The old city of Aleppo is a confusing labyrinth of narrow cobblestone streets, covered bazaars, khans, mosques and madrasas, unlike any other in the world. Of all the great old cities of the Islamic world (I have been to from Marrakesh to Cairo to Istanbul), Aleppo is by far the most spectacular. It is so unique in fact that UNESCO has declared it a world heritage site. Walking through the old souks of Aleppo is the closest you can get to actually stepping back in time and witnessing the hectic life of an Islamic old city.
Most of the structures and souks in the old city of Aleppo are of Ottoman construction, and it was during the Ottoman period that Aleppo reached the height of its power. It was the center of trade for the Middle East, attracting traders from all over the Ottoman Empire, as well as Europe. During its heyday, Aleppo was full of Venetian, French, and British traders setting up shops right next to Arab, Armenian, and Turkish traders, buying goods to sell to the European elite in Venice, Paris, and London. Although those days are gone, Aleppo still hasn’t lost its cosmopolitan nature and its ability to attract traders from around the world.
There is still a huge Armenian population as well as a number of Turks, all who have established themselves in the Old City. The Venetians may have stopped coming, but they have been replaced by Russian traders who come to stock up on goods to take back to the major Russian cities. In the Aleppo of today, it is still possible to hear a range of languages being shouted out by shopkeepers, and a sign in Cyrillic is as easy to find as one in Arabic.
In terms of sights, the main attraction of the Old City is the city itself. Although, over the years, parts of the Old City succumbed to the pressures of modernization (you will notice there are no walls), the Syrian government, with the help of German engineers and archaeologists, have been reclaiming a much of the old city and restoring it to its former glory. The Syrian government has given tax breaks to people willing to open up shops in the old city, and their efforts seem to be working. The Old City is as alive today as it probably was in the Ottoman Era.
If you have visited other souks, like Khan el-Khalili in Cairo, the first thing you will notice about Aleppo is the virtual lack of touts, or people begging you to "have a look." Of course they are there, especially in the area right by the main gate, but, for the most part, you will be amazed by the almost completely hassle-free nature of walking around Aleppo. It is because of this that I recommend that when visiting the Old City - all you need to do is just walk. Start at one end, preferably at the entrance of Souk al-Attarin near the Citadel. This is the most tourist-oriented part of the Old City, and you will be able to find all those little trinkets and gifts you need for people back home. From here, all you have to do is just walk. You really don’t have to get worried about becoming lost either. This is nowhere near the maze that you will find in places like Fez, and a guide is definitely not necessary. The Old City is quite small and everything centers around the main street of Souk al-Attarin. If you ever get a little disoriented, all you have to do is walk and you will either end up on Souk al-Attarin or outside the Old City, from where you can just enter in again.
So that is my suggestion: just grab your camera, maybe a list of things to buy, and then just go. Let the streets tell you where to go. If you see something interesting, go look at it. You never have to worry about wandering into a bad part of the city, as there are none. You may walk into parts that are more local than others, where instead of pillow covers, they are selling cow hearts, but that is all part of the experience. You will soon discover that it is perfectly easy to spend a few good hours in the city. Take your time, there should be no rush.
Do not be afraid of the shopkeepers. They are all extremely friendly and willing to help you out in anyway. They may offer you some tea. Go ahead and sit, sip some tea, and chat with a shopkeeper. He will most likely have a few interesting stories to share. Of course he’ll show you all sorts of merchandise, but there is never any pressure. Never feel like you have to buy anything. You can sit, drink tea, and then walk away and the shopkeeper will think nothing less of you.
So just relish the opportunity to be one of the few tourists meandering around this window into another time. Take in the sights and the smells. Stop off for some lemon juice made with bitter, but refreshing Omani lemons. Make your way to the Umayyad Mosque or duck into a few madrasas to see beautiful examples of Ottoman architecture. The Old City of Aleppo is a world unlike anywhere else, and as of now, it’s relatively unscathed by the claws of tourism, but that is sure to change as Syria pushes its tourism agenda forward. See it while you can.