We asked the Concierge team at the Four Seasons Hotel Damascus to gather the savviest sight-seeing suggestions they could find—not just their own, but also those of other local connoisseurs, including some they work with every day at the Hotel. Enjoy the mystery and allure of what is believed to be the world’s oldest city, with its traditional souks, Middle Eastern foods, art and architecture.
There is arguably no better place to absorb the city’s intellectual flavour than Rawda on Abed Street in the heart of downtown. Coffee, tea, fruit flavoured-tobacco (shisha) smoked in water pipes and backgammon are secondary to the non-stop animated dialogue, fuelled by a superbly diverse crowd. For those who cannot live without excellent espresso and high-speed Internet, try the trendy Segafredo or Moka & More on Damascus Boulevard.
Shopping in the souks
The three covered bazaars of Damascus cover all bases for finding quality gifts and souvenirs. Souk al-Bzouriyeh runs from Azem Palace to Souk Midhat Pasha, and is known for its spice and soap shops. Souk al-Hamidiyeh is the place to find gold and silver jewellery, copper cookware and ornate brass trays, particularly at Old City, a treasure chest of a rug shop. Souk al-Harir is filled with silk and pashmina shawls and colourful dresses. Modern venues: At Damasquino Mall and Cham City Centre mall, designer names abound.
Into the past
Collections at the National Museum of Damascus recall a Syria that occupied a unique niche at the apex of the ancient world, embracing a multiculturalism that spawned diverse art. There are works from the Bronze Age sites of Ugarit and Mari and the Roman Empire, a broad array of Islamic art, and the world’s first alphabet. Toss a short architectural tour into the mix and explore the nearby black-and-white stone mosque built in 1590 by Sinan Pasha, the Ottoman-appointed governor of Damascus.
Art collectors should head for the prestigious Ayyam Gallery in the centre of the city, or Al-Khoury Arts Gallery on Straight Street. You can also take an art tour through al-Amin Street, in the former Jewish quarter, and meet top Syrian artists like Mustafa Ali. Don’t leave the quarter without seeing the restoration of Beit Farhi, the palace of Raphael Farhi, financial adviser to the Ottoman sultanate, with its Hebrew inscriptions in the reception hall and orange trees in the courtyard.
After a day touring ancient mosques, pamper yourself with a healing process once reserved for Palmyrian royalty. The Hotel Spa offers the Zanobia massage, in which warm poultices infused with aromatic oils soothe tired muscles. Or opt for the Orient Blend massage based on the theory of energy meridians, using acupressure to invigorate and energise. Or simply stretch out in the steam room and let the peace, quiet and heat work their magic.
The colours and patterns, and the sensations that these Persian rugs evoke, will send you flying, figuratively if not literally. The rugs are said to be the most exotic collection outside of Persia itself. Look for kilims from the Kurdish area of Afrin in northern Syria, which can be something of a specialty in Damascus, in terms of unique designs and quality. Try Yasser near Nofara, or Samir & Khaldoun.