Syria (الجمهوريّة العربيّة السّوريّة Al-Jumhuriya al-`Arabiya as-Suriya, the Syrian Arab Republic) is one of the larger states of the Middle East. Its capital, and second largest city after Aleppo, is Damascus, the world's oldest continuously inhabited city.
- — the capital claimed to be the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world
- — a once-great ancient citadel with great views, much of Aleppo has been destroyed by fighting in the Syrian Civil War.
- — a desert town on the Euphrates River bank.
- — known for its famous waterwheels.
- — an ancient city by the Orontes river, amazing green mountains in Spring.
- — a major port city, Saladin's Castle, Fronloq Forests and Al Samra Beach near Kasab.
- — a historical port city and historical small island called Arwad.
- Raqqa- The former capital of ISIS's self-proclaimed caliphate
- — a former Roman city that once housed about half a million people. Apamea was hit by an earthquake in the 12th century and much of it was destroyed but it still boasts a long street lined with columns, some of which have twisted fluting.
- — a Roman city in southern Syria close to the Jordan border noted for the use of black basalt stones and its well preserved theatre
- — a series of towns that once formed part of Antioch. They have long since been abandoned but make an interesting stop for tourists. Al Bara boasts pyramidal tombs and formerly grand archways set on modern farm land. Serjilla is another famous dead city.
- — not a tourist site, but an active Christian monastery actively promoting Islamic/Christian dialogue. Welcomes Christians and followers of other religious traditions. It is 80 km north of Damascus.
- — the archetypal Crusader castle, magnificently preserved and not to be missed
- — formerly held the once-magnificent ruins of a Roman city, in the middle of the desert. Once considered the main attraction in Syria, the UNESCO-listed heritage site was severely damaged by Daesh extremists in 2015. Restoration and de-mining is underway as of 2019.
- — a quiet gem in a valley with pine trees about 37 km inland from Latakia
- — Salamiyah is an ancient city which was first known during Babylonian times in 3500 BC; contains Shmemis castle, Greek temple of Zeus, the old hammam, the old walls, remains of Roman canals
The population of Syria is predominately Arab (90%), with large minorities from other ethnic groups: Kurds, Armenians, Circassians and Turks. The official language is Arabic, but other tongues that are occasionally understood include Kurdish, Armenian, Turkish, French and English. The Syrian Republic is officially secular. Nonetheless, it is greatly influenced by the majority religion of Islam (80% of the population, split between 64% Sunni Muslim and 16% other Muslim, Alawites and Druze). There is a large Christian minority that amounts to about 10% of the population.
The President of Syria is Bashar al-Assad, who replaced his father Hafez al-Assad soon after his death on 10 June 2000. Having studied to become an ophthalmologist (eye doctor) in Damascus and London, Bashar was groomed for the presidency after the 1994 car accident of his elder brother Basil. As a consequence, he joined the army and became colonel in 1999. Bashar's modernising credentials were somewhat boosted by his role in a domestic anti-corruption drive. More recently, however, after an initial period of increased openness. Bashar's position as head of the Syrian state rests on his presidency of the Baath Party and his command-in-chief of the army.
Assad's regime and the Baath Party own or control the vast majority of Syria's media. Criticism of the president and his family is not permitted and the press (both foreign and domestic) is heavily censored for material deemed threatening or embarrassing to the government. A brief period of relative press freedom arose after Bashar became president in 2000 and saw the licensing of the first private publications in almost 40 years. A later crackdown, however, imposed a range of restrictions regarding licensing and content. In a more relaxed manner (perhaps owing more to the fact that these matters are largely beyond possible government control), many Syrians have gained access to foreign television broadcasts (usually via satellite) as well as the three state-run networks. In 2002 the government set out conditions for licensing private, commercial FM radio stations, ruling at the same time, however, that radio stations could not broadcast news or political content.
Tourist Information Offices; Damascus: 2323953, Damascus Int'l Airport: 2248473, Aleppo: 2121228, Daraa (Jordanian-Syrian border gate): 239023, Latakia: 216924, Palmyra (Tadmur): 910636, Deir-az-Zur: 358990
Entry requirementsVisas are needed for most individual travellers. These are available in 6-month (single/multiple entry), 3-month (single) and 15 day (land borders only) versions. Citizens of Arab countries do not require visa, except unaccompanied Moroccan women below 40 years old. In addition, citizens of Malaysia, Turkey and Iran do not require visas.
Getting visas in advance is expensive and confusing. Americans are required to apply in advance at the Syrian embassy in Washington DC, even if they live elsewhere, and pay USD131 or €100. Most other travellers, though, can get them anywhere, a popular choice being Istanbul (Turkey) where they are generally issued within one day for €20 (Canadian citizens) or €30 (EU citizens). A "letter of recommendation" stating that your consulate has "no objection" to your visit to Syria may be required. The visa issued must have two stamps and a signature, otherwise the visa is considered invalid and you will be turned back at the border. It is necessary to keep the blue arrival form as it must be submitted upon departure.
Official policy says that if your country has a Syrian embassy or consulate, you should apply for your visa in advance. Most nationals must apply for a Syrian visa in the country in which they are a citizen. Alternatively a foreign national may apply for a Syrian visa from a Syrian Consulate in a country other than their own if they hold a residency visa valid for at least 6 months for the country in which they are applying. There are very few exceptions to this rule. In practice it is possible to obtain a visa on the border for most nationals.
If going by land, and you are planning to get a visa on the border, bring US dollars, euros or Syrian pounds. Other foreign currency will not get a good exchange rate and at most crossing there are no facilities for credit/debit cards. Travellers cheques are also not accepted.
American citizens need to beware of sanctions on Syria. While travelling and spending money in Syria is permitted, you may not fly with Syrian Arab Airlines, and more importantly, many US banks err on the safe side and ban all business with Syria. Some credit or ATM cards may not work, although many Americans today experience little problems in this regard. Be wary, however, as some travellers have had their bank account access frozen, regardless of whether or not they informed their bank of travel to Syria.
Due to the conflict various areas of Syria are not under the control of the Syrian central government. Areas near to Turkey are under control of Kurdish forces and rebel forces. Foreigners will not be allowed to cross at these borders, and Turkey/Syria borders in general are closed now because of the conflict. From the Kurdish Region of Iraq there are people crossing over the river into Syria at a place called Faish Khabour, however the crossing is only for humanitarian workers and any non-aid workers may not be allowed crossing.
Upon arrival, a free entry visa can be delivered to almost all travellers if they are being received by a local travel agency. Call the Syrian Embassy in your home country for more information.
Syria levies a departure tax (~US$13) at land and sea borders. Airport departure tax is included in the ticket price, and airlines will put a manual stamp on your boarding pass.
One of the practical and reasonable ways to enter Syria from Turkey is to take a domestic flight to Gaziantep and then taxi to Aleppo through Oncupinar border-gate in Kilis. The journey takes around 2 hours including custom formalities. The fare is USD60, per car with max 4 and one way. Taxis holding licence can be arranged in Kilis or Gaziantep. Turkcan Turizm, 0348 822 3313
As of 2018, all international trains and almost all domestic trains have been suspended indefinitely. Former international routes included the historical Toros Express from Istanbul to Aleppo and an overnight trains from Tehran to Damascus.
By busBuses run from Turkey, with frequent connections from the city of Antakya (Hatay). You can also travel by bus from Jordan & Lebanon. Buses to Damascus run from Beirut.
When arriving into Damascus by bus, make sure to move away from the bus terminal to find a taxi to the centre of town. Otherwise, you run the risk of paying several times the going rate, as cars posing as taxis operate next to the terminal.
This is normally a two-man operation, with one person trying to distract you, while the driver puts your suitcase into the trunk of the "taxi" and locks it.
By carWhen travelling from Lebanon, service taxis (taxis that follow a fixed route only, usually from near one bus station to another) are a convenient way to reach Damascus, Homs, Tartus, Aleppo or other Syrian towns. A shared service taxi from Beirut to Damascus will cost about USD17 per person, based on four people sharing the same taxi. If you want a private taxi then you will have to pay for every seat. In most cases it is necessary to buy a Syrian visa before leaving home, often costing about USD130 or less, depending of the country of residency. It's possible, to obtain free entry visa for tourists if being received by a local Travel Agency. It is also possible to arrive by car from Turkey. A private taxi from Gaziantep Airport (Turkey) will cost about USD60.
Service taxis run from Dar'a across the Jordanian border to Ramtha; from there microbuses are available to Irbid and Amman the stop in Dar'a permits a side trip to Bosra, with UNESCO-recognised Roman theater and ruins.
- The nearest car ferry port is Bodrum in Turkey.
- Occasional passenger ferries run between Latakia and Limassol, Cyprus. This service has come and gone over the years. Confirm that the departure will occur with Varianos Travel before making plans that incorporate this route.
- Latakia and Tartous serve as ports of call for a number of Mediterranean cruise lines.
By taxiThe taxis (usually yellow, and always clearly marked) are an easy way to get around Damascus, Aleppo and other cities. Arabic would be helpful: most taxi drivers do not speak English. All licensed taxis carry meters, and it is best to insist that the driver puts the meter on, and watch that it stays on. Most drivers expect to haggle prices with foreign travellers rather than use the meter. Private cab services (which advertise prominently at the airport) charge substantially more.
However, there is also a bus from Baramkeh station to the airport
Sixt Rent a Car at the Four Seasons Hotel has rates starting from USD40 per day (all inclusive).
If you have never driven in Syria before, make sure you take a taxi first in order to get a first-hand idea of what traffic is like. Especially in Damascus and Aleppo, near-constant congestion, a very aggressive driving style, bad roads and highly dubious quality of road signs make driving there an interesting experience. so do be careful.
The only road rule that might come in handy is that, as opposed to most of the rest of the world, in roundabouts, the entering cars have the right of way, and the cars that are already in the roundabout have to wait. Aside from that, it seems that motorists are fairly free to do as they please.
If you have an accident in a rental car, you must obtain a police report, no matter how small the damage or how clear it is who is at fault – otherwise, you will be liable for the damage. Police (road police No:115) probably will only be able to speak Arabic, so try to make other drivers help you and/or call your rental agency.
Gasoline/petrol (marked as "Super", red stands) costs about double diesel (green stand). If you manage to run out of fuel (try to avoid it), which is quite easy wherever eastern of Damascus-Aleppo highway, or mountains western from it; you can manage to find some local able to sell you few litres from canister, but prices may be high. Usually gas stations are only in bigger towns and major crossroads in the desert, so try to refuel whenever you can.
By microbusThe microbuses (locally called servees, or meecro) are little white vans that carry ten, or so, passengers around cities on set routes. The destinations are written on the front of microbus in Arabic. Usually, the passenger sitting behind the driver deals with the money. You can ask the driver to stop anywhere along his route.
Often, microbuses will do longer routes, for example, to surrounding villages around Damascus and Aleppo, or from Homs to Tadmor or Krak des Chevaliers. They are often more uncomfortable and crowded than the larger buses, but cheaper. Especially for shorter distances they have usually more frequent departures than buses.
By bus or coachAir-conditioned coaches are one of the easy ways to make longer hauls around Syria, for example, the trip from Damascus to Palmyra. Coaches are cheap, fast and reliable way to get around the country, however the schedules, when they exist, are not to be trusted. For the busy routes it's best to simply go to the coach station when you want to leave and catch the next coach, you'll have to wait a bit, but most of the time it's less of a chore than finding out when the best coach will be leaving, and then often finding it's late.
As of late 2018, rail transport in Syria is limited to a twice daily service between the coastal cities of Latakia and Tartous and a commuter service in Aleppo. All long distance services that used to connect Damascus, Aleppo, Deir-az-Zur, Al-Hassakeh and Al-Qamishli and many other cities are cancelled indefinitely. Rehabilitation is however under way on some sections and reports have emerged that the Aleppo-Damascus passenger train might return during late summer of 2019. The national operator CFS maintains an timetable at their webpage.
The summer-only excursion steam train in Damascus, which travels to Al-Zabadani in the Anti-Lebanon Mountains and back has recently resumed operation after a five year hiatus. The train is popular with locals trying to escape the summer heat.
By bicycleWhile travelling by bicycle may not be for everyone, and Syria is by no means a cycle tourist's paradise, there are definite advantages. Syria is a good size for cycling, accommodation is frequent enough that even a budget traveller can get away with "credit card" touring (though in the case of Syria, it might be better to refer to it as fat-wad-of-cash touring). There are sites that one can not get to with public transportation like the Dead Cities and the people are incredibly friendly often inviting a tired cyclist for a break, cup of tea, meal or night's accommodation. The problem of children throwing stones at cyclists or running behind the bicycle begging for candy and pens (such as in parts of Morocco) does not seem to have appeared in Syria. Locals young and old alike will, however, be very curious about your travels and your bicycle and if you stop in a town you can expect a large crowd to gather for friendly banter about where you are from and your trip.
Wild camping is quite easy in Syria. Perhaps the biggest challenge is not so much finding a place for your tent but picking a spot where locals will not wander by and try to convince you to come back to their home. Olive groves and other orchards can make a good spot for your tent, except on a rainy day when the mud will make life difficult. Another option is to ask to pitch your tent in a private garden or beside an official post like a police station. It is unlikely you will be refused as long as you can get your message across. A letter in Arabic explaining your trip will help with communication.
The standard of driving skills in Syria is extremely low and other road users tend to drive very aggressively. They do seem used to seeing slow moving traffic and normally give plenty of room as they pass.
Motorcycles are perhaps the biggest danger as their drivers like to pull up alongside cyclists to chat or fly by your bike for a look at the strange traveller and then perform a U-turn in the middle of the road to go back home. Perhaps the safest option in this case is to stop, talk for a few minutes and then carry on.
Finding good maps tends to be another problem. You should bring a map with you as good maps are hard to find in Syria. Free ones are available from the tourist bureaus but they are not very good for cycle touring. Even foreign-produced maps can contain errors or roads that don't exist, making excursions away from the main route a challenge. Asking several locals for the right road is a good idea when you come to a crossroads. Without good maps it can be hard to avoid riding on the main highway, which while safe enough (a good wide shoulder exists on almost all the highways) is not very pleasant due to the smokey trucks and uninteresting scenery.
You should think about bringing a water filter or water treatment tablets with you. Bottled water is not always available in the smaller towns. Finding local water is easy. Tall metal water coolers in many town centres dispense free local water and water is always available near mosques. The Syrian word for water is pronounced like the English word “my” (as in “that is my pen”) with a slight A afterwards and if you ask at any shop or home for water they will happily refill your bottles.
Due to the general lack of ability by the public at large to communicate in English beyond basic phrases, Syria is a great place to force yourself to learn Arabic through immersion, should you wish to improve your Arabic skill.
- Ancient cities such as Damascus, Aleppo, Palmyra, Crac des Chevaliers and Bosra including Medieval souqs.
- In Hama there are the Al Aasi Water Wheels in a river ( نواعير نهر العاصي ).
- Al Hosn Castle in Homs.
- Qala'at Samaan (Basilica of St Simeon Stylites) about 30 km (19 mi) northwest of Aleppo and the oldest surviving Byzantine church, dating back to the 5th century. This church is popularly known as either Qalaat Semaan (Arabic: قلعة سمعان Qalʿat Simʿān), the 'Fortress of Simeon', or Deir Semaan (Arabic: دير سمعان Dayr Simʿān), the 'Monastery of Simeon' .
- Tartous with its Crusader-era Templar fortress
- The Yarmouk Valley
- Endless desert and countryside in much of the country
- Mountain ranges in the west of the country
Take a scenic tourTravel from Latakia (beach), Syrian Coast and Mountains (Safita tower, Mashta hikes and cave)
Marmarita: Virgin Mary memorial, St George Monastery, Crac des Chevaliers, Palmyra (ruins), to Damascus (souq, mosques).
Hikein Syrian Coast and Mountains region.
GeocachingFind geocaches in the area.
The unit of currency in Syria is the Syrian pound or 'lira'. You will see a variety of notations used locally: £S, LS or S£, Arabic: الليرة السورية al-līra as-sūriyya, but Wikivoyage uses the ISO currency code SYP immediately prefixing the amount in our guides. The pound's subdivision 'piastre' is obsolete.
The black market rate for U.S. dollars may be substantially higher. Hard currencies such as US dollars, pounds sterling or euro can not be bought legally; the only source of foreign currencies available to Syrian businessmen, students and the very many who wish to escape abroad is the black market. The maximum foreign currency amount that can be exported legally is a remarkably generous USD3,000 equivalent per year for each traveller. Any amount in excess of USD3,000 risks confiscation by the authorities and time in jail. There are restrictions on export of Syrian currency of a maximum of SYP2,500 per person.
Because of high inflation and political instability, amounts expressed in Syrian pounds in these guides are subject to significant change.
Before the civil war started, ATMs had become available in most major cities: banks, main squares, and 5-star hotels. None of these ATMs now access the international networks. The Real Estate bank had the widest network that accepted foreign cards but cards also used to be used in machines run by the Bank of Syria and Overseas and the Commercial Bank of Syria. Even before the war ATMs did not exist outside of big cities and it would be wise to carry enough cash when leaving big cities to complete your tour in the countryside and return to the city before running out of cash. Bank Audi used to be the best to try if you had a US-issued card. It is nearly impossible to change travellers cheques in Syria.
ShoppingAn international student card reduces the entry fees to many tourist sites to 10% of the normal price, if you are younger than 26 years. Depending on who is checking your card it is even possible to get the reduction when you are older than 26 or have only an expired card. It is possible to buy an international student card in Syria (around USD15). Ask around discreetly.
In the souks (especially the Souk Al Hamidiya in the Old City of Damascus where you can easily "get lost" for a whole morning or afternoon without getting bored), the best buys are the "nargileh" waterpipes, Koran, beautifully lacquered boxes and chess/draughts sets and (particularly in Aleppo) olive soap and traditional sweets. The quality of handicrafts varies widely so when buying lacquered/inlaid boxes, run your hand over the surface to see that it is smooth, check, in particular, the hinges. In the souq haggling is expected. Bargain ruthlessly.
Syrian traders who price goods in foreign currencies now face up to 10 years in jail after a decree issued by President Bashar al-Assad forbids the use of anything other than the Syrian pound as payment for any type of commercial transaction or cash settlement. This was because of the increasing "dollarisation" of an economy in ruins after two years of civil war.
You may also be able to order a salad of Fatoush with your soup. Chopped tomatoes, onions, cucumbers and herbs are mixed together in a dressing and finished off with a sprinkling of fried bread that resembles croutons. Cheese may also be grated on top.
Beer is cheap. Syrian wine can be found and Lebanese and French wines are also available in a higher price bracket.
Tea is served in a little glass without milk, sweetened with sugar. Add the sugar yourself as the Syrians have a collective sweet tooth and will heap it in.
Before the war, Syria was becoming a major destination for studying Arabic, with several language schools operating in Damascus.
Travellers should avoid all large gatherings as they may turn violent. Foreign travellers have been targeted by political groups, especially in the south of the country.
You could find yourself in trouble if you engage in open criticism of and against the Syrian government or the president. Your best bet is to avoid political conversations altogether just to avoid any possible problems. If you do engage in political discussions with Syrians, be aware that they might face intense questioning by the secret police (mukhabarat) if you are overheard. As a general rule, always assume that you are being watched by plain clothes policemen. You will notice that not many uniformed policemen can be seen in the streets, but this is because the police have a wide network of plain clothes officers and informants.
Since begging is common in some parts of Syria, particularly outside of tourist attractions, mosques, and churches, it has been known that beggars occasionally demand money and may follow you around until you give. Some have even been known to "attack" some tourists just for money and food. It is advised to wear appropriate Arab clothing and try to blend in. It also better to keep your money in your front pockets and safe with you. Many scams by beggars have also led many foreign tourists to lose quite a bit of money; be aware of these scams.
DrugsDeath penalty for drug trafficking or cultivation.
WomenWomen travelling alone may find that they draw a little too much attention from Syrian men. However, this is generally limited to stares or feeble attempts at making conversation. If it goes beyond that the best approach is to remain polite but be clear that approaches are unwelcome. Be loud and involve bystanders as they will often be very chivalrous and helpful.
Women who are arrested under suspicion of immoral behaviour (e.g. being alone in a room with a man who is not the woman’s husband, or being in a residence where drugs or alcohol are being consumed) may be subjected to a virginity test.
HomosexualitySyrian law criminalizes homosexual conduct under penal code article 520, which states that each sexual act "contrary to nature" is punishable by as long as three years in prison.
Local pharmacies are well stocked with treatments for most common ailments such as stomach bugs and traveller's diarrhoea. Pharmacists often speak a little bit of English. You can ask your hotel to call a doctor if necessary and arrange a visit to your hotel room.
The best treatment of all, of course, is to stay healthy in the first place. When eating, pick restaurants that are busy.
If you have a treatment, take it with you. Don't expect to find all medicines in Syria. If you have to buy something from a pharmacy, ask for a "foreign" EU or US brand. You will have to pay a premium for that, but at least you will increase the chances to have an actual medicine. Some products come from uncertain origin and are ineffective, according to certain local pharmacists.
Generally you can drink water from the tap, it is safe, but if you're unsure ask the locals first. This water is free compared to bottled water.
ClothingMale and female visitors can generally wear whatever attire they would normally wear in their home countries. Contrary to what some Westerners may believe, it is possible for women to wear T-shirts and it is not necessary to wear long-sleeved tops unless visiting a religious site. Head covers are recommended when visiting Muslim religious sites. Dress as you would normally dress in the West to visit Christian religious sites, avoid wearing shorts at churches. Many local women dress in Western attire, especially in Christian neighbourhoods. Shorts are common for both men and women. Be mindful of your environment, outside of areas frequented by tourists it is wise to dress in more modest clothing.
Women who wish to attract less attention should wear shirts that reach the elbow, and have no revealing cleavage. T-shirts and jeans are acceptable attire in Damascus.
ReligionIf you are of European ancestry most Syrians assume that you are a practising Christian. Most Syrians will also be puzzled by a suggestion that you are an atheist, due to the strong influence religion has in Syrian social and cultural life. However, a considerable percentage of the Syrians are not practising Christians or Muslims themselves and do not hide their lack of religious affiliation as Syria is officially a staunchly secular country. The coastal areas are much more progressive when dealing with religion and the same applies to areas of Damascus most frequented by Western tourists such as Bab Touma, the Christian Quarter. The further you travel east, the more conservative people are. In order to avoid any protracted philosophical discussions, it is best to avoid identifying as an atheist or non practising Christian.
IsraelSyria views Israel's occupation of the Golan Heights to be illegal. Syrians have negative views of Israel due to this occupation. There is still a small Syrian Jewish community living in Damascus, and they are subject to fierce repression and intimidation by the government. Unless you have a heart for prolonged discussions, avoid any debate about Israel.
Syrian politicsIt is unwise to make any remarks about President Assad, the government and the Ba'ath Party and such comments may cause alarm. Syria is not a democracy and critical comments regarding the Syrian government are to be avoided.
PhoneThe international calling code for Syria is +963.
InternetSyria has easy and cheap internet access. Internet is very common around the cities at internet cafés. Facebook and YouTube have recently been unblocked but there are still some websites blocked such as certain news sites. The cafés are very friendly but in order to avoid being price gouged it is best to ask a local how much the internet costs per an hour before agreeing to sit down. It can cost anywhere up to USD2 per hour. It is best to avoid political debates regarding the Syrian government, or reading Israeli newspapers or websites on-line.
Prices for high-speed access are quite varied.