In December 2018, I decided to travel to Syria.
The country had been in my plans for a very long time and, finally, they started to make it easier for travelers in 2018.
I spent 1 week there traveling independently and visited Damascus, Homs, and Aleppo.
It was an amazing experience.
On the one hand, very enriching, as I met loads of Syrians who told me their side of the story, plus I got to visit ancient, marvelous sites that were a real blessing to my eyes.
But, on the other hand, here I witnessed one of the worst humanitarian crisis in the 21st century and visited hair-raising places that may require a lot of cold blood, if you don’t want to breakdown in tears, and will make you be sensitive and empathize with the many beautiful Syrians.
Long Live Syria.
This guide contains everything you need to know for traveling to Syria independently, including plenty of tips regarding visas, safety, transportation and much, much more!
If you want to keep track of all my current travels and photos, don’t forget to follow @againstthecompass on Instagram
How to travel to Syria in 2019 – Everything you must know
Here you will find
Why travel to Syria
How to get a visa
Travel Insurance for Syria
How to get to Syria
Is Syria safe?
How to move around
Money in Syria
Responsible tourism and ethics
Don’t get off the beaten track
Where to stay
Internet and mobile
Do you know what a VPN is? A Virtual Private Network allows you to access blocked sites when you travel, as well as it lets you access content only available in your home country (like Netflix), plus it prevents hackers from stealing your personal data. Learn here why you should always use a VPN when you travel
Why should you visit Syria now?
This is a very good question, one I have been asked a lot recently.
The truth is that reasons vary.
First of all, in the last couple of years, I have been traveling all across the Middle East, so visiting Syria, one of the most fascinating countries in the region, had been in my travel plans for a very long time.
I actually attempted to travel there from Beirut back in 2016, but the Syrian embassy said they were not issuing visas at that time.
Another even more important reason is that Syria is a great country, home to one of the oldest civilizations ever, so visiting Syria from a tourism perspective is a must-do.
However, most people asking that question tend to refer more to the ethical aspect of traveling to Syria, as this is a war zone from where many people have been forced to escape in order to save their lives.
Well, I want you to know that I fully understand why someone would not want to visit a post-war zone because, truth be told, destroyed buildings and misery are not pleasant things to see.
Nevertheless, the first thing you need to know is that I travel to learn and become wiser and, yes, I am interested in visiting a post-war zone, because this is living history and I wanted to see it with my own eyes, and not through a biased newspaper.
I also think that traveling to Syria with the sole objective of empathizing with the locals is a good thing and, as long as you are absolutely respectful about the crisis, there is nothing wrong with it.
But in the end, we should ask Syrians what they think about it and I can assure you that, since Syria used to be a major touristic destination, today Syrians are very happy to see that tourists are coming back because this is a real sign of recovery.
For more information, read the Responsible Tourism section of this article.
There are no updated guidebooks of Syria, but Bradt Guides has the only exclusive travel guide to Syria, updated as of 2010. Still, it is a good source and a nice introduction to the country. CLICK HERE TO CHECK THE PRICES ON AMAZON
Tourist visa for Syria
Updated May 2019
(If you have any more information, kindly let us know in the comments section)
Getting a Syrian visa nowadays is a confusing process.
Here’s the thing:
Prior to November 2018 (and from the beginning of 2018), you could get a Syrian visa by paying 300-400USD to a tour operator and then you could travel around the country independently.
However, in November 2018, an independent German backpacker got into some sensitive areas where tourists were not supposed to go and he was arrested for a week.
Since then, the Ministry of Tourism has dictated that all travelers who want to get a Syrian tourist visa must book a full tour with a valid tour operator. This is true.
Nevertheless, this new rule is sort of contradictory because, on the other hand, once you are in Syria, you can move around independently and, if an agency is telling you otherwise, like you will get arrested if you go to Aleppo by yourself and stuff like that, they are lying, really.
Foreigners don’t need to be with a guardian when they travel in Syria, absolutely not. How did I manage to travel in Syria independently then? Keep reading until the end of this section.
How to get a Syrian visa via a tour operator
The first thing you need to know is that travel agencies don’t issue tourist visas for Syria but a security clearance (a background check), which you need to show at the customs. Actually, you don’t even need to show it because you will appear in their database.
By the way, this is how the security clearance looks like. Usually, it includes several random people:
Cost: Cost varies depending on the agency you get it from. I have a Spanish passport and paid 325USD (with Basil from the Travel King). I heard that some agencies may charge up to 400-500USD. If you have a British or American passport, expect to pay a few more hundred.
How to pay for your visa: Note that the Syrian banking system is blocked so, in most cases, you will need to send the money via Western Union unless the agency has a foreign bank account.
Time: Again, it depends on the agency. In my case, I got my security clearance in less than 24 hours, while other agencies may take up to 1 week. By the way, for American and British citizens, the process can take up to 1 or 2 months, even more.
Validity: It has a 90-day validity, starting from the day you received it.
Once you have your security clearance, you can buy your visa at the border.
EU Passport holders: 72USD
Australia and New Zealand: 130USD
United Kingdom: 140USD
The tourist visa for Syria is valid for 10 days. According to the migration officer, you can extend it at the Immigration Office in Damascus, but who knows whether this is true or not.
You will also have to pay an exit fee of 2,500SYP, which is around 5USD.
List of valid Syrian tour operators
There are quite a few valid tours operators who can help you with the Syrian visa. I have compiled the following list based on my personal experience and what some travelers told me.
I decided to delete de full tour operator list until I talk to each one of them
If you want to already know some options, please check the Lonely Planet Thorn Tree Forum.
How to avoid booking a full tour (it may come with some risk though):
There is a way of traveling around Syria independently and that is by booking a 1-day tour to Damascus from Beirut. As I told you at the beginning, you can travel around Syria independently and the proof is that in most cases, agencies allow you to travel to Damascus by yourself. Usually, in those countries where a guardian/guide is required, he would pick you up at the border/airport, so how is it possible that you can go all the way to Damascus without a guide? Seriously, during my trip, I passed through dozens of different checkpoints and never encountered a single problem so, what you can do is, once you finish your 1-day tour, you can pretend you are leaving the country but you just stay.
What are the risks involved?
Well, you need to make sure that the agency doesn’t find out because who knows what they can do about it. Moreover, if you got into trouble, the agency would have to take responsibility for you.
I traveled in Syria independently and didn’t book a tour. How did I do it?
The fact is that I got my security clearance (with Basil from the Travel King) in October 2018 for 325USD but, for personal reasons, I had to postpone my trip until December/January.
In mid-December, I contacted Basil to let him know that I would travel to Syria soon, most likely during the first week of January. However, he told me that the rules had changed since we last talked (because of that German backpacker), so now I needed to book a tour with him.
I told him that that was not our initial agreement and, if that was the case, I would like a full refund.
He said that he would not give me a refund, claimed that I would get arrested if I went there on my own and, after a long discussion, he threatened to cancel my visa if I didn’t book a tour.
He was an asshole, really, but do you know what I did?
I didn’t believe him for a second but I said that OK, that I would book a 1-week tour, but I needed 10 days to collect all the money.
He believed me and, while he was waiting for the money, I booked a flight straight to Beirut, crossed the Syrian border and, as I expected, I managed to travel around Syria without any problem, including going to Aleppo and Homs by public transportation and Couchsurfing.
Once I left Syria, I sent him a message and he hates me for that now.
How to get a visa for Syria via an embassy
Pros of applying via embassy – It should be much cheaper, as you don’t have to pay for the security clearance.
Cons of applying via embassy – As far as we know, the process is much slower. For example, the embassy in Madrid claims that it takes around 40 days.
However, most embassies will require a Letter of Invitation (LOI), which you can only get through a tour operator, which they will only give you if you book a tour with them.
Each Syrian embassy, nevertheless, is a completely different world, so I suggest you contact your nearest and see what they say.
I personally called the Embassy in Madrid and they said you first need to send an email to [email protected], telling them about your intentions in Syria, so they will tell you what information they need from you, which includes a damn LOI.
After this, they will send all your information to Syria in order to get a security clearance and, if accepted, you will be able to apply for your visa, which costs 60€.
Rumors – We heard that both the embassy in Beirut and I don’t know which consulate/embassy in Brazil don’t require the LOI. But again, these are just rumors. Let us know if you know anything else about it.
In any case, embassy rules change every single day, so just contact your nearest embassy and see what they say about it.
Travel Insurance for Syria
The one which does, however, is IATI Insurance.
They have loads of different plans for all types of travelers and the best of it is that the readers of this blog can get an exclusive 5% discount.
How to get to Syria
How to travel to Syria by land
Beirut to Damascus – Traveling from Beirut to Damascus is the easiest way to travel to Syria. Beirut is only 115km from Damascus and the journey takes only 2 hours, including the customs process.
Currently, there is no bus service but locals travel in shared taxis.
They leave from Charles Hélou bus station, which is in a very central location, in Gemmazyeh. Shared taxis from Beirut to Damascus run all day long and I went there at 3pm and waited for no more than 15 or 20 minutes.
The cost per person is 20USD (18 if it is a 7-seat car).
Alternatively, you can also book a trip with a private company like Allo Taxi, which has a similar price but I am not sure if they help you to find other passengers. If you go by yourself, you will pay 100USD.
Apparently, there is also a shared taxi service from Beirut airport to Damascus but it can cost up to 35USD per person.
Beirut to Damascus border crossing: Very straightforward.
On the Lebanese side, they barely check your passport and, on the Syrian side, they take around 20 minutes, as long as there are no people, of course.
First, they check your security clearance, then you purchase your visa at the bank counter and give your receipt to the immigration officer.
You only get a stamp, not a visa sticker.
After getting your Syrian visa and resuming your journey, you will go through several checkpoints, but you shouldn’t experience any problem. In fact, some soldiers were joking with me about football when they saw my Spanish passport.
Read: A travel guide to Beirut
Tripoli to Tartus – You can also travel to Syria from the border north of Tripoli. Shared taxis to Tartus cost 18,000LBP (12USD) and they leave until 8pm from this station: 34.436691, 35.837163. It is only a 65km journey, so it should be fairly quick.
From Jordan to Syria – The border is finally open but the journey from Amman is longer (200km). I have heard that there are also shared taxis but, unfortunately, I don’t know any more details, so it would be great if you could update me with that!
Turkey to Syria – Today, that border is not possible to cross legally.
How to travel to Syria by air
You can also fly in but the problem is that the international airport in Damascus doesn’t have many connections, so going from Beirut will always be easier.
Is it safe to travel to Syria?
Is Syria safe?
Along with the visa, safety is the other big question mark for anyone traveling to Syria.
Look, the war is practically over (the city of Idlib is the last actual war zone) and cities like Aleppo and Damascus are perfectly safe.
You see children roaming around and everything seems just fine now.
Moreover, the Old City of Damascus is full of military checkpoints where they check your bag and look at anyone who seems suspicious, so there is a high level of security and nothing has happened for a long time now.
Actually, I was in Damascus for Christmas and, for the first time since the beginning of the war, the streets of the Old City of Damascus (and Aleppo as well) were filled with Christmas lights and celebration.
The atmosphere was full of joy, happiness and both Muslims and Christians were celebrating such an event with very big enthusiasm (there is a huge Christian community in Damascus).
This can only mean that even the Syrians themselves believe the city is safe.
Long story short: I personally think that Syria is safe to visit but it will depend on where you go.
Which parts of Syria are safe to travel?
Damascus, Homs, Aleppo, Latakia, Tartus and the Krak De Chevaliers Castle.
For Palmyra, apparently, you still need a special permit. If you go on a tour, it should be easy to get one but I am not sure how independent travelers could get one. I think you would have to contact a travel agency.
You can travel to other areas, like the region south of Damascus and I am sure some places in between but that is all I know for now.
Still, keep in mind that this is a post-war zone, which means that it is highly unstable and things could change overnight. Against the Compass doesn’t take any responsibility for whatever may happen to you during your visit to Syria.
The people – The Syrians
Language – Levantine Arabic is the official language.
You should know that many English-speaking people left the country but you will always find someone who does. In any case, try to learn some Arabic before traveling to Syria.
Religion – Around 65% of the population are Sunni Muslims but, like its neighbor Lebanon, in Syria, there are many different religions, including a large Christian population. Bashar Al-Assad is Alawite, a Shia branch.
How do Syrians feel about tourism?
According to the UN, around 500,000 Syrians have been killed, nearly 5,000,000 escaped from the country and several more million who are still in the country need humanitarian assistance.
We are talking here about one of the worst humanitarian crisis in the 21st century.
Like I said at the beginning, many people are skeptical about traveling to Syria, claiming or thinking that it may be disrespectful to all the people that have been affected somehow.
Well, what I think is that, before making any judgment, we should ask the actual Syrians living in Syria what they think about it.
Throughout my 1-week journey, I did not talk to a single Syrian who was not happy at seeing a Spanish tourist interested in traveling to Syria.
The ones who spoke English approached me, asking me a lot of questions and showing their gratitude for visiting their country.
They don’t hesitate to talk to you about the crisis, the problems that it has caused, etc.
Hello, how are you?
Well, alive, thank God! – A random Syrian told me
However, I thought that wandering around Damascus as a tourist would be like being a celebrity. I mean, people were extremely nice and kind but it was not like when you travel in Pakistan, for example, where everybody stops you in the street to talk to you.
The main reason was that most people thought I was a journalist and the second was that Syrians have always had great international exposure, so seeing foreigners is something they are actually used to, with the only difference they haven’t seen many since 2010.
Long story short: Syrians are happy to see tourists.
How to travel around Syria
You can travel around Syria by local buses and shared taxis.
I took the bus from Damascus to Aleppo, which takes more than 7 hours. The reason is that the section of the road from Homs to Aleppo is not totally Government-controlled, so after Homs, they turn right and make a huge detour to get to Aleppo.
There is not much to say here, other than the roads of Syria are full of military checkpoints, which is what you may expect.
Your driver will keep your passport and he will handle everything for you, so don’t worry about that.
I also took the bus from Homs to Damascus and it was a very similar story. From Aleppo to Homs I took a local shared taxi.
Seriously, buses run normally, smoothly and without any problem
In Damascus, this is the main bus station to go to Homs and Aleppo: 33.532449, 36.31875.
The station at Aleppo is quite far from the city center but you will see plenty of taxis just outside.
As per safety, the truth is that many people were being overprotective with me, always taking care that I was feeling safe and comfortable, so you should not worry about that. Most people taking the bus to Aleppo are from the army by the way.
What you need to know about money before traveling to Syria
In Syria, they use the Syrian Pound (SYP), a currency that has been fluctuating like crazy for the past 10 years.
Actually, they say that it devaluates daily, sometimes several times a day, but during my stay, I was always able to exchange at the exact same rate, which was 1USD = 490SYP.
I exchanged once at the hotel and then with random people from different shops. All of them offered me the same rate.
If you check the currency value evolution, you will see that, for the last couple of months, it has always been between 450-550, approximately.
There are also official exchange offices that should give you a similar value, but I preferred to exchange with random people, as an excuse to have a small chat.
By the way, bring € or USD. If you don’t have any, do know that in Lebanon you can withdraw USD from most ATMs.
If you have Syrian Pounds left when you leave, you can exchange them to Lebanese Pounds or USD in most exchange offices in Beirut. Outside of Lebanon, I doubt you can.
ATMs and Credit Cards – Because of the sanctions, everything is blocked in Syria, so you must bring enough cash for your whole stay.
How much does it cost to travel to Syria?
These are the prices of the most typical things. I won’t write the € or $ conversion this time because of the continuous devaluation but keep in mind that 1USD is around 500SYP.
- Lunch in a local restaurant: 2,500-4,000SYP
- Food in a nice restaurant with wine: 7,500-9,000SYP
- Breakfast (like hummus or ful): 500-800SYP
- National Museum: 500SYP
- Aleppo Citadel: 500YSP
- Bus from Damascus to Aleppo: 4,000-5,000SYP
- Budget Hotel in Damascus: 10,000-15,000SYP for a private room
- Mid-range hotel in Damascus: 20,000-40,000SYP for a private room
- Taxis within cities: 500-700SYP
- Local shared taxi Aleppo to Homs: 7,000SYP
Responsible tourism and ethics
Syria is a post-war zone, where millions of people have lost their houses and relatives, so please, be a sensitive tourist.
Don’t say war but crisis or situation instead – You will see that many Syrians themselves don’t really use the word war but they prefer to say other less harsh words.
Don’t say anything bad about Al-Assad – You will be surprised to know that most people are heavy supporters of the Al-Assad regime, so don’t give your political opinion because you may offend someone. I guess that the Syrians who are against him aren’t there anymore.
Don’t take selfies with damaged buildings – Seriously, this is one of the most disrespectful things you could ever do and you would actually be an asshole if you did it.
Empathize with the locals – When you are in an area full of destroyed buildings be polite to the people, say hello, shake hands and just be nice with them.
Collaborate with the local economy – In Homs and Aleppo, you are likely to see small businesses open among all the ruins. Do buy things from them. In Homs, I saw one small bakery shop in the practically destroyed souq; I couldn’t resist buying one kilo of sweets there, which I gave to a young boy that was looking for something among the trash.
Are the cities really destroyed?
This seems to bring a lot of confusion, so let me explain it to you:
Damascus – Only the outskirts of Damascus are destroyed, as there was a bloody battle there. That area is off limits to tourists. The Old City, downtown and, basically, all the center of Damascus remains intact.
Aleppo – A percentage of the Old City is destroyed, as well as some areas from outside the city. Most of Aleppo isn’t damaged but some very important sites from the Old City, like the Great Mosque, are gone.
Homs – One of the most affected cities by the war. Approximately 40% of the city is destroyed and that includes its bazaar, one of the liveliest and most important souqs in the Middle East.
Palmyra – I haven’t been there but, as far as I know, ISIS destroyed a large part of it.
Taking photos when you travel in Syria
You can take photos of everything except for one thing: military stuff.
Yes, it is very obvious but the problem is that there is military stuff everywhere, especially in Damascus.
In Damascus, it happened a few times that I took a picture of some cool building or whatever, from relatively far away, and didn’t realize there was a checkpoint right next to it.
Of course, the soldiers approached me but, after quickly checking my passport and my camera, they very kindly let me continue.
Seriously, in Damascus Old City, there are checkpoints everywhere, so pay attention before taking any photos.
I was also approached by soldiers from time to time when I was taking photos of non-military stuff but that was because they still need to get used to tourists roaming around.
Remember everything is still very recent and, in their eyes, everybody could be suspicious.
Don’t get off the beaten track in Syria, not yet
Don’t do it because you are going to ruin it for everybody.
Syria just started opening to tourism, so stick to the main touristic areas, which includes the centers of Damascus, Aleppo, etc.
I am telling you this because there was a German guy who went to the outskirts of Damascus to take photos of some destroyed buildings and he was put in jail for a week.
Dude, the country is still not ready for seeing Westerners hanging out in sensitive areas.
Since then, travel agencies require travelers to book a full tour, claiming that, after that incident, there is a new regulation saying that tourists need to be all the time with a guide, but it is bullshit, really.
They tell you this to save their ass because that man Basel got into trouble when that German guy was arrested. And by the way, instead of helping him, he didn’t want to have anything to do with it.
We shouldn’t blame that German guy. He committed a mistake and he already paid for it, but that should serve as a lesson for future travelers.
Where to stay in Syria
Since the crisis, the Government of Syria has introduced a dual pricing policy in all hotels, in which foreigners pay several times the local price.
This has increased the rates substantially but you can still find many affordable options.
Also, you should know that good hotels tend to be full. I arrived in Damascus without a booking and many hotels I walked by had no rooms left but, luckily, there are hotels everywhere.
By the way, you can also try to Couchsurf. I actually Couchsurfed in Aleppo.
Where to stay in Damascus
Budget – Green Hotel – Single rooms cost 15USD and double 30USD. It was very clean, there was a heater, good Wi-Fi and the guy from the reception spoke English. It was here, just outside of the Old City: 33.510168. 36.298925. You can contact my friend Mohammed (he is the only receptionist that speaks good English): +963993829946. Alternatively, you can contact the hotel directly but they may not speak English: +963112258895.
Mid-range – Hotel Al Majed – This hotel asks around 40USD for a single room. Location: 33517188, 36.296579
Top-end – Beit al Wali – One of the best hotels in the city.
Where to stay in Aleppo
Mid-range – Palace Hotel – Like, I said, I Couchsurfed in Aleppo but I entered this hotel to ask for the price. They ask 69USD for a room. This is the location: 36.207146, 37.14857. It is next to the I Love Aleppo square and it looked a great place to stay. I don’t know any other budget options.
Where to stay in Homs
Mid-range – New Basman Hotel – This is the cheapest hotel I found in Homs. I paid around 40USD for a huge room, which included a basic dinner and a good breakfast. It was pretty good. This is the location: 34.72133, 36.711241. For a reservation, you can contact them at +963991305972.
The food and alcohol in Syria
In the last few years, I haven’t traveled to many countries that are famous for their food, but Syria definitely is.
Being an olive-oil rich Mediterranean country, the ingredients used in their cuisine are fresh and similar to the ones we used in Spain, but also Italy, France, and Greece.
The food is actually pretty much the same as in Lebanon, with their own regional variations, of course.
From the classic hummus to kibbeh (local steak tartar), different sorts of grilled meat or a typical dish of Aleppo consisting of meatballs in cherry sauce, the food in Syria is so varied.
For me, however, breakfast is the best part, as they always serve different variations of hummus and ful deep in super tasty olive oil and vegetables.
As per the alcohol, you should know that Syria has a large Christian population, so alcohol is easily available, especially in the Christian district of the Old City of Damascus, where there is a street filled with bars and many liquor shops.
You can actually buy a $1 beer and drink it in the street!
Internet and mobile
Wi-Fi – Internet works well across the country. The hotels I stayed at had a good connection and you can also connect in most relatively good cafés and restaurants.
Mobile – I bought Syriatel and, for 2,500SYP, they gave me 2GB and some calls but, of course, prices may change. They only asked for my passport. I recommend you go to the official store. There is one next to Merjeh Square, right here: 33.513185, 36.29777.
I hope this travel guide to Syria will help you to plan your trip. I will try to keep it updated but, if you have more updates, please let us know in the comments section. Thanks 🙂