In February 2020 I travelled to Syria. This was just before travel restrictions were put in place for COVID-19. It already seems like a lifetime ago!
My aim with this article is to share my experiences so that you can learn more about the country. If you’re planning to travel to Syria yourself, this article will give you all the information you need to plan your trip.
I’ll talk through the process of getting into the country, provide some perspectives on the places I visited, and give an assessment on the current situation as I saw it on the ground.
I’ll also include a few practical points about money, connectivity, power, and photography. I’ll wrap up with a few recommendations for itineraries, and some thoughts on whether it’s worth travelling there.
I’ve included a bunch of photos so you can get a sense of what it’s like on the ground.
Before diving in, I’m sure you realise that Syria is in the midst of a war that has been going for over nine years (starting in March 2011), and that the Syrian people have suffered immeasurably throughout this time. While the situation is significantly better today than it was in the last few years, fighting goes on in western Aleppo and Idlib, and to the south of Damascus. ISIS continues to operate in the east of the country. When I was in Damascus, a car bomb detonated in al-Mezzeh (not that far from where I was staying) and Israel conducted several airstrikes around the city. There are still massive numbers of displaced people within Syria and in neighbouring countries.
The suffering isn’t quite over yet. On a more positive note, it was heartening to see families returning to their villages and towns, and rebuilding has started in many areas.
This wasn’t a sponsored trip. All paid for with my own hard earned $$.
This is an update from a previous post (re-written, with additional detail and photos).
Arranging travel to Syria is easier than you may expect.
The first step is to arrange a tour through an approved Syrian tour operator (this is a government requirement). I used Marrota Travel & Tourism, which seems to be the most common option for travellers to Syria. You can contact Ayoub Smadi by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by WhatsApp on +963 954 840 021 to make arrangements. I didn’t experience any problems dealing with Ayoub during the planning process and had no issues with him, the guide or the driver during the trip.
You will require a ‘security clearance’ from the Syrian government to travel to Syria. The security clearance is a pre-requisite for travel to Syria and to be eligible for a tourist visa.
Your tour operator will apply for a government security clearance for you, which makes the process easy. To apply for your clearance, your tour operator will need a scan of your passport photo page, address, and proof of employment, and details of your itinerary (details below). Expect that the tour operator and/or the Syrian government may dig around your social media profiles to verify you are who you say you are.
Getting the security clearance doesn’t take long (it took ~10 days for me), but to be safe, you should start the process with your tour agent about a month before your intended arrival date. Once your tour operator has confirmed your security clearance has been processed, you can go ahead and book your flights.
Marrota offers a host of different tour packages with list prices. Pricing is less expensive if you travel as a small group. I wanted to have more flexibility, so I worked with Ayoub in advance to set my own itinerary. You’ll have some flexibility to change things once you’re on the ground, so don’t be too stressed about your plan. We had to make some allowances for weather, for example.
Alone or as a group
My initial plan was to travel to Syria alone. Partway through the process of settling my itinerary, the tour operator suggested I link up with some other people who wanted to go in the same month. This is probably easier for the tour operator, and it would have saved me quite a bit of money. I started the process of coordinating with the other person, which ended up being a bit of a disaster, causing me to change my travel dates and itinerary multiple times. In the end, the other person decided they wanted to do something different. By that stage, I couldn’t book seats on my original flights and had to change to a different routing, costing me an additional $$. Not ideal, but good lessons learned.
In retrospect, I was a bit too accommodating. On balance, I recommend against linking up with people you don’t know to travel to Syria. Aside from the problems of coordinating a mutually agreeable itinerary, the last thing you want to be doing is travelling in a higher-risk location with someone you don’t know or trust. If something untoward happens, you’ll have no idea how they’ll respond.
If you’re travelling with a partner, family member, or friend, you’ll be able to coordinate your plans more easily. You’ll also save a bit of money individually, particularly if you’re sharing a room.
That said, in this instance I wouldn’t recommend travelling with more than one other person. As you’ll have a driver and a guide, one vehicle will only be able to comfortably fit two other passengers. Additionally, if you’re moving in groups of three or four on the street, you’ll stand out. This will increase the risks of you being targeted.
Travel from Lebanon
I entered Syria via Beirut, Lebanon. The route between Beirut and Damascus is direct and probably the most straightforward.
There are several other border crossings between Lebanon and Syria and the guide said that these were also accessible to foreigners, so there is potentially a range of choices. Note that the authorities may find it unusual if you try to enter via another border crossing. The guide confirmed that it’s also possible to enter via Jordan.
The tour operator arranged for a driver to pick me up at my guesthouse in Beirut. The driver didn’t speak much English, but then I didn’t speak much Arabic, so we were a good match.
As we drove into the hills east of Beirut, we faced an unexpected challenge — snow! The roads were closed to vehicles without snow chains. The driver bought a simple snow chain from a local snow chain entrepreneur, fitted it to the front left wheel, and we were off again. Apparently, this road can be completely closed at times due to snow, so plan accordingly.
Crossing the border from Lebanon into Syria was simple and painless. There were minimal queues at the time I went through (mid-morning), so we were able to clear both sides of the border quite quickly.
As we exited the Lebanese border, I filled in a departure card (this isn’t required when you exit Lebanon by air). The immigration officers didn’t ask any questions regarding why I was travelling to Syria. Once we cleared the process on the Lebanese side, we entered Syria and drove for a bit to get to the Syrian immigration checkpoint.
On entering the Syria arrivals building, I was directed to a small room to be checked by a doctor. There wasn’t really a medical check (no rubber gloves, thankfully), and the doctor just smiled and welcomed me to Syria, handing me a signed piece of paper to show the immigration officers. A nurse scanned my temperature before I entered the immigration hall (these procedures were in place due to the COVID-19 epidemic).
I completed an immigration card, then paid for my visa at the Commercial Bank of Syria counter inside the immigration hall. The price of the visa varies depending on your nationality. You can pay for your visa in US dollar; however, note that once inside Syria, you’ll need to be more careful how you use US dollars (more details below).
Once I had my visa receipt, I queued up at the immigration counter for the standard formalities. The immigration officers didn’t ask any questions, and the process was very routine with no hint of any potential issues or concerns.
My driver guided me through the immigration process, and dealt with the various officials on my behalf. It was a simple and painless process.
Once through customs and immigration, we were on the road to Damascus. It’s a good drive on good roads. The driver gave a ride to one of the customs officers into town — always good to build relationships.
There were a few military checkpoints along the road into Damascus. These checkpoints may be disconcerting at first, but you’ll soon get used to it. Your driver may pass the soldiers money (it’s a pretty subtle and obviously well-practised technique). As my driver explained, “some checkpoint take money, some checkpoint take cigarette.”
As a foreigner, you will never be expected to pay at a checkpoint. Leave the decision-making regarding when to pay and when not to pay to your driver. Despite going through dozens of checkpoints, payments to soldiers were actually pretty rare. Probably a good thing, because if the driver had to pay money at every checkpoint they’d go broke pretty quickly.
Tour operator office
On arrival in Damascus, my first stop was to the tour operator’s office, where I met Ayoub and his team and my guide. I had a coffee, paid the tour operator in full in US dollar, then had a walk around town as the driver refuelled the car and bought me a SIM card.
Then we were off!
It wasn’t long out of Damascus that I saw the first signs of the conflict. The town of Harasta, on the left side of the road as you drive north from Damascus, has been almost completely destroyed. Harasta was occupied by rebels in 2012. The town changed hands multiple times until it was captured by the Syrian Army in March 2018.
Just past Harasta is Douma. The battle of Douma took place in 2012. Again, the urban area is mostly destroyed. Beyond Douma is the industrial city of Adra, which was the location of the Adra massacre, where members of the al-Nusra Front murdered at least 32 civilians from different minority groups.
Along the side of the road are large car dealerships that were damaged during the fighting and are still closed. Remnants from a more peaceful time.
We passed several military checkpoints along the road to Homs. At one of the checkpoints, a soldier was complaining to our driver how hard life is. A very soft shakedown for a few Syrian pounds (this was not typical).
After a few hours of driving, we reached Homs.
Homs is centrally located and is close to Lebanon. As such, it’s considered a strategic city. The conflict in Homs started in May 2011 and ended three years later in May 2014, leaving significant parts of the city in ruins.
If you’re travelling to Syria to see the full impact of a modern urban conflict, you’ll see that first hand in Homs. Entire city blocks have been destroyed and abandoned. The scope of the damage is simply staggering.
It’s a human tragedy on an epic scale.
Using satellite imagery from 2014, 2013, 2011, and 2010, UNITAR/UNOSAT created a damage site density index for affected areas in the major cities in Syria. City-wide analyses revealed a total of 13,778 affected structures in Homs. I obviously only saw a tiny portion of these areas, but believe me, it was enough.
We stopped briefly to visit the Khalil bin al-Walid Mosque (which we couldn’t enter because it was closed), and from there my guide was happy to move on and leave the city. I had the impression that the guide didn’t want me spending much time there.
I suppose from the guide’s perspective, there isn’t much to see in Homs. It could be that they don’t want foreigners witnessing the full scale of the damage and transmitting images out to the world. I expect there may be a degree of shame and sadness in the decision as well.
Being slightly stubborn, I did insist on walking around the area and asked the driver to stop at various points around town so that I could get a better feel for the city. I wanted to see how life was reasserting itself in Homs, as a way to provide contrast against the destruction I’d seen.
If you’re visiting areas like this in Syria, bear in mind that it’s not particularly safe to walk amongst the damaged buildings. First, the building structures may be unstable. Second, there may still be unexploded ordnance.
There is no end to damaged buildings in Homs, so I recommend taking a few photos so you can tell your friends you’ve been there, then get to populated areas to see how the residents are recovering and going about their lives. Honestly, that’s more interesting than a few busted up buildings.
Note that the fighting stopped in Homs in May 2014, so it’s not like you’re ducking bullets or anything.
There is definitely a moment when you realise you have seen enough destroyed buildings. From then on, viewing more destruction risks fetishising the conflict, which I certainly wasn’t there to do.
Krak des Chevaliers
After the guide almost literally grabbed me by the ear and pulled me back to the car, we left Homs. We drove west towards the town of al-Husn and the crusader castle of Krak des Chevaliers.
Entering al-Husn, we had to stop at a military checkpoint to get our details recorded. Forever interested in these things, I followed the guide into the military checkpoint to observe the process. The soldiers were polite and professional (but didn’t offer us tea, which was disappointing…).
Rebels occupied al-Husn and the castle itself in 2012. On 20 March 2014, the Syrian army launched an operation to route the rebels, which they managed to do successfully. It’s believed that around 300 rebel fighters were based in the castle at the time.
The town suffered significant damage in the fighting, with almost every structure damaged in some way. It appears that a few people have returned to the town, but it’s clear that a significant portion of the population has stayed away (either by choice or circumstance).
The castle was close to closing by the time we arrived, so we went directly to a nearby restaurant named al-Kala (may be spelled “al-Kala’a”). Al-Kala is s well-known restaurant located in a nondescript building across the valley from the castle. The restaurant area and outdoor terrace provided a stunning view of the outer walls of the castle as the sun was setting.
The restaurant was pretty great. We sat in the dark enjoying a fantastic dinner of dips, flatbread we heated on the wood stove, and barbecued chicken. All while inhaling a lifetime’s worth of second-hand cigarette smoke.
Akram has been running al-Kala for the last 8 months and has been slowly working on restoring the building. It’s been a constant struggle. He has a diesel generator, but limited money for fuel. We ate in the dark, with Akram shuttling to and from the kitchen using the light on his cell phone to find his way through the tables.
We stayed that night at a small hotel called Villa Rosa, located in the nearby township of Almishtaya. There were signs of recovery in the street the hotel is located in, but there’s still a long way to go. The town obviously depends heavily on people visiting the castle, and visitors are still in short supply.
The following morning, we visited Krak des Chevaliers. We were the only people at the castle, so had the run of the place.
The castle was overrun by rebels during the conflict, and they were living inside the inner sections. The castle holds the high ground and appears to be almost impenetrable.
Before abandoning the castle, the rebels destroyed one of the staircases. Most of the serious damage was apparently caused by Syrian air strikes. Many of the walls are pockmarked by bullets and shrapnel, but the main structures are still in place.
There are currently teams on-site repairing the damage.
Plan around two hours for Krak des Chevaliers. It’s quite a large site with lots of areas to explore. Be sure to have a meal at al-Kala while you’re in the area.
After Krak des Chevaliers, we headed north to Aleppo, passing back through the outskirts of Homs.
After the more tourist-like visit to the castle, passing through Homs jolted me back to realising where I was in the world.
From Homs, we headed east. It wasn’t possible to use the M5, which is the direct route north from Homs to Aleppo, due to ongoing military operations. Instead, we drove east along route 42. This diversion added a significant amount of time to the overall journey (there and back), but I’d say it made it more interesting.
The road conditions were generally good, with potholes and construction in only a few areas. We made reasonable time, and our driver was somehow able to juggle two cell phones, a cigarette, and often a cup of coffee without getting us all killed.
There was the occasional destroyed vehicle along the sides of the road, including an armoured troop carrier and a tank. Some of the civilian vehicles had probably broken down and been abandoned. Other vehicles were twisted wrecks, suggesting they had been struck by missiles or other ordnance.
It looked like every town along the route has been affected by the fighting to varying degrees. I didn’t notice one town that was completely untouched. This was an area occupied by terrorists during the conflict (ISIS continues to operate east of here today). Some villages were completely abandoned, the people displaced. Other villages showed signs of renewed life, with washing hanging out to dry on lines between structures and children playing outside.
We passed multiple villages comprised of beehive houses. These are traditional mud brick houses shaped like rounded cones, designed to be cool during summer and warm during winter. The majority of these houses are still abandoned, with only a handful showing signs of life.
There were military checkpoints all along the route, most often as you enter or leave towns, and at major intersections. It’s probably worth talking briefly about the checkpoints, as they may be a cause for concern for some travellers.
We never experienced any issues at any of the military checkpoints. The standard process was for the driver to show his identification card, and sometimes a Ministry of Tourism letter (basically a letter stating where we were approved to go). Very rarely did a soldier look inside the vehicle to check on me. I was never asked to get out of the vehicle, and was only asked to provide my passport twice (when entering smaller villages). Soldiers looked inside the trunk at a few checkpoints (typically only at the checkpoints leading into the major cities), but our bags were never taken out or checked.
The soldiers were always polite and never caused any problems for us. Some of the best military checkpoints I’ve come across in years of travelling. If there was a Yelp for military checkpoints, I’d give most of these checkpoints five stars.
For those of you used to travelling to war zones, a point to note is that the checkpoints aren’t very confronting. Unlike other places you may travel to, there aren’t armoured vehicles or gun trucks with heavy weapons pointed down the road (with the exception of two checkpoints we drove through). I didn’t see any soldiers handling their weapons carelessly or pointing their weapons around randomly. There were no signs of ill-discipline. Mostly the soldiers were just trying to keep warm. I suppose from their perspective, being at a quiet vehicle checkpoint is significantly better than being on the front lines.
In addition to the checkpoints, there were military outposts along some sections of the road. These were reinforced defensive positions, likely designed to secure the road and surrounding area. These posts were a few hundred metres away from the road on either side and weren’t a cause for concern.
We overtook a few small convoys of Russian military vehicles during the drive and saw a large group of Russian armoured vehicles pulled over at a checkpoint nearer to Aleppo. There was a semitrailer carrying a tank moving southwards, probably for repair. Other than that we didn’t see much military movement on the roads at all (no armoured convoys etc). The point is that you won’t necessarily feel like you’re in a war zone, but you need to be aware that there are some very serious conflict areas not too far away.
There were continual streams of oil tankers heading up and down the road, most likely collecting oil from the north and transporting it down to the refineries near Homs. We passed these refineries on our drive through Homs. In the days since returning from the trip, these refineries were targeted by rebel drones.
The tankers made for some fairly engaging overtaking manoeuvres (it’s possible to light a cigarette and send a text message while overtaking, apparently). I think my fingernails made permanent imprints in the door armrest!
Very few petrol stations along the highway are open and operating, and there are often long queues of vehicles at the ones that are open. All of the petrol stations appear to have been damaged during the conflict, and some remain abandoned. Those that are open seem to be being operating on a fairly informal basis. According to the guide, fuel prices have escalated significantly.
As we neared Aleppo, it was clear we were getting closer to an area of active operations. The soldiers at the checkpoints were wearing helmets and proper combat gear, and were significantly more alert.
Signs of war are clearly visible as you approach Aleppo city. There are large sections of the city that have been devastated by bombing and heavy weapons. The damage was reminiscent of what I’d just seen in Homs, but it was difficult to get a relative sense of scale — I could only see the sections facing the road. Fighting in Aleppo lasted four years, finishing in 2016. This particular phase of the war left an estimated 31,000 people dead.
Our first port of call in Aleppo was the Citadel.
The Aleppo Citadel is a medieval fortified palace that dates back at least to the middle of the 3rd millennium BC. The Citadel was badly damaged during the war, and was re-opened to tourists in 2017
As you walk towards the entrance stairs to the Citadel, you’ll see that the surrounding buildings have been nearly entirely destroyed by the fighting. If you’re observant, you’ll see the scars on the pavement where mortar rounds struck the ground not far from the entrance.
The Citadel itself appears to have been relatively untouched, but if you look closely, you’ll see damage from direct fire weapons.
There weren’t any other Western or Asian tourists inside when I was there, but there were quite a few Syrians from different parts of the country visiting.
From the towers on the northern side of the Citadel, you’ll get a great view across the city of Aleppo. Everything you see appears to be impacted in some way by the fighting.
The Citadel is definitely worth a visit. Give yourself two hours, plus some additional time to walk around outside.
The Aleppo souq is a short walk from the Citadel.
From the outside, the souq appears relatively untouched by the conflict.
It’s only once you step inside the souq you realise it has been almost completely destroyed by the fighting. Some parts of the souq are still so badly damaged you can’t walk down them.
A handful of stall owners have recently set up in the front section of the souq, and a new section has recently been built off to the side. A few tenants were in the process of setting up in the new section when I was there.
The Umayyad Mosque is a short walk from the souq. Like the souq, the mosque was severely damaged in the fighting. Reconstruction has started, and it may take a year or so to complete the restoration work. It wasn’t possible to enter at the time.
We spent the night at the Riga Hotel in central Aleppo. The part of the city the hotel is in appeared to be minimally affected by the fighting.
I was able to freely wander alone around town in the evening and for some time the following morning (without the guide). After spending a day walking through areas that had been badly damaged, it was cathartic to be able to be around people just getting on with their daily lives.
The streets were busy with people of all ages out buying food and shopping.
Valentine’s Day was approaching, so there were many shops and stalls selling gifts, including heart-shaped balloons and huge red stuffed bears.
From the perspective of a traveller, the situation in Aleppo appeared to be relatively normal (as normal as it could be given the severity of the fighting in the past few years). I didn’t see any military personnel patrolling the streets, and didn’t notice any military strong points. I also didn’t see any armoured vehicles parked on street corners. I wasn’t stopped by anyone to check who I was or why I was there. I was able to walk around pretty much unnoticed, which was great (I’ll admit I was a bit frustrated after my experience in Homs, not being able to wander around freely).
Early the following morning, I could hear the occasional explosion from my room, and standing on the roof terrace of the hotel, I could hear large explosions from the direction of Idlib. War was happening, but it was happening some distance away.
Before leaving town, we stopped by the famous Hotel Baron. Sadly it’s not open, and it’s not clear if or when it will be reopened. The building looks old and tired. It’s a great shame, and hopefully someone will take on the project and bring the Baron back to life.
After Aleppo, we set off back towards Damascus along the same route. The temperature was -4 degrees Celsius, and it was snowing heavily at times.
Two helicopter gunships flew low across the road in front of us, but other than that we didn’t see much evidence of military movement on the drive back south.
Along the way, we stopped off at a popular roadside restaurant called Abou Alaz (which I’m told means “generous”). The restaurant is hugely popular and was packed with Syrian soldiers and civilians. We sat amongst the soldiers to have a warm meal of bread and tea.
Closer to Damascus we caught a break in the weather and decided to head to Maaloula, which isn’t too far off the M5.
Maaloula is a predominantly Christian village and is one of the few places in the world where people still speak Aramaic.
In September 2013, Maaloula was attacked by Jabhat al-Nusra, an al-Qaida-affiliated group. According to my guide (who was from Maaloula), the terrorists that attacked the village were particularly brutal, and beheaded three boys who worked in the church and placed their heads on stakes in the village (I couldn’t verify this, but given he’s from there, I believed him).
The town is slowly getting back on its feet, but many of the residents that left during the fighting have stayed away. There is some rebuilding occurring, however, the damage from the fighting is still clearly visible.
We visited the Church of the Saints Sergios and Bachos. The church had been badly damaged by terrorists, and all of the church’s artefacts had been stolen. Replicas now stand in their place. One of the sisters prayed for us in Aramaic.
Just next to the church is the Safir Hotel. Terrorists used this hotel as a stronghold, and it provided them with a vantage point to fire down on the village below. The hotel, as it stands now, is almost completely destroyed. The demolished playground to the rear of the hotel brought home the sadness of the conflict.
From the church, we drove back into town and went to the Saint Takla Church and convent. This had also been severely damaged by terrorists, but restoration is underway with the help of international specialists. Again, all of the artefacts were stolen.
From the convent, you get a great view of the houses that have been built along the base of the cliff opposite.
If you walk to the left of the church, there’s a pathway leading between the stone walls that goes for several hundred metres. I didn’t get to the end of it.
Maaloula was a highlight of the trip, and definitely worth visiting. Give yourself a few hours, and make time to wander around the village.
Let me know what’s at the end of that pathway.
From Maaloula, we drove back to Damascus.
I’d arranged to stay inside Old Damascus, which ended up being a good decision. Old Damascus is is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, and is one of the most interesting places I’ve travelled to.
Old Damascus is a maze of streets and winding alleys. It’s a fascinating area, and it’s easy to spend hours winding through the narrow alleys observing the ebbs and flows of daily life.
Old Damascus had not avoided the conflict, and people I spoke to recalled the fear and panic of mortars falling during the war. There were multiple suicide attacks targeting the city in 2017.
Streets of the Old Town
I woke early each morning to take advantage of the good lighting for photography. On one street there were kids walking to school, grabbing breakfast along the way (crepes with chocolate sauce!).
The walls on either side of the street were plastered with memorial photos of soldiers that had been killed in the fighting. It occurred to me at the time that many of the male children walking down this street will end up wearing a military uniform. If the war continues, some of them may end up on walls like this.
We sat for a time in a famous local cafe called Al Nawfara to drink tea. Each night a man narrates a story at the cafe, a tradition that’s carried on for generations. As the two men sitting next to us stood up, they both reached for their crutches. Both men had lost a leg in the fighting. Two old war mates getting together to support each other.
The great thing about Damascus is that I only saw one another Western tourist the entire time I was there (there are plenty of tourists from other parts of the Middle East). At the same time, I felt that I was completely ignored (e.g., I didn’t have people chasing after me asking me to visit their gallery, or any of the other “touristy” problems that plague other places).
People just got on with their daily lives.
While in Damascus I was with the guide for part of the mornings, then had the rest of the afternoons and evenings to myself to wander around as I pleased.
One afternoon I met a bunch of university kids who were studying English literature. They’d just finished their exams and had gone out for a drink to celebrate. They were still carrying around an almost empty bottle of Corona when I bumped into them. The group was on their way home. As one of the girls explained, girls can’t go out after dark because of (air quotes) “society”. Great kids. They said I was the first foreigner they’ve ever spoken to, which is kinda weird. It’s been a long time since someone has said that to me while travelling.
The souqs in Old Damascus are another highlight, and are great to spend time in. Due to the low numbers of Western tourists, the souqs haven’t had to orientate to foreigners and are focused on serving locals.
Look out for the Nour al-Din al-Shahid public bath (hammam) in the Al-Buzuriyah Souq, which is still operating (there are separate timings for women and men).
There’s a famous zaatar stall in Souq Madhat. The stall has been around since 1912, and there always seems to be a large crowd outside. If you’re looking for something to bring back home, zaatar would be a great choice.
The Umayyad Mosque, located in the old town, is simply stunning. According to lore, this is where John the Baptist’s head ended up (there’s an enclosure inside the mosque). There is also a mausoleum containing the tomb of Saladin, located in a small building just to the side of the mosque. This mosque has some significance, and is believed to be the place where Jesus (Isa) will return at the End of Days.
I split my time between Beit al Mamlouka and Beit al Wali. If you can, I recommend you try both. Beit al Wali is deservedly famous, and is one of the nicest places I’ve stayed in anywhere in the world. The internal courtyard areas are absolutely beautiful.
Beit al Mamlouka is smaller and more traditional, but is lovely in its own way. It’s worth staying there for the breakfast alone. Staying at both provides a nice contrast. Grace and Lauren at Beit al Mamlouka were delightful.
On my last day in Damascus I visited the National Museum. One of the wings of the museum is still under renovation. The museum is worth a visit, but unless you can read Arabic, you’ll need a guide familiar with the exhibits to explain what you’re looking at.
While waiting for our driver, we sat in a cafe inside the museum grounds (the cafe was changing owners, so wasn’t operating at the time). While chatting in the cafe we met Tarak. Tarak’s father was Khaled al-Asaad, a highly respected Syrian archaeologist and the head of antiquities at Palmyra. Khaled was publicly beheaded at Palmyra by ISIS on 18 August 2015. Tarak was shot in the arm and leg during the attack, but was able to save thousands of antiquities from the museum before escaping.
Just next to the museum is Hospice Sulaymaniyah. This is worth a look. Inside there is a nice handicrafts market. I recommend visiting the stalls inside the compound. I found these more interesting than the ones along the main strip.
Military or not
For those of you used to visiting militarised areas, one of the more challenging things is to work out who is military (or paramilitary) and who isn’t. You’ll find in Syria that many men will wear camouflage clothing around the streets. With the cold temperatures in February, insulated camouflage jackets were particularly popular.
Driving around Damascus you’ll probably see guys in jeans and camouflage jackets carrying AKs slung across their backs directing traffic. I don’t know who these guys are, but I guess if they tell you to stop, you stop.
As we waited in front of the museum a guy leaving the museum with his girlfriend openly tucked a pistol into the back of his pants. Must have been chilly…
We left Syria early afternoon, planning to cross the mountains west of the border before nightfall in case the roads ice up.
Aside from getting a flat tire on our way out of Damascus, the exit was pretty uneventful. We were held up for a little while at the Syrian customs post because their computer system was down. Despite the short delay, the departure process was as painless as the entry process.
Note there is a 2,500 SYP exit fee. This fee was paid by the driver (and was included in part of the tour cost).
According to the tour operator, the best place to change money is at the border on entering the country (there’s a bank counter at the immigration checkpoint). It’s technically not ok to use US dollars (or Euros) in Syria. That said, US dollars may be accepted in certain contexts (not legally, so be subtle when handing them over).
As with many places with currency controls, there’s a robust black-market currency exchange, but I’d recommend you steer clear of it.
Foreign credit cards aren’t accepted anywhere in Syria, so make sure you have enough cash for any meals not included in your tour package (you’ll probably need to pay for your own lunch and dinner), and anything you think you may want to buy for gifts or souvenirs.
Always tip because you can afford it. Remember to tip your guide and driver at the end of your trip. This is a good opportunity to offload any remaining Syrian pounds before you leave the country. They’re not much good to you outside the country.
You can get a local SIM card from MTN or Syriatel. A 2GB card costs 4,500 SYP. The simplest way (with the least paperwork) to get a local SIM card is to ask your guide or driver to buy one for you. The SIM cards can be topped up if needed.
I recommend carrying a backup means of communication just in case you lose the cellular network for any reason. This is particularly important in case an incident happens on the road. The Garmin InReach Mini is a good option.
All the hotels I stayed in had reasonable WiFi. Expect that the WiFi may cut out from time to time during short power outages. I could access Twitter and Instagram (didn’t try Facebook) without any problems. My VPN wouldn’t engage on any WiFi network in Syria (the VPN app worked fine in Lebanon, but not in Syria).
If you’re communicating with someone in Syria, make sure you ask them what their preference is regarding the mode of communication (e.g., email, WhatsApp, etc.). Some people may have security concerns if contacting foreigners. Generally WhatsApp seems to be well used.
All of the hotels experienced short power outages (each a few minutes, probably a few times each hour). It’s not really an issue, and no different from what you’ll experience in many other countries. The hotels fair better than other places because they have generators. Local residences and businesses suffer significant power outages, and fuel costs are expensive.
Most of the hotel rooms had limited power outlets, so if you’re carrying a stack of electronic gear it’s useful to have a battery pack so you can keep all your kit charged up.
Don’t photograph the military. This is actually easier than I thought it would be, as they tend to be in fixed locations (like checkpoints) and not on every street corner. There are no issues taking photos at monuments where there are soldiers in the background.
If you’re unsure and want to risk a photo, be overt about it and if there’s a negative reaction, apologise and show them as you delete the photo (if it’s on your phone you can undelete later if you want to).
One thing to be mindful of is that the local people aren’t used to tourists, and aren’t used to being photographed. For this reason, I was more discreet when taking photographs in the streets. This also helps to avoid interfering with the scene. Most of my shots were from the stomach rather than from the eye. I just zone focused and shot away.
My guide often asked me why I’m taking photos of specific things, particularly in the streets (I was taking photos of interesting shops, graffiti, bicycles, doors etc). Again, to me, this just shows they’re not quite used to tourists and/or photographers. He got used to it.
I was confronted twice when taking photos. The first time was when taking pictures of people buying their morning bread in Old Damascus. My problem was that it was an amazing setting, and I was looking for The Perfect Shot™️. I lingered a bit too long, and a man in a camouflage jacket came up and politely asked me to stop (he didn’t ask me to delete the photos).
The second time was just outside the walls of the old city, taking a picture of some random old building (I like random old buildings almost as much as bicycles). An old man wasn’t happy with me taking the photo, so I apologised and let him watch as I deleted it. Doing his part to secure the nation, I guess. No big deal.
At no time was I stopped by the military or anyone official, and my camera wasn’t checked on exit (incidentally no electronics are checked at the border on entry or exit).
I’m posting pics on my Instagram account if you’re interested (including more bicycle photos).
Some people may be concerned that they’ll be hated on because they are foreigners (particularly people from Western countries). That’s not the case. You’ll be welcomed. In fact, almost everyone you meet will say “you’re welcome” to reinforce that (including the soldiers). Depending on what you look like and how you dress, it’s likely you’ll be ignored as you move about.
What impressions do Syrians have of foreigners? The Syrians I spoke to said that they thought the world has abandoned them, and they couldn’t understand why. They think America is only in Syria to steal their oil, and that America doesn’t care what happens to the people or the country. They believe that the Russians are helping the country in a positive way. They’re not happy (understatement) that the Turkish military has invaded.
As mentioned at the beginning, the situation is complicated, and you’ll meet people with differing views. The good news is that, as a tourist, it’s not your job to pass judgement or tell them what they should be thinking. Listen and empathise.
Don’t try to push your “democracy” or political views down their necks. They don’t need to hear it. Keep your politics to yourself and focus instead about learning about the history and culture of the country (which is fascinating).
You can speak about the war (in many contexts it will be weird if you don’t mention it), but don’t push your views or opinions.
As you work through your own planning, there’s obviously a lot of cities and sites that you could potentially visit. Based on my experiences, here’s a few thoughts to guide you as you develop your own itinerary.
1. As far as I could tell, there isn’t much in Homs to see. I would have liked more time there, but I’m not sure I would have seen much more than what I saw on the drive around (in terms of things that would be interesting to a visitor, aside from destroyed buildings). Still, if I went back, I’d like to have half a day there.
2. I would have preferred to spend two nights in Aleppo to spend more time on the ground. With the drive up and back, you tend to lose quite a lot of time. Once the M5 is operational one night may be enough.
3. Maaloula is definitely worth visiting and is close enough to Damascus to do in half a day. You could visit en route to or from Homs, or as a day trip from Damascus.
4. I didn’t visit Palmyra, primarily due to time constraints. It’s further east, so there are also security concerns. In periods where there are very low volumes of foreign tourists, there’s some risk in visiting such locations. Of course, it’s obviously worth seeing and will on the list for next time. I was continually lectured by my guide for not including it in my itinerary.
5. Next time I’d want to see Tartus and Latakia. Both sound like they’re worth visiting.
6. For Damascus, plan for at least 2–3 nights. You could also break it up by spending a night there on the way in, and a few nights on the way out. I recommend staying in Old Damascus rather than in the city (this city centre is just nearby, but Old Damascus has much more character).
For guest houses in Syria and Lebanon (and other interesting places), use L’Hote Libanais. In Syria, your tour operator will arrange and pay for your accommodation (you can’t use credit cards or pay in USD), but if you have any preferences on where you’d like to stay, you can tell them in advance.
Overall, be flexible with your plans. The situation can change due to weather or military operations, so be prepared to make adjustments on the fly based on conditions as you find them.
In this article, I’ve shared my observations and experiences travelling to Syria. I’ve focused on a number of more practical aspects so as to give you a few pointers for your own travel planning.
From the perspective of a traveller, the hotels are great, restaurants are excellent, people are friendly, and the WiFi works.
Safety will be an obvious concern. The places you’ll be allowed to visit in Syria will be generally safe. Your guide will not take you anywhere near an area where there is ongoing fighting. The areas where there is fighting are well known and easily avoidable — you’re not going to somehow drive into the midst of a gun battle.
You’ll certainly see a lot of destruction, but it’s important to remember that in the locations you’ll be able to visit, the fighting finished more than a few years ago.
If you’re hoping to visit an active war zone, you may be disappointed. You’ll see more guns in Texas in the US, and more military convoys around Salisbury in the UK, than you’ll see in Syria.
Of course, things can happen. There is certainly a risk that the conflict could evolve to become more asymmetrical. As mentioned earlier, when I was in Damascus, an improvised explosive device concealed in a pickup truck parked behind al-Jalaa Park, in the al-Mazzeh area, was detonated. One person was wounded in this attack. The location is not far from Old Damascus and is near the Four Seasons Hotel and the National Museum.
The Israeli Air Force is also conducting ongoing airstrikes against Iranian and Hezbollah targets inside Syria, including within Damascus. But unless you’re selling missiles, these airstrikes are unlikely to affect you, and it’s very unlikely that the Israelis will strike in an area where there’s likely to be foreigners (like Old Damascus).
Kidnapping is another risk, so you will need to be on your guard, particularly when outside of the relative safety of the city walls of Old Damascus.
To provide a direct contrast, after I left Syria, I stayed in Baalbek in Lebanon. Outside my hotel (The Palmyra Hotel) was a Lebanese Army armoured personnel carrier, with its .50 calibre machine gun angled down the road (a soldier was manning the gun). There were armed soldiers stationed at multiple points around town. At around 9:30pm at night, I could hear sustained automatic weapons fire in the distance.
If comparing the two countries based on the visible military presence on the street (and based on the locations you can actually go in Syria), Syria seems to be on less of a war footing than parts of Lebanon.
This, of course, is deceiving. While you’re sipping your tea in Old Damascus, it’s easy to forget that there is a pitched battle occurring in Idlib, with the Turkish military rapidly reinforcing and threatening to escalate the conflict. ISIS is still active in the east of the country. There are massive numbers of displaced persons now living in camps in Syria, Lebanon, and Turkey. Some can’t afford to leave and are trapped in place. Displaced persons are freezing to death in camps in Lebanon. It’s a horrible situation. You won’t see this side of Syria if you travel there as a tourist, but please remember that it is happening right now.
The Syria you’ll see as a tourist will be scarred by years of war, but the reality is that there will be no bullets flying around you or bombs dropping near you.
Instead, you’ll see a resilient people that have lived through horrors you and I can only imagine. Despite the losses and setbacks, they are getting on with their lives the best way they can.
As my guide said repeatedly during the trip, “we just need time.”
Should you visit?
As to whether you should visit, my response is to think it through carefully and be clear on your motivations are for travelling there. If your motivation is to be able to say you’ve travelled to a war zone, please don’t do it (you won’t actually be in a war zone, so you’ll probably be disappointed).
From the perspective of an experienced traveller looking to diversify their travel experiences, I believe that there is an incredible window of opportunity to visit Syria during this period of transition. There are very few Western or Asian tourists in Syria, so the country isn’t trying to twist itself in knots trying to adapt to what they think foreigners want.
You will find the experience to be raw and authentic. You’ll be deeply saddened by a lot of what you see, but hopefully you’ll also be uplifted by the resilience of the Syrian people.
From a practical standpoint, the country is also in the process of rebuilding and establishing a sense of normalcy, so any injection of money into local communities will be well received and put to good use. Spending money in local restaurants and shops will help people rebuild their lives.
Don’t be concerned that you may be propping up the regime — spending a few thousand Syrian pounds to buy a scarf in a local market is not funnelling money to the regime.
Reflecting on my own experience, I believe it’s healthy for Syrian people to meet foreigners who can listen to them and empathise with their situation. Syrians need to know that they haven’t been entirely forgotten by the rest of the world. This is particularly true for the younger generation.
In any of you reading this are planning a trip to Syria and need additional details or advice, please get in touch. I’d be happy to help out where I can.
Thanks for reading.
As a side note, I’ve recently published The Guide to Travelling in Higher-Risk Environments (available on Apple Books). If you’re planning a trip to Syria — or any other higher-risk location — this guide will provide some useful insights and advice.