Considering a stopover in Doha? This list of 15 incredibly useful Qatar travel tips covers everything from dress code and rules for couples, to budgeting, and how to move around the city.
In many respects, Qatar is a closed book.
Before I decided to sign up for a layover in Doha, I knew very little about this tiny oil-rich nation in the Persian Gulf. Like many travellers before me, it was precisely this sense of the ‘unknown’ that lured me to visit Doha – that, and the promise of fragrant souqs, harbours crowded with dhow boats and men parading the streets with falcons perched on their wrists instead of Rolex watches.
What is it like to travel in the richest country in the world per capita, where more than 85 percent of the local population are expats?
Most people’s experience of Qatar will be like mine: A somewhat superficial brush with a small but socially complex country on an extended layover. For practical reasons, Qatar is a great place to break up a long flight (the trip from Australia to Georgia, for example).
Even if your visit is fleeting (heck, even if you’re not planning to leave the airport), there are certain things you should know about Qatar in advance to make your experience smoother and more enjoyable.
From what to wear, to which day of the week to avoid and a few sure-fire tips to save money, here are 15 incredibly useful Qatar travel tips to help you prepare for your visit.
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Doha cheat sheet
Find cheap flights to Doha: Use Kiwi to find the best price on Doha flights (they’ll even give you a refund if you miss your connection). Remember you may have to book direct through Qatar Airways if you want to take advantage of the free stopover.
Do you need a visa for Qatar? Qatar offers visa-free entry for citizens of more than 80 countries Check to see if you need a Qatar visa on iVisa.
On a short layover? This Doha transit tour starting and ending at the airport is a great way to see the city when you have limited time.
Travel insurance for Qatar: Click here to get a quote from SafetyWing, my preferred insurance provider for long-term travel.
How to get from Doha Airport to the city: Take the newly constructed metro or organise a private hotel transfer (recommended if you’re arriving late at night or early in the morning).
Doha car hire: Keen to explore more of Qatar? Use Discover Cars to find the best price on a rental car in Doha.
5 essentials to pack for Doha: Universal travel adapter;an insulated water bottle and LifeStraw (Qatar is one place you definitely want to stay hydrated!); a travel scarf with hidden pocket (handy for visiting mosques or covering up in the sun); sun protection gear – including a wide-brim hat and sunglasses at a minimum; a copy of the latest Lonely Planet guidebook for Qatar.
15 practical Qatar travel tips
A Qatar Airways stopover is the easiest way to organise your visit
If you want a taste of Doha, you can squeeze a lot into a 24 or 48-hour layover.
In an effort to encourage more people to travel with the national carrier and break-up their journey in Doha, Qatar’s tourism board introduced a program to incentivise extended layovers. Booked through Qatar Airways, a stopover can take a lot of the hassle out of organising a trip.
It works like this: Choose your airfares to and from Doha (they must be with Qatar Airways, and you must leave a minimum gap of 12 hours between flights). You’ll then be eligible for a ‘free stopover’ of 1-4 nights. Benefits include a heavy discount on a selection of 4 and 5-star hotels, and a free transit visa (if you need one).
If your stopover is shorter (6-12 hours), you can opt for a discounted Doha transit tour instead.
The climate is extreme, so time your visit wisely
Remember when Qatar was named host country for the 2022 FIFA World Cup? Most newscasters’ first reaction was to point to the absolute unsuitability of the climate for outdoor sports.
Qatar has a desert climate – hot and dry are the imperative words here. But that doesn’t mean it’s sweltering year-round.
Cool season (December through February) is mild, with temperatures averaging 14-25 Celsius most days. Desert gusts are tempered, skies are clear, and rainfall is minimal, giving Doha a spring-like atmosphere. This is by the far the best time to visit Qatar (and for the record, this is when the World Cup will take place, too).
With that in mind, Qatar is certainly not a place you want to visit in peak summer. May through September is much warmer, with max temperatures hovering around the low 40s. July, traditionally the hottest month of the year, should be avoided at all costs. It’s not unusual for the mercury to soar to 43 Celsius in June, July and August.
You should also consider whether your visit will coincide with Ramadan. Qatar is an Islamic nation, and majority of people observe the 30 days of fasting and prayer. Under Sharia Law, it is illegal to eat or drink in public in Doha during Ramadan. Most cafes and restaurants close during the day, while shops, museums and the souq all observe restricted hours.
Other rules, such as the dress code, are more strictly enforced during the Holy Month.
Doha shuts down on Friday mornings
Friday prayers, or Salat al-Jumu’ah, are an obligatory religious ritual in Qatar. Walking around on a Friday morning, Doha can feel like a ghost town as most people are busy attending mosque.
Restaurants, cafes and museums don’t open until 1pm or 2pm on Fridays. Two of the city’s most popular attractions, the Museum of Islamic Art and Souq Waqif, are both closed on Friday mornings. If your Qatar layover falls on a Friday, keep in mind that you’ll have to structure your itinerary around these restricted hours.
Also bear in mind that the Doha metro doesn’t start running until 2pm on Fridays.
There are particular rules for couples
If you’re travelling to Qatar as a couple, there are particular laws and social customs to be aware of.
Until recently, unmarried couples were prohibited from sharing a hotel room. This rule seems to have been relaxed in recent years, at least for foreign tourists. According to recent reports, it still applies to Qatari couples and expats living in the country.
This was our experience: We booked a hotel room in Doha under Ross’ name. Despite having different surnames in our passports, we weren’t asked to explain the nature of our relationship. We were married at the time (this was actually our honeymoon), so we weren’t particularly concerned – I had a copy of our marriage certificate ready to show if needed.
If this is something you’re worried about, try sticking to international hotel chains (for example, the InterContinental) or just email your accommodation in advance to double check the house policy.
Homosexuality is illegal in Qatar, but it’s not unusual for men (for example, business travellers) to share a hotel room. See here for more information and advice about queer travel in the Middle East.
Public displays of affection (including hand-holding) are illegal in Qatar.
Some hostels are single-gender
If you’re booking a hostel in Doha, make sure you check whether it’s gender-separated. Some hostels only offer men’s dorms (for example, Casper Hostel), while T Ladies Hostel is female-only. To make things confusing, the policy isn’t always obvious at first.
Q Hostel offers both men’s and women’s dorms – but no hostel in Qatar offers mixed dorms. Couples, therefore, may be better off upgrading to a mid-range hotel.
A final note on accommodation in Doha: Airbnb is legal in Qatar and can be an affordable alternative to a hotel. You can find some beautiful self-contained apartments with sea views around The Pearl, and simpler private rooms near the souq.
Doha travel video
There is a dress code
Much like rules for couples, there seems to be tension between official policy and public consensus when it comes to the dress code in Doha.
From my observations, locals and expats in Doha dress modestly. Long, loose-fitting clothing seems to be the preferred style. Tourists are generally expected to cover their shoulders and knees at a minimum (although I did see a few denim shorts and spaghetti tops on the street during my visit). Showing too much skin is frowned upon – swimsuits are only allowed in hotel pool areas or on private beaches.
The rules are of course a lot stricter if you’re visiting a mosque or religious site. You won’t be permitted entry to a mosque unless you’re covered up and wearing a scarf over your hair (women). It surprised me to learn that you might be denied entry to the Museum of Islamic Art if your shoulders and knees aren’t covered.
The dress code at the airport is similar, which is why it’s recommended to carry a light cardigan and wear long pants if you’re transiting through Doha.
The consequences for donning inappropriate attire range from awkward stares from locals, through to be removed from a venue by security or even being fined by police. Dress codes are more strictly enforced during Ramadan. Needless to say, small towns and rural areas are more conservative, so you should always dress modestly outside Doha.
It’s perfectly safe to visit Doha as a woman
Provided you dress appropriately and avoid certain behaviours such as drinking in public (more on alcohol later), Doha is a perfectly safe place for solo female travellers.
Crime rates are very low in Doha across the board. Streets are well-lit at night, and apart from the odd overexcited taxi driver, there’s not really a ‘hastle culture’ in Doha. You won’t be approached in the souq, for instance.
One thing to watch out for is ‘men-only’ establishments – tea houses and restaurants that are closed off to women (this should be pretty obvious if there’s only dudes around). Some restaurants and cafes have special ‘family areas’ for women and children, and the metro has family carriages.
Here are more tips for visiting Doha as a solo female traveller.
Doha is surprisingly affordable
Like in neighbouring Oman, it’s relatively easy to save money in Qatar. We drew up a rough budget and withdrew cash on our first day in Doha (ATMs, by the way, are ubiquitous). This was one of the rare times we over-estimated our spend and had to change most our riyals back into USD at the airport.
In the end, we spent around $40 USD per person per day on food and transport in Doha. That was enough to cover three solid meals, a few trips on the metro, and tickets for the Museum of Islamic Arts.
Food portions are huge, so you can easily save money by sharing meals. The metro is cheaper than taking a taxi (more on that later), and you can save even more cash by avoiding ticketed attractions (by far our biggest expense was museums).
Doha is home to one of the world’s most sustainable city districts
One of the first things that strikes you about Doha is how new and polished everything feels. There are grungy corners, yes – but for the most part, even the oldest parts of the city (including the souq) have been entirely reconstructed.
This has pros and cons. On the downside, Doha lacks the gritty charm and ‘rustic authenticity’ of Muscat, for example.
On the plus side, when you re-build a city from scratch, the only limit is your imagination. In the case of Msheireb, one of Doha’s oldest districts, planners envisaged a futuristic, sustainable city when they went about revitalising the area.
Msheireb Downtown combines traditional Qatari design with green technology. The district has the highest concentration of LEED-Certified buildings in the world. Streets are laid out to catch the Gulf breeze and shade walking routes and windows, limiting the need for air conditioning. The whole area is solar powered and planted out with native flora. Massive underground car parks have been installed to limit traffic and encourage people to walk or cycle.
Pretty neat, huh?
Qatar is incredibly multicultural
Another thing that surprised me about Qatar is that 85.7 percent of the population is made up of expats. India, Bangladesh and Nepal are the top three countries represented.
As a visitor, you feel Qatar’s cultural diversity on several levels. Firstly, the plurality of faces on the street is obvious and gives Doha a cosmopolitan feel. Travellers also benefit from an incredibly rich food scene, including some great Indian and Yemeni restaurants.
But you can’t ignore the fact that many of these workers are low-paid (or unpaid) labourers. As far as I know, forced labour isn’t directly related to the tourism industry in Qatar, but it’s still something to keep in mind when you’re visiting Doha.
The ILO is a great resource for information on this topic.
You should avoid drinking tap water (and alcohol)
Qatar isn’t a dry country, but alcohol is strictly regulated. Booze served in hotels is subject to a ‘sin tax’ and expensive as a result. If you’re serious about saving money, avoid drinking.
There is conflicting information online, but the general consensus is that you shouldn’t drink the tap water in Doha. Drinking fountains around mosques and on the Corniche should also be avoided, particularly if you have a sensitive stomach.
Apart from being a terrible blight on the environment, there are also concerns over imported bottled water in Qatar containing higher than normal levels of arsenic. The easiest solution is to carry a Steripen or LifeStraw and purify your own water.
Qatar is a tea-drinking nation
Skip the water, skip the booze – grab a tea instead.
Tea is ubiquitous in Doha, and enjoying a cuppa or two (or three) at a local cafe or chai house is a must-do for every visitor. In the mornings, you can find groups of men sitting around playing dominoes and sipping short glasses of bubbly, brick-coloured karak tea.
Karak was introduced to Qatar by Indian and Pakistani expats in the 1950s. A version of Masala Chai, karak is a heady brew of tea, milk, sugar and spices boiled low and slow for maximum flavour. The traditional Qatari version contains only cardamom, but cinnamon, cloves or ginger may also be added.
A cup of karak costs 1-4 QAR depending on the establishment.
It takes a ridiculously long time to cross the street
Walking around Doha can be a strange experience. First of all, pavements are usually deserted (especially in the middle of the day) as most people opt to drive.
One peculiarity we noticed is the time it takes to cross the street. Every intersection is fitted with lights and pedestrian crossings in a bid to control heavy traffic in the inner-city. These run on a ‘smart system’ that uses sensors to detect cars and direct flows.
As a result, it’s not uncommon to have to wait 10 minutes or more to cross the street in Doha. But wait you must – drivers are unpredictable, speeding is common, and jaywalkers face fines of up to $140.
Metro is the best way to get around
If you prefer not to walk, you can always take an Uber. But the most cost-effective way to move around Doha is using the city’s new underground metro system.
Completed in May 2019, it’s one of the fastest driverless trains in the world. Departures are frequent, it’s very easy to navigate, and most major tourist attractions (including the Corniche, the museum and Katara Cultural Centre) have dedicated ultra-modern stations.
Best of all, a one-way metro fare costs just 2 QAR (55 cents). Single tickets can be bought from machines inside the stations – no cards or top-ups necessary.
There are three metro lines: The north-south red line (handy for getting to Katara Cultural Centre), and the east-west gold and blue lines. Running hours are still being negotiated, but at the time of writing, the metro runs from 6am until 11pm Saturday to Wednesday, from 6am until midnight on Thursdays, and from 2pm until midnight on Fridays.
In December 2019, the metro expanded to include a stop at Doha’s international airport, making this an efficient way to get into the city when you first arrive in Qatar.
You need a car to explore beyond the city
Public transport within Doha is efficient and affordable. But if you want to explore beyond the city centre, you’re going to need a car.
Here, you have two options: Either hire your own wheels and self-drive, or join an accompanied tour. A day tour is the best way to go if you have limited time in Doha and you want to see something specific (such as the Inland Sea or Zakreet).
If you have more time and want the freedom to explore, consider renting a car at Hamad International Airport. All major companies are represented. I suggest using Discover Cars to find the best price on a rental for your dates and requirements.
Where to stay in Doha
We stayed at Saraya Corniche for 2 nights during our Doha stopover. Our room was comfortable but a little dated – however, we really loved the central location walking distance from the waterfront and souq.
If we had our time again, we would choose either the InterContinental or Souq Waqif Boutique Hotel. The latter is set right in the heart of the souq and features roomier, more luxe suites than Saraya.
If you’re on a shorter layover and you prefer to stay near the airport, Oryx Transit Hotel is the top choice.
What are your top Qatar travel tips? Leave your advice in the comments below.