|Currency||Syrian pound (SYP)|
|Population||19,747,586 (July 2008 est)|
|Electricity||220/50 Hz (European plug)|
|Time zone||UTC +2(Winter) / +3(Summer)|
Syria (الجمهوريّة العربيّة السّوريّة Al-Jumhuriya al-`Arabiya as-Suriya, the Syrian Arab Republic) was one of the larger states of the Middle East but is now in prospect of fragmentation. Its capital, and second largest city after Aleppo, is Damascus, the world's oldest continuously inhabited city. 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.
Inflation is rampant in Syria and all amounts expressed in these guides without dates and/or in Syrian pounds, should be treated with suspicion.
Syria has a population of 21,906,000 people (UN, 2009 estimate), of which 6 million are concentrated in the capital Damascus. A moderately large country (185,180 km2 or 72,150 sq miles), Syria is situated centrally within the Middle East region and has land borders with Turkey in the north, with Israel and Lebanon in the south, and with Iraq and Jordan in the east and south-east respectively.
The population of Syria is predominately Arab (90%), with large minorities from other ethnic groups: Kurds, Armenians, Circassians and Turks. The official language is Arabic, but other tongues that are occasionally understood include Kurdish, Armenian, Turkish, French and English. The Syrian Republic is officially secular. Nonetheless, it is greatly influenced by the majority religion of Islam (80% of the population, split between 64% Sunni Muslim and 16% other Muslim, Alawites and Druze). There is a large Christian minority that amounts to about 10% of the population.
The President of Syria is Bashar al-Assad, who replaced his father Hafez al-Assad soon after his death on 10 June 2000. Having studied to become an ophthalmologist (eye doctor) in Damascus and London, Bashar was groomed for the presidency after the 1994 car accident of his elder brother Basil. As a consequence, he joined the army and became colonel in 1999. Bashar's modernising credentials were somewhat boosted by his role in a domestic anti-corruption drive. More recently, however, after an initial period of increased openness. Bashar's position as head of the Syrian state rests on his presidency of the Baath Party and his command-in-chief of the army.
Assad's regime and the Baath Party own or control the vast majority of Syria's media. Criticism of the president and his family is not permitted and the press (both foreign and domestic) is heavily censored for material deemed threatening or embarrassing to the government. A brief period of relative press freedom arose after Bashar became president in 2000 and saw the licensing of the first private publications in almost 40 years. A later crackdown, however, imposed a range of restrictions regarding licensing and content. In a more relaxed manner (perhaps owing more to the fact that these matters are largely beyond possible government control), many Syrians have gained access to foreign television broadcasts (usually via satellite) as well as the three state-run networks. In 2002 the government set out conditions for licensing private, commercial FM radio stations, ruling at the same time, however, that radio stations could not broadcast news or political content.
Tourist Information Offices; Damascus: 2323953, Damascus Int'l Airport: 2248473, Aleppo: 2121228, Daraa (Jordanian-Syrian border gate): 239023, Latakia: 216924, Palmyra (Tadmur): 910636, Deir-az-Zur: 358990
Syria officially has 14 governorates, but the following conceptual division used to make more sense for travellers:
| Northwestern Syria |
Aleppo, one of the oldest cities in the world, as well as the Dead Cities, 700 abandoned settlements in the northwest of the country
| Hauran |
A volcanic plateau in the southwest of Syria, also includes the capital Damascus and its sphere of influence
| Orontes Valley |
The Orontes Valley, home to the towns of Hama and Homs
| Syrian Coast and Mountains |
Green and fertile, relatively Christian, somewhat liberal, and dominated by Phoenician and Crusader history
| Syrian Desert |
A vast empty desert with the oasis of Palmyra, as well the basin of the Euphrates, which is historically associated with the Assyrian and Babylonian history
| Golan Heights |
Occupied by Israel in 1967 and formally annexed in 1981, the Golan Heights is claimed by Syria. The annexation is not recognized by the United Nations. A small area of land centred on Quneitra was transferred back to Syria in 1974. This deserted town, kept in its ruined state as monument to the war (or as propaganda depending on your perspective) used to be able to be visited with permission from the Ministry of Interior (open 08:00-14:00, Su-Th, authorisation requires your passport and took around 30 min).
- Damascus — the capital claimed to be the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world
- Aleppo — a large souk and ancient citadel with great views
- Deir-az-Zur — a desert town on the Euphrates River bank
- Hama — waterwheels
- Homs — an ancient city by the Orontes river, amazing green mountains in Spring
- Latakia — a major port city, Saladin's Castle, Fronloq Forests and Al Samra Beach near Kasab
- Tartous — a historical port city and historical small island called Arwad
- Apamea — a former Roman city which once housed about half a million people. Apamea was hit by an earthquake in the 12th century and much of it was destroyed but it still boasts a long street lined with columns, some of which have twisted fluting.
- Bosra — a Roman city in southern Syria close to the Jordan frontier noted for the use of black basalt stones and its well preserved theatre
- Crac des Chevaliers — the archetypal Crusader castle, magnificently preserved and not to be missed
- Dead Cities — A series of towns which once formed part of Antioch. They have long since been abandoned but make an interesting stop for tourists. Al Bara boasts pyramidal tombs and formerly grand archways set on modern farm land. Serjilla is another famous dead city
- Der Mar Musa — not a tourist site, but an active Christian monastery actively promoting Islamic/Christian dialogue. Welcomes Christians and followers of other religious traditions. It is 80 km north of Damascus.
- Palmyra — magnificent ruins of a Roman city, in the middle of the desert. It can be considered the main attraction in Syria.
- Saladin's Castle — a quiet gem in a valley with pine trees about 37 km inland from Latakia
- Salamieh — Salamiyah is an ancient city which was first known during Babylonian times in 3500 BC; contain Shmemis castle, Greek temple of Zeus, The old Hammam,the old Walls,Remains of Roman canals
Visas are needed for most individual travellers. These are available in 6-month (single/multiple entry), 3-month (single) and 15 day (land borders only) versions. Citizens of Arab countries do not require visa, except unaccompanied Moroccan women below 40 years old. In addition, citizens of Malaysia, Turkey and Iran do not require visas.
Getting visas in advance is expensive and confusing. Americans are required to apply in advance at the Syrian embassy in Washington DC, even if they live elsewhere, and pay USD131 or €100. Most other travellers, though, can get them anywhere, a popular choice being Istanbul (Turkey) where they are generally issued within one day for €20 (Canadian citizens) or €30 (EU citizens). A "letter of recommendation" stating that your consulate has "no objection" to your visit to Syria may be required. The visa issued must have two stamps and a signature, otherwise the visa is considered invalid and you will be turned back at the border. It is necessary to keep the blue arrival form as it must be submitted upon departure.
Official policy says that, if your country has a Syrian embassy or consulate, you should apply for your visa in advance. Most nationals must apply for a Syrian visa in the country in which they are a citizen. Alternatively a foreign national may apply for a Syrian visa from a Syrian Consulate in a country other than their own if they hold a residency visa valid for at least 6 months for the country in which they are applying. There are very few exceptions to this rule. In practice it is possible to obtain a visa on the border for most nationals.
Almost every national can get a visa at the border, regardless of the fact it is not officially written or recommended. But 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 US$16 or €12, while others are more costly, Japanese are USD12-14 or €9-11, Singaporeans are USD33 or €25, Australians/New Zealanders are about USD100 or €75.99, Swiss are USD63 or €47.88. They only take US dollars 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 USD12 or €9.15.
If going by land, and you are planning to get a visa on the border, bring US dollars, euros or Syrian pounds. Other foreign currency will not get a good exchange rate and at most crossing there are no facilities for credit/debit cards. Travellers cheques are also not accepted.
American citizens need to beware of sanctions on Syria. While travelling and spending money in Syria is permitted, you may not fly with Syrian Arab Airlines, and more importantly, many US banks err on the safe side and ban all business with Syria. Some credit or ATM cards may not work, although many Americans today experience little problems in this regard. Be wary, however, as some travellers have had their bank account access frozen, regardless of whether or not they informed their bank of travel to Syria.
Syria has three 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, main sea port of the country. The first two airports have regular direct flights served by Syrian Arab Airlines and British Airways to Europe, the Middle East and North Africa, while the third one for the time being is connected only with the capital city of Egypt, Cairo and with Kuwait (through jazeera Airways, since mid 2009). Flights from Damascus and Aleppo compete with other international carriers serving the same destinations, and Syrian Arab Airlines has code share arrangements with many airlines, including the Turkish Airlines flights to Istanbul.
Damascus international airport is served by many of the larger European carriers to the Middle East including Lufthansa, bmi, Turkish Airlines and Aeroflot. Low-price tickets from Europe can sometimes be found, but until the recent war in Lebanon, cheaper fares could sometimes be obtained through Czech Airlines, Cyprus Air or Malev. Royal Jordanian can be reasonable through Amman. Some low-cost airlines from the Middle East such as Air Arabia (UAE/Sharjah), flydubai (UAE/Dubai) and jazeera Airways (Kuwait) serve Damascus frequently, and many other Gulf carriers such as Gulf Air, Qatar Airways, Emirates and Etihad Airways have up to several daily flights to Damascus. To cut down on airfare from Europe some people catch a charter flight to Turkey (Antalya) and then take the bus to Aleppo.
The only connection to America is served by Conviasa in a non-stop flight from Damascus to Caracas.
Upon arrival, a free entry visa can be delivered to almost all travelers if they are being received by a local travel agency. Call the Syrian Embassy in your home country for more information.
Syria levies a departure tax of SYP550 (~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 to take a domestic flight to Gaziantep and then taxi to Aleppo through Oncupinar border-gate in Kilis. The journey takes around 2 hours including custom formalities. The fare is USD60, per car with max 4 and one way. Taxis holding license can be arranged in Kilis or Gaziantep. Turkcan Turizm, 0348 822 3313
- Turkish Railways page "trains to Middle East". Shows up to date prices, timetables. The Syrian Railways site has not been updated in English for some time so this Turkish page is a better source of information. 
Flying to Istanbul followed a train/coach down to Damascus is a very cheap alternative to flying direct to Damascus (GBP200 return flights from the UK to Istanbul) it takes about 36 hours max to Aleppo (leaves on Sunday morning; see ). Contrary to popular belief it does not continue to Damascus, you have to change trains. Seat61 is very accurate and should be consulted.
All trains from Istanbul (Haydarpaşa train station on the Asian side of the Bosporus) are operated jointly between TCDD (Turkish) and CFS (Syria) and are by far the cheapest way into Syria from Europe, flying to Istanbul and continuing by rail can cost €200 - €300 less than a flight to Damascus.
Recent track renovations across Turkish rail network resulted in Toros Express driving Istanbul to Gaziantep (from which another train into Syria can be caught) being suspended, and it is not certain when and if it will resume service. However there are still daily night trains Istanbul to Adana, which is a short bus ride away from Antioch and Gaziantep, the former of which has extensive bus connections to Aleppo while the latter has twice weekly train connection with the said Syrian city.
Tur-ista travel agency can book your train tickets before you get to Istanbul, this is a good idea with trains booking up very quickly (Tur-ista tel: +90 (212) 334 2600).
Buses run from Turkey, with frequent connections from the city of Antakya (Hatay). 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 SYP800 with around SYP500 being charged from Tartous to Tripoli. In most cases it is necessary to buy a Syrian visa before leaving home, often costing about USD130 or less, depending of the country of residency. It's possible, to obtain free entry visa for tourists if being received by a local Travel Agency. It is also possible to arrive by car from Turkey. A private taxi from Gaziantep Airport (Turkey) will cost about USD60.
Service taxis run from Dar'a across the Jordanian border to Ramtha; from there microbuses are available to Irbid and Amman -- the stop in Dar'a permits a side trip to Bosra, with UNESCO-recognised Roman theater and ruins.
- The nearest car ferry port is Bodrum in Turkey.
- Occasional passenger ferries run between Latakia and Limassol, Cyprus. This service has come and gone over the years, and only 4 sailings in each direction are scheduled for 2008. Confirm that the departure will occur with Varianos Travel before making plans that incorporate this route. 
- Latakia and Tartous serve as ports of call for a number of Mediterranean cruise lines.
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 SYP30. Taxis from the airport to the downtown Damascus cost about SYP600-800, 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 SYP25 per bag and SYP45 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 USD50 per day including 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 USD40 per day (All Inclusive).
If you have never driven in Syria before, make sure you take a taxi first in order to get a first-hand idea of what traffic is like. Especially in Damascus and Aleppo, near-constant congestion, a very aggressive driving style, bad roads and highly dubious quality of road signs make driving there an interesting experience. so do be careful.
The only road rule that might come in handy is that, as opposed to most of the rest of the world, in roundabouts, the entering cars have the right of way, and the cars that are already in the roundabout have to wait. Aside from that, it seems that motorists are fairly free to do as they please.
If you have an accident in a rental car, you must obtain a police report, no matter how small the damage or how clear it is who is at fault – otherwise, you will be liable for the damage. Police (road police No:115) probably will only be albe 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 SYP40 per litre (+10%tax) so it is SYP44, 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 SYP70 per 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 SYP10. 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.
The Syrian railways were reasonably modern. Rail travel is inexpensive and generally punctual, although railway stations are often a reasonable distance out of town centres. The main line connects Damascus, Aleppo, Deir ez-Zur, Hassake and Qamishle. A secondary line serves stations along the Mediterranean coast.
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 (such as in parts of Morocco) does not seem to have appeared in Syria. Locals young and old alike will, however, be very curious about your travels and your bicycle and if you stop in a town you can expect a large crowd to gather for friendly banter about where you are from and your trip.
Wild camping is quite easy in Syria. Perhaps the biggest challenge is not so much finding a place for your tent but picking a spot where locals will not wander by and try to convince you to come back to their home. Olive groves and other orchards can make a good spot for your tent, except on a rainy day when the mud will make life difficult. Another option is to ask to pitch your tent in a private garden or beside an official post like a police station. It is unlikely you will be refused as long as you can get your message across. A letter in Arabic explaining your trip will help with communication.
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.
Due to the general lack of ability by the public at large to communicate in English beyond basic phrases, Syria is a great place to force yourself to learn Arabic through immersion, should you wish to improve your Arabic skill.
- Ancient cities such as Damascus, Aleppo, Palmyra, Crac des Chevaliers and Bosra including Medieval souqs.
- In Hama there are the Al Aasi Water Wheels in a river ( نواعير نهر العاصي ).
- Al Hosn Castle in Homs.
- Qala'at Samaan (Basilica of St Simeon Stylites) located about 30 km (19  mi) northwest of Aleppo and the oldest surviving Byzantine church, dating back to the 5th century. This church is popularly known as either Qalaat Semaan (Arabic: قلعة سمعان Qalʿat Simʿān), the 'Fortress of Simeon', or Deir Semaan (Arabic: دير سمعان Dayr Simʿān), the 'Monastery of Simeon' .
- Tartous with its Crusader-era Templar fortress
- Take a scenic tour. Travel from Latakia (beach), Syrian Coast and Mountains (Safita tower, Mashta hikes and cave
- Hike. in Syrian Coast and Mountains region.
- Geocaching. Find geocaches in the area.
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 USD15). Ask around discreetly.
In the souks (especially the Souk Al Hamidiya in the Old City of Damascus where you can easily "get lost" for a whole morning or afternoon without getting bored), the best buys are the "nargileh" waterpipes, Koran, beautifully lacquered boxes and chess/draughts sets and (particularly in Aleppo) olive soap and traditional sweets. The quality of handicrafts varies widely so when buying lacquered/inlaid boxes, run your hand over the surface to see that it is smooth, check, in particular, the hinges. In the souq haggling is expected. Bargain ruthlessly.
Syrian traders who price goods in foreign currencies now face up to 10 years in jail after a decree issued by President Bashar al-Assad "forbids the use of anything other than the Syrian pound as payment for any type of commercial transaction or cash settlement". This was because of the increasing "dollarisation" of an economy in ruins after two years of civil war.
The unit of currency in Syria is the Syrian pound or 'lira' (ISO 4217 currency code: SYP) and its subdivision of 'piastre' is obsolete. You will see a variety of notations used locally, £S, LS or S£, Arabic: الليرة السورية al-līra as-sūriyya, but we use the ISO 4217 currency code of SYP immediately prefixing the amount in our guides.
Although Syria had been designated a state sponsor of terrorism in 1979 by the US and subject to US sanctions, since the Syrian insurrection and European sanctions started in earnest in 2011, the exchange rate has very quickly deteriorated from USD1 = SYP47 (official) in March 2011, to USD1 = SYP129 (official) and over SYP300 on the black market in September 2013. Hard currencies such as the US and Canadian dollars, pounds sterling or euro can not be bought legally; the only source of foreign currencies available to Syrian businessmen, students and the very many who wish to escape abroad is the black market. The maximum foreign currency amount that it is technically permissible to export is a remarkably generous USD3,000 equivalent per year for each traveller. Any amount in excess of USD3,000 risks confiscation by the authorities and time in jail. Additionally and separately, the Syrian pound is not a hard currency, and there are restrictions on its export of a maximum amount of SYP2,500 per person.
Because of these criminal sanctions, we no longer quote exchange rates and all amounts expressed in these guides without dates and/or in Syrian pounds, should be treated with suspicion.
Before the civil war started, a number of ATMs had become available in most major cities: banks, main squares, and 5 star hotels. None of these ATMs now access the international networks. The Real Estate bank had the widest network that accepted foreign cards but cards also used to be used in machines run by the Bank of Syria and Overseas and the Commercial Bank of Syria. Even before the war ATMs did not exist outside of big cities and it would be wise to carry enough cash when leaving big cities to complete your tour in the countryside and return to the city before running out of cash. Bank Audi used to be the best to try if you had a US issued card.
It is nearly impossible to change traveller's cheques in Syria.
Falafel, deep-fried chickpea patties, are available for SYP15-30. 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 shwarma cost SYP35-50. A half-chicken with bread and mayonnaise dip to take away costs SYP175.
Lunch or dinner in a fair restaurant costs SYP450. An expensive restaurant lunch or dinner will run about SYP1,000.
Generally you can drink water from the tap, it is extremely safe, but if you're unsure ask the locals first. This water is free compared to bottled water, which comes at SYP15-25 for 1.5 L.
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 SYP40-50.
Beer is cheap, costing from SYP35 in a shop and anywhere from SYP50-100 in most budget accommodation and local bars for a half litre bottle or can. Syrian wine can be found starting at about SYP150 and Lebanese and French wines are also available in a higher price bracket, starting at SYP350-400.
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 SYP1500, although this cost may be higher in Damascus. A double room in a three stars hotel costs about USD50, USD80 for four stars, and can reach USD250 in a five star hotel.
Syria is becoming a major destination for students of Arabic. There are several institutions in Damascus that teach Arabic:
- Language Institute at Damascus University - The Language Institute fully immerse their students in Arabic; the course materials and all interaction between students and teachers are done in Arabic. Students are placed in beginning, intermediate, or advanced courses based on a placement test.
Ma'had Abo Noor A private Language school, an Islamic Organization very cheap as it is good school to learn Arabic.
- Ma'had- This state-run language academy is in the Mezze district of Damascus.
- The British Council - While the classes may be expensive, they are mainly aimed toward diplomats and businessmen.
- DSA - Damascus Language School for Standard Arabic- The school provides basic courses for beginners and advanced courses also on certain topics as for journalists, physicians, diplomats, engineers etc. Normal classes have maximum 4 Students. Lessons with private teachers are even possible. Twice a year, there are certain courses for students available at half price. Teachers are well experienced in teaching foreigners. Basic courses start every Saturday.
- Arabesk Studies in Damascus- The institute offers extensive classes in Arabic. Aide with living arrangement provided.
- TikaTrip - Travels and Studies in Syria- Providing private Arabic tutors as well as professional language teachers and all important services: starting with the pickup service at the airport, arranging accommodation and advices on how to tackle the bureaucratic procedures.
- Ma'had Abo Noor A private Language school, only receives Muslims from all over the world.
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.
Since January 2011, Syria has been gripped by a political crisis. Thousands of people have been killed by armed insurgent groups, government security forces and the military and shelling is largely indiscriminate. The developing military insurgency in Syria that is opposed to the Assad regime has carried out several high profile attacks on government targets. Stay away from government buildings, demonstrations and military forces as much as possible.
Travellers should avoid all large gatherings as they may turn violent. Foreign travellers have been targeted by political groups, especially in the south of the country.
You could find yourself in trouble if you engage in open criticism of and against the Syrian government or the president. Your best bet is to avoid political conversations altogether just to avoid any possible problems. If you do engage in political discussions with Syrians, be aware that they might face intense questioning by the secret police (mukhabarat) if you are overheard. As a general rule, always assume that you are being watched by plain clothes policemen. You will notice that not many uniformed policemen can be seen in the streets, but this is because the police have a wide network of plain clothes officers and informants.
Slightly inconvenient for some is the attention of children begging for money, pens, or snacks around some tourist sites (usually those outside of Damascus). Compared to many third world countries beggars are rare in much of Syria. The child beggars are more embarrassing than intimidating, but if you are being hassled consistently, say "lah" ("no" in Arabic) forcefully and the children will scamper.
Since begging is common in some parts of Syria, particularly outside of tourist attractions, mosques, and churches, it has been known that beggars occasionally demand money and may follow you around until you give. Some have even been known to "attack" some tourists just for money and food. It is advised to wear appropriate Arab clothing and try to blend yourself in. It also better to keep your money in your front pockets and safe with you. Many scams by beggars have also led many foreign tourists to lose quite a bit of money; be aware of these scams.
Death penalty for drug trafficking or cultivation.
Women travelling alone may find that they draw a little too much attention from Syrian men. However, this is generally limited to stares or feeble attempts at making conversation. If it goes beyond that the best approach is to remain polite but be clear that approaches are unwelcome. Be loud and involve bystanders as they will often be very chivalrous and helpful.
Women who are arrested under suspicion of immoral behaviour (eg: being alone in a room with a man who is not the woman’s husband, or being in a residence where drugs or alcohol are being consumed) may be subjected to a virginity test.
Syrian law criminalizes homosexual conduct under penal code article 520, which states that each sexual act "contrary to nature" is punishable by as long as three years in prison.
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 SYP700-1000 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. 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. 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 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.
Syria has easy and cheap internet access. Internet is very common around the cities at internet cafés. Facebook and YouTube have recently been unblocked but there are still some websites blocked such as certain news sites. The cafés are very friendly but in order to avoid being price gouged it is best to ask a local how much the internet costs per an hour before agreeing to sit down. It is usually SYP50 per hour (USD1), but can be anywhere up to SYP100 per hour (USD2). It is best to avoid political debates regarding the Syrian government, or reading Israeli newspapers or websites on-line.
Prices for high-speed access are quite varied. As of November 2007, Aleppo's Concord internet café was charging a hefty SYP100 an hour, while in Hama the going rate seemed to be SYP75for 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 SYP20 many years ago.