I just got an interesting email from America:
I am an American PhD student who is coming to Damascus this summer for a month of Arabic at Damascus University.
I was wondering if you had any tips about a couple of things:
1. A place to live. While I can afford an apartment on my own, I think I'd rather be around other people who are doing what I'm doing, kind of like a hostel but with my own room. I hear the Harameen isn't so nice but cheap? I was also told to stay in Old Damascus.
2. How to get to Syria the cheapest. Do you know a travel agent who books your tickets? I am coming from California, so I expect to pay a bunch to get there....
I hope I can help. The more Americans who visit Syria will hopefully take a positive view of the country back to the States, and that can only help relations.
If anyone reading this can add to my advice, please say something in the comments section.
Here's what I've picked up over the years...
Where to live:
You mention the Harameen. It is probably the best known backpacker hotel in Damascus. It is cheap, basic and clean. There is also the Rabeea next door, which is virtually identical. Expect to pay between US$4 and US$12 per night, depending on the room (single or dorm). Some rooms have en-suite showers and toilets, others are shared. It's not a bad option, but don't expect luxury.
They both have a very friendly feel, and you will always find travellers swapping tips and chatting with staff in the lobby. Pop in for a chat even if you aren't staying there.
These two hotels are big old Damascene houses based in the last remaining 'old' part of Damascus outside of the Old City itself: Souq Saroujah (which gave this blog its name!).
Whatever you do, avoid 'hotels' at the nearby Merjeh Square. Most are unclean, have no windows, and some double up as brothels. At the other end of the scale, the Sheraton, Semiramis, Meridien, Four Seasons and Cham Palace are the capital's luxury hotels, expect to pay hundreds of dollars.
But if you fancy just a little bit more luxury than the Harameen/Rabeea can offer, a good bet is the Hotel Majed. Ask taxi drivers for the Russian Cultural Centre (a short walk from Souq Saroujah), it's in a back street just before the Centre. Expect close to European standards, with good views of Jebl Qassioun (the mountain) and en-suite for around US$30.
As for living more permanently...most foreigners choose Bab Touma - the Christian end of the Old City. There are only a couple of hotels in the Old City, and they cost hundreds of dollars per night. A couple of years ago, there were none. But finding a place to live isn't so hard. There are plenty of old houses renting out rooms, I'm not sure about costs, but ask around and you'll find something pretty easily.
How to get to Syria:
This, I'm not so hot on. I can't say I've ever travelled to the US, but there are plenty of readers who will be able to help you out. I know flights to London are about $600 on Syrian Arab Airlines. So it may be cheapest for you to fly into London (or Paris) first.
Also, look at flights to Beirut. Taxis from the Lebanese capital are quick and plentiful, costing about US$10 for a space in a shared taxi.