On my first evening in Doha, I did a free Souq Waqif walking tour seeing all the highlights of the bazaar area. The tour was organised by my hotel Souq Waqif Boutique Hotels and all guests staying in any of their 9 boutique hotels in Souq Waqif are welcome to join in.Souq Waqif (“standing market”) is a lively bazaar area right off Doha’s seaside promenade Corniche. Souq Waqif is a combination of traditional and modern, and it is one of the most culturally rich places in Doha. Walking around in the maze of narrow alleyways takes you on an authentic journey back in time and you get to feel what shopping was like in the old days in Doha when luxury shopping centres didn’t exist.
Back in the 1990s Souq Waqif fell in decline and after a major fire destroyed much of the area in 2003, the market was given a facelift with the aim of preserving its cultural and architectural heritage. Buildings constructed after the 1950s were demolished while older structures were refurbished.Today Souq Waqif accommodates countless small shops bursting with Middle Eastern produce such as spices, sweets, souvenirs, household goods, handicrafts, gold, jewellery, rugs, clothes, shoes, fabric, art etc. There are even souqs dedicated to camels, Arabian horses, falcons and pets. Souq Waqif is also home to a wide variety of coffee shops, shisha lounges, restaurants and eateries, which offer local, regional and international flavours. There are also charming antique shops, attractive art galleries and luxurious boutique hotels.Most restaurants in Souq Waqif are open all day (except during Ramadan). However, to avoid the scorching sun, the best time to visit Souq Waqif is late in the afternoon and early in the evening. As the sun goes down Souq Waqif comes alive and turns into a romantic and magical Middle Eastern wonderland where you can sense traditional and ancient Qatari vibes and see local men gathering in shisha lounges and coffee shops wearing their traditional white clothing.We were a group of four people and started the walking tour at Al Jasra Boutique Hotel at 8 pm. Our tour guide gave a short introduction to the history, traditions and culture of Qatar and what Souq Waqif was all about while we were enjoying traditional Qatari coffee and local treats in the hotel’s chic lounge area.After just a couple of minute’s short walk from the hotel we arrived at the Camel Souq on the outskirts of Souq Waqif almost right by the Corniche, where we were welcomed by a well-looked-after herd of camels. I had never seen such animals in my life and did not expect to find camels in the city centre, so I was pretty stoked. My imagination started running wild and I even pictured myself riding a camel into the sunset in a remote Qatari desert…and so forth. The Camel Pen is a lovely (and smelly) spot, I could have stayed here all evening just admiring the cute and friendly camels giving kisses to one another.From the camel souq we continued to the Horse Stables, which house beautiful Arabian horses. There is no entrance fee, and everyone is welcome to step in and wander around the grounds. Here you can sense the bygone era when Arabian horses played a major part in the everyday life of the locals. This is also the place where the heritage police start their daily ride through Souq Waqif’s thoroughfare on horse.Not far from the horse stables is the famous Falcon Souq, which is an absolute must-see in Souq Waqif. You cannot say that have seen it all until you have browsed through at least a couple of falcon shops. Falconry is a traditional leisure pursuit in Qatar and the ancient sport is still widely practised.
I learned that falcons are highly loved and respected in Qatar and all across the Middle East. Falcons are typically sold for thousands of euros, but some of the very best individuals can sell up to several millions of euros. Crazy.
In the falcon shops these revered hunters stand still on small wooden perches and their heads and eyes typically covered by hoods. If you wish you can even have a falcon sit on your arm under the shopkeeper’s supervision. I chose to keep my distance to the falcons as I am not a bird person at all.Falconry booms here so broadly that there is even a Falcon Hospital very nearby in Souq Waqif where birds can be taken for treatment.Next, we popped into a rug shop where they have hundreds and hundreds of beautiful traditional middle eastern rugs in all possible colours and patterns.On our way to the spice souq we passed by the Animal Souq, which is the noisiest souq ever. The pet stalls here sell a variety of caged domestic pets, such as birds of all sorts, cats, dogs, rabbits, turtles etc. I didn’t see that this was a happy place for the animals, and I literally started to feel sick to my stomach. I just took a few quick photos and I walked away from the animals.My favourite part or the tour was visiting the Spice Souq, where large sacks of colourful spices lean against crammed storefronts. The odour and colour of the spices is mesmerising, and you can instantly feel that you are in a place very exotic. The selection of spices and herbs is endless. Chili and curry in all varieties, saffron, sumac, sweets, honey, dried flowers, dates, preserved fruit and nuts of all sorts, you can buy it all here. If I was to fly home bound from Doha I would have filled my suitcase with spices and herbs, they make a perfect gift.Towards the end of our tour we stopped by at Majlis al Dama, which is an unassuming coffee shop popular among local men, who gather here on a regular basis to play the traditional Qatari board game of dama (aka checkers). We watched some older men play dama and once their game was over they invited us to join in and taught us how to play. This authentic experience at Majlis Al Dama was one of the highlights of my visit to Doha.Two hours into our tour, which was supposed to take only one hour, we finished our dama lessons with the local men at Majlis al Dama. Our tour guide was already late for his next customers but wished to complete the tour with us as planned. Next, we browsed through some souvenir shops along Souq Waqif’s thoughfare offering cute coffee pots, pashminas, baskets, kelims, lamps, handicrafts, leather products and so much more.It was already passed 10 pm when we thanked our guide for a lovely walking tour and authentic experiences in Souq Waqif and said our good byes. I was feeling peckish and landed a very stylish Persian restaurant called Parisa right in the heart of Souq Waqif. Overflowing with glitz and glam, the palace-like restaurant Parisa is something you have experience when in Souq Waqif. It was so magical and unreal to enjoy a delicious Iranian dinner under ornate chandeliers hanging from a mirrored-ceiling while listening to the babbling sounds of a fountain in the centre of the dining hall. This is a dinner to remember!It was a long and active day out exploring Doha and the best of Souq Waqif in the sweltering heat. After my lovely dinner at restaurant Parisa I was exhausted and happy to return to my air-conditioned hotel room for a shower and a good night’s sleep at Najd Souq Waqif Boutique Hotel.
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