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It’s the ornamental plants and immaculate green lawns rolling over the man-made dunes at Katara Cultural Village that first catch the eye.
Once inside the labyrinth of narrow, cobbled passageways, a sense of grandeur and escape takes over.
Built on reclaimed land on the coastal edge of Doha, the bespoke complex has become the beating heart of Qatar’s creative scene since its opening in 2010.
A unique “village”
Designed to help position Doha as a global art destination, it’s home to a wide array of galleries, theaters and concert halls, which host a year-round program of exhibitions, performances and festivals.
Katara is popular with locals and foreigners alike and, so says the complex’s public relations chief Malika Mohammad Al Shraim, signifies a “major turning point” in the country’s efforts to raise cultural awareness and promote all forms of artistic exchange.
Katara sits between the gleaming skyscrapers of Doha’s central West Bay area and the Pearl, an elegant artificial island featuring residential towers, top-class restaurants and yacht-lined marinas.
To get there, you’ll first need to navigate the seemingly constant works carried out on Doha’s roads – not the simplest of tasks as the Qatari capital gears up to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup.
But the impression on arrival is of stepping into a bygone era.
Everywhere you look, a uniform shade of pale yellow lends a sand-like varnish to the complex’s signature flat-topped buildings.
These short structures are all modeled on traditional local architecture, as are their intricate doors, window frames and shutters.
During the daytime, suspended canvas canopies shelter the lanes running between the cube buildings, offering much needed respite from the fierce Gulf sun.
At night a warm light trickles down the amber walls, adding a touch of mystery to the surroundings.
“It’s really like you’re going into another place,” Georgian Sgura, a 21-year-old Doha-based student from Romania says from behind his laptop inside the Katara Art Center.
“It’s very different to everything else here.”
Katara feels like a maze of winding alleys and is reminiscent of an old souq.
In one direction the narrow lanes open onto wide granite-tiled courtyards flanked by colorful water fountains.
In the other, a spectacular beachfront promenade emerges.
You can pop in and out of the dozens of galleries and venues hosting the creations of local and international painters, sculptors, photographers and other artists.
Entry is free of charge, and recent highlights include “Skate Girls of Kabul,” a series of striking portraits by London-based photographer Jessica Fulford-Dobson held at the QM Gallery, and a retrospective of celebrated French street artist JR.
Outside, Katara’s 1.5-kilometer sandy beach provides family-friendly activities from swimming and pedal boating to canoe and kayak rides.
But it’s when it hosts its trademark events that Katara truly comes to life, and the annual European Jazz Festival, folkloric performances and film screenings are particular crowd pleasers.
Another highlight is the Traditional Dhow Festival, held each November, which pays tribute to Qatar’s rich maritime heritage.
An international exhibition dedicated to falconry, a major national sport and part of the country’s cultural identity, also had its first edition in 2017.
“There’s so many things going on in Katara – a lot of celebrations and art exhibitions,” says Louisa Agnelika, a 22-year-old Indonesian who’s lived here nearly all her life.
“Especially this time of the year, when it’s not so hot and the weather is nicer to enjoy compared to the summer.”
Open-top bus tours apart, most visitors to Katara arrive in their own cars or taxis.
Inside the complex’s grounds, a fleet of electric golf carts are ready to ferry you around without charge, something that’s quite handy if you’re finding it difficult to traverse the stone walkways.
While a popular venue for many of Qatar’s cultural attractions, Katara’s focal point is an imposing amphitheater overlooking the calm waters of the Persian Gulf.
Though rarely full, the 3,275 square meter marble structure can welcome up to 5,000 people. Its design is inspired by ancient Greece – but traditional Arabic features, including exposed timber beams and woven ceilings, add a local twist in recognition of the region’s architectural past.
The venue was officially opened in 2011 with a concert by Greek composer Vangelis and has since hosted a variety of music performances, traditional dance shows and open-air screenings.
Just a few steps away, under the shadow of the amphitheater’s stands, is the Golden Masjid. Covered with tiny golden chips, this small Ottoman-style mosque and its minaret never fail to catch visitors’ attention.
At the other end of the complex, lies the stunning Katara Masjid, which was designed by renowned Turkish architect Zainab Fadil Oglu.
The mosque draws inspiration from similar places of worship found in other parts of the Muslim world.
A real masterpiece, it boasts a mosaic of mostly turquoise and purple tiles, intricate ornaments and beautiful wooden features.
Next to it stands another hallmark of Katara that’s a photographer’s delight – the pigeon towers.
These traditional structures stretch up 15 meters into the Doha sky and measure about 4.25 meters wide.
Made of bricks and clay, the massive towers are punctuated with holes and wooden perches in a symmetric pattern.
Katara is also home to an Opera House, the only facility of its kind in Qatar.
Fusing modern architectural elements with traditional Islamic design, the sumptuous venue can seat up to 550 guests.
There are also libraries, lecture halls and a number of spaces where those nurturing artistic aspirations can attend workshops to sharpen their skills on anything from portrait drawing and oil painting to Arabic calligraphy and ceramics.
Mezze and karak
Katara has plenty to offer foodies. In fact, some of Doha’s best dining spots can be found here, mostly along its spacious seaside esplanade.
One is Mamig, a two-story restaurant at the waterfront serving tantalizing Armenian-Lebanese dishes – the cherry kebab and the muhammara are both firm favorites.
The luxurious Sukar Pasha is just a few meters away. Here you’ll taste traditional Ottoman dishes while reclining in comfy chairs sprawled underneath elaborate chandeliers hanging from a hand-painted ceiling.
The mezze platters are well worth a try. You can place your order via a tablet.
Then there are the cafes and lounges. Those with a sweet tooth should check out Chac’Late for its wide selection of mouthwatering cakes and chocolate fountains.
Shisha is also popular in Katara, but a visit here would not be complete without having a cup of karak, a Qatari staple for decades.
A slightly creamier version of India’s masala chai, karak is a warm drink usually made with strong black tea, condensed milk, cardamom and sugar.
It can be enjoyed in the serene patio of café Chapati & Karak, or you can queue by the shack’s window to get your fix for the road.