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Once a small fishing and pearling village wedged between the Indian Ocean and a vast desert, Doha, the capital of Qatar, has grown exponentially in the past 20 years, with the population jumping from under 500,000 in 1997 to almost 1.5 million in 2017.

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Thanks to its oil fortune, Doha spread its wings and quite literally soared into the skies—its beautiful skyline rivaling any urban metropolis on earth. Like an oasis of modern luxury towering above the white dunes, this stylish capital boasts five-star hotels, high-end shopping and gourmet cuisine. Already a major transit hub between Asia and the Americas, Doha is gearing up to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup—the first one to ever take place in the Middle East.

And yet, despite modernization, the local Qataris are keen on preserving their original culture—from wearing traditional garb to sending their children to Bedouin desert camps to upholding their famous Middle-Eastern hospitality. Here’s what to do in Doha if you only have three days to explore it.

Museum of Islamic Art

Day1: Soak up the scenery

If you like it quiet and classy, stay in the Ritz-Carlton, which serves coffee with your wake-up call to help shake off your jet lag. Grab a bite and head to Katara Cultural Village—a pedestrian area featuring photo galleries, exhibit pavilions and outdoor art installations. After that, take a taxi to the Museum of Islamic Art on the shore of Doha Bay, featuring centuries-old relics, from ceramics to metalwork and manuscripts to textiles. As you leave, give the museum building a look from afar—the structure is built to resemble a Muslim woman with eyes looking through an opening of a veil. For typical Qatari cuisine, head to Al Enna restaurant in Souq Waqif, a traditional outdoor market. Make sure to fully refuel as there’s a lot to see and shop for at the Souq, from handcrafted jewelry to ornamental lamps to Oriental rugs, and more. Here, the local handymen carve custom-made leather sandals, weave pearl necklaces and hand-blow glass ornaments—often while you wait. Stock up on inexpensive and exquisitely wrapped perfume, and don’t miss the Gold Souq packed with all kinds of jewels. Make sure to pay a visit to the falcon shops—falconry is a huge sport in Qatar, and the birds are traded for thousands of dollars. For dinner, opt for Shangri-La, one of the newest hotels in the ultramodern West Bay district, Doha’s business hub.

The kissing camels

Day 2: Get adventurous

Fuel up on coffee and dive into the desert. Doha’s skyscrapers literally tower over the white sand dunes, so the desert—ancient, endless and beautiful—is only a short drive away and full of adventures. One of them is a favorite local sport called dune-bashing, in which drivers run their SUVs up, down and sideways across the desert dunes—think a roller coaster on steroids. The cars plunge down the dunes’ super steep slopes, creating an impression of literally falling into an abyss, so get ready for an adrenaline rush. With experienced drivers, such as those with Falcon Tours who do this every day, the endeavor is safe: The heavy vehicles sink into the soft sand and slide down the slopes smoothly. For a more rustic ride, hop onto a camel—but brace yourself, because saddling up onto one of these creatures can be bumpy, too.

Doha at night

For a relaxing afternoon, stop by Regency Sealine Camp, a Bedouin-style tent accommodation with air-conditioners and showers. Enjoy a delicious buffet lunch of classic Middle-Eastern favorites like hummus, lamb chops and fresh veggies, while overlooking the Indian Ocean. Before heading back, relax in one of the thatched roof huts with a cup of coffee and a flavored hookah—or take a swim in the turquoise waves. Head back to town late afternoon and explore Doha’s nightlife—the Secret Garden atop the Marsa Malaz Kempinski Hotel offers incredible panoramic views among blooming trees.

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Souvenir seller at Souq Waqif

Day 3: Relax and enjoy

Visit Msheireb Enrichment Centre to learn about Qatar’s little-known but complex history. Take a taxi to the Pearl Village, a new beautiful residential area built around a man-made lake, still partially under construction. Swing by the Katara beach for lunch.  If you’re into brand names, indulge in shopping at the city’s most prestigious mall, Villaggio, famous for its Venice-like interior, down to the black gondolas that sail through narrow canals alongside shops, steered by gondoliers in Italian striped shirts. For a farewell dinner, choose a cruise on the traditional dhow—a wooden boat once used for fishing and pearl-diving trips. Today, the charming dhows will sail you along the city’s skyline as it lights up for the night. Every skyscraper in Doha must be approved by the queen before it’s built, so Doha’s skyline is as unique as the rest of this beautiful country, steeped in a curious mix of ancient and modern.

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Tagged: Middle East

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Lina Zeldovich

Lina Zeldovich

Lina shimmied with belly dancers in Turkey, took kimono-wearing lessons from geishas in Japan and read poetry with drunken bards at the Russian Woodstock. She’s written about her wanderings for Newsweek, The Boston Globe, Hemispheres, Alaska Airlines, TravelAge West and BBC, among others.

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