You could easily drive past one of Doha’s biggest and most impressive cultural offerings and not even know it.

Katara, also known as Cultural Village, is hidden behind towering manmade sand dunes. Except for the workmen scampering the dunes, you would not know there was anything on the other side.

Only a country as young and as ambitious as Qatar could imagine and build something like Katara. Designed to be the centre of Qatar’s cultural life, it houses performances spaces, galleries and an amphitheatre that looks as if the Roman empire had reached the shores of the Arabian Gulf and left a 5,000 seat coliseum.

Behind the dunes and on the edge of the Arabian Gulf on the north side of Doha, the 18-month-old streets of Katara resemble a traditional Gulf fishing town. Pale, sand-coloured, flat-roofed buildings and laneways lead to the wide, beachfront promenade. 

Qatari women, dressed elegantly in their sweeping abayas, negotiate the cobbled alleys, teetering on their designer heels. But there is no need to even walk.  Golf cart drivers offer visitors free rides to restaurants and other spots.

Katara hums with energy, especially in the evenings when Qatari and expatriate families flock to the area. The pristine sand of the public beach costs QR100 a day to enjoy but includes a comfortable sun lounger and one of the best views of Doha’s spectacular skyline.

The beachfront shisha lounge is, in keeping with Qatar’s image, a five-star experience offering blended aromas including a strawberry and fruit cocktail to be washed down with thick coffee and a dose of gossip.

Although it has activities for families and foodies, the precinct was primarily built for art lovers. Its highest profile tenant is the Doha International Tribeca Film Festival, a branch of Robert De Niro’s famed film event, but with an Arab focus. It is also home to the Qatar Philharmonic Orchestra (QPO). Established in 2008 with a mission to fuse Eastern and Western musical traditions, the QPO has 101 musicians drawn from around the world; the new Katara-housed Qatar Music Academy should soon add local artists as well.

Small gallery spaces and exhibitions are open to the public year round and the Qatar Museums Authority runs a large space where it has recently shown international photographic exhibits. The Arab Postal Museum (Building 22; 974-5553-2918) showcases the short but colourful history of stamps from Qatar and the surrounding Gulf region. Eventually Katara will house artists from around the region who bring their studios to Qatar to work and pass on knowledge to others.

The ornate Friday Mosque, with its intricate Iranian-inspired tiles, is a work of art in itself. Nearby, two huge “pigeon towers”, a hallmark of the region, stand over the complex. At the newly opened Handicraft Souq, visitors can buy traditional Qatari carpets and other trinkets.

Katara’s  restaurants draw on Arabic and regional cuisine. Among the standouts is L’Wzaar (Building 27; 974-4408-0710)  a seafood restaurant and the biggest in Qatar, where you choose from an array of regional seafood like Omani lobsters, meaty hammour and sherry fish. Other restaurants include a branch of the Michelin-starred Saffron Lounge for Indian, Khan Farouk for Egyptian and Sukar Pasha for Turkish. There are also street vendors selling chai, ghawa (tea and coffee) and chapatis.

Katara is located in the “new” part of Doha, West Bay, on reclaimed land. From the sea, as it is meant to be seen, Katara rises like a small metropolis of culture in the heart of one of the world’s fastest growing cities.

The name has deep significance to Qataris. Back in the first century the Qatar peninsula was known locally as Catara. The name Europeanized to Katara in the maps of the early 18th Century. Today it stands as proof that Qatar, with its vast wealth and rapid modernisation, has a culture heartbeat. You just need to find it first.