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Damascus

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* '''Hotel Al-Ghazal''' is also in souq Saroujah, at the street turning out towards Jisr-Al-Thawra, the revolution bridge. This hotel is a newcomer in the Saroujah budget hotels. It has a very attractive, typical Damascus courtyard. In addition to a typical Middle Eastern hotel, breakfast they serve the usual range of tea and coffee and good water pipe free of charge. You can bring alcohol to drink in the courtyard if you like. Rooms and facilities are new. Several new, clean bathrooms with hot water and also a hostel portion in the same structure. Prices are 900 SP for a double with shared bathroom and 400 SP for a dorm room. Managers keep a safe on the premises for valuables. Owners are helpful and service-minded, but they speak less English than their competitors and don't arrange tours or otherwise on a regular basis (but could still probably help out if you ask). English spoken enough to arrange rooms, get/give directions and special circumstances. For foreign students of Arabic, the hotel staff is very accommodating and surprisingly insightful with the limited English they speak. If you are a light sleeper, you should avoid room 2 as it gets all the noise from the kitchen, bathrooms and reception area but the rooms facing onto the courtyard are peaceful.
 
* '''Hotel Al-Ghazal''' is also in souq Saroujah, at the street turning out towards Jisr-Al-Thawra, the revolution bridge. This hotel is a newcomer in the Saroujah budget hotels. It has a very attractive, typical Damascus courtyard. In addition to a typical Middle Eastern hotel, breakfast they serve the usual range of tea and coffee and good water pipe free of charge. You can bring alcohol to drink in the courtyard if you like. Rooms and facilities are new. Several new, clean bathrooms with hot water and also a hostel portion in the same structure. Prices are 900 SP for a double with shared bathroom and 400 SP for a dorm room. Managers keep a safe on the premises for valuables. Owners are helpful and service-minded, but they speak less English than their competitors and don't arrange tours or otherwise on a regular basis (but could still probably help out if you ask). English spoken enough to arrange rooms, get/give directions and special circumstances. For foreign students of Arabic, the hotel staff is very accommodating and surprisingly insightful with the limited English they speak. If you are a light sleeper, you should avoid room 2 as it gets all the noise from the kitchen, bathrooms and reception area but the rooms facing onto the courtyard are peaceful.
  
'''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.  
+
'''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.  
  
 
*'''Hotel President''' (Al-Rais) have rooms from 500 SP and above. Doubles comes with separate bathrooms, all reasonably clean. Little or no English spoken.
 
*'''Hotel President''' (Al-Rais) have rooms from 500 SP and above. Doubles comes with separate bathrooms, all reasonably clean. Little or no English spoken.
 +
 +
*'''Imad Hotel''', just northeast of the square, has a single room for around 1400 SP, with private bathroom and fridge, and pleasant, English-speaking owner.
  
 
===Mid range===
 
===Mid range===

Revision as of 09:44, 19 January 2008

The Eastern Gate at the end of the Via Recta

Damascus (دمشق) is the capital of Syria and its largest city, with about 4.5 million people.

Understand

Established between 8,000 to 10,000BC, 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.

Get in

By plane

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 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 Soumarieh "Baramkeh station is closed now" bus station. The price is 25 SP and the departures are regular until approximately midnight.

By train

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).

By car

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.

By bus

Damascus is well served by buses internally in the country.

Regular buses to Damascus leave Amman, Jordan, the trip including crossing the border takes about 4 hours and cost approximately 6-9JD.

Get around

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.

On foot

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.

By car

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.

Micro buses

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.

Buses

Taxi

There are many taxis everywhere so It may be a good transport way, the taxis of "Star Taxi" is rather expensive than normal taxis but they are more comfortable and safe, you can call the headquarter of it so they send you the nearest taxi to your place. Taxis with the Damascus Governorate logo on the side and a number on the roof sign are equipped with a taximeter, and it is best to use only these when hailing a taxi on the street. You should normally leave a 10 pound tip as well as the fare on the meter. At night taxi drivers do not usually use the meter, so you may be best off negotiating the price before you get in.

See

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.

Do

  • Viewing the city from Mount Qasioun is a must-do activity in Damascus as it offers a panoramic view of the entire city. The peak is accessible at any time, though the view is perhaps most spectacular at night when the whole city is lit up and the minarets of mosques are bathed in green light. The Umayyad mosque in the old town is particularly impressive when viewed from the mountain. There is a wide range of food and refreshment available on the peak from stalls to fancy restaurants that serve good local cuisine and alcohol.
  • Visit a restaurant in old Damascus. There are many restaurants in the old quarter each with their own unique character, but perhaps the most impressive is "Beit Jabri".
  • Relax at a Hooka cafe Hooka cafe's are popular in Damascus and are easy to find. When visiting the old city, you'll get a more cultural or traditional experience. You'll probably find a crowd of tea drinking, backgammon playing men all smoking hooka. In the modern city, most cafe's cater to a younger crowd and are a big part of the night life offering a huge variety of flavored tobacco ranging from double apple which is the most common, to cappuccino.

Learn

Arabic

There are several institutions in Damascus that teach Arabic:

  • Language Institute at Damascus University [3] - approximately £100 per month.
  • Ma'had - a state-run Language Academy in the Mezze district of Damascus - the cheapest option at approximately £150 for three months, though the courses are not as good as those at Damascus University.
  • The British Council - expensive - classes aimed at diplomats and businessmen
  • The French Institute for Arab Studies [4] - expensive - very professional and thorough.
  • Private schools [5] and private tutors [6]
  • DSA - Damascus Language School for Standard Arabic - The school provides basic courses for beginners and advanced courses also on certain topics as for journalists, physicians, diplomats, engineers etc. Classes have maximum 4 Students. Lessons with private teachers are even possible. Teachers are well experienced in teaching foreigners. Courses start every Saturday. [7]

Work

Your main option is to teach English (even if you don't have a teaching qualification). Native English speakers are reasonably paid. Try the British Council (though they will need a qualification), or the ALC (American Language Centre, in the US Embassy), or one of the numerous local private language schools. This is an option, even if you only plan on staying for one month or so.

The other choice is to guide tourists round the Old City. Do your research then visit one of the antique shops opposite the famous An-Naufara cafe next to the Omayid Mosque in the Old City. They'll point you in the right direction.

Buy

The Souq in Old Damascus 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%.

Never shy away from bargaining. It is expected and a tradition. People are not trying to cheat you. Think about bargaining as a kind of chit-chat with the seller. When visited by foreigners, sellers, especially in the old Souq, will give a high price. A general rule of thumb is go for half price or less. The seller will usually respond by showing an astonished face and swear that this is more than they paid for it. At this point, either continue negotiating until you pay anything between 50 to 70% of the original price or start leaving. In most cases they will follow you and you will get a good deal, though sometimes they won't. However, remember that in most cases, the same items are available in most shops in the Souq. Important to know that bargaining does not apply to food items, department stores or western brands, only for local stores in the souq or local markets. Neither does it apply to gold and silver, which are sold at a fixed price per gram.

Syrian sweets (baklavah and numerous related sweetmeats) make an excellent present. The best place to buy them is in Midan (for more information, see the "eating" section below). The shopkeepers will happily let you sample their wares. The best quality can cost 700SP per kilo, but cheaper varieties are readily available. In addition, Syrian chocolate with hazelnuts are great. One of the best chocolate shops is just opposite Cham Palace Hotel.

Eat

Budget

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.

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.

Mid-range

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.

Splurge

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 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.

Drink

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. In theory they have free wifi, but on a visit in November 2007 it was broken.

Sleep

Budget

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.

  • The Al-Rabie Hotel is located on an attractive side street about a 5-10 minute walk from the citadel. It has an attractive courtyard, and clean rooms. 700 SP for double with shared bath, 1100 SP for double with ensuite. You can also sleep on a mattress on the partially enclosed roof in summer for 175 SP. Breakfast is available, but not included in the price. Some of the rooms that share a bath are a bit of a hike from the bath and shower rooms. Helpful staff that can arrange tours and otherwise cater to tourist needs. No alcohol allowed on the premises.
  • Hotel Al-Haramain is located next to Al-Rabie. The communal areas are smaller and more crowded than in Al-Rabie, but the staff is nice and friendly. Prices are approximately the same as the others. 900 SP for a double, 500 SP for a single. There are also rooms with 3 or 4 beds. Breakfast is always included in the price. Showers are in the basement. Helpful staff that can arrange tours and otherwise cater to tourist needs. No alcohol allowed on the premises. Be sure to get a reservation in advance.
  • Hotel Al-Ghazal is also in souq Saroujah, at the street turning out towards Jisr-Al-Thawra, the revolution bridge. This hotel is a newcomer in the Saroujah budget hotels. It has a very attractive, typical Damascus courtyard. In addition to a typical Middle Eastern hotel, breakfast they serve the usual range of tea and coffee and good water pipe free of charge. You can bring alcohol to drink in the courtyard if you like. Rooms and facilities are new. Several new, clean bathrooms with hot water and also a hostel portion in the same structure. Prices are 900 SP for a double with shared bathroom and 400 SP for a dorm room. Managers keep a safe on the premises for valuables. Owners are helpful and service-minded, but they speak less English than their competitors and don't arrange tours or otherwise on a regular basis (but could still probably help out if you ask). English spoken enough to arrange rooms, get/give directions and special circumstances. For foreign students of Arabic, the hotel staff is very accommodating and surprisingly insightful with the limited English they speak. If you are a light sleeper, you should avoid room 2 as it gets all the noise from the kitchen, bathrooms and reception area but the rooms facing onto the courtyard are peaceful.

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.

  • Hotel President (Al-Rais) have rooms from 500 SP and above. Doubles comes with separate bathrooms, all reasonably clean. Little or no English spoken.
  • Imad Hotel, just northeast of the square, has a single room for around 1400 SP, with private bathroom and fridge, and pleasant, English-speaking owner.

Mid range

  • Al Majed Hotel, 29th May Street, above Yusef Al-'Azmi Square, behind the Assufara (Ambassadors') Cinema, double rooms from US$20-$25, mixed dorm US$10 - completely renovated in 2001, this family-run 60-room hotel remains a very popular, secure and central place to stay for travelers of all sorts - from businessmen to backpackers. The Al Majed Restaurant, open 24 hours, is located on the top floor of the Hotel with a variety of dishes, from traditional Middle Eastern dishes to Continental fare.

Splurge

  • Al Mamlouka, tel (+963 11) 543 0445/46, fax (+963 11) 541 7248, mailto:[email protected], doubles from £72 sterling a night including breakfast - a luxury boutique hotel (8 rooms: two single, two double, four suites) is located in Bab Touma, the heart of the old city of Damascus, and dates back to the 17th century. Each room is decorated in its own version of Oriental style. Located opposite a hammam (Turkish bath) and within minutes' walk of the souq and several good restaurants. The hotel features an Old Bayke (stable) converted into a gallery, restaurant and bar. The roof terrace is also worth a visit.
  • Cham Palace Hotel, the Cham chain is the government owned luxury hotels of Syria. The Damascus outlet is centrally located, home to several high quality, yet still affordable by western standards, restaurants, a book store with an extensive collection in foreign languages, particularly English, and a movie theatre, which shows recent Hollywood movies subtitled in Arabic.
  • Four Seasons
  • Omayad Hotel, 1 Sharia Brazil, +963 11 221 7700 (, fax: +963 11 221 3515), [1]. Business class hotel, with all expected room features, including a small box of chocolates on the pillow! Breakfast is expensive, and can be done better elsewhere. Money exchange in lobby. Nice views from the rooftop. Single US$90+tax (Dec '06).
  • Accommodation for foreigners studying Arabic in Damascus, 00963 944 318 068 (), [2]. An old house beautifully located in the heart of the old city, five minutes' walk from the Umayyad Mosque. seven rooms, two shared bathrooms, two shared kitchens, all rooms newly furnished. Washing machine, telephone, internet access. Wonderful opportunity to relax in tranquil surroundings during your studies.

Stay safe

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.

Cope

Get out