As we began to approach the city of Damascus, I must admit that it caught me by surprise. Travel to Damascus and the entire country has been off-limits for the past 8 years due to a brutal war. From the images I had seen in the media, I expected Damascus to be a much quieter city, lacking energy and colour. Instead, as we drove through the city on our way to reach the old town, the streets were busy with people and traffic, it was bustling with life. Above all, it felt similar to any other Middle Eastern city around the world.
We passed many shops, shawarma stalls with the familiar meat roasting and turning on the grill, the aroma of fresh bread faintly passes by. The sweet aroma of cardamom coffee fills the air and the streets are full of men and women going about their day. There are no present signs of war going on here except for some soldiers manning the few checkpoints we passed on our arrival into the Old Town.
So what is it really like to travel to Damascus in 2019? Here are our impressions of this fascinating city.
The Old Town
As we walked to our hotel through the narrow cobblestoned streets in the Old Town, it felt like we had arrived into Istanbul or Fez. Most importantly, the positive vibe I immediately felt in those first few minutes was warming. A good indication of how my entire experience was to be in Damascus over the next few days.
As we reached our hotel, we were greeted with smiles and warm hospitality. After sipping on our first strong Syrian coffee and checking into our beautiful room, we hit the streets with our local guide so we could get a better insight into Damascus.
Our hotel in Damascus – Beit al malmouka.
How to dress in Damascus
We’d researched this question, yet we weren’t entirely sure how conservative we should be dressed here. We came prepared with some long loose tops, in case we were required to wear them here, but soon found it wasn’t expected.
Damascus is very liberal in terms of the dress code for women. We saw some women with headscarves, abaya (cloak) and very conservative clothing. Yet other women dressed modestly in long trousers and t-shirts with different hairstyles and make-up. We wore long loose pants and loose t-shirts here.
As Damascus has a large Christian community, this is reflected in their dress code. Our guide explained that some other areas of Syria are a little more conservative, however, we are dressed respectfully as we were, so it was ok.
Can you take photos?
Yes. With so many beautiful buildings, historical places of interest and colourful street life; taking photos or video here was fine. However, it’s forbidden to take photos of military or government buildings (which is common in many countries).
But many visitors in the city (we assume, mostly from other Arabic countries) had cameras and iPhones out at all times to capture photos of the daily life in Damascus. I’ve lost count of the times that locals would approach us and ask if they could take a selfie with us.
The vibe of the city
Syria is made up of a few different religions, mainly Islam, Christianity, and Judaism. The people live in harmony with each other and respect whichever faith or beliefs each has. As a result, this city is kind of special. You have churches built next to or across from mosques. The Old Town is where you’ll most likely want to explore and where much of the fascinating history, and architecture is found.
Established between 10,000 to 8,000 BC, Damascus is known to be the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world.
Is it safe to walk around on your own in Damascus?
We spent three days in total exploring Damascus. We discovered much of Damascus with our local guide, however, we spent a lot of time walking around on our own both during the day and in the evenings in the Old Town.
Inside the Old Town walls of Damascus, I was thrilled to see that street food is everywhere and locals love it! It’s super affordable and always fresh. In the evenings, it’s especially busy. You’ll find trays of cheesy pizza being expertly cut and dished out on paper plates for about 0.40 cents per piece.
Walk a little further down the road and the baker is selling huge chocolate filled croissants straight from the oven. It’s not hard to choose where to eat as you can follow the locals. They will always lead you to the best places for street food. We follow this rule in every new country we travel.
As usual, you can find shawarma shops almost everywhere and felafel shops are common too. This is a cheap and filling meal for around $0.60 – $1.00 each. You’ll also see many small bakeries that sell small pastries and bites slathered with zaatar, meat or filled with cheese.
Pizza in Syria. These are called svehha and they’re delicious.
Some of the best cafes and restaurants here can be found in the Old Town. If you’d like to eat some fantastic Syrian cuisine (and you should try as much as you possibly can), you can wander along and check a few restaurant menus. Just enter each restaurant and ask for it.
Nowadays, you will find that many menus don’t list prices (as it fluctuates too much), so make sure you ask the waiter the prices before you order or if you choose to dine somewhere without any prices mentioned. This is best if you want to avoid a surprisingly large bill at the end.
Jabri House in Damascus
How much does food cost in Damascus?
Syrian food is very affordable. The main dish, such as kebab – served with bread and salad costs around 2000 – 2500 Syrian Pound (about $3-4). After that, appetizers such as hummus or baba-ganouj are usually eaten. They will set you back around 0.80 cents per plate.
Tabbouleh salad or fattoush salad costs around 700 SYP or $1.40. Everything is served with flatbread. We ate dinner a few times at a wonderful restaurant (with menu prices) called Jabri House.
This place is located in the Old Town and it used to be a hotel but has now been converted to a stunning restaurant, complete with a fountain in the middle. The staff were wonderful and told us they were very happy to see western tourists back in their restaurant.
Dinner in Damascus at Jabri House
Places you shouldn’t miss
Most of the places you will want to visit below are located with the Old City walls and they are reachable on foot. There are still signs posted on small streets to help navigate you to the main points of interest in Damascus.
Located inside the old walled city of Damascus, this feels like the busiest place in town. The souq is about 600 metres long and the entrance is covered by a tall stone arch, the remains of a Roman temple. A huge Syrian flag is strung flat across the roof.
The atmosphere is lively, full of energy and people. You can find almost anything here including clothing, carpets, trinkets, perfume, spices, and small food shops.
Best ice-cream in Syria
Don’t miss the best ice cream shop in Syria called Bakdash. It’s hard to miss as it seems that everyone in town is standing outside enjoying bowls of the stuff as they continue strolling around the souk. Or they enter the shop which has three massive rooms with seating for what looks like hundreds of people.
It’s famous for its pistachio-covered ice cream with an elastic texture. This shop has operated since 1885 and this is the only thing they do and they do it very well.
This is the area where alcohol flows freely, music and dancing are found into the early hours of the morning. The night-life in Damascus is fantastic! If you have any energy left from exploring during the day, head here for a few drinks. You can also find some great roof-top restaurants and cafes to relax and take in more Syrian hospitality.
The Umayyad Mosque, also known as the Great Mosque of Banu Umayya is one of the largest and holiest mosques in the world. It is the 4th holiest place in Islam, the first three being the Grand Mosque, (in Mecca); the Prophet’s Mosque, (in Medina) and Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem.
Both the interior and exterior of the mosque are beautiful. It’s quite unique as it stands on the site of the 1st-century temple to Jupiter and later as a church of St. John the Baptist.
Umayyad Mosque in Damascus
The National Museum of Damascus
This museum covers the entire range of Syrian history and displays artifacts from Syria’s most important archaeological sites. It houses the first alphabet in history, inscribed on a clay tablet. We admired elaborate tombs, 2nd-century murals and frescoes here too. You could easily spend hours here learning about the ancient history of Syria. Each piece has information in English/Arabic language.
Is Damascus ready for visitors again?
To sum up, our experience of travel to Damascus in 2019 was very positive and memorable. As I mentioned before, this city feels similar to Istanbul or cities in Morocco. The city is definitely ready and waiting to welcome visitors again.
We felt safe and welcomed here at all times. We never felt threatened, nor did we encounter any problems during our visit. Overall, the people here were so happy to finally see tourists returning to their country.
Are you considering visiting Syria in the future? Check out our post below: