Damascus (دمشق) is the capital of Syria and its largest city, with about 4.5 million people.
Established between 10,000 to 8,000BC, Damascus is credited with being the oldest, continuously inhabited city in the world. The old-walled city, in particular, feels very ancient and largely consists of a maze of narrow alleys, punctuated by enigmatic doors that lead into pleasing, verdant courtyards and blank-faced houses. The old city still has an authentic medieval feel to it, although this is vanishing fast due to the increasing tourist traffic as the city continues to be highlighted as an attraction. Life however, goes on in the old-walled city, which is still the religious and social center of the city.
Syria's busiest airport is the Damascus International Airport.There are internal flights to Aleppo, Deir-ez-Zur, Qamishli, and occasionally Latakia, costing approximately 1000 SP one way,
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, arak (an unsweetened, aniseed-flavored, alcoholic beverage) and similar items before departing the airport.
Getting Syrian pounds at Damascus International Airport might be tricky, as the change counters only accept US dollars. There are two ATMS in the main lobby that accept credit cards and foreign debit cards, but they tend to be unreliable. Your best bet is to bring a small amount of US dollars with you into Syria, and change it at the airport until you can withdraw from Damascus ATMs.
The average fare from the airport to the city is 1500 SP. the prices became that high because nowadays only Taxi Companies are allowed to pickup customers from the Airport, Fares are typically about 500 SP going from the city to the airport by Taxi, however, may vary depending on your bargaining skills.
There are also buses departing to and from Baramkeh bus station in the center 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 45 SP + 25 for your luggage 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 and have become very good.
The bus will drop you a bit far from the Old City, but there are tons of taxis around to get you there. Make sure to ask for the meter, and you should pay less than 50 SP, depending on traffic.
There are train services to and from Aleppo, making stops in Homs and Hama. One of the trains 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 center.
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. The bus number 15 and 21 will take you to Soumaria station from the bus stop next to Matry's place.
Damascus is well served by buses internally in the country. There are two bus stations: the western bus station serves destinations west and south (including Amman and Beirut ), while the northern bus station serves destinations north (including Aleppo ).
Hatay Turizm from Antakya/Turkey has regular buses to the city. You can board on these in Istanbul as well. Normally, you will have to reserve a seat one day or more in advance, and although prices may vary, you can get a busticket for 80 TYL.
When arriving into Damascus by bus, make sure to move away from the bus terminal to find a taxi to the center of town. Otherwise, you run the risk of paying several times the going rate, which should be around SYP150-200, as cars posing as taxis operate next to the terminal. This is normally a two-man operation, with one person trying to distract you, while the driver puts your suitcase into the trunk of the "taxi" and locks it.
Upon arrival at the western bus station, city bus #15 will take you to Al-Marjeh Square in Souq Sarouja\Old Town (where you can find many hotels) for 10 SYP.
At rush hours (10AM-4PM), the best way of transport is on foot. 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. Walking in the new city however, should be reserved to the nicer areas of Maliki and Abu-Rumaneh, as the new city tends to be pollution clogged. The driving culture in Damascus is not the safest, so beware as a pedestrian, especially in the new city. Cars will not hesitate to come extremely close to pedestrians or other cars in order to pass.
It isn't a very good idea to rent a car in Damascus. There is almost always a traffic jam, especially in summer, and parking tends to be difficult too; although that isn't the the situation in suburbs.
Micro buses, also known as servees, are one of the main sources of transportation in Damascus. All journeys inside the city costs 10 Syrian Pounds (20 American Cents approximately). You can go from one place to another in Damascus with at most one or two journeys. When on the bus, give any passenger a coin and he will pass it to the driver and return the change, just remember to tell that passenger how many people you are 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 do not generally have fixed stops except at very busy points, just beckon to the driver and he will stop near you (Al yameen, andak iza samaht).
Taxis are plentiful in Damascus, making them a great transportation. The taxis of Star Taxi, a new private company, are more expensive than normal taxis, but they are also more comfortable and safer. You can call their headquarters and they will send the nearest taxi to your door. Taxis with the Damascus Governorate logo on the side and a number on the roof sign are normally equipped with a meter, 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. A service taxi to Amman or Beirut cost 700 Syrian pounds and takes around 4 hours and run 24 hours. Do not hesitate to take them; they are new, clean vehicles with air conditioning.
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; this building with three minarets is an architectural wonder. It was an Assyrian temple, then a Roman temple to Jupiter, a church when Rome converted to Christianity, 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. Abayas(full-body covers)are provided with the entrance ticket price of 50SP. Despite being one of the most sacred sites of Islam, this mosque welcomes foreign tourists, who are allowed to walk around the prayer area.
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, there are two dejected Frankish knights underneath the horse's slightly lifted tail. These two knights are identified by inscriptions as Guy de Lusignan, King of Jerusalem, and Reynald de Chatillon, lord of Kerak, an important fortress in the Holy Land. Both were captured during Salah al-Din's definitive victory at Hattin; Guy was imprisoned in Damascus and eventually released, but Reynald was executed as punishment for his many atrocities.
The October War Panorama is 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.
The famous vegetarian falafel sandwich (15-30 SP), chicken shawarma (30-50 SP) and manakeesh (10-20 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 hummus.
A typical Damascene dish is fatteh, made up of soaked bread, chickpeas and yogurt. 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 75 SP and a pizza for one person is 110 SP.
Shawarma is, of course, popular in Damascus. It 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. Be sure to try Shawarma from "Anas," which makes some of the best sandwiches in Damascus. 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 on Earth.
Do not try to eat in empty places only crowded restaurants and food places are safe otherwise you may get food poisoning from Shawerma sandwiches or any other product (especially in summer) so beware!
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 the hotels below can be recommended. Women alone should avoid hotels at Merjeh Sqaure, because it's the red light district of Damascus.
You can also check into the Sheraton Hotel, by Ummayad Square close the Malki and Mezze Area. It has a wide variety of high class restaraunts and a big swimming pool. Many concerts are held in this hotel, outdoors by the pool area, so it would be an enjoyable experience.
Most hotels in Damascus claiming to be 5 stars are actually closer to what Western travelers know as 2 stars. The Syrian government runs its own accreditation agency that gives highly suspect inflated ratings to hotels owned by Syrian chains and those that have paid "baksheesh" (bribes) to the authorities. Due to the American sanctions of Syria, credit cards linked to US Banks will not be accepted (this is pretty much every credit card in the world).
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.
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 take advice or recommendations, especially about accommodation, doctors and dentists, from taxi drivers. Kidnappings are rampant.
There are several institutions in Damascus that teach Arabic:
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.
Be warned that only very few large banks will cash American Express Traveler Cheques in Damascus and elsewhere in Syria! ATM and Credit cards are NOT a reliable option for the foreign traveler.
The first ATMs were introduced into Syria in 2003, and thus are still a rare novelty in many parts, and are not always in operation. Change houses exist in many areas in Damascus, especially near the large Souks. The Euro, British Pound, and American Dollar can be changed at these shops, usually commission-free. Be sure to look up the current exchange rate before changing money so you do not get cheated. Many shops, especially in the old city), also change money. Though officially illegal, it is a handy option when you're already shopping in the old city and need to change some cash quickly. Just ask around the shopkeepers for a money changer and you will soon be directed to a store that does currency exchange.
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