Damascus ranks among the world's oldest cities. In fact, it is supposed to be the most ancient city that has been continually inhabited. With a history harking back to the 10th century BC, the city is a delightful blend of the old and the new. It would be quite appropriate to say that Damascus is its people. Though consisting of an assorted medley of communities, traditions and political systems, Damascus retains a strange sense of unity amidst its diversity.
Exploring Damascus is a delight with so many historical sites, exciting souks, Turkish baths and relaxing cafes and restaurants.
Our Damascus Destination Guide below shows you the highlights of a trip to this beautiful city. History buffs will love the fascinating range of archaeological treasures on offer, which are best explored on an interesting Damascus tour. Our Syria Country Guide provides you with general travel information for planning your trip, and you should also check out what there is to see and do in Syria's neighbouring countries, Jordan and Lebanon.
The Azem Palace, once home to the Ottoman governor, Assad Pasha-al Azem, ranks among the most enchanting palaces in the old city. It reflects the typical 18th century style of architecture; many of the rooms hold interesting items that depict traditional culture and crafts.
No trip to Syria would be complete without a dip in a hammam (a Turkish bath). The most popular ones among Western tourists are the Nur-al-Din Bath, which is found between Straight Street and Azem Palace and the Bakri Bath, which can be reached by taking the first right after reaching the Old City at Bab Touma.
If you’re a smoker, don’t miss the hooka cafés. A rage with the Damascenes, these cafés are easy to find and are an excellent way to savour the local culture first hand. Step in to mingle with the locals drinking tea, playing backgammon and perennially smoking hookas.
Viewing the entire city from the Mount Qasioun peak is an absolute must for tourists. You can see the whole city from this vantage point by visiting the peak at any time. However, it is highly recommended that you reserve your trip for the night when the whole city is ablaze with lights and you can enjoy the beautiful minarets suffused in a scintillating array of green lights.
The Via Recta or Straight Street has been one of the most important east-west thoroughfares since Hellenistic and Roman times. As you get off the street, you’ll notice a few restaurants and bars, which are basically remodelled Damascene houses. These areas together comprise the Christian Quarter of Damascus.
At the end of the street is the Bab Sharqi, a Roman gate, and near this is the Chapel of St. Ananias. Here, you’ll also find St. Paul’s Chapel, built over the spot where the apostle escaped his Roman tormentors by being lowered over the city walls.
Built in the early parts of the 8th century, The Umayyad Mosque is an awe-inspiring structure. The site of the mosque has been considered holy for thousands of years—once an Aramaic temple, at another time a Roman temple and a third time, a Byzantine cathedral.
St. John the Baptist’s head has supposedly been preserved in the shrine here. Salah-ad-Din’s (Saladin) tomb is believed to be just outside the courtyard. At one point, the courtyard was entirely covered with marvellous golden mosaics. About 12,000 men probably worked together on this. Unfortunately, however, what remains today is only the Paradise Panel that represents Damascus (the paradise).
Housing some of the most famous treasures of Syria, the National Museum brings together the most exciting discoveries of numerous archaeological excavations. Some of the most attractive pieces include the world’s first alphabets, written on the Ugarit tablets; the spooky priest statues from Mari; and jewellery and sculpture from Palmyra and the interior of the 2nd century Dura Europos synagogue.
This was built under the obvious influence of the North Korean Government. Outside, you’ll find an impressive display of military hardware. Though it is located in the suburbs, it can easily be reached by taxi or minibus. You will also be able to find English-speaking guides to help you.
The Old City of Damascus, dating back to medieval times, is surprisingly quite well preserved. Encircled by five kilometres of strong walls, it is an ideal place to simply amble along. You can walk down the meandering alleys, window shop at the souks and pay a visit to the beautiful palaces.
There are also a number of caravanserais, mosques and Quranic schools along the route, where you can come to grips with the soul of this city. The numerous cafes along the way serve excellent coffee and are equally perfect for those who want to enjoy some solitude or make new friends.
The most easterly of the great Crusader castles standing guard over the strategically important Homs Gap - the "gateway to Syria" - Qal'at al-Hosn is also known by its westernised name, Crac des Chevaliers. With its 13 great stone towers encompassing an area that could support 5000 cavalry with provisions for five years, the castle was built on the site of a previous Kurdish 11th-century castle. It became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2006.
The Shrine of Saida Zeinab in Damascus attracts hundreds of pilgrims daily and pays tribute to the Prophet Muhammad's granddaughter, the daughter of the Imam Ali ibn Abi Taleb. Apart from its huge onion-shaped dome, the exterior is deceptively plain, but the interior is a splendid opulent example of Persian religious architecture, with a massive gold-plated shrine and walls adorned in beautiful multicoloured tessellation.
Providing female visitors wear long black hooded robes, everyone is allowed to experience the intense atmosphere of the mosque.
Not far to the north of Damascus, in the high village of Ma'lula, is the very heart of Syrian Christianity. The town is home to two important monasteries, one dedicated to St Sergius (and St Bacchus), the other to St Taqla. This is an area that still speaks Aramaic, said to be the language of Jesus. Nowadays the monastery produces its own sweet red wine and the monks may even offer you a glass to taste when you visit.