Damascus (دمشق) is the capital of Syria and its largest city, with about 4.5 million people.
Established between 8,000 to 10,000BC, Damascus is credited with being the world's oldest continuously inhabited city. The old walled city feels especially ancient, with its narrow, smooth-walled alleys punctuated by enigmatic doors leading to the blank-faced houses' pleasing, verdant interior courtyards.
There are internal flights to Aleppo, Deir-ez-Zur, Qamishli, and occasionally Latakia, costing aproximately 1000 SP one way. Notice that there are no flights from Beirut to Damascus.
The airport is relatively well equipped with most standard services. The tax-free assortment is limited, but prices are very low, especially on perfume. You might find better bargains on goods such as lebanese wine, araq and similar items before departing the airport.
From the airport an average fair is 500 SP. You might be able to negotiate down to 400 if there are few arrivals, depending on your bargaining skills. From the city to the airport you could get a taxi for 400 or as little as 300 SP depending on your bargaining skills.
There are also buses departing to and from Baramke bus station. The price is 25 SP and the departures are regular until aproximately midnight.
There are train services to and from Aleppo, making stops in Homs and Hama. One of the trains (21:20 departure) continues to Qamishli via Raqqa, Deir ez zoor and Hassaka. There are also services to Latakia, stopping at Homs and Tartus. However buses or service taxis are more convenient. Syrian trains are slow and make many stops. For the real buffs only.
International: There are weekly sleeper trains to Istanbul (35-36 hours) and Tehran (60 hours). There are also twice weekly trains to Amman (very slow, generally require a change of trains at the border).
Service Taxis are available to Amman and Irbid in Jordan. Depending on the political situation, these also service Beirut and other points in Lebanon, as well as points in Iraq.
Damascus is well served by buses internally in the country.
The Souq al-Hamidiyya, a tangle of streets packed with tiny shops, is entered through columns from a Roman temple built on a site that had been occupied by an even older temple. The souqs themselves smell of cumin and other distinctive spices and you can find passages dedicated to everything from leather and copper goods to inlaid boxes and silk scarves.
At the other end of Souq al-Hamidiyya is a fort-like section of the extant city wall that is the Citadel (but make sure to visit Aleppo's Citadel for a truly amazing experience).
Nearby, you can visit the mausoleum of Salah al-Din, known in the west as Saladin, the chief anti-crusader. There's a great statue of him on horseback right next to the citadel which will make you gasp if you walk all the way around it - underneath the horse's slightly lifted tail sit two dejected Frankish knights, one of whom is holding a shield with a lion on it. A not very subtle indication that he is Richard the Lion-Hearted, about to be further disgraced!
The October War Panorama. It's out in the suburbs but accessible by minibus or taxi. It's about US$7 to get in and well worth it. It was built with the help of the North Korean Government and the influence shows. There is an exhibit of military hardware outside. English-speaking guides are available.
There are several institutions in Damascus that teach Arabic:
The Damascus souq is lively place, where you can buy anything and everything. There are many jewellery stores, offering reasonably priced trinkets, clothing stores with amazing variety, and anything else you can imagine. It's a busy hub of Damascus, and is worth a visit even if you have no intention of buying. Thanks to Syria's relative isolation, it has yet to be invaded by the tourist targetting tout-shops, so shopping remains a fun experience.
Visa and Mastercard are widely accepted, but watch out, as merchants have service charges ranging from 4%-11%.
Felafel (10-15 SL), chicken shawarma (25 SL) and manaeesh (5 SL), bread filled with zatar, pizza-style tomato and cheese or other fillings are widely avaiable and cheap. Less common but still widely spread are places which sell foul and hommous. There is a foul restaurant in souq-al-saroujah, the same street as hotel al-haramein and one at the bab touma square. A felafel sandwich is a very cheap vegetarian meal. Vegetables which are not peeled might cause infections, but are still very good. Select places that have a steady stream of customers.
Fresh juice stalls are available all over the city. Orange juice (aasir beerdan) starts at 30-50 SL, other fruits are slightly more expensive. Many fruit stalls also have a range of dishes like hot dog, sojouq (armenian sausage), liver (soda) and meat (kebab etc.)
Pizza Pasta, sharia medhat pasha, at the turn to bab kisan. This place serves descent pasta and good pizza, and also antipasta and alcohol. The service is often less than good, but it's worth to put up with for some of the real stuff. No menu, just ask for whatever italian dish you fancy and chances are they will have it.
Nadil, a little closer to bab sharqi than pizza pasta, this place serves up typical arabic meat dishes and very good broasted, and does it well and cheap. Takeaway.
Beit Sissi, close to beit jabri in the old city (the street that runs paralell to the street of al-noufara down from the ommayad mosque). Opinions are diverted on the food. But there is no doubt that they have the best lemon and mint juice in damascus and it’s OK just to drink.
Inhouse Coffe, at the airport, in the bab touma shopping street on the way to sahet abbasin and in the shopping street of abu romanih (souq al-kheir, close to benetton shopping centre). This is the place for great coffee. They have everything, including pressed coffee, for those with European cravings. Heavy with smart looking people and bluetooth in the air (in syria, it’s an acceptable way to flirt).
Cafe Vienna, close to cham palace, follow the street towards jisr-al-rais, turn right in the alley opposite of the adidas store. This place is great. They do sandwiches on brown bread and apfelstrudel!
Vino Rosso, in bab touma walk up the stairs beside the police station and ask your way. You can have food fried at the table and they got French cheese. Rather cheap, very cosy. Alcohol is served.
Chinese restaurant, opposite of cafe narcissius close to beit jebr. oes standard Chinese food. Some have reported getting sick here. Alcohol is served.
Fish place, bourj el-roos. This place is more or less male only, a little rough and does very good fish. about 500 SL per person. Not cheap, but it’s Damascus, it’s fish and it’s good. The same place runs a good place for foul and hommous next by. Alcohol is served.
Spicy, at the abu-roumanih side of jisr al-abiad, first street to the left if your back is faced to the bridge. Daily dishes, "home-made" style Arabic food. Excellent. No alchohol.
Scoozi, or something like that. It’s close to nora supermarket in abu romanieh, if you walk from jisr al-rais towards jebel qasioun it is on your right. Best pizza in Damascus, the rest of the dishes are excellent too. No alchohol.
Haretna (bab touma area, take the stairs beside the police station and follow the sign) this is one of the hippest place speaking now, with some excellent mezze. The western dishes you can give a miss, but it does descent kebabs as well. But first of all, it’s always crowded, with a lot of nice looking people, and younger than most restaurants. A real Damascus favorite. No alcohol during Ramadan though.
Nadi Sharqi, close to hotel Four seasons, this is the best indian in Damascus. They do a great set meal for 600 S.P., which is really much good food. Or you can choose from great alacarte. The president dined here twice.
The coffee houses of Old Damascus are something to experience. Hours can dissolve over a cup of shay (tea) or ahwa (coffee) amongst the smoke of a nargileh (water pipe) . An-Nafura which I have been told means 'The Fountain' is a wonderful place to do this its just east of the Ummayad Mosque. There is even a Kahawai or traditional story teller present most nights.
Souq-al-saroujah is where you find the cluster of backpacker hotels. There are other hotels in the area, but the three below could all be reccomended.
Martyr's Square or "merjeh" in arabic is the other place worth considering if you're on a tight budget, though many of the places double as brothels. However, at least 'Hotel President' (below) can be recommended.