Earth : Asia : Middle East : Syria : Northwestern Syria : Aleppo
Aleppo (حلب) is the second largest city in Syria - population 1.7 million.
The people of Aleppo were possibly the most friendly people that I have met in my travels. Regular folk on the street will offer you a chair if you seem tired and then offer you some water or tea.
Aleppo is a fairly conservative city. Dress appropriately to avoid any problems and to avoid standing out too much. Men should wear regular shirts and long pants and women should not wear anything that is too revealing. If you follow that simple dress code you should not have any problems. Head scarves are not necessary unless you want to enter a mosque but even then grey cover-all robes are available at no extra charge.
There are no hostile feelings towards Americans or Westerners in general (although Americans tend to be subjected to more scrutiny by the authorities than other nationalities). You could, however, 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 all together 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 if you are overheard. As a general rule, always assume that you are being watched by the plain-clothes policemen (mukhabarat). 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.
Friday is a holy day and most shops and historic sites are closed so plan accordingly for this.
Stealing is looked down upon and thus is not very common. Crime is generally low and you should feel safe to walk around in any part of the city at any time day or night. But as in any city, its a good idea to keep an eye on your belongings, particularly in the souk.
Meals are a bit later than in the U.S. but similar to the times in some European countries. Lunch is from 1 to 3 and dinner around 8pm. Syrians take a siesta in the middle of the day, from about 3 to 6, but this means that the night life is very active. You can return to the markets and public squares that you visited during the day and by 10pm they will be bustling with people selling food and treats and drinks. It is a like a street fair every night.
Aleppo is a beautiful and historic city that anyone who is considering a trip to the Middle East should go see.
Aleppo is close to the main border crossing with Turkey. You will need a visa to enter into Syria. It is typically more convenient to secure a visa in your home country as the consulates in Turkey do not usually issue tourist visas. How you get the visa varies by country so check with a travel agent or consult. Citizens of the predominantly Arab nations, as well as Turkish citizens as of 2009, do not require a visa.
At the border, most nationalities can secure a 2 week transit visa in 20-30 minutes. American passport holders, however, will have to wait between 3 to 10 hours to secure a transit visa, as the border guards must fax Damascus to check with Syrian intelligence, and may be turned away. A transit visa is US$16, payable in USD or SYP. Each border post has a branch of the Central Bank of Syria to exchange currencies. There are no facilities for credit/debit cards. Travellers cheques are also not accepted.
Remember that there is a departure fee of 550 SYP.
Aleppo has quite extensive public transport connections with Turkish cities just north of the border. There are at least two daily bus/minibus services from Antioch (3hr), costing S£250 (bus service) or S£350 (minibus). Gaziantep, on the other hand, has twice weekly trains to Aleppo (5hr, departing from Gaziantep at 8:30PM on Tuesdays and Fridays and arrive five hours later in Aleppo, at an inconvenient 1:29AM after midnight), costing €12.75 pp one-way. There is also a once-weekly train service from Mersin on Turkish Mediterranean coast, also calling at Adana. Trains depart from Mersin at 11PM on Fridays and call at Adana station around midnight. They arrive in Aleppo at 8:10AM next morning and cost € 14/€ 13 pp from Mersin/Adana respectively.
Taxis are everywhere, probably more taxis than people. They are easy to take and very affordable but just make sure it is a licensed taxi.
Minibuses: Called "serveece", these are small white vans that drive around and you can hop on and off by signalling to the driver. 10 lira per journey. They get very full in rush hours.
Rental Cars: Hertz and other rental car agencies are available in Aleppo but the driving can be very hectic and if you are not accustomed to driving in a place with few rules and almost no regard for street signs you should probably not attempt to drive on your own.
Walk around the city at least a few times to really get a feel for what it is like. It is a vibrant and lively place that will continually surprise you. Any amount of time spent walking around the city will reveal another historical site or point of interest. Check out the Christian section of the city to see a different part of Aleppo. If you want to shop for clothes, al-Telal street is bustling nearly every night with crowds checking out the shops and street stands piled high with every type of clothing imaginable.
Gold: Although the prices are as high as they have ever been, gold is still a worthwhile purchase here. There is a special gold pattern called the Aleppo weave or chain that is made only in Aleppo. All gold is sold by weight and is 22 karot.
Boxes: Aleppo is also famous for its intricate inlay work that can be found in boxes of all shapes and sizes. These boxes are beautiful and can be found at almost all of the shops in the souq. A great, affordable gift to take home.
Wraps/Tablecloths: There are many nice wraps that can be worn as shawls or used as tablecloths that are also available everywhere in the souqs. Another good gift.
Sweets: Pistachios are everywhere in Aleppo and accordingly there are many different kinds of sweets made from the pistachio. These usually come in a decorative box and are yet another good gift.
Coffee and spices: It is impossible to walk through the souq without being caught up in the scent of freshly ground coffee and spices like cumin. You can also buy very ornate pots to make your coffee in.
Soap: One of the most famous Aleppine products is its olive oil soap. Many factories produce this using traditional techniques. The price varies from about 70SP per kilo to as much as 400 SP or more depending on the proportion of olive and laurel oil, prices and assortment is better in the shops just in the 2 roads south of the Clock Tower rather than in the Souq's tourist traps, even if most shop keepers speak very little English (prices per kilo are clearly shown).
Common Syrian street food like falafels and shwarma are excellent and available throughout the city. In the souks you will also find tiny restaurants with a few stools serving up dishes like Fuul (pronounced “fool”), a bean soup served with fresh bread, onions and mint. If you are really adventurous, look for the men frying curry-flavoured pancakes near the entrance to the souk. The pancakes are wrapped in bread and topped with hot sauce. Also try and buy some of the freshly made pita bread that is sold everywhere as it is delicious.
For breakfast, a fresh glass of juice (40 SP for a large glass of mixed juice, 50 SP for takeaway) and cheese sandwich (15 SP) can be had from the juice stands near the clock tower. Many cafés also serve great ice cream for a treat.
If you are tired after a day of wandering around the souk, try one of the cafés near the base of the citadel. They offer light snacks and drinks, including a wide range of coffees and refreshing glasses of minted lemonade.
Travellers on a strict budget should be prepared to eat very similar meals everyday as there is not a lot of variety in the diet at the cheaper end of the range.
There are plenty of good restaurants around and meals are very affordable.
In the Christian Quarter (El Jedeide) district
Alcohol is permitted but not widely available. You can find stores selling liquor on a few streets near the clocktower. Try Zaki al-Arsuzi (across from Al Kommeh restaurant) and Jbrail Dalal streets. There is a liquor store a few meters away from the Aleppo Hotel (on a side street from the clocktower). In the new city there is a store at Al Hateb square. Cost is usually 60 SYP for a Efes 16oz (Nov 2010). Restaurants and hotels that cater to Westerners will generally serve alcoholic beverages.
There is one local beer, called Al-Sharq, while the Damascus brew Barada may also be found. Neither are exactly lethal - 3.7% and 3.4% respectively.
A wide range of other beers from the Middle East and Europe can also be found, usually about 50 SP for a large can, along with wines from Syria, Lebanon and France, starting at 150 SP a bottle.
Arak is a local aniseed liquor which can be found at some small shops.
Al-Gawaher – perhaps the best backpacker spot in Aleppo. Rooms have satellite TV and both en suite and shared bathrooms are very clean. Many have balconies and others overlook a common area, where travellers often meet to chat. The rooftop gives great views over the city and is another nice spot to spend the evening. Staff are friendly and English is spoken. Tours can be arranged to the Dead Cities, Apamea and other sites. The only possible downside is that staff are late risers and so getting breakfast can be a problem. Rooms cost 350 SP for a single, 500 SP for a double (November 2007) and 1200 SP for a double with bathroom (June 2009). Breakfast is not included. There is, however, free coffee and tea available 24/7.
Hotel Nejm Illhadar (aka Hotel Green Star) – Around the corner from the Al-Gawaher on Sharia Hammam Al Tal (next to the Sheraton parking entrance off the Clock Tower end of Bab El Faraj - it could not be more central - 021 2239157), it also has a nice roof terrace but the atmosphere is not nearly as lively. The rooms come with sinks and fans or aircom. There are no TVs in the rooms but two shared ones: one in the lounge and the second one on the top floor. Try and get one on the top floor that opens onto the roof terrace. Staff speak a little English but are very helpful. A double with private bathroom goes for 600 SP as of May 2010, and 350 SP for a bed in a 3 bed "dorm" as of May 2010. Breakfast is not included.
Spring Flower Hostel (www.springflowerhostel.com) - Dorm and Roof top dorm available at circa 250 SP. Single rooms ranging from 250-500 SP. Other room prices can be found on the website. Huge book library for lending, trading and buying. Satellite TV and mini-restaurant. The only real backpackers hostel in Aleppo and in a fantastic location, 100m from the clock tower and less to the Baron hotel.
Hotel Kaser Alandaloss - Just off Bab Al-Faraj Street, in sight of the clock tower on a small block, nestled between a couple of soap merchant stores. We really liked the people who run this hostel, and all the guests we spoke to. The rooms are nice, and they have excellent showers and a comfortable central area to sit, eat, use the internet etc.. There's no option for breakfast, but if you want some tea or some food, they are more than likely to make some for you. Web booked through Hostelbookers.com, and paid around 1200SP for a twin room with a bathroom.
An internet access in the old town and near the main attractions (the Citadel, the Souq and the Grand Mosque) can be found at Tara Cafe. It is located in the underground lair of the caravansaray of the Adlliyah Mosque and provides standard rates for internet access. It is not an internet cafe per se, but rather a cafe that provides internet access as a service on laptops that can be rented on the hour.
The Friends Cafe Net is also located in the area of the Citadel. From the entrance to the Citadel, walk straight (south) to a block with shawarma & chicken outlets on the ground floor. The cafe is located just behind the block in a small street called "Jnenyt al-Fariq(1)" (40 SP/hour). From the outlets, follow the street to your right, turn left then immediately right.
The closest internet cafe to most of the budget hotels, in the Bab al-Faraj area, is the Concord, which is in an ice cream parlor and cafe by the same name. It charges 100 SP an hour, however, which is outrageous for Aleppo and Syria and general.
The other internet cafe within walking distance is at Adam Cafe, across the street from the Baron Hotel. Nevertheless, the internet cafe is located in the bottom story of an all-male tea house which may make female customers feel uncomfortable. If you wander around the new Christian quarter of al-Aziziyeh you can find many internet cafes like Area 51, Montana and Kool Net which charge only 50 SP an hour for high speed access. All of the aforementioned cafes provide discount cards for chunks of time.