Syria (الجمهوريّة العربيّة السّوريّة Al-Jumhuriya al-`Arabiya as-Suriya, the Syrian Arab Republic) is a country in the Middle East. Rich in history, the capital, Damascus, is the world's oldest continuously inhabited city, and the country has been the site of numerous empires.
Since 2011, the country has been torn apart by a brutal civil war. This aside, the country offers numerous attractions and some daring travellers have been able to visit Syria without hesitation.
Syria has 14 governorates, but the following conceptual division used to make more sense for travelers:
|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
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. Also serves as the country's main access point to the sea.
|Southeastern Desert |
A vast sparsely populated desert with the oasis of Palmyra, as well the basin of the Euphrates, which is associated with the Assyrian and Babylonian history
|Golan Heights (Syria) |
Occupied by Israel in 1967 and annexed in 1981, the portion of the Golan Heights that is controlled by Israel is covered in Golan Heights. A small area of land centered on Quneitra was transferred back to Syria in 1974 and is covered here.
- 1 Damascus — the capital claimed to be the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world
- 2 Aleppo — a once-great ancient citadel with great views, much of Aleppo has been destroyed by fighting in the Syrian Civil War.
- 3 Deir-az-Zur — a desert town on the Euphrates River bank.
- 4 Hama — known for its famous waterwheels.
- 5 Homs — an ancient city by the Orontes river, amazing green mountains in Spring.
- 6 Latakia — a major port city, Saladin's Castle, Fronloq Forests and Al Samra Beach near Kasab.
- 7 Tartous — a historical port city and historical small island called Arwad.
- 8 Raqqa — former capital of ISIS's self-proclaimed caliphate
- 1 Apamea — a former Roman city that 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.
- 2 Bosra — a Roman city in southern Syria close to the Jordan border noted for the use of black basalt stones and its well preserved theatre
- 3 Dead Cities — a series of towns that 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.
- 4 Krak des Chevaliers — the archetypal Crusader castle, magnificently preserved and not to be missed
- 5 Palmyra — formerly held the once-magnificent ruins of a Roman city, in the middle of the desert. Once considered the main attraction in Syria, the UNESCO-listed heritage site was severely damaged by Daesh extremists in 2015. Restoration and de-mining is underway as of 2019.
- Saladin's Castle — a quiet gem in a valley with pine trees about 37 km inland from Latakia
- Salamieh — Salamieh is an ancient city which was first known during Babylonian times in 3500 BC; contains Shmemis castle, Greek temple of Zeus, the old hammam, the old walls, remains of Roman canals
|Currency||Syrian pound (SYP)|
|Population||18.4 million (2019)|
|Electricity||220 volt / 50 hertz (Europlug, Type E, Type L)|
|Time zone||UTC+02:00, UTC+03:00, Asia/Damascus|
|Emergencies||112 (police), 110 (emergency medical services), 113 (fire department)|
|edit on Wikidata|
Syria's population has fallen from 21.9 million people in 2009 to 18.3 million in 2017 (UN estimates). About 4½ million are concentrated in the Damascus governorate. 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 pre-dominantly Arab (90%), with large minorities of 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, and he began his rule with a 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
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 US$131 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 US$12-14 or €9-11, Singaporeans are US$33 or €25, Australians/New Zealanders are about US$100 or €75.99, Swiss are US$63 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 US$12 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.
Due to the conflict various areas of Syria are not under the control of the Syrian central government. Areas near to Turkey are under control of Kurdish forces and rebel forces. Foreigners will not be allowed to cross at these borders, and Turkey/Syria borders in general are closed now because of the conflict. From the Kurdish Region of Iraq there are people crossing over the river into Syria at a place called Faish Khabour, however the crossing is only for humanitarian workers and any non-aid workers may not be allowed crossing.
Syria has two functioning international airports: Damascus International Airport (DAM IATA), 35 km (22 miles) southeast of the capital and Bassel al-Assad International Airport (LTK IATA), south of Latakia, the main sea port of the country. Due to the ongoing civil war, most airlines have suspended service to these airports. As of 2018, Damascus International Airport is operational, though there are just a dozen of departures daily.
Upon arrival, a free entry visa can be delivered to almost all travellers 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 (~US$13) at land and sea borders. 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 US$60, per car with max 4 and one way. Taxis holding licence can be arranged in Kilis or Gaziantep. Turkcan Turizm, 0348 822 3313
As of 2020, all international trains and most all domestic trains have been suspended indefinitely. Former international routes included the historical Toros Express from Istanbul to Aleppo and an overnight trains from Tehran to Damascus.
Buses run from Turkey, with frequent connections from the city of Antakya (Hatay). You can also travel by bus from Jordan & Lebanon. Buses to Damascus run from Beirut.
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, 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 US$17 per person, based on four people sharing the same taxi. If you want a private taxi then you will have to pay for every seat. In most cases it is necessary to buy a Syrian visa before leaving home, often costing about US$130 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 US$60.
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. 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. Private cab services (which advertise prominently at the airport) charge substantially more.
However, there is also a bus from Baramkeh station to the airport
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 US$50 per day including tax, insurance and unlimited kilometres.
Sixt Rent a Car at the Four Seasons Hotel has rates starting from US$40 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 err on the side of caution when traveling.
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 able to speak Arabic, so try to make other drivers help you and/or call your rental agency.
Gasoline/petrol (marked as "Super", red stands) costs about double diesel (green stand). If you manage to run 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. 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. 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.
As of early 2020, rail transport in Syria is limited to a twice daily service between the coastal cities of Latakia and Tartous and a commuter service in Aleppo. All long-distance services that used to connect Damascus, Aleppo, Deir-az-Zur, Al-Hassakeh and Al-Qamishli and many other cities are cancelled indefinitely. Rehabilitation is however under way on some sections and reports have emerged that the Aleppo-Damascus passenger train might return during 2020. The national operator CFS maintains an timetable at their webpage.
The summer-only excursion steam train in Damascus, which travels to Al-Zabadani in the Anti-Lebanon Mountains and back has resumed operation in 2017. The train is popular with locals trying to escape the summer heat.
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.
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) 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
- The Yarmouk Valley
- Endless desert and countryside in much of the country
- Mountain ranges in the west of the country
- Take a scenic tour. Travel from Latakia (beach), Syrian Coast and Mountains (Safita tower, Mashta hikes and cave)
Marmarita: Virgin Mary memorial, St George Monastery, Crac des Chevaliers, Palmyra (ruins), to Damascus (souq, mosques).
- Hike. in the Syrian Coast and Mountains region.
- Geocaching. Find geocaches in the area.
Exchange rates for Syrian pound
As of January 2022:
Exchange rates fluctuate. Current rates for these and other currencies are available from XE.com
The unit of currency in Syria is the Syrian pound or 'lira'. You will see a variety of notations used locally: £S, LS or S£, Arabic: الليرة السورية al-līra as-sūriyya, but Wikivoyage uses the ISO currency code SYP immediately prefixing the amount in our guides. The pound's subdivision 'piastre' is obsolete.
The black market rate for U.S. dollars is volatile. Hard currencies such as U.S. 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 can be exported legally is a remarkably generous US$3,000 equivalent per year for each traveller. Any amount in excess of US$3,000 risks confiscation by the authorities and time in jail. There are restrictions on export of Syrian currency of a maximum of SYP2,500 per person.
Because of high inflation and political instability, amounts expressed in Syrian pounds in these guides are subject to significant change.
Due to international sanctions, some foreign financial institutions have suspended transactions with Syria, including MasterCard and Visa, and bank cards operating under the Cirrus, Maestro and Plus transaction networks. It is nearly impossible to change travellers cheques in Syria.
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 US$15). 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.
Falafel, deep-fried chickpea patties, are available. 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.
Fresh fruit juices are available from street stalls in most towns, such as mixed juice (usually banana, orange juice and a few exotic fruits like pomegranate).
Beer is cheap. Syrian wine can be found and Lebanese and French wines are also available in a higher price bracket.
Tea is served in a little glass 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 in a three stars hotel costs about US$50, US$80 for four stars, and can reach US$250 in a five-star hotel.
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.
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.
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 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 (e.g. 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.
Homosexual conduct is illegal under Syrian law, which is punishable by up to three years of imprisonment.
Healthcare 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 arrange a visit to your hotel room.
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.
Generally you can drink water from the tap, it is safe, but if you're unsure ask the locals first. This water is free compared to bottled water.
Syria is a majority Muslim country, with long-established Christian and Jewish minorities, though the Jewish community is down to only a handful of individuals in Damascus, with the vast majority of them having immigrated to Israel. Historically, the religious groups had lived in harmony, and religion was largely considered a personal matter, to the point that it was considered inappropriate to ask someone about their religion unless you knew them well, though this has changed since the start of the Syrian Civil War.
- Syrians are indirect communicators. They are tempered by the need to save face and they will avoid saying anything that could be construed as critical, judgmental, or offensive.
- Direct personal questions are commonly asked. To Syrians, it's not considered impolite, but rather it's a way to get to know someone fully. If you feel a question is too personal, simply give an indirect answer and move along.
- Syrians tend to be affectionate to children. In Syria, it's perfectly normal for both men and women to interact with a stranger's child.
- Syrians tend to speak loudly in groups. They also use aggressive body language and raise their voices in conversations; to most visitors, this implies that Syrians are an argumentative bunch, but Syrians tend to use emotions to convey interest in a conversation. What may seem like a shouting match in public may actually be a simple, friendly discussion!
Social customs and breaches
- Never beckon a Syrian person directly, even if they have done something wrong in your opinion. Syrians are quite sensitive to being beckoned directly, and it is considered very rude manners. If you must give feedback, give a mix of both positive and negative feedback.
- Don't talk someone down for having poor English skills. Many Syrians can speak English, usually as a second language. Making condescending statements such as "You speak very good English" is extremely rude.
- Do not swear in front of women. This is applicable to male travellers. It is considered extremely rude.
- It's common for Syrians to turn up to a place unannounced. When this happens, stop what you are doing and attend to your guests.
- Never show the soles of your feet to others. This is considered very disrespectful, unless you are in the company of friends.
- Don't spit in public or in the direction of others, even when obviously done without malice. It is extremely rude.
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 both men and women. Be mindful of your environment, outside of areas frequented by tourists it is wise to dress in more modest clothing.
Women who wish to attract less attention should wear shirts that reach the elbow, and have no revealing cleavage. T-shirts and jeans are acceptable attire in 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. 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.
Things to avoid
- Approach discussions on Israel with caution. Israel's occupation of the Golan Heights is considered illegal by the vast majority of Syrians and many Syrians express negative sentiments against Israel. Unless you have a heart for prolonged discussions, avoid debates on Israel.
- It is unwise to criticise or speak badly of the Syrian government. A comment heard by the wrong person can land you in legal hot water. Those who have fled Syria are more likely to have negative things to say about the Al-Assad government.
- Approach discussions on the civil war with caution. Millions of Syrians have fled their country and some have lost their loves ones in the war. Offer sympathy when the opportunity arises; Syrians will appreciate the gesture.
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. 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 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.