Aleppo, called Halab in Arabic, is Syria's second-largest city and has been a thriving caravan stop for centuries.

The tradition remains evident today in the Old City's souks (bazaars), which are the most atmospheric in the country. The vaulted stone ceilings and narrow passageways impart an ancient, biblical atmosphere compared with the souks in Damascus, which lies 220 mi/355 km south. They may be dark, gritty and terribly congested, but they're a sight not to be missed.

Start your tour of the Old City at Bab Antakiya (Antioch Gate) in the western wall. The main street, which runs approximately 0.5 mi/0.8 km to the citadel at the other end, branches off into smaller streets on both sides, each one specializing in a different item—such as textiles, carpets, gold jewelry, herbs, soap and metal goods.

Shopping and sightseeing opportunities commingle in the Old City. The most impressive buildings there were built for either religious or commercial purposes. The Great Mosque of Aleppo was founded during the Umayyad dynasty in the early eighth century, but it has been altered many times over the years. It is less impressive than the more ornate Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, but it's still worth a visit. (The tourist entrance is at the northwest corner.)

You should also make a visit to the Khusrawiyya Mosque and the Adiliyya Mosque (both built during the Ottoman period), as well as the Sultaniyya Madrasa—it has a beautiful mihrab (prayer niche). One of the best buildings in Aleppo is the Bimaristan Arghun, a former asylum for the insane.

Several khans (rest houses), such as Khan al Gumruk, Khan al Wazir and Sabun Khan, are also worth seeing. There are signs pointing to most of the main sites in the Old City, but it is easy to get turned around and lost in the maze of streets.

The medieval citadel is located just outside the western end of the souk. Perched on a steep mound, it's the city's most famous landmark. Purchase a ticket inside the tower near the southern base of the mound (to the right as you leave the souk) and make your way to the top. There are two mosques and a palace at the summit, though they're mostly ruins. The throne room has been restored, and the amphitheater is entirely modern. The best feature is the wonderful panoramic view of Aleppo, with its dozens of domed mosques and tall minarets. It's a nice experience after you've been in the enclosed and crowded bazaars.

Near the southern base of the citadel mound is one of the grandest bathhouses in Syria, the Hammam Yalbugha al Nasiri. It's open to men and women on alternating days. If its schedule doesn't mesh with yours, there are plenty of others to choose from, although none are as impressive. The spa treatment is basic, but the atmosphere and prices are unbeatable. For just a few dollars, you can have your hair washed and receive a thorough scrub and a brief massage.

A few blocks north of the Old City is the Jedeideh district, traditionally the city's Christian quarter. The entire district is very well-preserved—complete with several churches of various denominations and many private courtyard houses that have been restored and converted into small hotels or restaurants. You'll find some of Aleppo's best restaurants and nightspots in Jedeideh. The Museum of Popular Tradition is housed in Beit Ashiqbash, which is worth a visit for the decorative architecture.

If you're interested in archaeology, visit the National Museum (northwest of the Old City, near Bab al Faraj). It displays antiquities—prehistoric to classical—from sites in Syria. There's also the Baron Hotel, which hosted a long list of famous people in the early 1900s, including T.E. Lawrence (of Arabia), Charles Lindbergh and Agatha Christie. Its glory has faded, but have a look (or a drink on the terrace) if you're in the neighborhood.

Possible day trips from Aleppo include the Basilica of St. Simeon at Qalaat Samaan and the Dead Cities—ruins that date to late-Roman and Byzantine times. Plan at least two nights in Aleppo, three if you're taking a day trip.

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