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The Short Guide to One Day in Modern Damascus

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4 months ago

As old as history itself, Damascus is a melting pot of countless civilizations and cultures that surprises and satisfies at every turn. Every part of the Old City is filled with antiquities from bygone eras, the food is second to none, and the sites demand automatic pause upon sight.

Within the Old City, there are a number of sites that aren’t religiously affiliated which no trip to Damascus would be complete without visiting. But there’s a whole world of modern Damascus to experience outside of the Old City that you didn’t know existed, and it’s worth every minute. Let us take you on a journey through the modern face of Damascus.

Ancient shop in Damascus man fixing something
Old shops in Damascus are plentiful and part of the experience

This article is part of a series of short guides to facilitate your experience of the Christian, Islamic and modern sides of Syria’s ancient capital, Damascus.

How long do I need in Damascus?

Just the magnificence of the Old City alone can keep you occupied for a few days, so we would suggest that you leave at least four or five days for Damascus, but no less than three days.

Damascus is considered the longest continuously inhabited city in the world, and it is not an exaggeration to say that one can feel every layer of its rich history permeating the streets and buildings. It’s for this reason that part of visiting Damascus is simply just being in Damascus, soaking up its ancient streets, unique architecture and diverse lifestyle.

Damascus has always been known for its colors and mosaics

With thousands of years of history as well as being a modern economic and cultural center, there is far too much to see and do in Damascus. Don’t short change yourself with just a day or two. The Old City may be small in size, but it is packed to the brim with sights and experiences. And there’s plenty to do outside the Old City, too.

Where to stay in Modern Damascus

If you want to stay outside the Old City, one of the best hotels is the Four Seasons Damascus. It hasn’t been operated by the Four Seasons since 2019, so although it carries the name and logo of the Four Seasons, it’s not part of the Four Seasons. That also means it is far, far cheaper than a normal Four Seasons but it has all the beautiful trappings of a Four Seasons hotel.

As the country rebuilds following its civil war, more hotels of a higher standard will open their doors to visitors. We recommend staying in the Mezzeh area if you want to stay outside the Old City.

alleyway courtyards of old damascus
Alleyways in the Old City have an atmosphere you can’t find elsewhere

One day in Modern Damascus

10 am: Al Azem Palace

After your ftoor, start your day at Al Azem Palace which earns its place as one of the most beautiful places in Syria. As you walk through the many rooms, you’ll experience the day to day life of a Damascene governor, his family and entourage. The palace rooms all have explanations in English, so I would recommend that you do this one on your own and enjoy the story.

Al Azem Palace in Damascus with trees in the background
Al Azem Palace is best experienced in the daylight

Al Azem Palace was built in 1749 as the private residence of As’ad Pasha al-Azm, a governor of Syria. It was also housed the French Institute during the time of the French Mandate for Syria and Lebanon.

12 pm: Martyrs’ Square

Martyrs’ Square, or Marjeh Square, as it is commonly known, is located just outside of the old walled city of Damascus. You might know Marjeh Square as the site of the public hanging of Israeli spy Eli Cohen in 1965. The atmosphere of the Square feels like ancient Syria meets modern Syria. It’s the perfect crossing point between the Old City that you’re coming from and the modern Damascus that you’re heading toward.

Martyrs' Square in Damascus with pidgeons in front of it
Martyrs’ Square and its famous bridge

1 pm: Lunch at Shawarma Tannour

You’re going to Shawarma Tannour for lunch today because they do wonderful things with the traditional shawarma, including a shawarma pizza. Located just behind the Four Seasons, Shawarma Tannour has got all the flavors right: garlic, warm tannour bread, salty pickles and just enough options. This is very much a local eatery and is out of the usual tourist area so you’re in for a treat.

Pizza shawarma with potato chips on it
The pizza shawarma from Shawarma Tannour is a beautiful combination of flavors

2 pm: Damascene Sword

The towering Damascene Sword located in the Umayyad Square was built in the 1960s in connection with the Damascus International Fair. It is quite a unique monument and is often considered by Syrians to be a symbol of Syria’s glory days in the modern era.

Damascene Sword Monument at night
The Damascene Sword Monument

When you’re driving to your next destination, you’ll see this on your road. Stop to take a quick photo and carry on. When you see this symbol being used in Syrian restaurants around the world, you’ll know its origin.

2:30 pm: October War Panorama Museum

This very unique museum commemorates the 1973 October War between Egypt and Syria, on the one hand, and Israel, on the other. The exhibits include downed Israeli weapons (with signage informing you that they were apparently made in the USA) tanks and jets, large commemorative paintings of Syria’s Baathist leaders, and a 3D panorama which immerses you in the battle for Quneitra in the Golan Heights.

Entrance to the October War Panorama Museum in Damascus round building
The entrance to the October War Panorama Museum (Source: Wikimedia)

It is notoriously difficult due to ‘opening hours’, but if you are interested we recommend letting your Syrian tour guide know well in advance. If you manage to enter the Museum, you’ll be greeted by a large mural of former Syrian President Hafez al-Assad and North Korea’s Supreme Leader Kim il-Sung. It is quite an experience but we’d suggest that you keep your opinions as to the war to yourself.

5 pm: Shopping at Al Malki

The Al-Malki neighborhood of Damascus is decidedly the upper-class area of the city and is filled with modern restaurants and bars. There’s a reason why the area is particularly well-manicured and modern: the house of the president of Syria is in Al Malki. You’ll find the Grand Mall which is filled with somehow-imported foreign goods (sanctions only go so far).

Two women walking on Al Farabi Street in Mezzeh
Al Malki is an upper-class area of Damascus

Al Malki stands in stark contrast to the rest of Syria with its hyper-modern attitude and distinctively elite atmosphere. Here, you’ll see Syrian elites drinking outside in the many bars and restaurants.

7:30 pm: Dinner at 1001 Nights

To cap off your time in Damascus, it’s time to go somewhere incredibly unique. Very few foreigners have been to this restaurant since the Syrian civil war started, but I can tell you that it is just as exciting as it was when it was the place to be over a decade ago.

1001 Nights Restaurant in Damascus with its leaning tower of Pisa
1001 Nights Restaurant with its distinctive Leaning Tower of Syria

Restaurant 1001 Nights is a site to behold. It’s built as a mini-city with bridges and towers throughout it. The standout feature is Syria’s own leaning tower of Pisa which is front and centre of 1001 Nights. You’ll be given your choice of ancient Syrian dress to wear while you dine. The whole experience is completely unmatched, and is definitely a memory that you’ll be glad you created.

Late: Partying in Damascus

Syrians are always ready for a party, but you have to know where to go for the best of them. We love the cocktails at B Bar & Lounge, and it’s always guaranteed to turn into a party on the weekends. You’ll also find plenty of revelry around Al Hamra Street.

B Bar & Lounge has turned itself into a modern destination in ancient Damascus

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