Editor’s note: I find myself, to no surprise, so envious of the travels of others when they are to exotic locations I haven’t yet had the chance to see. Here is another amazing story from Sam Spector. To read the rest of his stories here on The Royal Tour, visit his page here.

Often when we travel, we look for the quickest flight possible to our destination. However, consider looking for long layovers for a few reasons: they can give you a taste of a new place, they are often a fraction of the price, and getting to stretch your legs after twelve hours of flying can help you recover from jetlag and add a bit of excitement to your long journey. Plus, with long layovers, you often do not need a hotel at all, as many airports have storage lockers for you to drop your bags and explore; essentially, you get a bonus mini-trip on top of your vacation!

When I was booking a ticket to Oman, I found two layover destinations that were comparably priced: Dubai in the UAE and Doha in Qatar. Many of us know that Dubai is the new “it” place in the Middle East, emerging as a Singapore-meets-Monaco-meets-the-Arab-world, but what is there in Doha? I read up on it a little and found that the Qataris are building their capital city to be the next big regional rival to Dubai. A little further investigating showed that Doha was a little cheaper and more off the beaten path. A few other factors helped me make my final decision. One, Doha is still considered a bit more authentically Arab. Two, there is way more to see in the UAE between Dubai and Abu Dhabi, which in my book counted against Dubai. Why is this the case? If I have one day to spend in a place, I would rather go to an amazing destination where I can see all the highlights in that single day, rather than go to a place where I see some of the sights but walk away feeling as though I missed out on others. Finally, there was also one more unexpected reason that Qatar stood out to me: it was that I have an overall negative impression of the country’s politics from its funding of terror organizations to its abysmal labor conditions that cause the deaths of hundreds of migrant workers annually. Though this might sound like a reason not to visit a place, meeting people from a country whose government I oppose helps me be a less prejudiced and more informed global citizen. For all these reasons, Doha would be where I would spend my day.

Doha’s incredible skyline

When arriving at Doha’s Hamad International Airport, go outside and you will find clean city buses that will cheaply take passengers along the Corniche to all main destinations in the city. The first stop that we hit was Souq Waqif, and specifically the Falcon Souq. Yes, the Falcon Souq is exactly what it sounds like; as we grabbed our morning breakfast and coffee as the souq began to open, we saw numerous men walking back and forth carrying live falcons on their arms. In the Arabian Peninsula, a falcon is a major status symbol; when I lived in Los Angeles, people would spend money on sports cars, often to impress women, but in Qatar, bachelors paraded around their falcons because nothing gets a guy success in Doha like saying, “Check out my falcon.” As the stores began to open around us, we realized that every single store was a falcon store where one could buy falcons and falcon accessories such as leather helmets, one of which we bought as a souvenir. Out of curiosity, I asked how much a falcon cost, and was told that I could expect to spend between $5,000 and $10,000 for the pet bird. The shopkeeper asked me if I had ever owned a falcon before, and when I told him that I had not, he led me over to a rather dinky, runt looking bird and told me that this falcon was a good starter falcon for the inexperienced and it could be mine for $2,500. As I walked out of the shop sans bird of prey, I walked down an alley and saw a multistory building that said in big letters “Souq Waqif Falcon Hospital.” Stepping inside, you will see dozens of men dressed in traditional thawbs, the Arabian tunic garb, standing in a lobby with their falcons perched waiting for their turn to be called back to the veterinarian. A vending machine stands in one corner of the lobby with various supplements and vitamins for falcon health, while on the opposite side of the lobby is a museum about falcons. I thought back to a week prior when I had had to take my dogs to the vet for their shots and realized that this errand was as routine for these men as that one was for me.

Should I buy a falcon?

Continuing through the alleyways of Souq Waqif, the souq opens into a beautiful Arabian souq with many stalls selling clothing, spices, food, and antiques as giant forts and the spiraling Abdullah bin Zaid al Mahmoud Islamic Cultural Center loom in the background. Around one corner is an animal market with thousands of chirping birds, as well as rabbits, puppies, and kittens for sale as pets. Though when we went at the end of November the heat was tolerable, it was still very hot, leading us to imagine how unbearable the conditions must be in the summer when temperatures top 110 Fahrenheit daily, making it not a destination for animal lovers. However, if you need to escape the heat while in the souq go into the artists’ souq where there are galleries and men creating incredible charcoal drawings on commission. After about five hours, we had finished our time in the souq and headed onto the next Doha highlight.

Souq Waqif

Up the street from the Souq Waqif is the Museum of Islamic Art. Though there are museums dedicated to Islamic Art throughout the world, Doha’s is considered to be the best. The impressive structure was a masterpiece of the world-renowned architect I.M. Pei and is set right on the Persian Gulf, providing beautiful views of Doha’s futuristic, towering skyline. While Doha is modern and there are no dress requirements for the city, modest clothing, especially covered shoulders, arms, and knees for women are required for museum entrance. Inside the museum is work from throughout the Muslim world, including impressive calligraphy, ceramic bowls, and ornate jewelry that span a period of 1400 years and cover the globe from Spain to Southeast Asia. Make sure that you also go to the courtyards with their fountains and pools to the south of the museum and check out the massive library and children’s learning center that they have there, too. In Doha, I do not know which is more appreciated, the phenomenal exhibits or the air conditioning.

The Museum of Islamic Art

With our visit concluding, it was time to take a ten-minute cab ride back up to the airport to catch our flight to Muscat. At the airport we saw on the news how Qatari authorities were playing the role of intermediary in negotiating peace talks between American officials and the Taliban, with the talks taking place in the very city where we stood. This newscast brought a perfect close to our layover. Qatar is complicated; it is a tiny nation that is physically in between Saudi Arabia, the voice of the Arab world, and its counterpart, Iran. It is a place that tries to be peacemaker, friends with the West and the East, while still having its own disappointing human rights record. It is a place that wants to be a nation of innovation and the future, while investing its resources to preserve its past and revolutionize at the same time. We encountered almost no other tourists there, and it was as though we got to simultaneously take a photo in time from life as it was one hundred years ago and life as it will be one hundred years from now. While I am sure that Qataris would take issue with me not doing a desert safari in their country, going out to large fortresses, attending a camel race, or visiting the posh artificial island called The Pearl, Jill and I felt that we had seen the main sights that we could not see elsewhere in places like Dubai. We got the opportunity to see in a day the complexities of Doha and what sets it apart from the rest of the world.

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