Cycling into Damascus, the world’s oldest continuously inhabited city, is an exhilarating feeling.
If you’re coming from the north, you’ll have just enjoyed a long descent. As the traffic builds it’s a surprisingly easy and well-marked ride into the historic city centre, aside from the taxi drivers who will make you fight for your corner of the road. You’ll want at least two days to explore but many people stay longer. Wander the narrow alleys of the old city, sit and watch the faithful at the Umayyad Mosque, visit the impressive archaeological treasures in the national museum and of course take time to sip a cup of tea with the locals.
Sleeping: The “backpacker” district with the most popular budget hotels is centred around Souq Saroujah. Coming in by bicycle from the north on Al-Thawra you’ll notice this street to your right just as half the road rises to pass over a busy intersection. Hotel Ghazal should be visible from the main road. If the citadel appears on your left, you’ve gone too far.
All three of the best known budget hotels in and around Souq Saroujah can be recommended and pre-booking is essential in high season.
We had a hard time choosing where to sleep but finally settled on Hotel Ghazal and spent many a happy hour in the attractive Damascus courtyard. Room rates include a good breakfast and you’re welcome to drink alcohol or bring food back to eat in the common area. The shared bathrooms are clean and the hot showers reliable. The only downside is that not a lot of English is spoken but the owners are helpful and will do their best to find what you need. It’s no problem to leave your bikes and panniers here if you want a few days somewhere like Beirut but without wheels. Light sleepers should avoid room 2 as it gets all the noise from the kitchen, bathrooms and reception area. (Double room 900 SP / dorm bed 400 SP)
Hotel Al-Rabie is located just two minutes walk away from Hotel Ghazal, on Sharia Bahsa off Souq Saroujah. Its courtyard is bigger and lighter than Hotel Ghazal although some of the rooms can be tiny and dark. Breakfast is available, but not included in the price. Staff can arrange tours but request you don’t drink alcohol on the premises. (Double room 700 SP / 1100 SP ensuite)
Hotel Al-Haramain is located next to Al-Rabie and has similar facilities. (Double room 900 SP)
Self-catering: Walking out of the Souq Sarouja area and up towards the citadel and old city, you’ll notice several shops and a small produce market on the left side. This is as good a place as any to buy fresh fruit or stock up on the essentials before hitting the road again.
Eating out: The usual Syrian street fare is widely available. Aside from the famous falafel (15-25 SP) and chicken shawarma (25-35 SP) sandwiches you’ll also see mini pizzas with toppings like tomato, cheese and za’atar spice (5-10 SP) and stands which sell boiled fava beans.
A good fast-food option close to the budget hotels on Souq Sarouja is Mr Pizza. 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. The owner speaks French.
Just a five minute walk away from Souq Sarouja is Martyr’s Square and the surrounding area is filled with restaurants selling roast chicken and kebabs as well as pastry shops with huge towers of baklava and other sugar-soaked goodies in their windows.
If your budget allows, go one evening to a restaurant in old Damascus. There are several in restored mansions but we really enjoyed the famous Beit Jabri (Sharia as-Sawwaf). They do a nice selection of mezze and you can try fatteh here, a mixture of soaked bread, chickpeas, yogurt and meat.
Fresh juice is all over the city. Orange juice starts at 30-50 SP but you can get many more exotic options including freshly pressed sugarcane. Also look for small stalls selling a refreshing frozen lemon slush for pennies.
For desert, don’t missing getting a pistachio-covered cone of homemade vanilla ice cream at Bakdash, the famous Damascene institution on Souq al-Hamidiyya, the main covered street leading up to the Umayyad Mosque.
Coffee-lovers not satisfied with the traditional Turkish coffee will want to head for Abu Rommeneh street. Look for the Bennetton clothing store and in this area are a number of fancy European-style cafes. The Middle Eastern chain Inhouse Coffee is like Starbucks both in cost (135 SP for a latte or cappuccino) and atmosphere. Free Wi-Fi is offered in theory but it wasn’t working when we were there and the published prices were out of date – 50% more than what was on the sign!
What to see:
Spend a few hours wandering through the streets of the old city, pausing to sniff the spices, admire the many craftsmen at work and the numerous ancient remains from Roman times. Magical.
You can’t miss the great Umayyad mosque. Before being converted to serve the Muslim faithful it was Greek temple, a Roman temple and a church. Signs from its former uses are still visible, including beautiful mosaics and a unique architecture. Inside is the grave of John the Baptist. Women will have to wear a chador, available at a small fee from a room near the entrance. Go near sunset to enjoy the last of the afternoon rays and watch small children playing in the central courtyard.
Just outside the mosque, you can visit the mausoleum of the anti-crusader Saladin.
Azem Palace is an easy five-minute stroll from the mosque and is worth visiting not only for its peaceful garden and ornate decor but also for the museum exhibits depicting different aspects of Syrian life.
The national museum has many treasures from archaeological sites across the country but we found the traditional room lined with intricate wood carvings to be the most interesting.
At night, charter a taxi or get a friend to take you up Mount Qasioun for a view over the whole city.
Staying connected: There is an internet cafe on an upper floor of an office building on Souq Sarouja, just after Mr Pizza on the right. Prices are reasonable, connections good and you can get discounts by purchasing a pre-paid card for chunks of time.