Shopping is a popular pastime in Doha, where a swanky mall or high-end designer store is always close at hand.
But if you’re after something with a more authentic feel, as well as a great night out, Souq Waqif is the place to be.
This labyrinth bazaar, whose name translates to “standing market,” is the Qatari capital’s oldest souq and a major tourist destination on its own.
Its covered passageways are stuffed with dozens of tiny stores showcasing their wares piled high along the market’s mud-coated stone walls.
If you stroll around its narrow lanes when you travel here, you’ll find everything from garments to spices, perfumes to diamonds, scented oils to falcons — and much more.
Not just a thriving marketplace, Souq Waqif is also home to a wide range of traditional-style restaurants and casual cafés which offer a diverse variety of local and regional flavors.
There are also shisha lounges and charming antique stores, as well as art galleries and luxurious boutique hotels.
A melting pot for locals and foreigners, this is the place to browse and explore, barter and shop, relax and mingle.
The trick is to sample it all, according to Amal Al Shammari, chief executive of Embrace Doha, a local platform organizing cultural sessions and events to introduce Qatari culture to expatriates and visitors.
“From the buildings, through the smells of the food and spices, to the beautifully intricate handicrafts, the souq offers an interaction with the Qatari culture,” he says.
“It is today one of the most culturally rich places in Doha and a standing piece of Qatar’s history.”
Sitting in the heart of Doha just off its waterfront, the souq’s site dates back a 100 years to a time when Bedouin and local traders would gather here to buy and sell livestock, spices, wool, pearls and other staple goods.
But as shopping centers began mushrooming across Doha over the decades, the souq gradually fell into disrepair.
After a major fire destroyed much of it in 2003, the market was given a facelift with the aim of preserving its cultural and architectural heritage.
Out went the modern buildings and in came the whitewashed structures.
Cobbled alleys, old lanterns, big wooden doors and ceilings made of bamboo were also added, all lending to the site an aging look — and a pleasant change of pace from the lofty skyscrapers and modern construction dominating Doha’s cityscape.
Here’s our pick of 10 of the best things to see and do at Souq Waqif:
Shop for your wardrobe and home
Whether it’s traditional scarves, embroidered cloaks and tailor-made robes that you’re after, or pots, pans and other kitchen hardware, Souq Waqif has you covered.
There’s an abundant display of goods on offer, including some you probably didn’t know that existed.
As you wander around the souq’s many winding alleys, it’s inevitable that you’ll get lost — but don’t be discouraged, a gem might be waiting for you just around the corner.
Haggling is highly encouraged and part of the attraction, but remember to have cash on you as most shopkeepers will not accept cards.
If you end up buying more than you can carry, a small army of wheelbarrow-pushing men are always on hand to help you bring your items to your car for a few Qatari riyals.
Sample new flavors
If you love cooking and are on the lookout for enticing flavors, you won’t want to miss the part of the souq located just a few steps away from its main entrance off the Doha Corniche.
Overflowing sacks of colorful spices lean against the packed storefronts, while crates brim with nuts and tea leaves.
Saffron, sumac, sweets, honey, dried flowers and preserved lemons — you can buy it all here.
Take your time to explore the tempting tastes and speak to the vendors, who will willingly navigate you through the myriad of tantalizing options.
You can also bring your own empty glass jar and ask the shopkeepers to fill it with layers of aromatic spices — a perfect gift!
Go jewelry shopping at the Gold Souq
Just off from the main area of Souq Waqif, lies the Gold Souq, a separate building with more than 40 shops specializing in high-end, 18 and 22-carat jewelry under its roof.
Whether you’re searching for dazzling necklaces and earrings, or glittering gems and high-quality secondhand watches, you’ll find it all here.
The ornate offerings also include traditional “bridal jewelry” such as gold belts and hair ornaments.
While its sparkling store windows are filled with ready-made luxury pieces, most of the shopkeepers will be happy to create a custom item to your own design.
You can also have your own jewelry resized or repaired, or even create a personalized pendant with your name spelled out in Arabic calligraphy.
Dine in style
No visit to the Gold Souq would be complete without stopping at one of its many eateries.
Some of the top options include the popular Damasca One, a two-level gastronomic haven offering Arabic delicacies from across Syria and the Levant; the glitzy, palace-like Parisa, where you’ll taste Iranian delights under ornate chandeliers hanging from a mirrored-ceiling; and the no nonsense Qatari restaurant with its wooden outdoor benches.
In the winter months, head up to one of the many roof terraces available — a particular open-air favorite is Tajine, which serves Moroccan cuisine. Make sure you try the baby camel stew.
People watch during shisha time
A year-round destination, Souq Waqif can be enjoyed to the fullest between November and March, when the scorching Gulf sun is not as punishing.
During those months, the ideal time to visit the market is late in the afternoon or in the early evening hours, when in really comes alive.
Smoking shisha is a popular leisure activity for some Qataris, and if you opt for an outdoor table at one of the many cafés you’ll be able to take in the vibrant ambience as locals enjoy some shisha tme.
If you feel like moving around but still crave a tasty treat, make a quick stop at one of the many market stalls offering sweet tea, fresh juices and ice cream.
Learn about falconry
Lying at the edge of Souq Waqif, the imposing Falcon Souq is dedicated to the birds of prey, which are deeply revered and respected by Qataris.
“Falconry is a sport that dates back in Qatar’s history and is still widely practiced,” explains Al Shammari, of Embrace Doha.
Inside the arcaded building’s showroom, the majestic birds stand still on wooden perches, their heads typically encased by plain or ornate hoods.
Under the shopkeeper’s supervision, you can request to have a falcon perch on your arms.
The falcons here are typically sold and bought for thousands of dollars at public auctions. There’s also a nearby falcon hospital where owners can bring their prized possessions for treatment.
Visit the Horse Stables
A short walk from the Falcon Souq, the Horse Stables are designed to give visitors a sense of a bygone era, when the prized Arabian horses played a major part in the everyday life of locals.
There is no charge to enter, so feel free to step in and wander around the grounds, which lead to an outdoor sand arena.
This is also the location where the heritage police embark on their daily ride through the market’s thoroughfare on horse — another trademark Souq Waqif attraction.
Stay at a boutique hotel
Although Doha is known for being home to the world’s most renowned hotel brands, the exclusive hotels spread across the perimeter of the souq can hold their own amongst them.
Combining elegance and comfort, boutique establishments Arumaila, Al Jasra, Musheireb, Najd, Al Mirqab, Al Bidda, Bismillah, Al Najada and Al Jomrok are small and intimate — while maintaining the luxury standards that have come to define a Doha stay.
Make sure to enjoy a meal in one of their balconies or roof terraces while soaking up the breathtaking views of the Doha skyline.
Another plus of booking a room here? The hotels are within walking distance of the magnificent, palm tree-lined Corniche and the unrivaled Museum of Islamic Art, designed by Chinese-American starchitect I.M. Pei.
Grab bargain souvenirs
Looking for treats for your nearest and dearest? You can choose from little treasures like leather items, beautiful lamps and intricate handicrafts to more peculiar mementoes such as salt and pepper shakers shaped in the form of a couple dressed in traditional clothing and old photos of Qatar printed on foam canvasses.
Other classic souvenirs on offer are Arab dallah (coffee pots), Bedouin weaving, embroidered pashminas, baskets and kelims.
Check out local art
More than just a place to shop and eat, Souq Waqif also hosts a number of art galleries and exhibition spaces.
At the heart of it all is the aptly-named Souq Waqif Art Center, located near the end of the market’s central road.
Inside, the corridors of the big hall are lined up with rows of working stations regularly frequented by talented local and international artists.
Right behind are a series of temporary exhibition spaces showcase creations often depicting aspects of Qatari life and representations of current events. If it’s up to your liking, the center is also the place to have a portrait of you and your company.