48 hours in Damascus

Mark Stratton is won over by the Syrian capital's bustling souks, dazzling mosques and shady mosaic courtyards

It would be easy to arrive in Damascus expecting to find a romantic Arab city straight from the pages of
The Thousand and One Nights. Yet despite claims of being the world's oldest continually inhabited city, modernisation has caught up with Damascus. The concrete brutality of the city's 20th-century architecture and the fume-belching traffic may initially disappoint, but give the city a little time, and it quickly grows on you.

It would be easy to arrive in Damascus expecting to find a romantic Arab city straight from the pages of The Thousand and One Nights. Yet despite claims of being the world's oldest continually inhabited city, modernisation has caught up with Damascus. The concrete brutality of the city's 20th-century architecture and the fume-belching traffic may initially disappoint, but give the city a little time, and it quickly grows on you.

The constant din of car horns and Arab pop music establishes a vibrant tempo for exploring the ebullient Old City and its network of souks. It's easy to lose track of time as you are swept along by sounds and smells that have changed little in centuries.

Roman streets, Ottoman bathhouses, and hidden courtyards of elegant Damascene houses are all reminders of the city's colourful past. Damascus has fallen many times to foreign invaders, but never to mass tourism. Consequently, the friendly welcome will make you feel like a visiting celebrity.

Damascus is a very safe city, especially as you will always be followed by the watchful eye of Syria's leader, President Assad, whose portrait adorns every shop wall and street corner.

When to go: April to mid-June are the best months to visit Damascus, avoiding the damp winter and the blistering heat of the summer. The temperature rises steadily during this period, from an average of 18C to 29C. During Ramadan, in December, visitors may experience some disruption to the working hours of restaurants and public services in the daytime.

Getting there: Mark Stratton flew as a guest of British Mediterranean (tel: 0845 7733377; net: www.british airways.com) which operates five flights weekly from Heathrow to Damascus, including two non-stop services. Fares cost from £355.30 return including tax. The only other carrier offering non-stop flights is Syrian Airways (tel: 020 7493 2851) which has return fares starting from £331 including tax. Malev Hungarian Airlines (tel: 020 7439 0577) flies via Budapest, and offers fares from £345 including tax if you book through Danube Travel (tel: 020 7724 7577).

Getting around: As most of the hotels and points of interest are located centrally, exploring the city on foot is a sensible option - at least until it comes to crossing the road. Taxis are cheap and the fares are always negotiable, but forget the local buses unless you are proficient in Arabic. Car-hire can be arranged by Europcar (tel: 0870 6075000) from Damascus airport, from around £25 per day. Be prepared to drive with one hand on the steering wheel and the other on the horn.

Where to stay: Damascus has an excellent range of mainly modern hotels catering for all tastes and budgets. The Cham Palace group is Syria's luxury hotel chain. The Damascus Cham Palace (tel: 00963 11 2232300; e-mail: chamdama@net.sy) is close to everything. Designed around a courtyard with mosaic floors. Doubles from £100.

Beyond its garish front lobby, the five-star Semiramis Hotel (tel: 00963 11 2233555) has pleasant doubles from £72.

For those on a lower budget, the Kinda Hotel (tel: 00963 11 2319760) on Bahsa Street has functional rooms from £18 for a double with breakfast. Backpackers will find a cluster of cheapies around the noisy Martyrs Square. Hotel Najmet al Shark (tel: 00963 11 2229139) is one of the cleaner options, at around £6 for a double with bathroom.

What to see and do: Head straight for the walled Old City. After entering the main Hamidiyeh Souk, near the Citadel, you quickly plunge into a labyrinthine world of neon-lit shops and alleyways crowded with shoppers and itinerant salesmen selling anything from sugary sweets to stuffed eagles. Hamidiyeh Souk's clothing and gaudy jewellery shops lead directly to one of the Islamic world's most striking places of worship, the Umayyad Mosque. This immense mosque was built 1,300 years ago. Its serene open-air marble courtyard offers refreshing shade and quiet. Inside the prayer hall, a glittering shrine is said to contain the head of John the Baptist.

Attached to the mosque is an attractive walled garden which houses the Tomb of Saladin. Recognised as one of the Arab world's greatest ever military leaders, Saladin united the region against the threat of the Christian crusaders in the 12th century. Just north of his tomb lies a recently built Iranian- funded Shia mosque. The Sayyida Ruqayya Mosque is simply dazzling. Its chandeliers and mirrored ballroom decor go a long way to dispelling the perceived austerity of the Shiite branch of Islam.

The al-Abbabiyya Souk, just south of the Umayyad Mosque, is a rare concession to tourism, selling inlaid furniture, carpets, kilims, and copper coffee pots, but it's more satisfying to simply lose yourself in the surrounding alleyways where there are smaller souks, and stumble across unexpected bargains. Eventually, all routes lead to Straight Street. Always crowded to bursting, the sound of chattering and the smell of spices and cardamom-infused coffee is intoxicating. Guides can be hired to help you navigate the maze of souks if required (tel: 00963 11 5440111).

Within the Old City, the Turkish bathhouses should be tried, though a traditional hammam can be a rather painful experience. South of the Umayyad Mosque is Hammam Nur al-Din, a restored 800-year-old Ottoman bathhouse. A steam, scrub and massage will remove dirt that you never knew existed. The more traditional baths are segregated, but women are welcome at Hammam al-Qaimariyya.

When you've walked your fill, the coffee-houses that spill out onto An-Nofara lane, east of Umayyad Mosque, are great places to sit with a strong coffee and watch people drift by. It's also the place to try a nargileh, which are still widely smoked throughout Syria. The air around the cafés is sweet with the fragrance of the syrup-coated tobacco.

Generally, the new city is less interesting. But, from Martyrs Square, a stroll along An Nasr street will take in the delightful Turkish-designed Hedjaz railway station. North of this is the sprawling site of the Takiya al-Sulaymaniya Mosque. Built in 1533, it houses a bizarre outdoor army museum and an interesting handicraft market.

Food and drink: You will find tasty take-aways all over Damascus. The area south of Martyrs Square is snack-city. Shwarma (a kebab), and felafel are both tempting and cheap, usually costing around 25p. Felafel sandwiches contain fried chickpea balls rolled into a khobz (unleavened bread), and mixed with yoghurt and salad. Wash these down with a freshly squeezed juice from one of the many juice bars.

All restaurants serve the traditional mezze. Essentially a starter, once the table groans under a selection of dishes such as hummus, baba ghanouj (aubergine purée), and tabouleh, a main course may prove unnecessary. In the new city, Restaurant Abou Kamal (tel: 2221494) on 29 Ayyar Street offers a good-value mezze for around £8 per head.

Pick of the Old City restaurants is the kitsch Abu al-Ezz (tel: 2218174) near Hamidiye souk, with a caravanserai-feel of wall-to-wall carpets and sofas. Extensive mezze, sweets and coffee cost around £10.

Leave room for a pastry. Patisserie Ezz el-Cham on Borsaid Street serves a delicious baklava with a cup of sweet tea for £1.

Nightlife: Not great. The Abu al-Ezz restaurant entertains diners with whirling dervishes, accompanied by traditional Arab music. The nargileh bar, Ash-shams, on An-Nofara, has an evening storyteller, but it is all quite touristy. I recommend a drink in the converted railway carriage, Almahtta Café, in Hedjaz station. An atmospheric place to enjoy a beer or an arak.

Out of town: Syria is awash with castles and wonderful ruined settlements. Just two hours from Damascus lies the Crusader castle of Crac des Chevaliers, one of Syria's most famous monuments. Set in fertile mountains, the 1,000-year-old castle has witnessed many sieges and battles. Transtour (tel: 00963 11 2224414) organises a minibus for six people to visit the castle for around £80 in total.

Deals and packages: Damascus features as part of lengthier tours of Syria, but not as a separate city break. Bales Worldwide (tel: 01306 732700) offers luxury 11-day tours from £1,499; and Travelbag Adventures (tel: 01420 541007) combines Lebanon in a 12-day tour starting from £879.

Further information: There is no tourist office in the UK, but there is one in Damascus (tel: 00963 11 2210122; net: www.syriatourism.org). Visas are essential, costing £33 for single entry, and are available from The Visa Section, The Syrian Embassy, 8 Belgrave Square, London SW1X 8PH (tel: 0891 600171).

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

Voices
Mosul dam was retaken with the help of the US
voicesRobert Fisk: Barack Obama is following the jihadists’ script
Arts and Entertainment
Loaded weapon: drugs have surprise side effects for Scarlett Johansson in Luc Besson’s ‘Lucy’
filmReview: Lucy, Luc Besson's complex thriller
News
A cleaner prepares the red carpet for the opening night during the 59th International Cannes Film Festival May 17, 2006 in Cannes, France.
newsPowerful vacuum cleaners to be banned under EU regulations
News
people
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
A polar bear’s diet is rich in seal blubber and half of its own body weight is composed of fat
i100
News
London is the most expensive city in Europe for cultural activities such as ballet
arts
Travel
Flocking round: Beyoncé, Madame Tussauds' latest waxwork, looking fierce in the park
travelIn a digital age when we have more access than ever to the stars, why are waxworks still pulling in crowds?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson has rejected criticisms of his language, according to BBC director of television Danny Cohen
tv
Extras
indybest
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench appeared at the Hay Festival to perform excerpts from Shakespearean plays
tvJudi Dench and Hugh Bonneville join Benedict Cumberbatch in BBC Shakespeare adaptations
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Sport
Is this how Mario Balotelli will cruise into Liverpool?
football
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Oracle 11g SQL 2008 DBA (Unix, Oracle RAC, Mirroring, Replicati

    £6000 - £50000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: Oracle 11...

    Recruitment Consultant (Graduate Trainee), Finchley Central

    £17K OTE £30K: Charter Selection: Highly successful and innovative specialist...

    SQL DBA/ C# Developer - T-SQL, C#.Net

    £45000 - £55000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Working with an exciting ...

    Sales and Office Administrator – Sports Media

    £23,000: Sauce Recruitment: A global leader in sports and entertainment is now...

    Day In a Page

    Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

    Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

    The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
    Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

    Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

    A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
    Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

    Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

    Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
    Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

    Nick Clegg the movie

    Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
    Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

    Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

    Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
    Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

    Waxing lyrical

    Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?
    Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

    Revealed (to the minute)

    The precise time when impressionism was born
    From slow-roasted to sugar-cured: how to make the most of the British tomato season

    Make the most of British tomatoes

    The British crop is at its tastiest and most abundant. Sudi Pigott shares her favourite recipes
    10 best men's skincare products

    Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

    Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf
    Malky Mackay allegations: Malky Mackay, Iain Moody and another grim day for English football

    Mackay, Moody and another grim day for English football

    The latest shocking claims do nothing to dispel the image that some in the game on these shores exist in a time warp, laments Sam Wallace
    La Liga analysis: Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

    Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

    Pete Jenson starts his preview of the Spanish season, which begins on Saturday, by explaining how Fifa’s transfer ban will affect the Catalans
    Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
    Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

    Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

    Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
    Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
    Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

    Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

    Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape