Facing Doha’s sweeping Corniche, a mega-project like nothing you’ve seen before is rising at the moment. Huge horizontal and vertical disks are piled one upon another to resemble that form of crystal clusters called the desert rose.
Set to open next year, Jean Nouvel’s National Museum of Qatar incorporates on its 22-acre site the recently renovated early-20th-century former Emir’s palace. Those steel truss disks, along with a landscape of native herbs, plants and trees, provide shade from the intense Qatar sunlight. The renowned French architect calls the museum, which is devoted to Qatari history and culture, “a modern-day caravanserai.”
The museum is only one of a spectacular list of Doha cultural projects in the works, each one of which in most other countries would be the singular huge visitor draw.
To witness the striking tale of how Qataris moved beyond a past of nomadic roots and fishing and pearl diving, visitors first should tour the so-called Heritage Houses. Located in Doha’s original old town, the 1920s houses now host exhibitions on Qatar from antiquity to the near present.
Like its regional neighbors, Doha was utterly transformed by oil more than a half-century ago. In a house once occupied by the country’s first oil company, photos of the era show small business offices and modest hotels. Another house has a frank display on former slavery practices in the Arab world.
Just down the street, a stunning newMandarin Oriental hotel is going up today as the anchor of the ambitious Msheireb Downtown Doha. The larger project entails a new town rising out of the old, at once traditional in the use of heritage touches in its architecture and forward-thinking in terms of green practices such as underground garbage collection.
Frequent Doha visitors already know the architectural and cultural impact that I.M. Pei’s Museum of Islamic Art instantly provided when the limestone structure opened a decade ago along the city’s famous Corniche. With the museum extending dramatically into the bay on landfill, a dhow cruise gives you especially great vantage points to admire its rectilinear forms.
Built around a soaring atrium, the MIA’s four floors-worth of side exhibition rooms are filled with gorgeous manuscripts and ceramics whose detailed calligraphy in all styles and all eras spans the Arabic and Islamic world. The carved and filigreed weaponry is equally exquisite.
Art shows up in surprising places in Doha. In a raw, unfinished penthouse space, the W Doha hotel hosts a gallery called Art 29 which exhibits local and international artists, most recently with a show devoted to contemporary Arab women artists.
Gorgeous Arabian horses swim, work out on treadmills, and live the good life as they frolic over finely landscaped grounds: Seldom do you see horses as pampered as you do at Al Shaqab, the Qatar Foundation’s huge Equestrian Center which was built a few years ago in Doha to preserve and promote the breed’s tradition.
The center is state of the art, with a high-design arena including both outdoor and air conditioned venues that would be the envy of human sports stars. Horse race fans will also find a fine track at the Qatar Racing & Equestrian Club.
Doha’s massive Education City on the edge of town is packed with stunning new structures as well. A pair of sleek curved minarets belonging to the new mosque there are anything but traditional and a big design hit.
With its diamond-shaped façades, Rem Koolhaas’s Qatar National Library in the education district looks like it’s ready to take off, as in UFO style. Opened late last year, the library has become an instant photo opp star as well.
Arata Isozaki’s popular Qatar National Convention Centre has an organic look and features one of famed sculptor Louise Bourgeois’ huge Maman spider sculptors.
Near the Pearl mixed-use commercial/residential district to the city’s north, the Katara Cultural Village spreads over a huge campus with an amphitheater and plenty of art exhibition spaces. Its traditional touches include water running through small channels and a pair of handsome dovecotes.
Touring Doha’s rich cultural offerings builds an appetite. The popular buffet lunch at Al Liwan restaurant in the Sharq Village Hotel, a Ritz-Carlton property, is a relaxing affair. You can dine casually as well on the terrace atOpal by Gordon Ramsay at the St. Regis hotel.
To continue exploring Doha’s more traditional aspects, guests can stay in and around the souq at a handful of properties belonging to the Souq Waqif Boutique Hotels group. Al Jasra hotel, for one, has the feel of a luxury version of a traditional caravanserai setting.
Just step out of your hotel and in the warren of alleys that make up the souq you’ll find all the spices, fragrances, crafts and garments that you could ever take home. As you lunch in the souq within the refreshingly cool inner courtyard of the Parisa Persian Restaurant you’ll be tasting one of the major culinary influences on Qatar.
You’ll find more gorgeous horses to admire in the souq stables which you can freely walk through. Of course, the souq has falcon sellers, and a falcon hospital that you can visit too.
Essentially, your introduction to falconry will have taken you on your journey from discovering cutting-edge architecture to returning to Qatar’s cultural roots.