Are you visiting Doha, Qatar and want to know more about the #1 tourist attraction, Souq Waqif? Souq Waqif is a beautiful local market and known for its perfumes, spices, souvenirs, and dry fruit shopping. Read our article to find the best things to do in Souq Waqif.
We loved shopping in Qatar. Doha City has many malls including the Villagio Mall which resembles Venice, the Pearl which is home to designer brands, the Doha Festival City which offers hours and hours of window shopping and even an Ikea! Our favorite by far place to buy souvenirs and apparel, however, was street shopping in Souq Waqif.
History of Souq Waqif
Souq Waqif seems like a magical entrance that transports you into Aladdin’s Arabia. There are men playing the oud, the Arabian musical instrument – camels and horses – and shops selling mirrored textiles and lights of every shape.
Souq Waqif has a fascinating history. Souq Waqif was Doha’s ancient standing waterfront market since the time when Doha was a pearling village. When pearling and trading declined, the market fell into ruins and newly reclaimed land along the waterfront pushed the market inwards. And that might have been its story if it wasn’t thoroughly restored in an ambitious project.
The crumbling walls were demolished, the narrow streets and alleys rebuilt in traditional Qatari architectural style, and the Souq was beautifully redecorated to be one of Doha’s gems. Commercial spaces were carefully assigned with souvenir shops and restaurants dominating the main thoroughfare and day to day shops were established in the inner alleys.
The result is magnificent: Souq Waqif is a delight to explore with its charming architecture, cobbled streets, narrow alleys, all sorts of shops, dramatic sounds, and colors, and popular restaurants. You can find almost anything in the Souq from apparel, household goods, patio furniture, pets, and even falcons.
Things to do in Souq Waqif
There are plenty of things to do inside Souq Waqif. The market is open in the morning which is the best time to do your shopping and closes in the afternoon. When it reopens in the afternoon, it really comes to life. We recommend leaving haggling and purchases to a quiet morning visit and keeping the evening for a beautiful night out – people watch, eat delicious food, and explore the inner alleys. Also remember, the Souq is really crowded but vibrant over the weekend – which is Qatar is Friday and Saturday. Here some of our favorite things to do in the Souq:
Shop for handwoven and embroidered textiles, accessories, and apparels
The Souq has many shops selling beautifully embroidered textiles, apparel, scarves, purses, jackets, bridal wear, shoes, and more. Many of the materials were handwoven and richly studded with gems, rhinestones, mirrors, and other decorative items. The bridal wear especially was a delight to look at with its heavy embroidery and vibrant colors. We bought a traditional Qatari dress shirt for our toddler. I was tempted to buy an embroidered dress for myself but instead bought a warm wool kaftan.
See the beautiful jewelry in the Gold Souq
Souq Waqif has a big Gold Souq where you will find stunning jewelry costing a fortune. We saw a variety of patterns, designs, and sizes – the bridal sets were especially spectacular. There were necklaces of various lengths, earrings, bracelets, and bangles for women. Most of the shops also had jewelry for men. Apart from gold, you will also find gemstones, diamonds, sapphires, silver jewelry and the famous Qatari Pearl jewelry in the Gold Souq.
Watch a street procession or two with costumes, songs, and dance
During our time in Souq Waqif in the evening, we saw a variety of parades and processions passing through the main street. The procession included a variety of artists including masked stilt walkers, bands playing traditional Qatari music instruments, and groups of traditionally dressed men dancing through the street. We visited the Souq on a Friday evening and that’s why we were able to see more processions than a weekday. There are no processions in the morning – you will need to visit the weekend evening to see them.
Stay at a boutique hotel in a room overlooking the Souq
Souq Waqif has 9 hotels that are located inside the Souq and are perfect for exploring the area. These hotels are honestly the best places to stay in Doha, Qatar. Imagine waking up to the sights and sounds of Souq Waqif and stepping foot inside its alleys as soon as you step out of the hotel. Imagine having a leisurely breakfast in the Souq, just like the locals, before you visit the Museum of Islamic Arts or Katara Cultural Village during your stay in Doha. It is really the best experience – we can vouch for it!
Watch the locals shop and porters haul the purchases
If you wander far enough inside the Souq, you will come across grocery stores and shops selling household goods. There are hardly any tourists in this area and you can watch the locals shop. We saw lots of Qatari women and families shopping with their kids and liveried porters pushing goods-filled handcarts to the cars. This area provides a fascinating glimpse into local Qatari life.
Change money to buy souvenirs and to shop in the Souq
Souq Waqif has money changers located near the police station on the main street and during our Doha visit, we found that Souq Waqif is the most convenient place to exchange money. The money changers carry most currencies including popular Asian currencies, USD, Euros, Australian dollars, and many others. The rates were also much better than the airport money changers. We liked the added convenience of exchanging just as much money as needed.
Buy a gold embroidered porcelain tea set
Drinking tea is an indispensable part of the Qatari culture. We saw beautiful teapots and tea sets everywhere we went in Qatar including our hotel lobby and the airport. Even the Souq Waqif shops carry many beautiful porcelain tea sets with intricate gold embroidery. You can find handmade tea sets costing a few hundred dollars to basic teapots under 20 bucks. The tea sets are a great souvenir to buy from Qatar.
Watch a myriad of lights on display
While strolling inside Souq Waqif, out toddler was most fascinated by the light shops selling a variety of colorful lights from Moroccan lamps to Tiffany shades and from candle holders to outdoor toadstool lights. The sight of all these lights hanging from the ceiling was magical!
Be entranced by overflowing sacks of spices and dry fruits
While we had seen lots of dry fruits for sale in the street markets of Amman, Jordan as well as a mountain of spices in India, seeing them both artistically arranged in the small shops lining the pretty streets of the Souq was a great sight. While Qatar doesn’t produce either the dry fruits or the spices in large amounts, it imports the spices from Asia, particularly India, and the dry fruits from other Middle Eastern countries including Saudi Arabia, Iran, Jordan, and Syria.
Eat roasted chestnuts, fava beans, and other variety of foods at the roadside carts
The main street inside Souq Waqif is lined up with street carts selling a variety of foods from corn on the cob, chestnuts, fava beans, chickpeas, pasta, chocolates, and even ice cream. Many people, especially locals, prefer to eat here cheaply and on the go rather than dine inside the expensive restaurants. The variety of food on offer was tempting to us and we tried the roasted chestnuts which were perfect for the chilly wind blowing through the Souq. We also ate fava beans which were liberally sprinkled with delicious spices and lemon and were steaming hot. Our toddler also loved eating the beans. We also purchased some of the mushroom-shaped chocolates to take home as souvenirs.
Drink the best fruit shake in Doha
This recommendation came from our favorite Lonely Planet Qatar guidebook and we honestly wouldn’t have known about this little cafe without the book. We love traveling with Lonely Planet for such reasons – their local recommendations are always spot on – because of them, we discovered the best falafel in Amman, Jordan and now these delicious shakes at Al Mandarin in Souq Waqif. Al mandarin is located near the Souq Waqif Art center. The shakes are unique layered mixes of fresh fruit juices and cream and just delicious. The weather wasn’t exactly great for ice cold juices, but we simply had to try one. So there we were shivering in the wind, drinking cold shakes and falling in love with their taste! So much that we had to order seconds.. even our toddler loved them and kept drinking through his chattering teeth.
Have a romantic dining experience at an elegant restaurant
If eating at street carts or filling up on fruit shakes isn’t your cup of tea then you can venture inside the restaurants of Souq Waqif and eat a full-service meal. Most of the restaurants have romantic ambiance, menus that cater to tourists and are great for spending quality time with your partner or enjoying a meal with family and friends. During our time in Qatar, we ate almost 4 meals in Souq Waqif and tried Qatari, Irani, Syrian, and Moroccan cuisines.
Smoke a shisha and drink some Turkish coffee or Moroccan tea
Many popular restaurants have outdoor patio heaters and shishas for their guests to enjoy. These seem perfect for the winter weather and to spend a romantic night out in the Souq. While we didn’t sit outside and smoke the shisha since we were with our 1.5-year-old, we sat inside and drank some piping hot Moroccan mint tea – it was perfect! I can’t wait to go back to Qatar though and have a romantic time with the hubby once our son is a little older.
Learn about the Abrahamic religions and their relationship to each other
As Indians and Hindus, we are not that familiar with the beliefs of Islam and Christianity and religious propaganda was quite interesting to us. While it is not for everyone and – is actually an attempt of religious proselytizing – I picked up quite a few books from the free religious paraphernalia centers I saw at many places inside the Souq. While most of the stuff was clearly aimed at conversion, the few books I picked provided interesting insights into the Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam and a unique perspective about them that can be obtained from only within an Islamic country.
Understand the Middle Eastern tradition of falconry in the Falcon Souq
Adjacent to the main Souq Waqif is the Falcon Souq. This souq sells falcons that are trained for hunting in the ancient sport known as falconry. Here you can see various types of falcons for sale with price ranging from few hundred riyals to more than tens of thousands riyals. The shops also sell falconry accessories and the Souq even has a state of the art falcon hospital to treat sick falcons. To know more about the falcon souq, read our article here. Watching the hooded falcons isn’t everyone’s cup of tea but if you do venture inside you will spend an unforgettable afternoon learning about this age-old tradition.
Become a local art connoisseur
The Souq Waqif Arts Center is a great place to visit for art connoisseurs and take in local Qatari art. Here you will find contemporary as well as traditional art and occasionally even see artists painting inside the center. The art center also has sculptures and other art forms and is great to spend some time and encourage local artists. The Souq also has a separate arts and crafts section where you will find all sorts of creative knick-knacks, paintings, sculptures, glass items, handicrafts, music instruments, and more.
Pick out souvenirs for your trip to Doha and Qatar
Off course, you can’t leave Souq Waqif and Doha without purchasing some souvenirs. There are souvenir shops everywhere inside the Souq. Here are some of our best tips to buy souvenirs: haggle, haggle, haggle. The prices aren’t fixed and most shopkeepers will be willing to reduce them a bit if you’re insistent enough. Also, we recommend shopping in the morning and not in the evening. Shopkeepers are in general more motivated to make a sell early in the day. Also, you can examine the quality of the items you are purchasing in a good light. We bought magnets, dry fruits, Qatari tea, apparel, and a few toys for our son from Qatar. I wanted to bring a teapot but the ones I liked were too expensive. Souq Waqif is also great to buy spices and fragrances – especially, the popular oud perfume.
Visit the pet souq near Souq Waqif
The pet souq is a fascinating area. Again we came to know about the pet souq from Lonely Planet recommendation (you seriously need the book before your trip or at least print a copy of our article to not miss out on such useful tips). We didn’t know the exact location of the pet souq so we simply wandered about and every once in a while when I saw stairs I used to climb up to scan the area for pets. Finally, after leisurely exploring for an hour or so, we suddenly heard a cacophony of noises in the distance – and climbing up the nearest stairs – I could see the pet souq in the distance.
So we made our way there and when we reached it was such a unique experience. There were all sorts of animals for sale – turtles, dogs, cats, chickens, ducklings, parrots, colorful birds, fishes, and even rabbits dressed in short skirts. The animals are mostly caged, so this area isn’t for all travelers. We like to walk a fine balance between ethical animal practices and cultural norms and so we’re okay accepting it as the way of life in Qatar. Our son loved this area and petting the animals, especially rabbits and we saw many eager children buying their first pets with their parents.
See the grazing camels inside the camel pen
Adjacent to Souq Waqif and quite near the Falcon Souq area is the camel pen. The camels here are for sale and are tethered here at all times. We visited the camel pen at night when it was closed and no one was there. However, we have heard that if you visit during the day, you can even enter the pen and pet the camels.
Walk through the stables to see the beautiful Arabian horses
Near the camel pen, you will find Arabian horse stables. We walked through the horse stables and a friendly stable hand even led us inside a stall and allow our toddler to pet the horses. The horses here are Arabian and very beautiful; they are also carefully looked after.
See the traditional uniformed policemen
The policemen inside Souq Waqif are also a popular tourist attraction mainly due to their traditional uniforms, which in keeping with the traditional look of the Souq, resemble those used in the 1940s. They can be seen on horseback inside the Souq and redirecting traffic near its entrance.
People watch at Doha’s best outdoor destination
Souq Waqif is absolutely the best destination to people watch in all of Doha. You can see locals, expats, and tourists intermingle and families and couples have great times. There is so much activity inside the Souq that you will never get tired of watching everything. Shopkeepers trying to upsell to tourists, locals haggling for daily goods, tea sellers, children enjoying the Souq from high up on their father’s shoulders, music performances, and processions, police on horses were some of the things I enjoyed seeing the most!