Syria (الجمهوريّة العربيّة السّوريّة the Syrian Arab Republic) is one of the larger states of the Middle East and has its capital in Damascus. Syria is bordered to the north by Turkey, to the east by Iraq, by Jordan and Israel to the south, and by Lebanon to the south-west. In addition, the country has a short coastline on the east Mediterranean Sea.
Syria had a population of 21,906,000 people (UN, 2009 estimate), of which 6 million used to be concentrated in the capital Damascus but currently, more than 3,249,000 (Dec 2014) Syrians live as refugees abroad. A moderately large country (185,180 sq km or 72,150 sq miles), Syria is situated north within the Middle East region and has land borders with Turkey in the north, with Israel in the south, Lebanon in the west and the south, Jordan in the southwest, and with Iraq in the south-east.
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 (90% of the population, split between 74% 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 opthalmologist (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 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 government and the Baath Party own or control a 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.
Syria officially has 14 governorates, but the following conceptual division makes more sense for travellers:
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 'no longer possible' (as of June 2016) to obtain a visa on the border for most nationals.
(In the past, almost every national could get a visa at the border, regardless of the fact it was not officially written or recommended. However, as of June 2016, this is no longer possible. In the future, the following advice may apply once again)
Please note that the following below applies to border crossings controlled by the Syrian Government. All land borders from Turkey have been shut down save for official travel and Syrian Citizens, where the Syrian border is controlled by the Free Syrian Army (FSA).
Do not buy a bus ticket that will take you all the way across the border. They will always leave you there because it does take 2-10 hours for US citizens and they will not tell you that in advance at the time of purchasing of the bus ticket. Buy a ticket to the border via minibus/shared taxi (servees) then do the same when you get to the other side. US citizens cost U$16, while others are more costly, Japanese are U$12/14, Singaporeans are $33, Australians/New Zealanders are about $100, Swiss are 63 USD. They only take US$ or Euros. You may only receive a 15-day single-entry tourist visa and will have to go through this process if you ever re-enter Syria. When you exit Syria, you will have to buy/pay an exit card for about $12.
If going by land, and you are planning to get a visa on the border, bring US Dollars or Syrian Pounds. 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.
Syria has Four international airports: Damascus International Airport (DAM), 35km (22miles) SE of the capital, Aleppo International Airport (ALP) just northeast of Aleppo in the north of the country, Lattakia International Airport (LTK), south of Lattakia, AlQamishli International Airport. As a result of the ongoing civil war, air links to Syria are extremely limited. As a result of sanctions, direct flights between Syria and the EU are banned since July 2012. Russia's Aeroflot followed, terminating its service as a result of persistently low demand. Arab carriers such as Emirates, Royal Jordanian or EgyptAir suspended service in November that year as a result of fighting near the Damascus airport. Currently, the only available air links are from Iran and possibly Algeria. Note that it is dubious whether tourists will be permitted on Iran's flights or whether they are restricted to military personnel only. Even if you overcome the odds and purchase an air ticket, keep in mind that airports can be closed at short notice.
Upon arrival, a free entry visa can be delivered to almost all travellers if they are being received by local Travel Agency. Call the Syrian Embassy in your home country for more information.
Syria levies a departure tax of 7150 Syrian Pounds (~US$13) at land and sea borders. Since Summer 2009 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; 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 USD 60.00, per car with max 4 and one way. Taxis holding license can be arranged in Kilis or Gaziantep. Turkcan Turizm, 0348 822 3313
There is no bus service from Turkey as all land crossings have been closed by Turkey (Except for official travel and at times Syrian citizens. You can also travel by bus from Jordan & Lebanon.
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, which should be around SYP150, 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.
When 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 between 700 and 800 Syrian Pounds per person ($17), based on four people sharing the same taxi. If you want a private taxi then you will have to pay for every seat. From Latakia to Beirut a seat in a service will cost 800 Syrian Pounds with around 500 Syrian Pounds being charged from Tartous to Tripoli. In most cases it is necessary to buy a Syrian visa before leaving home, often costing about $130 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 $60.
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 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. A taxi ride across Damascus might come to £S30. Taxis from the airport to the downtown Damascus cost about £600-800, slightly more at night. Private cab services (which advertise prominently at the airport) charge substantially more.
However, there is also a bus from Baramkeh station to the airport for 25 S£ per bag and 45 S£ per person
Cars can be rented at various Sixt, Budget and Europcar locations. Cham Tours (formerly Hertz) has an office next to the Cham Palace Hotel, which offers competitive rates starting at about USD 50 / day incl. tax, insurance and unlimited kilometres.
Sixt rent a car is one of the premier car rental companies in Europe, has recently opened in Syria at the Four Seasons Hotel with its brand new fleet, Rates starting from 40 USD 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.
Gas (marked as "Super", red stands) comes at SYP 40 a litre (+10%tax) so it is 44syp, diesel (green stand) at approx. half the price. If you manage to get 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 (say SYP 70 a litre). Usually gas stations are only in bigger towns and major crossroads in the desert, so try to refuel whenever you can.
The microbuses (locally called servees, or meecro) are little white vans that carry ten, or so, passengers around cities on set routes for about £S10. 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 coach
Air-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.
In the summer, on Fridays, a little steam train leaves from the Hejaz Railway Station in Damascus (which has a good restaurant) and climbs into the Anti-Lebanon Mountains. Many locals enjoy the ride to picnic in the cooler mountains.
While 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 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.
Unfortunately, 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.
Arabic is the official language. It is always a good idea to know some words ("hello", "thank you" etc.). A surprising number of people speak at least (very) rudimentary English. It would however be worth your while to learn basic numbers in Arabic in order to negotiate taxi fares. Personnel working with foreign tourists (like tourist hotels, restaurants, tour guides, etc.), generally can communicate reasonably well in English. French is also spoken too. Turkish and Kurdish are languages that can also be used in the north. In the north regions under Turkish Army control, there are many people who know Turkish and many workers with government contracts coming from Turkey. In the regions to east of where the Turkish Military is in control, there is a dominate Kurdish population 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.
There are many places to see in Damascus: Al Omawi Mosque.
In Hama there is the Al Aasi Water Wheels in a river ( نواعير نهر العاصي ).
Al Hosn Castle in Homs.
The unit of currency in Syria is the Syrian pound or 'lira' (£S). All prices are now in even numbers of pounds, so the subdivision 'piastre' is obsolete.
Exchange rates (current in June 2017):
It is useful to note in Northern Syria where the Turkish Military has control, the Syrian Pound has fallen out of favor. Most used currencies are the American Dollar and the Turkish Lira. You can still use Syrian Pounds, as well as Euro, and some places British Pounds.
In recent years, a number of ATMs have become available in most major cities: banks, main squares, and 5 star hotels. However, it should be noted that not all ATMs access the international networks. The Real Estate bank has the widest network that will accept foreign cards but cards may also be used in machines run by the Bank of Syria and Overseas and the Commercial Bank of Syria. There have also been instances of foreigners finding ATMs not in working order. Outside of big cities, ATMs (that accept foreign cards) may not exist (e.g. in Palmyra) 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. Also note that US issued bank cards may apparently give additional problems. Bank Audi is apparently the best to try if you have a US issued card.
One thing to keep in mind is that exchange rates using the ATM system are lower than the official rate which is still lower than street rate. Many private money changing offices exist, but will change cash only. It is nearly impossible to change traveller's cheques in Syria, so do not rely on them but bring cash or credit cards instead. (If you're feeling lucky or desperate, the Commercial Bank of Syria may be able to exchange them.)
Credit cards are becoming more widely accepted, and are even accepted at many smaller shops and budget hotels. Don't count on acceptance, though, as it is far from universal. It is also virtually impossible to get an advance on your credit card in Syria if you are out of Damascus and Aleppo.
An 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 U$ 15). 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.
Falafel, deep-fried chickpea patties, are available for 600 to 800 SP. Another popular vegetarian meal is Foul. Don't let the name put you off. It's actually pronounced “fool” and this fava bean paste – topped off with cumin, paprika and olive oil and served with flatbread, fresh mint and onion – is not only tasty but satisfying and filling.
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.
Meat wraps such as shawarma cost 800 to 1200 SP. A half-chicken with bread and mayonnaise dip to take away costs 1000 SP.
Lunch or dinner in a fair restaurant costs 15000 SP. An expensive restaurant lunch or dinner will run about 40000 SP.
The legal drinking/purchasing age of alcoholic beverages is 18.
Generally you cant drink tap water, its usually unfiltered, but if you're unsure ask the locals first. This water is free compared to bottled water, which comes at anywhere between 150-250 Syrian Pound for 1.5 litres.
Fresh fruit juices are available from street stalls in most towns. A large glass of mixed juice (usually banana, orange juice and a few exotic fruits like pomegranate) costs 200-400 SP.
Beer is cheap, costing from 350 SP in a shop and anywhere from 500 to 1000 SP in most budget accommodation and local bars for a half litre bottle or can. Syrian wine can be found starting at about 1500 SP and Lebanese and French wines are also available in a higher price bracket, starting at 3500-4000 SP.
Tea is served in a little glass "Earl Grey style" without milk, sweetened with sugar. Add the sugar yourself as the Syrians have a collective sweet tooth and will heap it in.
A double room you can find for around 1500 SP, although this cost may be higher in Damascus. A double room in a three stars hotel costs about $50 USD, $80 USD for four stars, and can reach $250 USD in a five star hotel.
Syria is becoming a major destination for students of Arabic. There are several institutions in Damascus that teach Arabic.
If you entered the country on a tourist visa, don't try to work and earn money. Foreign workers should always get official approval to work. Despite this, many foreign students supplement their income by teaching and many institutes in Damascus will happily hire foreigners and pay them under the table. However, since the 2011 civil war, it is best to not apply for work under any circumstances due to the ongoing conflict.
In addition, homosexuality is illegal in Syria. Businesses are not LGBT friendly, and homosexual acts can be punished by long prison terms.
Health care in Syria is well below Western standards, and basic medication is not always available.
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 a visit to your hotel room will cost about 700-1000 SP as of November 2007.
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.
Male 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, as well as in Christian Orthodox ones. 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 men and women alike. Be mindful of your environment, outside of areas frequented by tourists it is wise to dress in more modest apparel. Women who wish to attract less attention should wear shirts that reach the elbow, and have no revealing cleavage. Regular t-shirts and jeans are completely acceptable attire throughout all of Damascus.
If 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.
Syria views Israel's occupation of the Golan Heights to be illegal. Syrians have negative views of Israel due to this occupation (among numerous other reasons). 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.
It is Extremely Dangerous to make critical remarks about the Assad government. Dissidents have been brutally tortured and killed for criticising the government. However if in a region controlled by the Free Syrian Army, or the Islamic State, Pro-Assad remarks may lead to your execution.
Therefore, it 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.
The international calling code for Syria is +963. Many Syrians living in the North near Aleppo use Turkish cell phone numbers, starting with +90
Syria has easy and cheap internet access. Internet is very common around the cities at internet cafes. Facebook and YouTube have recently been unblocked but there are still some websites blocked such as certain news sites. The cafes 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 is usually 500 S.P per hour (1$ US), but can be anywhere up to 1000 S.P per hour (2$ US). It is best to avoid political debates regarding the Syrian government, or reading Israeli newspapers or websites online.
Prices for high-speed access are quite varied. As of November 2007, Aleppo's Concord internet cafe was charging a hefty 100 S.P an hour, while in Hama the going rate seemed to be 75 S.P for an hour and in Damascus the price dropped to around 50 S.P an hour (less if you pay for several hours in advance). Power net in Latakia was charging only 20 S.P a couple of years ago. Due to the ongoing conflict of the 2011 civil war, however, internet use in Syria is anything but reliable and useful