Aleppo: Notes For Bike Tourists
Aleppo is a city of some 3 million people in northern Syria. Smaller than Damascus, it still offers plenty of attractions to keep most people busy for at least a couple days and many sites are within easy walking distance of the centre.
The spice-laden alleyways of the famous souk demand at least half a day. The citadel offers a further distraction and, when you tire of falafels, the Christian quarter boasts some of Syria’s best restaurants; a pleasant place to relax with a glass of wine after a day of exploring.
Cycling into the city can be slightly nervewracking with the usual chaos caused by traffic flying every which way but it is fairly straightforward. There are no cycle lanes or shoulders to speak of once in the city proper so you watch out for the usual hazards of car doors opening in your path and wild taxi drivers. If you aren’t feeling quite so brave, lift your bike onto the pavement and stroll into the centre. No matter which direction you’re coming in from, chances are it will include at least a small stretch on the motorway but these have wide shoulders so it should make for easy, if noisy, pedalling.
The historic centre is well marked with plenty of signs from the outskirts to direct you towards the pulse of the city. Most people will want to make their first stop the area around the clocktower; a bustling district with plenty of budget hotels and places for a quick bite to eat after a day in the saddle. If you get lost, ask for directions to the Sheraton Hotel, a major landmark beside the clocktower.
Sleeping: Hotel Al-Gawaher on a small alley just off Bab al-Faraj and 30 seconds walk from the clocktower is without question the budget hotel of choice in Aleppo with good-value clean rooms (many with satellite TV and balconies) as well as a lively social scene. Fellow travellers and the manager Ahmed can almost always be found in the evenings socialising over a glass of wine in the second-floor salon or on the rooftop, which offers beautiful views over the city by night. Lucky visitors may even get to sample Ahmed’s cooking. Staff are exceptionally friendly and the hotel can arrange tours to nearby sites like Saint Simeon and the Dead Cities. (Single 350 SP / Double 500 SP / Double ensuite 700 SP)
Nearby Green Star on Hammam al-Tal is not a bad option if Al-Gawaher is full. The spartan rooms lack charm but they are clean and accomodation on the top floor opens up onto a massive roof terrace, where breakfast is served in the summer. A little English is spoken and the elderly manager is a cheery fellow. Bathrooms are shared. There is a common lounge with satellite TV. (Double 600 SP)
A few streets away on ad-Dala street, Tourist Hotel has a good reputation for its attention to cleanliness and is often booked solid. Touts will try to pull you towards the nearby Springflower Hostel (Al-Rabie) gets mixed reviews. It has a reputation for scruffy rooms and grumpy staff. On the other hand, some cyclists have managed to negotiate a good rate here so if you’re penny pinching this may be your spot.
The Christian quarter and the souk are home to many boutique hotels and the Sheraton Hotel is a new five-star addition to the city. The Baron Hotel, famous for its once illustrious list of clients including Agatha Christie, is frayed around the edges and in need of renovation. Nostalgics may enjoy popping into the bar for a drink.
(Prices may be higher in peak season including around Eid, the busy spring tourist season and in the summer when people flood in from the Gulf States to enjoy Syria’s relatively cooler temperatures.)
Self-catering: Aleppo’s bustling souk and the streets around the clocktower have nearly everything a cyclist could want for making meals on the road. Shops tend to specialise in one thing so it may take some time to find everything you want but seeing everything on offer is part of the fun.
Fresh fruit and vegetables are found in the produce market which starts on the corner of Bab Antakya and al-Mutanabi. The merchants are very friendly here. You’ll get the best prices if you ask for at least one kilo of something. Overcharging is rare and if you ask for just one bunch of parsley or a couple peppers you’ll often find they’re slipped into your bag free of charge.
The meat section of the souk is across the road from the produce market and just outside the alley with the meat stalls are a few shops selling eggs. Again, you’ll get the best price if you buy 30 at a time but this is impractical for most people and you can buy just a few at a small premium.
Going up al-Mutanabi towards the citadel you’ll see several stalls selling olives and cheese. Dry goods like coffee and spices are mostly found in the few streets between the clocktower and al-Mutanabi along with a few shops selling dates and a couple small supermarkets which stock basics like tuna, powdered milk and tinned vegetables.
Walk up al-Maari towards the National Museum and on the left hand side you’ll see two small corner stores close together. They sell more exotic ingredients like soy sauce as well as the usual selection of goods.
Beer, wine and other alcoholic drinks are sold from a clutch of shops in the area around the clocktower. You’ll find one on Yarmouk Street and another on Zaki al-Arsuzi. Al-Charq is the Aleppo brew although its unique taste may not suit your palate. Imported beers like Heineken, Efes and Amstel and several brands from Jordan and Egypt are also available (50 SP a half-litre can). Syrian wines (100-250 SP a bottle) range from the sickly sweet to quite good so ask the shopkeeper’s advice. The Lebanese wines from houses like Ksara are on the more expensive end of the scale (up to 400 SP a bottle) but are broadly excellent and worth a splurge.
Eating out: Hungry cyclists hunting for fast food will find plenty of options near the clocktower. Felafel sandwiches and chicken wraps known as shwarma are everywhere. Big appetites will be satisfied by a plate of kebabs from one of the many options on Zaki al-Arsuzi street or stop at one of the many restaurants roasting chicken and order a portion with bread and hummous.
If you’re feeling low on vitamins, a glass of juice from the stalls on Yarmouk Street will fit the bill. The house special blend of fruits is called a “mix”. A blend of “muz haleeb” (milk and banana) is also popular, as is freshly squeezed orange or pomegranate juice. Those on a budget will want to drink standing up at the bar, a great spot for people-watching as you sip. It costs more to get your juice in a take-away cup.
In the souk, the most bang for your buck comes from the hole-in-the-wall restaurants serving fuul, a soup with fava beans and a creamy tahini base, topped off with cumin, paprika and a heavy drizzle of olive oil. It’s served with as much bread as you can eat, fresh mint, onion and hot peppers on the side. You can spot the fuul restaurants by the distinctive large copper pot the soup is served from. One bowl will fill you up for the rest of the day and sets you back only pennies.
Hot heads will want to try the spicy wraps sold just outside the entrance to the meat section of the souk at all times of the day. Savoury pancakes are fried in oil and served in bread along with red peppers, hot sauce and sometimes a few greens. Show up early and you’ll see more than a few locals eating these firey sandwiches for breakfast, washed down with the salty diluted yogurt drink ayran.
The old Christian quarter is just the thing for a special night out. It’s home to Aleppo’s classiest and beautifully restored restaurants, which serve a range of fish, grills, mezze and salads. Sissi House is arguably the most famous, while Yasmeen House is another favourite. Both serve wine.
A quick desert or afternoon treat can be found at the Concord Cafe on al-Quwatli. The internet cafe on the top floor is overpriced but their pistachio ice cream is divine and only 25 SP a cone.
Aleppo’s best luxury breakfast head to the Sheraton buffet (6:30-10:30am). The heady 600 SP cost is justified by fresh fruit juice, real coffee, pastries and other delights; a welcome change if you’ve been subsisting on the standard mediterranean breakfast and Nescafe with milk powder for weeks.
Latte lovers can fill their cravings at all hours of the day at a string of American-style coffee bars on the edge of the new Christian quarter of al-Azizyeh.
Bike Repair: Don’t come to Aleppo, or in fact anywhere in Syria, expecting to find high-quality bicycle parts but if you need a repair job then the best place to come is a small workshop on Hisham Ibn Abd al-Malek (one street before the Tourist Hotel and Spring Flower hostel). To find it, look for the Otani Tire shop and then go into the dark-looking garage just to the right. Walk towards the back and you’ll soon see bicycles piled everywhere. The mechanics here can fix most things for you quickly and charge fair prices. While you’re waiting, look on the walls of the pictures of the multi-seat bicycles the owner builds in his spare time. If you just want to buy a new bicycle bell or bungee cord, then browse the streets lined with shops selling car wheels and parts. Many bike supply stores are mixed in between their automotive counterparts.
- Aleppo’s citadel is hard to miss. Perched high on a hill overlooking the souk it affords stunning views over the city. There is a cafe inside but no signs or explanations of the site so you may want to consider taking a guide or buying a book on the history of the site. Closed on Tuesday.
- Even if your panniers are full to bursting, you can’t leave Aleppo without seeing its world famous covered souk. It’s still very much a working marketplace as well as a highlight for tourists. The main drag runs up to the citadel and it’s on this alley that you’ll find many of the stalls selling silk scarves, spices and nuts, ornate backgammon boards and jewellery. Wander onto the side streets and you’ll discover special areas for gold and fabric. Closed on Friday.
- The Great Mosque is built into the souk although tourists can only enter from the north side. It’s nowhere near as fancy as the one in Damascus but still worth a look. Here you can pay the admission fee of 50 SP and women can pick up fetching grey cover-all robes.
- The Museum is on al-Maari, a short stroll west from the clocktower. Closed on Tuesday. The Tourist Information office is nearly next door to the Museum.
Staying connected: The closest internet cafe to many of the budget hotels is the Concord on the top floor of a cafe on the bustling al-Quwatli street but convenience has a price: 100 SP an hour for a mediocre connection, double the going rate across most of Syria. Instead, a 10 minute wander north from the clocktower into the new Christian quarter of al-Azizyeh will lead you to a clutch of spots charging just 50 SP an hour. Area 51 on the small al-Shyakh Muhmad Abdu street (across from the well-signed Diadora sports store) takes top spot for its super speedy connection and discounts for chunks of time. It’s open 24 hours a day. Just down the road are two other internet cafes, Cool Net and Montana.