Damascus (دمشق) is the capital of Syria and its largest city, with about 4.5 million people.
Established between 10,000 to 8,000BC to , Damascus is credited with being the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world. The old walled city, in particular, feels very ancient and is comprised of a maze of narrow alleys, punctuated by enigmatic doors that lead into pleasing, verdant courtyards and blank-faced houses.
There are internal flights to Aleppo, Deir-ez-Zur, Qamishli, and occasionally Latakia, costing approximately 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 to the city, an average fare is 500 SP. You might be able to negotiate down to 400 SP if there are few arrivals. Fares are typically about 100 SP cheaper going from the city to the airport, though of course varies depending on your bargaining skills.
There are also buses departing to and from Baramkeh bus station in the centre of town (airport buses are the only ones which serve this bus station now - all other services have moved to the new out of town Soumaria bus station). The price is 25 SP and there are departures every half an hour, 24 hours a day. At the airport, come out of the terminal and turn right - you will find the bus at the end of the building. There is a small ticket office. The buses have been upgraded in recent years, from old Russian beasts, to comfortable modern coaches, run by a company called Itihad.
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. The Damascus-Aleppo service is good. The main train station is at Qadam, a southern suburb. Service microbuses on the Qadam-Assali route run between Qadam and Sharia al-Thawra in the city centre.
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. Since the closure of the more central Baramkeh Station, these service taxis leave from Soumaria (pronounced like the girls' names "Sue Maria") which is a 10-15 minute taxi ride from central Damascus, along Autostrade Mezzeh.
Damascus is well served by buses internally in the country. Please note that the Bermanke bus station is now abandoned. Any information relating to it is now out of date.
At rush hours, the BEST way of transport is on foot, the rush hours are 10 AM to 4 PM. Smoking is absolutely forbidden in all public transport ways.
A very good idea is to go on foot especially for a sightseeing, and it's the only way to get around in Old Damascus.
It isn't a very good idea to rent a car in Damascus, there is almost always traffic jam in it, especially in Summer, and parking tends to be difficult too, that isn't the the situation in suburbs.
Also called servees, this is one of the main transport ways in Damascus and in Syria in general, and it's very cheap too, all journeys inside the city costs 5 Syria Pounds (10 American Cents approximately). You can go from any place to another one in Damascus with one or two (at most) journeys, give any passenger in the Micro-bus a coin and he will pass it to the driver and returns you the change, just remember to tell that passenger how many people are you paying for, whether you are in a group, or tell him that you are paying "for one" ("waahid") if you are alone.
The route is written (in Arabic only) on the roof sign.
Micro buses don't generally have fixed stops except at very busy points, just beckon to the driver and he will stop near you.
A service taxi to Amman cost 700 syrian pounds and takes around 4 hours and they work 24 hrs, dont doubt to ride them, they are very clean, comfortable and new cars with a/c
The Souq al-Hamidiyya, a broad street 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 end of Souq al-Hamidiyya stands the great Umayyad mosque, the building with four minarets is an architectural wonder. It was a Greek temple, one can still see ancient Greek carvings on the gate at the Southern wall, then a Roman temple, a church then a mosque and a church together, and finally a mosque until now. All the symbols are still pretty much there and some Christian drawings can still be very clearly seen on the walls inside. The mosque contains the grave of John the Baptist (for Muslims, prophet Yahya) inside the main lounge. Women are asked to be to cover their hair, arms and legs and big abayas for that can be rented just beside the entrance for 20s.p. This is one of the few big mosques in the Islamic world where foreigners are welcome to enter.
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:
Damascus offers some of the best shopping in the Middle East. Prices are cheap, and since very few stores depend on tourists for their income, most will leave you alone to browse until you are ready to buy. Small stores are located throughout the old city, although the Souq al-Hamidiyya, located along the Roman straight street, offers the highest density of shops. The souq is a fantastic experience, but be prepared for the crowds.
The famous vegetarian felafel sandwich (10-20 SP), chicken shawarma (25-35 SP) and manakeesh (5-10 SP), bread filled with zatar, spinach, meat, pizza-style tomato and cheese or other fillings are widely available and cheap. Less common but still widely spread are places which sell foul (boiled fava beans with sauce) and hommous.
A typical Damascene dish is fatteh, made up of soaked bread, chickpeas and yoghurt. Delicious and extremely filling, it is excellent on a cold winter's day. Try it with lamb or sheep's tongue, or plain with the typical garnish of a little pickle and nuts.There is a foul restaurant on Souq Saroujah, the same street as hotel Al-Haramein and one at the bab touma square. Also in this "backpacker district" on Souq Sarouja is Mr Pizza, a fast food joint serving good pizzas, sandwiches, burgers and fries. A large plate of fries is 50 SP, a sandwich filled with chicken is 55 SP and a pizza for one person is 90 SP.
Shawarma is, of course, popular in Damascus. Comes in different varieties, including chicken and beef. Station One (near the Noura Supermarket in Abu Rumaneh) is one of many restaurants that serve shawarma throughout the city.
In order to really experience local Syrian cuisine, be sure to visit a section of Damascus called Midan. It lies south of the old city and can easily be reached by walking south from the western entrance to Souq al-Hamadiyya or from Bab Saghir. There is a main street there called Jazmatiya which offers an unlimited amount of shawerma & falafel stands, butcher shops/restaurants and plenty of Syrian pastry shops which are clearly marked by 8 foot towers of sweets stacked on top of each other. This main street is best to visit at night and doesn't close till around 3AM. The street is very safe and is always very busy.
Another unusual treat is a camel kebab, available tasty and fresh from the camel butchers outside Bab Saghir. As they typically advertise their wares by hanging a camel head and neck outside the premises, you're unlikely to miss them.
Fresh juice stalls are available all over the city. Orange juice (aasir beerdan) starts at 30-50 SP, 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.). These may not always be the safest to eat.
Fruits and vegetables which are not peeled might cause infections, but are still very good. Select places that have a steady stream of customers.
The area around Martyr's square is polluted with pastry shops selling some of the sweetest, tastiest and cheapest baklava in Earth.
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 Sitti, 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 Coffee, 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 jabri. Does 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 alcohol.
Scoozi. It’s close to Noura Supermarket in Abu Rumanneh, 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 alcohol.
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 al Sharq, 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-Naufara (which means 'The Fountain') is a wonderful place to do this its just east of the Ummayad Mosque. There is even a Hakawati (a traditional story teller) present at 7pm most nights.
If you are craving a European coffee, head for Abu Rommeneh street and look for the Bennetton clothing store. There are a number of fancy cafes in the area, including the Middle Eastern chain Inhouse Coffee, which is very much like Starbucks in its prices and atmosphere. A large latte or cappuccino will set you back 135 SP. Free Wi-Fi is offered at each location throughout the city.
Apart from that, many bars and nightclubs have been set up in Damascus for many people to enjoy. These usually crowd up at night time, but they still guarantee nice alcoholic beverages and dances.
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 recommended.
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' and 'Hotel Imad' (below) can be recommended. Women alone should avoid hotels at Merje-Sqaure, cause it's the red light district of Damascus.
Most hotels can arrange international phone calls, but prices are very expensive. Most internet cafes are set up for VOIP, and offer a much cheaper alternative, although the price does reflect the quality of the connection.
Internet access is widely available, although the Syrian government censors traffic, which can cause some interesting quirks in connectivity.
In rural and modern areas of Damascus, people have been known to be perfectly healthy, but to imitate beggars in order to get money. Often, they will attempt to con you by giving more money and have many tricks to do so. Exercise caution.
Also, for your safety, do not get advices or recommendations, especially about accommodation, doctors and dentists, from taxi drivers.
Be warned that NO bank will cash American Express Traveler Cheques in Damascus and elsewhere in Syria! Bring cash or credit cards instead!