference is that some days are specifically for ladies or families, as in to say, on Ladies Day only women and young children are allowed in, and on Family Day everyone is allowed in except single men.
VR Machines at a spring festival. I swear, pop up VR stations just seemed to be everywhere in Doha.
The events aren’t “pop-up” in the sense that they are completely and wholly unexpected; they’re usually advertised somewhere, but communication in Doha can sometimes be a bit . . . limited, making these scheduled fairs & festivals seem like random events!
Either way, though, they usually last for a few days, sometimes weeks depending on the event. As corny as this sounds, a good way to keep track of this stuff that’s going on is Eventbrite and I Love Qatar, a website that is simply devoted to keeping peeps updated on things to do, eat, and see in Qatar.
I stumbled onto four events in Doha: The spring festival at Souq Waqif, some sort of science show for kids at Sheraton Park, some sort of spring festival on a plot of land that I assume was a park, and some sort of . . . thing at Aspire Park (some sort of competition, possibly sports related, with a beautiful canopy of rainbow ribbons leading up to it all).
Qatar hosted a lot of food festivals, or at the very least there were always serious food vendors at other festivals. Funnily, though, my friend expressed that Doha didn’t quite grasp the concept of a food festival in that they sometimes served serious food for serious money. This was very different than the super casual food-truck atmosphere I was used to in Richmond, where vendors serve but simple, but good, cheap food that you can walk around with (like crab cakes, grilled cheese, or, interestingly, banh mi sandwiches).
This was a food truck at that mysterious, eerily empty spring festival I visited.
There was also the occasional farmer’s market popping up around Doha. For a while it was held every weekend in Education City.
Qatar hosted a lot of cultural events. Some focused on a specific country, others focused on a general ethnicity, and some were huge celebrations of the various expat communities in the country. I only went to one of these, which I actually just stumbled upon in Education City. It was huge, full of (free) food, a giant majlis, a fashion show, and cultural performances (like dances).
Random activity ideas
Consider everything in this section to be the verb answer of “What to do in Qatar?” As in to say, you ask, “What should I do?” and I say “You can . . .”
Visit an arcade
The lobby of Megapolis Entertainment Center
The two arcades I found in Doha were at the Student Center beside the bowling alley (in Education City) and Megapolis Entertainment Center (in the Pearl).
Ride a bike
Doha as a whole was in the process of becoming more bike and pedestrian friendly, even though biking (and walking) were not super popular. Coming from Richmond where biking is huge, it was an odd shift in environment, but I understood it; weather, traffic, and endless construction in Doha just didn’t inspire a “let’s go biking!” sort of attitude from most people.
I saw one professional biker on the street in Doha, but if you’re more of a casual biker like I am, Doha had a good handful of places for biking. Al Bidda Park and Education City seemed very bike friendly (in fact, you can even rent bikes from somewhere in EC). Oh, and do you remember that eerie unfinished neighborhood I mentioned earlier? People told me that was a great place to bike because the streets were totally deserted!
Mini bowling alley in the Student Center
There were a few bowling alleys in Qatar, most notably the Qatar Bowling Center. The two I saw, though, were at the Student Center (in Education City) and Megapolis Entertainment Center (in the Pearl).
Go camping (or glamping)
Camping out in the desert is a thing in Qatar. I’d recommend doing it with some sort of organization (as opposed to just wandering out into the dunes with a backpack and a prayer). A lot of these organizations offer very comfortable camping experiences, the kind with lots of food, big tents, telephones, and toilets.
I’m not usually one for clubs, but I was curious about the club scene in Doha, and to my surprise, there were a surprising number of options. I only went to one club in Doha, a casual outdoor club called The Backyard (attached to the Sheraton Hotel). What was that like? It was okay. Like I said, I’m not big on clubbing, so I gave my drink vouchers to a friend, I didn’t dance much because I didn’t vibe with the music (except when they played Bruno Mars, naturally), and the live band was . . . well, they did the worst covers of Stevie Wonder I had ever heard in my life.
I think my favorite part about the club was people watching. For example, there was one woman who was absolutely trashed. Half stumbling, she shot eyes from one man to the next—on the prowl one could say—completely oblivious to the fact she wasn’t wearing pants. Maybe she lost her pants, or maybe she left the house believing that a t-shirt was long enough to function as a dress, but all I know is that when she danced everyone got a full view of her bare white ass and black thong.
Often more interesting that people watching, though, was experiencing them firsthand. I had a random Indian man, easily a decade older than I, flirt with me by stroking my hand and telling me what job position he held at a boat company. I had some strangers at my table offer to buy me a beer so I could loosen up (an extraordinary red flag, so I obviously said no). I even had two (white) women encourage me to get “white girl wasted”, which apparently is what they planned to do.
Based only on that one experience, it seemed like clubs in Doha could get rowdy in a way that wasn’t present in the U.S. club scene. Don’t get me wrong, clubs home in the States can get rowdy too (to say the least), but the ones in Qatar seemed to be a bit more intense, probably because clubs were one of the few places where people can drink, flirt, dance, and dress immodestly without issue.
Something else I should note is that when I came into the club, the security guy initially told me I wasn’t old enough to come in. I had just turned 21—the legal age to do just about anything anywhere in the world—so I knew for a fact I was old enough to be in the club. The misunderstanding emerged because he was looking at my Virginia ID, which listed my birthday in the traditional U.S. order: Month/Date/Year. In Qatar, however, dates are listed Date/Month/Year (as it is in many countries), which makes reading our weird U.S. dates a bit tricky for anyone not used to it.
Further still, getting into a club can be a bit of a process even without any ID confusion. You may have not one, but two security guards check your ID. Your purse may get hand-searched and/or sent through an x-ray machine, while you will have to walk through a metal detector. You’ll also probably get some sort of stamp on your wrist, presumably to let you back into the club if you leave, and, naturally, any external beverages you have will have to be tossed out. I may not be big on the club scene in the U.S., but I’m pretty sure we don’t go through such a serious safety screening process.
Ah, but speaking of safety, Qatar was considered the safest country in the world in 2018 (and it beat its own statistical record in 2019). However, if you do decide to go clubbing, I still say you should keep your wits about you, especially as a woman. Don’t leave your drinks unattended, let others know if you’re going home (especially if you leave with someone else), don’t drive drunk (or buzzed, damnit), and please try not to get stupid smashed, especially if you’re by yourself. Oh, speaking of that, though, it’s technically illegal to be publicly intoxicated. I was told that being drunk in public and calling a taxi/Uber would result in the driver taking you directly to the police station, but locals assured me that was absolute malarkey (the taxi part, not the drunk-in-public part . . . being publicly drunk in Qatar is still a big no-no).
Eat at a restaurant
Eating at restaurants or ordering takeout (which peeps in Qatar called “takeaway”) is an activity in itself. You can read more about all that in the post The Restuarant Scene in Doha.
Explore Education City
Qatar National Library
There is a lot to do and see in Education City, more than I even got around to experiencing. Most buildings (and their services) were open to the public, although once night falls you need a student or employee ID to get pass the gates. Some stuff in EC includes the national library, Oxygen Park, the Student Center, and what I think was a skate park. All these places, excluding the skate park, often hosted random events like food fairs, concerts, or guest speakers. Plus, universities also often hosted events open to the public, and whatever university you’re attending (assuming you’re a student) will undeniably host a myriad of events to keep people entertained and educated!
Studio 20Q is an annual event at Northwestern University where student short films are premiered.
I also thought it was fun to just explore my own university. VCUQ is an arts & design school, so they naturally had bits and baubles of random tools and materials to mess with, but something else about VCUQ that I enjoyed was the fact it was a small indoor school (in contrast to VCU-Richmond’s sprawling urban campus). I had a good time simply exploring different areas around the building to sit, which sounds boring as hell, but it was all part of a new experience, you know?
The LEGO table in the VCUQ Design department
My LEGO creations
I also explored the Northwestern building, which was still relatively new, and had lots of places to pop a squat. One night, my friend and I found some comfortable chairs in an outdoor nook, overlooking a sturdy yet attractive concrete balcony. The WiFi still worked outside, so I introduced him to one of my favorite movies and streamed Cinderella (the Rodger & Hammerstein adaptation that premiered on "The Wonderful World of Disney" in 1997). It was a fun night that started off simply by wanting to sit somewhere I didn’t usually sit.
You can read more about what else is in EC in the post Explain Education City.
Explore outside of Education City
Palm trees at the Corniche, 20 minutes from Education City.
If you’re an exchange student like I was, you probably live, go to school, and possibly work in Education City, meaning you are spending an absurd amount of time on campus. When you factor in the fact EC has amenities like food, gyms, a park, a bank, a mini grocery store, and lots of entertainment options, it basically has everything a student needs and more. However, EC is like a bubble, so do your best not to get stuck on campus 24/7! To me, exploring outside Education City was an activity in itself, even if I only went across the street to a corner store, or to the Corniche to look at palm trees.
Me, I don’t ice skate. I tried it once and it was high key boring (and low key terrible) because I had to hang onto the railing the whole time, using my arms to propel myself forward every few meters because every time I tried to move my legs, I slipped. In short, you guys, I don’t know how to ice skate. However, there were multiple ice-skating rinks around Doha, so if that’s your thing—or if you want to learn—you’ve definitely got options.
Oh, but I should mention that roller skating—the thing I actually do know how to do—is not really a thing in Doha. There aren’t any roller rinks (or places to buy skates), but you’ve always got Amazon and sidewalks at the park! Oh, and that obscure skate park in EC!
Go to the gym
Oddly, I’ve gotten a lot of backlash from people whenever I say things like “Yeah, I’m leaving the gym, do you need anything while I’m out?” I get the sass because apparently, I’m not someone who “needs” to go to the gym (presumably because I’ve got a tiny waist). Well, here’s the thing: I don’t go to the gym to keep my waist tiny and my weight at an uncomfortably low 110 lbs, I go to the gym because I enjoy it. Skating, biking, swimming, dancing, and using a treadmill as I loudly blast Eminem and DMX are some of the few things that actually relax me (an incredible feat considering I’ve got the lifestyle of an overachieving glitchy robot always on the verge of a panic attack).
That said, going to the gym counts as a fun activity for me. Education City has either two or three gyms (one for girls, one for boys, and possibly a big one that alternates), as well as an Olympic sized pool and workout classes that were free for students. There were also a ton of gyms around Doha that offer classes, equipment, memberships, training, and the option of coed or gender separate spaces. I especially liked the gym and classes at the Sheraton Hotel (I did two sessions of a hip-hop dance workout course and, lord, it was exhausting—and my lack of coordination was in full force—but it was fun as hell and nice to be in a room of exclusively ladies).
See a movie
The Black Panther premiere at Novo Cinemas, The Pearl
On the bright side, Qatar premieres U.S. movies prior to their U.S. release dates (a practice that most countries do, come to find out). On the downside, some movies don’t show in Qatar (usually because of politics, pro-LGBT+ themes, or anything related to Israel), and even the movies that do show are sometimes censored. In Black Panther, for example, they cut the scene where two unmarried characters kissed.
However, most movies still show in theaters, and many of the theaters in Qatar are very nice. They’re always clean and some have things like mini Starbucks, sushi, and free water bottles! Oh, but note, I often heard “the movies” referred to as “the cinema” . . . it’s not a big deal, just one of those things my American ears picked up on in conversation.
Also, even if you don’t feel like venturing out to the cinema, there’s always Netflix (among whatever other streaming options you can find), which is not outrageously censored. You can still get all the blood, guts, sex, nudity, profanity, affairs, drug use, and satanic demon possessions you’re accustomed to in the U.S.
Ride around and look at buildings
The Doha skyline from a dhow boat on the Corniche.
The architecture in Qatar is extraordinary. The skyline always impressed me with its varying colors and shapes, and I loved seeing it from different angles and at different distances. Then you’ve got buildings like the National Library, the Education City Mosque, the National Museum, or even just the Al-Gannas Societ next to the Children’s Mall (essentially a giant falcon mask next to two giant gift boxes). You can read a bit more about the architecture in my post about the art scene in Doha, but for now just trust that making a day committed simply to visiting the coolest buildings in town is a worthwhile activity.
Al-Gannas Society. I don’t know if it’s a museum or what, but it’s all about falconry.
Take a tour
I know, this is the most touristy thing anyone could do, but as cliché as it sounds, it can be fun. It’s also a decent way to get your feet wet, like getting a crash course in what Qatar has to offer, allowing you to explore further on your own sometime later.
I especially liked the Souq Waqif tour by Embrace Doha. This organization offered three options for touring the souq: A women’s tour, a men’s tour, and a family tour. We can discuss all day long about what sights & activities are more/less appropriate for men and women, but for now just know that it’s not a simple, repetitive tour. The store that us students took was the family tour and was led by a woman, possibly Louisa Agnelika (and if she’s the person I’m thinking of, she’s a super badass entrepreneur and great tour guide). I visited the souq three times over the first two weeks I was in Doha, but my experience with this tour in particular was the most enjoyable and varied.
Remember this bird? I met this guy during the souq tour with Embrace Doha. He cracks me up even more in GIF form.
With everything I experienced in Doha, I couldn’t help but compare it to my experience in Richmond. In terms of size, Doha and Richmond are both pretty small; you can get anywhere in the Greater Richmond Area within 45 minutes, and Doha felt the same way. They even have some of the same stores and restaurants, but they still wound up being very different in some unexpected ways.
Richmond is truly full of all kinds of things to do; we’ve got a fantastic art scene, lots of historical stuff, and some awesome food, but I’d spent most of my 20 years in neighborhoods that didn’t have those things nearby. Having that Richmond is so small, it’s really easy to get to the neighborhoods that do have these things, but in order to get there you need a car (and gas to put in the car, and money to buy gas with). We’ve got a great bus line, and it’s gotten even better over the years, but there are some parts of town that the buses simply don’t run to (primarily the affluent parts of town where a lot of the “cool stuff” is located). I did have the pleasure of living in downtown Richmond for two years—and there are a lot of things to do, see, and eat downtown—but much of that experience was a bit stunted because of the whole “broke full time student with a part time job” thing.
In Qatar, though, it was different because even though I was still a broke college student, Doha felt so much more accessible than Richmond. Some reasons for that include:
There was always a lot to do on campus, and the fact EC was much smaller than VCU-Richmond (in terms of size and population), it made spending time at events much easier for me
Lots of free things within walking distance, especially on campus
Ubers were much cheaper in Qatar, so anything not in walking distance was easy to access
Generally, Doha just seemed to have more stuff packed in “per square inch”, if that makes sense. For example, all types of restaurants—fast food, cafes, casual, sit-down, etc.—were spaced out around Doha; they weren’t restricted to one side of town. I didn’t have to go far if I ever wanted to hang out at an eatery (or a mall, or a park, etc.)
Doha was also a lot safer than Richmond. Like I mentioned earlier, Qatar was statistically the safest country in the world. Because of that, it felt as though I didn’t have to worry about the same things I have to worry about in Richmond when it came to hanging out. I didn’t have to fret about getting home before dark to avoid kidnapping, or running into someone who was drunk or high, or somehow avoiding the strung-out homeless guy camping outside my apartment asking for money.
And one more thing:
I sometimes felt pressured to have fun because I was in a new country, hanging with new people, spending time at a new spot . . . I wanted to milk every aspect of my experience because I didn’t know when I’d ever get the opportunity to do something that was remotely similar to what I was currently experiencing. However, some of the environments I was in and some of the people I was with just weren’t my vibe, which meant the fun I wanted to have simply wasn’t as fun as it could have been. Further still, a lot of the things I was interested in doing, the people around me were either understandably disinterested or incredibly dismissive.
So, for a while I got stuck in a rut of doing things that were “somewhat sort of kind of fun” because those were the only activity options on my to-do list, or it was hosted by the only people I knew, or because I figured no one else was interested in the things I found fun anyway. Eventually, though, I left. I left the situations, and sometimes I left the people, and it wasn’t an act of malice or hurt. I just recognized that that I knew what my idea of fun was and that this was my adventure. If I wanted to spend all day in a museum, or sitting at the souq, or eating french fries and ice cream, or window shopping, or looking at sand, that’s what I should be doing, by all means.
I say all this because even if you’re pursuing a once in a lifetime adventure, you should still make it something you enjoy. Be open to new experiences, do the things that may not initially seem up your alley, but also do what you want, do the things that will make your adventure your adventure. Do the touristy stuff, find the hidden gems, hang out with new friends, spend all day with old friends, walk around without spending money, spend all your money, camp out in a library, play in a near-liquidated store chain, stare at the ocean, play in the sand, do it if that’s what you want to do! It’s your adventure, your journey, your time, and Qatar offered something for everyone in many, many different ways. So, explore it however you see fit.
Want to take a photograph with a tacky plastic oryx outside a bar in a hotel lobby? Go for it.