Any stay in the Middle East is incomplete without a visit to Syria. Forget that the country boasts the world's two oldest continuously inhabited cities, Damascus and Aleppo, or that many say it is ground zero for humanity's alphabet, music notes and civilisation at large.
Visit it because it is one of the few places left where you are not bombarded by Starbucks and McDonald's.
Damascus is still suspended somewhere between the ancient past and the Seventies, with fleeting glimpses of contemporary life as we know it in the West. This is good news, at least for those of us tired of the humdrum familiarity you find today in cities the world over.
Not that familiarity will escape you in Damascus. On a fundamental level, your soul will recognise the old souqs with "mom and pop" shops that sell everything from pistachio nuts to antique furniture inlaid with mother of pearl. This is how life unfolded for centuries, and continues today in Damascus.
A comfortable bed
If you have a corporate credit card, splurge at the Four Seasons located in the centre of Damascus (www.fourseasons.com/damascus; 00 963 11 339 1000). In the winter time this is the most comfortable hotel, with rates starting from €328 (Dh1,582) per night for a Superior room, including tax and breakfast.
If you are a sturdy traveller without elderly or small children in tow, then stay in the Old City at one of a dozen or so boutique hotels, some of them restored 16th- or 18th-century Damascene homes. Most are well equipped for the cold weather, with heated courtyards and a transparent winter ceiling they pull over during the cold months. On a clear night you can sip Turkish coffee and stare at the stars or the moon without having to endure the cold.
For a high-end boutique hotel catering to the likes of Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt, check out Talisman al Ameen (talismanhotels.com; 00 963 11 541 5379), where deluxe rooms start from $254 (Dh826) including tax.
The Beit Rumman (bietrumman.com; 00 963 11 545 1092-4) is a nicely located mid-range hotel with double rooms starting from $150 (Dh551) including tax.
For good value, the Hanania (www.hananiahotel.com; 00 963 11 543 6990-2) has double rooms starting from $113 (Dh415) including tax and breakfast.
For budget accommodation with lots of personality, check out Damascus Hostel (www.damascushostel.com; 00 963 11 541 4115). This place has a pet turtle and a rope ladder over the city wall as a shortcut for patrons. An en suite single room starts from 2,000 Syrian pounds (Dh157).
Find your feet
Walk it or cab it, either way chances are you will get lost. But that's alright. Damascus is a manageable town and totally safe. Just make sure you have your destination address written on a piece of paper in Arabic - ask your hotel to do this for you - and agree on a price before getting into the taxi. Always ask your taxi driver to turn on his meter. The average ride through town should be under 100 Syrian pounds (Dh8). Make sure you carry plenty of notes of 50 and 100 denominations, otherwise you may not get change back. Cabbies love to claim they're "out of change" to compel riders to say "just keep it".
If you are in town for a short time, allocate a good chunk of it for the Old City, where you can get lost for hours in its cobbled streets. Wear sturdy shoes and never underestimate the cold, even when the sun is shining all the time. Damascus in winter is very pleasant but, as the locals say, "the cold sneaks up on you", so stay warm.
A good place to start is Bab Touma or Bab Sharqi, two of the seven gates of the ancient city.
Get a map of the Old City. It will not be very accurate, but do not become frustrated because the whole point is to get lost.
Meet the locals
It is difficult not to meet the locals in Damascus as it is not yet a "touristy" city. But if you want to walk amongst locals as they go about town, head to the Qassaa neighbourhood, just around the corner from Bab Touma. If you make it there in early January, you will see Christmas ornaments still hanging from the balconies of this primarily Christian neighbourhood.
Also walk around in Shaalan, where many locals shop for fresh produce. Take a look inside Etana bookstore, a one-of-a-kind library start-up that hosts cerebral weekly discussions led by a psychoanalyst. Alas, these are only in Arabic.
Book a table
You cannot pass through Damascus and not dine at Naranj on Straight Street in the Old City (00 963 11 541 3444).A local favourite for gastronomy snobs, this restaurant specialises in Syrian cuisine from all over the country. If you go there for lunch, you can sit upstairs on the terrace and have a scrumptious shawarma. But why stop there? Shawarma is akin to fast food for Syrians.
Instead, book a table for dinner and indulge in the local specialities. The labaniyyeh is to die for, if you like lamb cooked in yoghurt sauce.
For a different experience of local speciality, head over to Al-Kamal Restaurant (00 963 11 222 1494), located across from the Russian Cultural Centre on Avenue May 26, for breakfast, lunch or brunch. There you will find all sorts of fateh dishes, which is what Damascus is famous for. Fateh comes with or without meat, so it is a favourite for vegetarians and carnivores alike. Try it with mozat (lamb shank) or chick peas. The sauce is a delicious mix of yoghurt and sesame paste, topped with a drizzle of either ghee or olive oil. It might be counter-intuitive, but ghee goes down lighter on the stomach than olive oil.
You do not come to Damascus to shop for luxury brands. This town is for exquisite boxes inlaid with mother of pearl, and beautiful textiles like the famous Damask silks and linens. One affordable and versatile signature textile is the Aghabani, used mainly as ornate table cloths. Find all of this in the Old City, mainly Souq Hamidiyyeh, Hariqa and Straight Street. Keep in mind that shops in the Muslim Quarter close on Fridays, and those in the Christian Quarter close on Sundays.
One of the best-kept secrets is that Damascus also offers lots of casual wear at excellent prices. Head over to Shaalan, where you can find some international chain stores and local shops that sell high quality, Syrian-made women's (and men's) casuals at prices that cannot be beat.
What to avoid
No matter how tempting, stay away from street food. And if you absolutely must have that falafel or shawarma, then ask for it without the parsley. This is what savvy locals do to avoid getting sick, because the parsley is likely to be underwashed. And do not dare eat that local dessert with fresh cream, unless you are at the Four Seasons or Naranj. Even then, go easy. The uninitiated almost always have trouble digesting the rich delicacy called "ishta".
Four Seasons promenade and the historic shopping centre called Takiyyeh across the street. You can hardly miss it with its half dozen domes. If you have time, hit the National Museum down the street. There you will find on display the ancient Synagogue Dura-Europos, and it is well worth a look.
In the Old City make sure you visit the gallery and residence of Mustafa Ali in the Jewish Quarter (mustafali.com; 00 963 11 544 0236). He is one of Syria's most accomplished sculptors and often hosts cultural events at home. Ask to see the sculpture called Gaza located in the basement.
Another must-see is Villa Moda on Straight Street. Even if you are not up for shopping for top brands, the interior of this store has been featured in The New York Times. It has since expanded to include a khan (caravanserai) complete with an art gallery, hand-made soap and an exquisite cafe.