With a labyrinthine covered market, innumerable lanes and by-lanes running off it, Souq Waqif is not only a place to shop but also catch glimpses of Qatari culture. What was once known as a ‘standing market’ – because it was on the wet banks of a river that connected to the sea and Bedouin merchants had to conduct sales standing up – is now a place to shop, dine and relax in a comfortable setting. Between going on shopping sprees and relaxing at an outdoor cafe, you will find there is plenty to do here.
According to historians, the earliest mention of the market can be found in records dating back to late 18th century. However, the market began to lose its character as Qatar began its transformation from a pearl diving centre to an oil-rich nation. A fire in 2003 devastated the market. Following a major renovation, many of the old characteristics were restored, especially the buildings. The mud-baked buildings with exposed timber beams will take you back to the days of the old souq. Apart from the main market, the lanes around it too are full of shops, restaurants and open-air shisha lounges. You may also catch a cultural programme or two during peak tourist season.
Arrive here sometime in the late afternoon (the market closes at one pm and reopens at 4pm) so that you may catch a sight of the market by day and night. At night, from a roof top, the illuminated souq looks like a fairground, especially with the towering Qatar Islamic Cultural Centre in the background.
Shopping: The main market is crisscrossed by a network of alleys, usually each specialising in one or two kinds of products. Be prepared to jostle your way through local shoppers and tourists. It is not uncommon to find the narrow alleys also piled up with goods. On busy days, you have to be fast enough to dodge the wheelbarrows pushed by the ‘hamali’ or the porters who work for the shops or carry the shoppers’ purchases. The market sells everything from spices to household goods, furniture, clothes, shoes, watches, carpets, perfumes and incense, pearls and jewellery, etc. One of the popular items bought by visitors is ‘oud’, an incense made from agarwood. May be you can add a decorated traditional ‘oud’ burner to your cart too. Perfumes and touristy souvenirs are available along the main road. While exploring the souq, don’t forget to stop by Majlis Al Dama, essentially a traditional coffee shop that is also trying to preserve the traditional board game ‘dama’.
Dining: While you explore the souq, you may stop at the roadside hawkers selling syrups, snacks and desserts. You may sample home-cooked snacks sold by local women in the evening. Or, you may check out the cafes and restaurants. Apart from indoor seating arrangements, many have outdoor or roof-top seating too. For Qatari food, you may try Al Tawash. Al Bandar Aden Restaurant is known for its Yemeni food. Le Gourmet Restaurant serves Mediterranean cuisine. Damasca is not only known for its Syrian cuisine but also its evening entertainment. Tajine is known for its Moroccan spread. Parisa, serving Iranian/Persian food, is the place to go to if you are looking to dine in an opulent setting beautified with dazzling mosaics, hand-painted Persian artwork, mirror work and chandeliers.
Falcon souq: Falconry is serious business in Qatar and in other western Asian countries. While most of the shops allow only serious buyers to enter, there are a few who will allow you to take a look inside and also pose for a photograph with a falcon. Peregrine falcons seemed most common. The arrangements at the Falcon Hospital (an earnest request may gain you an entry and tour inside) will put to shame many hospitals for humans.
Bird souq: While meandering through souq Waqif, you may chance upon the bird souq, essentially a cluster of pet shops, at the end of a busy lane. Apart from birds, puppies, turtles, etc. are also on sale. There are also separate enclosures where you will find Arabian horses and camels whiling away their time.
Gold souq: In the mood to splurge? Then a visit to the Gold Souq, adjacent to Souq Waqif is a must. Jewellery made of 18- and 22-carat gold is sold here.
Stay: To enjoy souq Waqif to its fullest, you may opt to spend a night here. Located in a busy corner of the main road that runs through the souk is the two-roomed Bismillah Hotel, said to be the oldest hotel in Qatar, set up in the 1950s. It is now a part of the Souq Waqif Boutique Hotels by Tivoli (https://www.tivolihotels.com/en/qatar/souq-waqif-doha), which runs eight other luxury hotels within the souq.
Getting there: Souq Waqif is in the heart of Doha, not far from the popular Corniche along the bay and popular attractions such as the Museum of Islamic Art.
Embrace Doha (http://www.embracedoha.net/) can take you on a guided tour of the souq with prior arrangements.
Qatar Airways offers transit visitors a Doha city tour (https://discoverqatar.qatarairways.com/qa-en/transit-tour), which includes Souq Waqif.