After being rebuilt nearly a decade ago, Doha’s main market still retains its Middle Eastern charm. A popular and bustling destination, it offers a vibrant international shopping scene, traditional crafts and art, and a multitude of atmospheric restaurants and cafes with cuisine from around the globe.
Souq Waqif (which means “standing market” in Arabic) is a reference harking back to its beginnings as a gathering place around the riverbed Wadi Musheireb. Bedouins and locals would gather on either side of the river to trade goods — from cumin and turmeric to fish, sugar, salt, clothes, coal, and wood. Land reclamation has long since pushed the sea back to the Corniche, and Wadi Musheireb is now a road, but more than a century later, a souq remains on the same site.
As Qatar’s population soared in the 20th century, Souq Waqif’s popularity grew, resulting in a rapid and often ramshackle expansion. This led to Qatar’s Emir, HH Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, deciding to demolish it and begin anew in 2004. Architects from the Emir’s Private Engineering Office decided to knock down many buildings and reconstruct those that could be saved using traditional Arab building techniques. The resulting souq is an appealing overhaul of its former self, with cleverly disguised air-conditioning units making for a more comfortable, and more modern, shopping experience.
The souq has one main tributary lined with cafes and restaurants, serving both local and international cuisine, with small alleyways leading off either side. These are gateways to a maze of corridors packed with stalls selling everything from dates to dishes, all ripe for tasting, testing, and taking home. Visitors should remember that bargaining is not only allowed but also encouraged. Most shops don’t accept credit or debit cards, but ATMs abound.
Although many of the goods for sale in the souq are not locally sourced, visitors can find traditional home wares, local honey, ceremonial daggers, Arabian perfume, ornate wooden chests, and art from the Gulf region. And, despite a proliferation of touristy souvenirs (baseball caps decorated with the Qatari flag are never in short supply), if you walk a little further into the labyrinth, you’ll see families shopping for their everyday needs: cooking pots, saffron, preserved lemons, cloths, nuts, toys, pashminas, trowels, spades and watering cans, plates, traditional men’s sandals, fashionable stilettos, and Qatari national dress.
If you find yourself laden down with goods after your shopping spree, you can pay 20 QR ($5.50) to have your purchases ferried to your car in a wheelbarrow by one of the souq’s friendly elderly porters. They’re usually happy to pose for photos for a tip.
It’s also worth seeking out the small gold souq and the falcon souq, where you can handle these prized birds, which still play an important role in Qatari life, used for hunting both in Qatar and abroad. Visitors should, however, stay away from the domestic pet section, which in recent years has been criticized by animal rights campaigners calling for its closure amid reports of cruelty and disease.
The Souq Waqif Art Center has reopened after a two-year closure. Located near French restaurant, Le Gourmet, it houses galleries on the ground floor that display work by local and international artists and offers free courses in art, ceramics, and calligraphy. There’s also a library, which is open to the public.
Other new additions to Souq Waqif are a bevy of boutique hotels, tucked away down the alleyways. Al Mirqab, Al Najada, Arumaila, Musheireb, and Al Jasra opened in 2012. Al Bidda will follow later in 2013. Together, they offer a total of 147 rooms, featuring traditional Arab architecture fused with luxury and style. They also house 12 restaurants, from fine dining to casual snacks. Al Najada even has a roof terrace with lovely views of the souq.
Souq Waqif is at the center of many of Qatar’s biggest cultural events. In 2012, it served as a hub for Doha Tribeca Film Festival (DTFF), hosting its red-carpet opening and closing ceremonies. It’s also the venue for concerts and family shows every Eid, along with displays of folk dance and music on weekends.
For tourists looking to explore the area, pay a visit to the recently opened Information Center in the middle of the souq. Here, Qatari staff will offer tips on the best shops and restaurants to visit and keep you up-to-date on special events.
Souq Waqif’s shops are open daily from 10 a.m. to noon and 4 p.m. to 10 p.m. Hours of operation of the eateries vary, but many are open all day.
Souq Waqif’s Information and Tourism Center is open from 7:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. daily.
Parking fees apply in the Souq lot: 3 QR (82 cents) to enter the parking lot, and an additional charge of 1 QR (27 cents) for every subsequent hour.
For more information about the Souq Waqif Boutique Hotels, visit http://www.swbh.com/