This vibrant complex is without doubt one of the most atmospheric places to explore in Qatar. Built on an ancient market site, the area remains the social heart of Doha. Centuries ago, Bedouin would bring their sheep, goats and wool here to trade for essentials, and the entire market area has been cleverly redeveloped to look the part of a 19th-century souq, with mud-rendered shops and exposed timber beams, plus some authentic and beautifully restored original Qatari buildings.
With booming prosperity, the advent of vast air-conditioned shopping malls and Qatar’s rush to embrace the new, Souq Waqif fell into serious decline by the 1990s, and much of the market was destroyed in a fire in 2003. An outcry from Qataris prompted the authorities to undertake a massive rehabilitation program, one that continues to this day. Such has been the success of this venture that the souq keeps growing to accommodate new ‘old alleyways’.
Despite the ongoing gentrification of the area, the chief business of the souq continues unabated, and it remains one of the most traditional marketplaces in the region. This is the place to look for national Qatari dress, including the beautifully embroidered bukhnoq (girl’s head covering), spices, perfumes and oud (incense made from agarwood).
Until land was reclaimed along Doha’s waterfront in the 1970s, the waters lapped at the entrance to Souq Waqif, where traders were just as likely to arrive by boat as by camel. The first semi-permanent shops here were built around 250 years ago. Before that, vendors stood and sold their wares from makeshift stalls, as the market often flooded, and it is from this tradition that the souq’s name derives: waqif means ‘standing’ in Arabic.
The Falcon Souq is a highlight, but falconry is not the only traditional Qatari leisure pursuit you can see around the market. Nearby stables house Arabian horses and just off the Corniche end of Al Jasra St, a pen is filled with feeding camels most of the day.
Animal lovers beware: located behind the colourful spice section of Souq Waqif is a collection of caged birds, and sometimes cats, rabbits, tortoises and dogs, kept outside in all weather: hot, hot and even hotter.
Some of the shops are like museums, displaying artefacts (such as swords and shipping memorabilia), plus jewellery from around the Arab world. Many shops and stalls in the souq close around 1pm and reopen at 4pm, but the area, and its many cafes and restaurants, remains open all day.