Street Food in Damascus
Damascus is one of the best cities I’ve come across for street food in terms of the quality, price and availability – you won’t be anywhere in the city without coming across a crowded place with inexpensive and delicious dishes that range from falafel and shawarma sandwiches, fruit drinks, bread and croissants, Arabic style pizzas, ice cream and more.
(fresh juice makers outside the Omayyed mosque)
The problem with most street food places is that the popularity changes as new owners or operators take over or they just move or go out of business, meaning that writing about them in somewhere as unchangeable as a travel guide will only be relevant for that year or two. When I went in 2008 the two guides I had were both old, from 2001 and 2003 and most everything had changed, so make sure you double-check where to go once your feet are on the ground.
Shawarma in Damascus
Your best bet for shawarma is anyplace that you see that is crowded with people waiting for their sandwiches outside of it and anyplace that has a large “meat tower,” which means they serve a lot. The most common forms of shawarma in Syria are chicken (Arabic: dejaj) and lamb (kharoof).
The Syrian shawarmas are different from other countries I’ve had them. In Syria they use one flat piece of circular Arabic bread (not pita) that is almost the size of a large tortilla. Inside the shawarma is mainly the meat from the spit but they also add pickles and a very light garlic sauce, much lighter tasting than the Arabian Gulf shawarmas I’ve had. I saw several shawarma chefs using the bread to turn the meat tower, basting the bread in the meat juices, and then allowing the whole shawarma to cook a little on the grill in some meat oils after they wrap it up. The end of the top is usually (in Syria anyway) topped off by a dab of the garlic paste.
Some of the more popular places for shawarma in 2008 included: El Reyas – a small, very popular and packed with customers shawarma place just across the bridge coming out of the Old City from Bab Touma (a major area of the Old City), easy to find by just walking across the bridge and heading straight ahead.
Here's a news clip from Syrian TV (in Arabic) showing the shawarma process and some clips from El Reyas shawarma (the only restaurant featured in the clip):
Another place that was really good was at the end of Bab Touma road near the entrance to Bab Touma and the Old City, a small and also usually busy shawarma stand on the right side of the road, walk up service and eat on the road deal. Both this place and El Reyas were comparable in quality and both were about 70 cents for a large chicken shawarma.
But if you see anyplace crowded with a big meat tower then you’re more than likely to have found a good place to stop and get a bite to eat.
There is a very excellent fresh juice stand at the corner of Straight Street and Bab Touma Street (if you enter the old city at Bab Sharqi and walk down Straight St to Bab Touma St you’ll see it on the corner). Always good fresh juices, oranges kept refrigerated (a giant 32oz fresh orange juice (cold!) cost about 80 cents. There is a more expensive one catering to tourists near the entrance to Bab Touma. Go to this one instead. Ask for Jamal and he’ll also whip you up some of his caloric milkshakes and other sweet drinks (even let you taste them for free). Very recommended especially after a hot day in the souks. Juice cocktails are prevalent throughout Damascus however and you won’t be lacking in finding a good one.
(Bakdash Ice Cream w. pistachio)
The granddaddy of ice cream in Damascus, probably in Syria, is Bakdash Ice Cream in the Souk Hamidiyah in the Old City. This place is a destination in its own right, people come from all over the world for their homemade ice cream and freshly crushed pistachio toppings. You can either eat in or pay the cashier for a token and then present the token to the ice cream scoopers near the front window – this is a very hectic thing to do when they are busy, but also very fun too and don’t worry everyone will be patient with your outsider status!
Here's a video of Bakdash in action (though very empty, which is not typical):
There is also another great ice cream place with more traditional flavors like chocolate, strawberry, etc. it’s small, also in the Old City, and located near the Café Nowfura and the Omayyed Mosque and has no name but an “Allah” and “Mohammed” name signs on either side of it. I think it’s a lot cheaper than Bakdash, maybe 40 cents for a cone or so.
There is a good falafel stand about halfway between the Bab Touma entrance and Straight Street on Bab Touma road, they make them fresh and have a great hot sauce. The only problem is that their pickles often gave me some stomach issues (but then again that was after eating a whole bag of them) – plus the pickles sit out all night under a flimsy piece of plastic. Still, their falafels are great, and in the shape of a heart! They smash the falafels onto the bread by hand too…
Other great street food in Damascus includes the ubiqutous and inexpensive bread and Arabic pizza making places (usually 25-30 cents for a breakfast sized pizza with red spices or za'atar on it), rotisserie chicken, nuts (especially pistachios) in the souks, and many in season fresh fruits and vegetables (everyone seems to have the same thing for sale when something comes into season).
Some parting pics:
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