travelling to syria on holiday

Syria, a country in the middle east. Bordered by Mediterranean Sea to the west, Turkey to the north, Iraq to the east and southeast, Jordan to the south, and Israel and Lebanon to the southwest. 

It is war torn and unstable, with political problems.  The country could erupt at any time, it is not the safest place to travel to and travel insurance is difficult to get. 

So why spend 8 days in Syria you ask? There is a war going on. Its not safe to be there. Can’t you just go ‘somewhere normal’? Just some of the questions that were fired at me. My poor kids were resigned and my mother, well, I didn’t tell her until the very last minute. Read ‘My Syrian Adventure‘ to find out how it went! 

The beauty and the history. Syria is a magnificent country which is steeped in history – and it is this history that I have come to seek out. I hold the view that most people are good. In all my travels, the people on the street are mostly ‘good’.  They want to do their thing, look after their children, go to work and live an uncomplicated life. I often find that people with the least, will often give the most.

where is syria

6 travel essentials

Currency

Take crisp, clean USD. No marked or torn notes. You can change to local currency in the country. The SYP is currently experiencing hyper-inflation

Visa

Arrange visa prior to travel. $140 for UK passport holders, less for other countries. You will also need a Visa for Lebanon. (VOA) free for single entry

Free Travel?

You must have a guide in Syria. You can not travel freely on a UK passport. Check for other nationalities

Medicines

If you have prescribed medicine, bring prescriptions/medical notes in case of bag search

SIM Cards

Local SIM card in unlocked phone available in Damascus. Use a VPN such as ExpressVPN

Plug Sockets

2 round pin (Euro) plugs work in both Lebanon and Syria

IMPORTANT NOTE: You will be rejected entry from Syria if your passport displays any evidence of visiting Israel (including Jordanian entry/exit stamp from an Israeli border). You will also be rejected if your passport has an entry/exit stamp from Sharm el-Sheikh in Egypt. 

Is it safe to travel in syria

Syria is a volatile country, there is no getting away from that. You are not able to travel freely in Syria at this particular time. It is practically impossible to travel alone in this country.

It is also important to remember that this is very much a male dominated society. Although I didn’t feel in danger at any point, I suspect that could be because, as a tourist, the government knew my every move anyway. The amount of checkpoints we went through where a list of names were handed over I could count on – well, lots of hands, not just my own!  

Is it safe? Well, not particularly as civil unrest can stir at anytime. 

I woke up in the morning 4 days before travelling to see a message on my phone from a fellow traveller saying “There are reports on Aljazeera about trouble, including a roadside bomb and and Israeli missile attack. I suppose that’s normal”.  And actually, unfortunately, this has been normal. There were protests kicking off about the Assad regime again, and it was this that kicked off the civil war in Syria back in 2011.  An era which is known in the Middle East as ‘The Arab Spring’.

Kicking out some stats for Syria (2023) : It is number 161 out of 163 on the Global Peace Index – only Yeman and Afghanistan rank lower than Syria (the UK is number 37).  It also ranks 5th in the Fragile States Index (the UK is 148 out of 179).  

Travelling in Syria is not without risk, but the risks have been minimalised by travelling in the way that I am, with a company that is trustworthy and experienced. If you want to check them out, Lupine Travel are the company that I have been with on multiple occasions. They are a fantastic company, with 100% safety record on their trips to unusual destinations.

syria

security and restrictions

There are restrictions in place when travelling to Syria which you need to be aware of:

  • Tourists are only allowed to have a visa for 15 days. After this time you either have to extend your visa, pay a fine or face other ‘consequences’. As you must travel with a guide, your tour company will sort this out for you. 
  • You must be security cleared when you apply for a visa.  They will not issue a visa without this check. Again, your tour company will take care of this. 
  • The Syrian banking system is blocked internationally. You must take ALL your money with you in the form of crisp, clean, new and unmarked US dollars printed after 2013. 
  • Free time without a guide will be limited. This is due to visa and security issues. Your guide will have had his schedule agreed. 
  • Under no circumstances should you take photos of military personnel, vehicles or checkpoints. You will be putting EVERYONE at risk. It is illegal.
  • Drug usage or carrying drugs is an offence that holds the death sentence.
  • Using a drone is illegal and has severe penalties.  I left our drone in Montenegro with Damo!
  • Same sex relations are illegal in Syria

3 interesting facts on syria

Damascus is the oldest capital city in the world.

The capital city of Syria is Damascus which is the longest continually inhabited city in the world.

Syria has 6 UNESCO world heritage sites.

As well as the city of Damascus, it has Aleppo, Bosra, and Palmyra. The northern villages of Krak des Chevaliers and Qal’at Salah El-Din are also UNESCO sites.

Syria is home to the oldest library in the world.

Archiologists excavated the ancient city of Ebla, along with around 1,800 clay tablets dating from around 3,000 BC, making it the oldest library in the world.

Historical syria

syria history in brief

Modern-day Syria,  is one of the most ancient inhabited regions on Earth. Human remains have been uncovered which go back over 700,000 years and a city, Ebla, which was excavated in 1964, which is one of the oldest settlements. 

Syria has long been a place of conflict.  A complex and, at times, tumultuous history, it has been occupied and ruled by several empires, including the Egyptians, Hittites, Sumerians, Mitanni, Assyrians, Babylonians, Canaanites, Phoenicians, Arameans, Amorites, Persians, Greeks and Romans.

Ancient Syria is often referred to in the Bible. The ‘road to Damascus’ was cited by the apostle Paul where he ‘had a vision of Christ’. 

Modern Syria encompasses several of the ancient empires and was established in the mid 20th Century after centuries of Ottoman rule. Democratic ruling came about in 1945 and was a founding member of the United Nations. With multiple coups occurring, the country was run under the Assad regime since around 1970, and on the death of the former president in 2000, his son’ Basher Al Assad inherited the leadership and now runs a totalitarian dictatorship.

It is not difficult to remember who is ruling in the country now, as his image is everywhere – from billboards, posters, plastered on the hill of the citadel even. It is impossible to walk more than about 50m before you come across at least one picture of him smiling out as his people, the people he ‘liberated from the terrorists’, which is what our local Syrian guide Mohammad believes. And I genuinely think that he thinks this is true.  The ‘crisis’ is the making of everyone except Al-Assad. 

There are severe punishments for people that speak ill of Al-Assad. So to speak out publicly and express any opinion other than ‘the party line’ would be foolhardy and dangerous. 

Sadly the country has been under economic sanctions since 2018, the government is bankrupt, the local people are dealing with hyper-inflation and 90% of the population living in poverty.  

Basher Al-Assad is estimated to be worth between $1 – $2 billion dollars though. Go figure. Sanctions are obviously impacting him….

Syria - in conflict

the ethics of visiting syria

So this is a question that gets asked a lot. “Visiting Syria is not an ethical thing to do. Why are you visiting a country where the President has committed such atrocities to its people?”. Or “Why are you supporting an economy which spends all its money on weapons?” and “I don’t know how you can go to a place like Syria when there are thousands of people fleeing”. 

Everyone has their own opinions that will influence their choices of travel.  One of the questions I always want to ask is “Why do you fly for 12 hours to visit Jamaica at significant cost, to lay on the beach all day, never stepping outside of your hotel to experience the true country you are in? Why not just go to the beach in Spain?”  That to me just doesn’t make any sense at all.

However, when we are in Syria, spending our SYP in shops and cafes and restaurants with local people, our money is making a difference to them. Directly to them. There is no ATM. Everything must be paid for in cash. Every single transaction is a cash transaction.  

As we were walking through the Al Madina Old Souq, a bombed out shell of rubble, a jewellery shop was open selling bracelets, necklaces and little trinkets. I decided that this would be the shop I would buy my Christmas decoration from. I buy one each for my sister and I everywhere I travel and she does the same.

I spotted a couple of Hamza’s on a chain, which would definitely work for a Christmas decoration. The cost was $15 USD. I knew this was a crazy price, but none the less, I asked him how much for 2. He came back with $30 (no flies on him!!). I obviously needed to barter, but because of the emotional impact of what I had seen, I said I would give him $20 for both. And that was my mistake, because he obviously came back with $25 USD, which I then paid and thus he was super happy – he could feed his family for another 2 weeks.

The thing for me about negotiating in other countries is this; If I negotiate a price for something that I am happy to pay, and the seller is happy to accept and I am happy with the cost that I am paying, then a good deal is struck. Everyone is happy. The happiness flows and all is good. I don’t like to ‘screw people to the ground’ to get the best deal. 

If you look at this for what it is ‘buying a Christmas decoration’ and get some context around it. In Paris a Christmas decoration would be $10. It would be a run of the mill decoration, a plastic bauble, machine painted in China with a picture of the Eiffel Tower. 

So ethically, I think my visit to Syria is actually supporting the people that are hurting from the sanctions in place. I can live with this.

Bashar Al-Assad decided to do this to his people, Al-Assad is not all Syrian people. Remember that this country is run by a dictatorship. People don’t have the freedom to speak or act freely. 

My Syrian Route

Getting there

Flights to Syria

On a previous trip to Lebanon, I took a one stop flight which was cheaper than the direct flight. My trip to Lebanon was in  August 2021, when the world was starting to loosen up for travel after the pandemic.  Travel was more complicated, with the need for proof of vaccinations, red country lists and quarantines on positive Covid-19 swabs at airports etc. 

This time I flew into Lebanon from London Heathrow on a direct flight by MEA (Middle East Airlines). British Airways also operate a direct flight to Beirut but the times didn’t work for me. 

For finding flights I always use the website Skyscanner. I have used this site for years, because it has a great interface which allows you to search in a number of different ways. Don’t forget that it is not always cheapest to get a return flight – so play around with flights and stops to get the best deal. I was actually flying out of London (direct) and back to Podgorica, Montenegro (one stop via Istanbul). 

When you get to Lebanon, if you are asked at passport control what you are doing, say you are visiting Lebanon on a trip, do not mention that you are going to Syria.  

Hotels in Lebanon and Syria

My trip to Syria was starting in Beirut and early in the morning, so I booked to go the night before and stay in the capital at the hotel that everyone was going to meet at.  As I had previously been to Beirut, I decided I didn’t need to stay any longer to explore. Often, if I am going to places that are new, I will go for maybe three extra nights so that I can explore beforehand alone. 

For booking hotels, I always use Booking.com, another website that I have used for years.  As my tour was starting at Gems Hotel, I booked in there for the night before the tour started, which I already knew was in Downtown Beirut – in fact, having booked the hotel, I already knew where I was going to eat!

For my trip to Syria, all the hotels were booked as part of my tour. As previously mentioned it is not possible to travel freely, your movements are monitored as you pass through various checkpoints around the country. It would not be unusual to be stopped at 7 or 8 checkpoints on a journey from A – B. 

You can not book hotels using your usual hotel booking websites. There are no hotels listed, but you may see a travel advisory warning instead.

Travel Insurance

There are a number of travel insurance companies that you can use to get covered for Syria. You will need to buy special cover as it is a UK Government “Do not Travel” destination so your usual travel policy will be unlikely to cover you.

It is not something that you should forget about and hope that you will be lucky as the need for insurance can be many factors.

On this trip to Syria, a lady that was travelling around Lebanon beforehand got a severe case of food poisoning. This led led her requiring bed rest for a few days, before the decision was made to take her to the hospital in Beirut. Unfortunately she was not well enough to make the trip to Syria and remained in a Lebanese hospital until midweek. She was not able to join the tour, due to travel restrictions in place on how you travel. 

Costs for hospitalisation can be astronomical, even if the care is what you would consider as ‘below standard’ for a western hospital, so it is best not to take the risk. 

There are a number of companies you can try – just google it. Common ones that I have used on trips before are:

  • VisitorsCoverage.com
  • WorldNomads.com
  • StaySure.com

For this particular trip I used Visitors Coverage but thankfully, I didn’t need to call on them! 

The Economics and Tipping

The currency in Syria is the Syrian Pound – SYP.  The current economic climate is in freefall and the monthly salary in Syria is $40,

Don’t forget, that is the average salary – a teacher earns around $30, a bar tender earns around $27. So tipping really is a must.  

The standard rate for tipping is 10%. Tipping is expected on ALL services – for beers, meals, coffees etc. And given the people are so poor and we are ALL classed as rich (which in their eyes we are), it would be unethical not to tip. 

They are experiencing hyper-inflation and the economic sanctions that are imposed are hurting mostly the ordinary Syrian people. They are the people that suffer and there is an abundant black market operating – if you know where to look.

Currently the notes that are circulating are 500, 100, 200 and 5000.  Given that you may pay 35,000 for a beer, the money starts to look like monopoly money. 

 

what to pack for a trip to syria

For me, the packing for adventure holidays, is always ‘travel light’. You don’t need to take 5 different evening outfits or 6 pairs of shoes. It is just not necessary.  As always, and this goes for any packing, ensure that you have packed appropriately for the country that you are visiting.

It is disrespectful not to consider a host countries traditions and views when travelling, regardless of whether you are in a motorhome, backpacking or part of an adventure tour group.

So what to pack for Syria? Contrary to popular belief, Syria does not have a strict or conservative dress policy.  Shorts and skirts are OK for men and women to wear. The only time you will be required to cover up is when visiting mosques.  And even then, you will be provided with a cover up to wear – even if you have long sleeved shirt and trousers on with a scarf.  

I would definitely leave out anything that shows too much cleavage or is revealing in any way. It just doesn’t sit well with their religious beliefs – and you might get mistaken for a ‘Natasha’, (Natasha being the name that is used for a prostitute).

Most of the time, I had a sleeved shirt on with a pair of shorts and either trainers or walking flipflops.

For clothes washing, as it was so warm, you can wash out your underwear at night and it’s dry the next day – plus I take a travel washing line with me, which is really handy. I washed my shorts, t-shirt and shirt whilst I went round and had a dress too.  All non iron, easy wear, easy dry! It was loads! 

Clothes packing

  • 2 pairs shorts
  • 1 sweatshirt
  • 5 t-shirts
  • 1 dress
  • 1 loose fitting shirt
  • 1 pair walking trousers (zip off legs)
  • 6 knickers & 2/3 bras
  • 1 head scarf for religious sites
  • 1 sarong (doubles as a sheet for hot nights)
  • 4 pairs trainer socks/socks
  • 1 pair trainers/walking shoes
  • 1 pair sandals/flip flops
  • 1 hat/baseball cap
  • 1 swimsuit/bikini

Accessories and Essentials

  • Money belt & crisp USD with dates after 2013
  • Sun cream
  • Wet wipes/toilet roll
  • Hand sanitiser
  • Water bottle
  • Ear plugs (essential for Syrian parties!)
  • Power bank
  • Plug adaptor with USB and plug points
  • Extra passport photos
  • Photocopy of your passport (carried separately to your passport)

My video journal of Syria is in creation phase!

Whilst waiting for the creative genius to finish creating – please do visit the Not Quite North YouTube Channel.

You will find lots of films and inspiration for your own travels there, from Bosnia and Herzegovina to Italy to Montenegro – and Syria will be joining them soon.

 

Learn these words at least!

It is always a good idea to try and learn at least the following phrases to show your thanks and appreciation to the local people. 

Hello: Marhaba or As-salaam ‘alykum
Please: Law samaht
Thank you: Shukran
Help: Mosa’adah

Read about my journey

I loved my trip to Syria, it was a a trip that made me laugh and made me cry and of course I had the joy of meetings some wonderful people – both the Syrians and fellow travellers.

Read my full article “My Syrian Adventure” to find out more about how my trip went.

We hope you enjoyed this article and found it useful. We have tried to cover everything you need to know but if we have missed something – please do let us know. 

Angie and Damo Signatures
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