After crossing the border from Lebanon, one sees a large Hezbollah billboard (which says something about the “resistance”) with a machine gun image. Don’t be alarmed. Soon enough the landscape shifts to pristine beauty with gorgeous mountains and valleys. From the border, it is maybe one hour longer to Damascus.
The urban sprawl in Damascus is extensive – this is a very large, very crowded city. We arrived, at long last, at the Four Seasons Damascus, an oasis of luxury. The hotel opened just over a year ago, and I can see why it’s known as the best in town. The lobby and public rooms are tailored beautifully to the local aesthetic, the service is top notch (everyone seemed to know my name), and they boast a couple of superb restaurants.
I ate at Al Halabi the first night and sampled their Aleppo (a region of Syria) cuisine, which was truly outstanding. It’s considered the best restaurant in Damascus (be sure to try the cherry kebab). My only complaint is that the hotel rooms themselves, while boasting terrific views of the surrounding mountain, could be decorated a bit more in a local Middle Eastern style. Nevertheless, the hotel is a smart splurge and I highly recommend it. There is also a wonderful pool on site, and, for less than what you’d pay at a Four Seasons in other parts of the world, this is a very good deal.
We also stopped by the Talisman Hotel, which is a newly renovated luxury boutique property (formerly a palace) in the old Jewish quarter of Damascus. We were told that most (nearly all) Jewish residents of Damascus have left and the apartments in this part of the Old City remain empty for their owners, should they someday return. The Talisman has a Moroccan theme and its location in the Old City makes it convenient; the hotel provide carts to ferry guests to taxis outside the city walls. Another option is to stay at a refurbished Damascene house. There are several, and one that comes recommended is Beit Al Mamlouka. It dates from the 17th century and today boasts 8 luxury guest rooms. It’s easy to miss these large houses because so many impressive homes, with their courtyards and fountains, are hidden from view. The same is true of restaurants and bars – what look like tiny door entryways lead to large, beautifully designed, hidden structures. This was the case when we found Bab Al Hara restaurant in the Old City for lunch. Another good option for lunch or dinner is Elissar, also a traditional Damascene restaurant with a lovely courtyard and fountain found behind its street entrance. For a contemporary vibe, head to Narenj restaurant in the Old City.