Qatar National Day
Written by Karen Martin
Qatar celebrates its National Day on December 18, and nowhere represents the true heritage of Qatar better than its capital’s most renowned market, Souq Waqif.
Qatar National Day commemorates the day in 1878 when Sheikh Jassim succeeded his father Sheikh Mohammed Bin Thani as Ruler of Qatar and led the country towards independence. It’s a day for all Qatari citizens, expatriates, and visitors to reflect on the vision on which Qatar was founded and recognise how far it has come, whilst celebrating the country’s strong ties to its history and traditions.
At the heart of Doha lies Souq Waqif, a communal meeting place that offers a window into a vibrant community with a rich heritage and glorious past. Historically, residents and neighbours of the early Souq Waqif began to transform their homes into shops, building seemingly at random, until the souq gradually evolved into the narrow, irregular lanes of shops that you still find today.
During the 1990s, as shopping complexes and commercialisation began to take precedence, the souq became old and dilapidated and began to lose its charm, and on top of this, a fire in 2003 destroyed part of the souq. In 2004, operations began to restore the souq to its original 19th-century state using traditional materials and methods.
Today, Souq Waqif is an iconic landmark in Doha and embodies the rich heritage of the city. It is the ideal place to stay if you want to experience Qatar’s true culture and heritage, and the warm hospitality that the country is known for. Here, an exclusive collection of boutique hotels offers a rich variety of opportunities to experience true Qatari hospitality. Offering a tranquil retreat in the midst of the bustling city, each Souq Waqif Boutique Hotel was designed with its own distinctive décor, service, and dining options. The names of each of the hotels were selected to reflect Qatar’s history and culture: Al Mirqab, Arumaila, Al Bidda, Al Jomrok, Musheireb, Al Jasra, and Al Najada. They lie scattered around the souq, and will be our landmarks as we journey through.
Al Mirqab Boutique Hotelis the gateway into Souq Waqif, standing at the southeastern corner of the souq, and features traditional Arabian architectural influences, such as white-washed walls, arches, and latticework. Start your day here at Al Terrace Lebanese Lounge with Arabian coffee, served black and strong from elegant gold dallahs, with sweet khabees.
Near Al Mirqab lies one of the most popular areas of the souq, the Gold Souk – whose architecture reflects the classical heritage of ancient Qatar. Historically, Souq Waqif has always been a centre for the sale of pearls and gold in Qatar and it is now the only market in the country officially licensed to sell gold.
The adjacent Craft Centre is an integrated handicraft centre with live demonstrations of diverse traditional crafts. Visitors can take part in workshops, where local artisans display their professional skills to teach the craft and keep the tradition alive, including traditional pottery techniques, pearl jewellery making, and creating coloured baskets and other products from straw.
A little further on you’ll find yourself at the heart of the souq, where there is an array of speciality markets selling a wide medley of products from hand-woven carpets to traditional clothing and copper utensils. You’ll notice something different every time you walk through, and many of the products that you see can’t be found anywhere else in the country.
Here in the vibrant centre of the souq you’ll also pass the understated Arumaila Boutique Hotel, with its traditional stonework façade that belies its modern interior.
At the northern end of Souq Waqif you’ll find both the contemporary and chic Al Bidda, and the stylish and cosy Al Jomrok, both featuring interior design details inspired by Qatari heritage. Al Bidda enjoys a large inner courtyard, flooded with light from the multi-coloured glass skyline dome. Al Jomrok, meaning ‘customs’ in Arabic, was historically a customs office before it became a hotel. It has been fully restored to its original splendour, influenced by the surrounding architecture. Inside, the guestrooms take the name of the beloved oryx (which is also the Qatar Airways logo).
From here you can wind your way through the nearby spice markets, which are a treat for the senses and an important part of traditional cooking, such as the traditional Qatari dish machbous, a stew of spiced rice with either seafood, meat, or both. There are several variations of the dish, but local machbous may feature cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, and allspice. Another popular stew-like dish is margooga, which has many of the same Eastern spices found in other Qatari dishes but includes heartier vegetables like aubergine and carrots. Steaming pots of these local dishes can be found at stalls and restaurants around Souq Waqif.
Our next stop takes us around the corner from Musheireb – a majlis-style retreat – to the Arabian horse stables. Over time the Arabian horse adapted to its desert environment, resulting in qualities that makes it unique among all equine breeds. It is faster, requires less feed, lives longer, and has much more stamina. The Arabian horse played an important role in the founding of Qatar when, in 1893, Bedouin tribesmen and their courageous Arabian steeds, led by Sheikh Jassim bin Mohammed Al Thani, defeated the Ottomans in a battle that would eventually lead to Qatar’s independence.
The stables also sit behind the neighbouring Al Jasra Boutique Hotel, from where you can visit the Falcon Souq. Falconry is one of Qatar’s traditions and many Qataris are devoted to the pursuit; it’s one of the major sporting activities during the hunting season from October to March. There’s even a specialist falcon hospital here – the largest and most specialised falcon hospital in the world – where they carry out complex operations and in-depth research.
Bringing centuries-old Doha into the modern world, Al Najada Boutique Hotel is an architectural gem crafted through the union of three 1930s Qatari homes, combining traditional luxury with renowned Arabian hospitality.
Across from Al Najada is Al Koot Fort, built as a prison house in 1927. It was included in the restoration project in 2004 and has a number of rooms, observation towers, and old water wells.
Just a few hundred metres from Souq Waqif is the Dhow Harbour. For a truly authentic Qatari experience, take in Doha’s spectacular skyline from a dhow cruise.
Qatar National Day celebrations inside the souq include traditional dance and music performances; and a short walk from the souq, you can enjoy the Qatar National Day firework display on the Corniche. Alternatively, stay embraced by Souq Waqif’s charms and book a table at Al Matbakh Rooftop Grill at Arumaila for lively music and spectacular views over the Corniche and city skyline; or Al Jomrok’s rooftop lounge, where the relaxing lounge music completes the Arabesque experience and is a memorable way to mark the National Day celebrations.
For an authentic and memorable Qatari experience I would highly recommend taking a dhow cruise. Souq Waqif Boutique Hotels offer tours aboard their traditional Arabian dhows: Lusail 1, 2 and 3 from the Dhow Harbour on the Corniche, a short stroll from Souq Waqif. You can choose to take in Doha’s spectacular skyline by day or night; all tours can be tailored to suit guests’ preferences, from a day cruise with friends or a special family celebration, to a romantic candlelit dinner for two under the stars or a special sunset cruise. Delicious Arabic and international dishes are created by an on-board chef while you enjoy the background music.
Al Bidda Boutique Hotel
The newly-opened Al Bidda has 19 rooms and 13 designer suites, most of which overlook historic Souq Waqif. The suites – the first in Doha with a duplex floor arrangement – offer an intimate private-chef barbecue dining experience on the outdoor terrace. Under the huge skylight in the hotel’s courtyard, you can enjoy traditional Italian cuisine of fresh homemade pasta and pizzas prepared in front of you, and the hotel’s patisserie shop offers fresh-from-the-oven cakes, pastries and European breads, including pralines, macaroons, petit fours, and warm croissants.
Qatar Airways, world’s 5-star airline, flies to more than 130 destinations worldwide.