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stylish cities
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The Souq Waqif is a traditional marketplace in Doha, home to luxury shopping, dining and boutique hotels.Kamran Jebreili/The Associated Press

Is Doha stylish? By some measures, it’s tempting to overlook the capital of Qatar which, compared with glamourous neighbours such as Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, tends to be lesser known.

But look around enough and you’ll see lots of unusual buildings, a whirlwind of construction, places to overdose on fine coffee and chocolate, and shops to pick up a finely-crafted oud — sort of like a lute, and just as hard to play.

Look even harder and you can have, if you have a few thousand dollars and are willing to work through wildlife export laws, your very own hunting falcon.

Falcon hunting

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Falconry is a tradition in the Arab world that goes back as far as 6,000 years. Doha even has a marketplace to show and sell the magnificent hunters.The Associated Press

The Falcon Souq (souq is Arabic for market) is a small, walkable quadrangle adjacent to the city’s picturesque traditional market, Souq Waqif. A perfect way to enjoy stylish Doha is to spend a late afternoon or evening wandering through both markets, bargaining, drinking coffee and dining until you’re satiated and exhausted (midday can be too hot and many shopkeepers close).

Around the Falcon Souq’s quadrangle are several falcon shops, each with sandy pits in the middle about the length of a bowling lane, with perches for the sleek, beautiful birds in the middle.

The falcons are tethered and wear hoods, so they won’t be inclined to hunt on the spot — probably a good thing, since when diving for prey they are just about the fastest creatures in the world, hitting speeds of nearly 400 kilometres an hour.

Falconry is a tradition in the Arab world that goes back as far as 6,000 years. It’s a cross between a sport and an art, in addition to being a pastime. The birds are trained to work with their owners, taken out into the desert in 4x4 vehicles, then released to hunt and return on a signal.

A good falcon can easily fetch a price equivalent to $10,000. Falcons are so prized by glitzy Qataris that there’s a spanking-clean Falcon Hospital right next to the Falcon Souq, just across from some of the finest boutique hotels in Souq Waqif.

As a visitor, you likely won’t get the opportunity to go hunting with falcons unless you are some sort of royalty or the guest of an important person. Going falconing with little or no experience would also be like asking to race someone’s prized thoroughbred or taking a spin in someone’s Formula One car. But you can learn a lot about falconry by spending time in the Falcon Souq, and shop owners usually allow photos if you ask.

  • The Qatar National Library was designed by Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA), a Dutch architectural firm founded in 1975 by architect Rem Koolhaas and others. The library was commissioned in 2012 to mark the 50th anniversary of the Dar Al Kutub Library, one of the first public libraries in the Persian Gulf region and previously considered the national library. The new facility had a soft opening last November and was officially inaugurated last April by Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani.Kamran Jebreili/The Associated Press

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Bargain hunting

Souq Waqif is, itself, always a stylish part of Doha to visit. Shoppers can pick up an unusual variety of goods, though not all necessarily originating from Qatar.

A good place to start in Souq Waqif after the Falcon Souq is the pet shop area, where the budgies and parrots for sale are arranged according to colour, though the bunnies and kittens are more random.

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The Souq Waqif offers an unusual variety of goods.David Israelson/The Globe and Mail

If you want to be stylishly exotic, you can pick up an abaya — the long black dress worn by many, though not all, women in Qatar. Men can get decked out in thawbs, those long white shirts that can be worn over loose trousers (though you can’t always tell if men are wearing pants).

You can also purchase a men’s headdress, known as a ghutra in Qatar, and, at least one shop, it’s possible to pick up a spiffy fez.

More serious shoppers might look for antiques, for lacquered wooden boxes and backgammon sets (usually made elsewhere) and for fine-crafted gold jewellery, or for pearl earrings or necklaces. Before Qatar became one of the world’s leading producers of natural gas, it was known for its pearls. Along the Corniche, a seven-kilometre promenade that curves around Doha Bay, offering attractive vistas for walkers and cyclists, there is even a sculpture of a giant oyster with a pearl in its shell.

Be prepared to bargain, although do so with courtesy and tact. A good way to start is simply to ask, “Is that your best price?” You can then work to get the seller to come down.

Sight hunting

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The Souq Waqif is the place to be for Middle Eastern food and drinks (although not the alcoholic variety, as those are limited to certain luxury hotels and foreigners).David Israelson/The Globe and Mail

The Souq itself is entertainment. At various times you can see mounted police or a man wearing a turban sitting in a market square by a fire and making ceramic bracelets while singing — partly in English, and partly in another language that he may have invented himself.

There is also a shop that sells beautiful musical instruments — mostly ouds and drums, not far from a taxidermist who will welcome you while he stuffs various dead animals.

If you are still hungry after that, there are several lovely restaurants with comfy outdoor tables, with most menus offering various types of Middle Eastern food.

You can enjoy exotic coffees, cold juices and sweet desserts, but not alcohol, which is available only in certain luxury hotels and only for foreigners. It’s also easy to order a hookah full of flavoured tobacco, but remember that a wad of shisha can be as unhealthy as a few days of cigarettes.

Souq Waqif and the falcon market are far from the only places where you can wander through Doha and feel stylish. The city is also home to the world-class Museum of Islamic Art, an I.M. Pei-designed building with exhibits that are a must-see.

Also scheduled to open later this year is a new National Museum, whose head-turning exotic architecture is inspired by the shape of a desert rose.

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The striking Museum of Islamic Art, designed by I.M. Pei, is a must-see.David Israelson/The Globe and Mail

Doha also boasts its own upscale artificial island. The Pearl is an atoll of luxury homes and Venetian-style canals. Another area along the Corniche, called Katara, is an attractive cultural centre, with galleries, cafés, an amphitheatre and a beach.

These stylish sites are just a fraction of what is to come in Doha. From the time you arrive at its sparkling airport, which has an indoor train, you’ll be struck by an endless array of gleaming towers of 30 storeys or more.

The towers, mostly in the West Bay area of the city, are in some cases luxury hotels or residences for the city’s large expatriate population. Others are government ministries that look huge for a country of 2.6 million residents, only about 313,000 of which hold citizenship.

Many of these giant towers are now adorned with images bearing the stern, distinguished profile of Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, the Emir of Qatar.

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Many buildings in Doha are adorned with the image of Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, the Emir of Qatar.David Israelson/The Globe and Mail

The Emir’s picture is a relatively new civic feature that has cropped up since Qatar has run into some difficulties with its Persian Gulf neighbours Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.

In 2017, the neighbours imposed a blockade, charging that Qatar is soft on terrorism and too friendly with Iran.

Qatar has indeed become friendlier with Iran, with which it shares a huge natural gas field; it disputes the terrorism charge, noting that Qatar hosts a U.S. military base with more than 10,000 soldiers and more than 70 F-15 jet fighters.

The blockade doesn’t seem to have slowed construction, as Qatar prepares to host the World Cup of soccer in 2020.

In addition to building nine new soccer stadiums and renovating three more, Doha is constructing a 95-station metropolitan rail network and a newly revitalized downtown area — right next to Souq Waqif and the falcons.

If you go

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Women are not required to wear head or face coverings in Qatar; modest Western attire is accepted.Kamran Jebreili/The Associated Press

Qatar Airways flies direct to Montreal’s Pierre Elliott Trudeau Airport and has connections with other airlines to Toronto and other cities in Canada.

Canadian visitors must have a valid tourist, business or student visa to visit Qatar. Visas, valid for 30 days, can be obtained on arrival.

Due to the blockade and the ever-volatile politics of the Middle East, the Canadian government advises that visitors to Qatar “exercise a high degree of caution.”

November to April is considered the best time to visit; summer weather, which begins in May, can be brutally hot, with temperatures regularly above 40.

Women are not required to wear head or face coverings; modest Western attire is accepted.

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