How to Do Damascus

  • Share
  • Read Later
Manuel Cohen / Getty Images

Cupolas at Azem Palace

The prophet muhammad apparently refused to visit Damascus because he preferred to save paradise for paradise. But if you don't feel like delaying gratification, prepare to encounter one of the great cradles of civilization. The Syrian capital is the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world and a place where you can step back through the centuries by simply turning a corner. Here's an itinerary for two days of Damascene delights.

Check in at Beit al Mamlouka,, a boutique hotel in a restored courtyard house in the Old City, and one of Damascus' best. Dine on French and Syrian cuisine in a pretty courtyard round the corner at Elissar, tel: (963-11) 542 4300. The mezze are a meal in themselves.

Get back to basics, and the Bible, with a visit to the Chapel of Ananias. This is the house where Saul (later Saint Paul) was baptized after being healed of blindness. Wander down Straight Street (also referred to as Via Recta), and allow the scent of cardamom and roasting coffee to waft you back to Ottoman trading days. Gaze at the stalls selling damask roses and leeches. Step into the 18th century courtyard of Khan Suleiman Pasha, once a caravansary on the Silk Road.

Lunch on tabbouleh and stuffed vine leaves at Al-Khawali, tel: (963-11) 222 5808. A postprandial cardamom coffee should give you the energy for a tour of Azem Palace, the biggest Ottoman house in the Old City. You may snigger at the mannequins in period costume, but you'll gasp at the exquisite carving, painted ceilings and marble floors. Move on to Umayyad Mosque, one of the world's oldest, having been completed in 715. Before that, it was successively an Aramaean temple, a Roman temple and then a Byzantine church. Over the centuries it has become a meeting place for the city. The mosque's courtyard — an inadequate term for this vast plaza of glittering marble — is alive with afternoon strollers and gossiping families. When you're done people-watching, track down one of the mosque's great curiosities: a shrine that purportedly holds the head of John the Baptist.

As the day fades, get a cab out to Mount Kassioun, which looms over Damascus, and enjoy sundowners and a meal at Ahla Talleh, tel: (963-11) 373 0866. Dine on tender lamb kebabs with basmati rice and pistachios while enjoying sweeping views of the city.

Take a cab to the National Museum, tel: (963-11) 222 8566, and feast your eyes on 4,000-year-old Phoenician glass, 2,000-year-old textiles, 2nd century frescoes and a tiny stone tablet with the world's oldest alphabet. Next door there's the Tekkiye Suleymaniye Complex, built in 1553 as a gathering point for pilgrims preparing for their annual hajj to Mecca. These days, in alleys off the charming gardens and courtyards, you can buy leatherwork and jewelry. After shopping, cross the road to the Four Seasons Hotel, tel: (963-11) 339 1000, where the Al Halabi restaurant serves the best cuisine in town. Try the kabab karaz — succulent grilled lamb with a cherry sauce.

Return to the Old City and wander round the Jewish quarter, then smoke shisha at the Al Noufara Café, tel: (963-11) 943 9535, or go to Bakdash, tel: (963-11) 221 2870, and try Syria's most famous ice cream. In the evening, dine at Naranj, tel: (963-11) 541 3444, one of Damascus' most sophisticated eateries. Feel like an Ottoman prince as you savor the tastes of a city you already want to return to.