Palmyra was the only oasis in Syria and perhaps the only truly tourist town.
Palmyra (the Roman name) was known as Tadmor to the Syrians. Both meant the same thing - date palm. The name came from the lush oasis adjacent to the city which was home to some million date palms.
Palmyra is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site; all six Syrian UNESCO-listed heritage sites are 'endangered' as of 2013.
Palmyra sat on the standard tourist trek around Syria. Intense competition for business amongst local outfits made the experience somewhat overwhelming to the traveller who had come from the North and had enjoyed a relatively 'quiet' trip thus far. The major tourist attraction of the area was the stunning ruins - the most famous and well-preserved of which were the Temple of Bel, the colonnade, the funerary towers, the hypogeum of 3 brothers, and the Arab castle. All were within a few kilometres of each other.
Much of this irreplaceable heritage was deliberately destroyed by ISIS during armed conflict in 2015. Although Syria's directorate of antiquities and museums makes hopeful statements about rebuilding at least part of the lost heritage using the original pieces, Palmyra is landmine-infested and no longer a tourist destination.
The Lion of Al-lāt was restored in 2017 and can now be found at the National Museum of Damascus.
- Palmyra was easily accessible from Damascus by bus departing the Harasta bus terminal. Buses ran nearly hourly in both directions during the hours of daylight. Buses also ran from Homs (150 km) and Deir-az-Zur.
- For bike tourists, Palmyra was about a three-day trip from either Damascus or Deir-az-Zur. One needed to bring plenty of food as shops were few and far between; water was available at semi-regular intervals from police stations, military installations and at private houses on request.
- As of April 2019, visitors need special permission to access Palmyra.
- The best method was to walk. The town was not large and the historic site was built in a time when walking was the main form of transportation, so it was not too spread out. Bear in mind that the heat can be truly scorching; plan to visit at dusk and early morning to see magnificent sunrise and sunsets.
- Camel rides were offered.
- Tour buses abounded; locals did offer rides if you were willing to haggle.
Many of the historic sites have been destroyed or severely damaged. Mines were removed by Russian forces in 2016-17, but there is no guarantee that all mines have been cleared.
Great Colonnade at Palmyra
Temple of BelFounded in 32 AD and dedicated to the Mesopotamian god Bel. While severely damaged in 2015 and the main building destroyed, its exterior walls and gate still stood.
Palmyra CastleA castle build by the Mamluks in the 13th century. While damaged in the conflict, the castle is still structurally intact.
Roman Theatre at Palmyra
Hypogeum of Three Brothers
Camel raceIf you visited Palmyra around October/November time you might have been lucky enough to be there for the week of camel racing. This was an exciting day out, especially if you had gotten a lift in one of the many vehicles travelling round the track, alongside the camels. There was a camel beauty competition and racing with and without riders - although it was recommended to go with someone who could explain what was going on.
Evening in the desertSpend an evening in the desert, in a Bedouin tent with traditional music, food and wonderful hospitality - just ask at your hotel or your tour group leader. After the ruins, this was definitely the highlight of any trip to Palmyra. A drive away from the ruins is a natural sulphuric water lake (take care as at certain times of the year it is pretty dried up!) and a camp site was nearby.
Sunrise and sunset viewJust outside of Palmyra, go for a walk up to the top of the sandstone cliffs at sunrise or sunset - truly stunning! You could have taken a taxi to Palmyra castle or walked there.
Hike and trail runSee the external link for the GPS track of the route. This loop ran from the middle of town up to Palmyra castle to view the sunrise or sunset. The first half of this loop was on sidewalk and paved road. The second half, descending from the castle, was on a trail going through the Great Colonnade.
Run lapsSee the external link for the GPS track of the route. The route was relatively short, so could be run several times to get more distance in. It was on a wide and well lit sidewalk. It was suitable even for a night run in December as it got dark early.
As usual, the Syrian Commercial Bank offered terrible rates and added commission. You'd have gotten a better deal by checking the rates online then changing with the shop owners in the Souq.
Souvenir shops abounded on the main street with all kinds of jewellery, handicrafts and other wares typical to the Bedouin places. Shopkeepers (in a town with few sources of income other than tourism) were masters in the art of making you part with as much money as possible, so it would have been wise to only carry as much money with you as you were willing to spend on souvenirs (and food - see below) to avoid being talked into spending all or most of the money you had for the rest of your trip in Syria. Typically souvenir shopping would happen around dinner, as many of the restaurants and shops were in the same main street and you would have happened to walk past them on your way to or from the hotels and restaurants.
- Traditional Palymra Restaurant very bad reputation, with several differently priced but identical menus, tendency to recycle uneaten food, etc.
- New Palmyra Restaurant / Pancake House on the main street for most tourists, al-Quwatli. This was a traditional Palmyra restaurant - catering for the tourist hordes. The owner was well connected with an army of scouts corralling tourists into the restaurant. For the adventurous traveller, fake ISIC student cards were available for purchase for €7.50, although they are of poor quality and little use in the Middle East.
On the same street, several stands sold roast chicken.
On any of the main roads running north you would have found find falafel stands and small restaurants selling the typical range of Syrian fast food, bakeries selling sweet treats and plenty of convenience stores with drinks and snacks.
Al Faris Hotel
The Sun Hotel
New Afqa HotelA good budget bet, was just around the corner from the tourist office. Staff were friendly and spoke English well. Rooms were clean with en suite bathrooms, heating, air conditioning and satellite TV.
Baal Shamen HotelAnother backpacker favourite. Accommodation was more basic than at the New Afqa Hotel but the rooms were still clean and staff were friendly.
Al Nakheel Hotel
In the main tourist area, the Hani Internet Café inside the Traditional Palmyra Restaurant charged a pricey S£50 for a half hour. This may have been negotiable in low season. An Internet café slightly north of the centre charged S£20 an hour but had irregular hours.
Buses departed frequently for Damascus, Homs, and Deir-az-Zur.The bus station was a little under a kilometre away from the main street. Other destinations may have needed a private car.
If hiring a private car, you might have wanted to consider side trips to Qasr al-Heir ash-Sharki - a partially excavated Ummayad palace quite literally in the middle of nowhere - and Rasafa, originally a Roman city with heavy Byzantine influence, also used by the Ummayads before being destroyed in the Abbasid era. Rasafa was also of interest as the stone it's built out of, more a quartz-like crystal instead of the usual granite or sandstone, made for a unique appearance. This route led quite close to the Euphrates, where you could have been dropped off in Raqqa, Aleppo, or Hama. Car hire was often pricey and the driver still had to get back to Palmyra. Private tours were the real money maker in the Syrian tourism industry, so expect to pay as much as US$100 if you were heading for Aleppo or Hama or a bit less to Raqqa.