Can you visit Syria as a tourist? Yes, you can! Many people get surprised when they realize that Syria used to be one of the most popular destinations in the Middle East before the war. Tourists were flocking to the country – not surprisingly, as its home to many historic treasures and incredible people.
Syria has been open for a few years until it got hit with COVID and closed its borders for over a year. I visited Syria in March 2020, right before it reclosed again.
Syria re-opened for tourists once again at the beginning of October 2021. The process to get a tourist visa to Syria is similar to what it used to be before and you are still required to have a local guide. However, there are more ways to visit now, as the airport reopened.
Why Visit Syria?
When it comes to traveling to certain places like Yemen or Syria many people ask questions about the ethical aspects of traveling to Syria. As these places, not so long ago were war zones and many people have been forced to escape in order to save their lives.
Some people call it “dark tourism” and instantly shame those who travel there. I think that people are so focused on places like Chernobyl, Syria, or Yemen as they happened recently, they quickly forget that technically speaking visiting a Colosseum in Rome would be a prime example of dark tourism… especially considering the fact that everyone acts like a goof there and takes cutesy photos. Just saying.
Syria is a place full of history. When you travel there respectfully, you can learn a lot about the recent crisis and the history before and after it. You won’t learn that from the news.
Considering the fact that Syria used to be a prime tourist destination, many people were forced out of their jobs because of the lack of tourists. Many Syrians are simply trying to live their lives. My own guide was a multi-lingual educated man with years of experience in tourism. Nowadays, being a guide is a side job, because there are not many visitors so he drives a school bus. Syrians are very happy to see that tourists are coming back.
Is Syria safe now?
The capital city, Damascus is very safe as any other city in the Middle East. Damascus is a very vibrant city that didn’t get affected by the war like Aleppo or Homs. But the economy isn’t obviously good, so frequent power cuts are a problem in the winter.
I drove around the country and felt like Tartus was a quiet beach town. Aleppo was safe but you had to take precautions just in case. I haven’t spent the night in Homs, just visited during the day so I cannot speak for that. I stayed in Hama and it was completely safe. I was told “there was no fighting there, so not an issue”.
For safety in Palmyra read the section “Visiting Palmyra”.
The fighting is practically done and people want to live their lives. You’ll see children playing football, people selling souvenirs and returning to markets while rebuilding everything, adults enjoying themselves at cafes and restaurants… just like anywhere else in the world.
How to Get a Visa to Syria
In order to visit Syria, you will need to obtain a visa. As you cannot travel completely independently (like you can in Iran) you will currently need a special security clearance that needs to be organized through a travel agency in Syria.
Obtaining a security clearance through your operator takes about 2 weeks, so you must plan in advance. It’s included in your tour cost. With that you can, or should I say your guide, will obtain a visa for you at the border.
You cannot just show up without clearance and hope for the best. Even if you somehow got the visa at the border (but you cannot), you wouldn’t be able to drive anywhere without security clearance – you get stopped multiple times every day and your guide needs to show your paperwork.
Money in Syria
When you get your visa at the border ask to exchange money immediately as it’s the easiest place to do so . In Syria, they use the Syrian Pound (SYP). Bring € or USD because you obviously cannot pay for anything with a card or withdraw more while in Syria.
How to Get to Syria
Your agency will inform you about possible options to get to Syria, potential border closures and possible flights. When I was going the only reliable option was driving from Beirut.
The journey from Beirut to Damascus takes about 3-4 hours, depending on traffic
Nowadays you can also opt for flying directly to Damascus from Erbil. As Iraq now issues visas on arrival it’s super easy.
Can You Visit Syria Independantly?
Not anymore. Technically you could in the past and I know people who did that by jumping through some hoops. It’s also costly because the security clearance alone was $500+ per person.
You still need a driver to get around and that counts as a tour.
I’ll be real, just because the rules say you need a guide, it doesn’t need to be a loud tour of foreigners if you’re not into it, as it can be isolating from the actual local experience. I get it.
How to Find a Guide or Tour
I traveled to Syria solo. It was just me and my guide/driver and sometimes a few other locals (eg. in Palmyra I had to be escorted by a few soldiers). It was as authentic as it could have been and I could still wander around Damascus on my own. That way I was able to see parts of Syria that are not possible for independent travelers, like Palmyra.
I highly recommend Golden Target Tours. The contact is Khaldoun +963 944 372700 (WhatsApp) or email address is [email protected] . Everyone I met at the company is professional, friendly and knowledgeable. My guide was Bilal is you would like to book the same one, but I’m sure any guide from the company will be great.
You pay for your tour in USD cash upon arrival in Damascus, as there are obviously no ATMs or card readers. You must bring extra USD to exchange at the border for your own expenses such as food, drinks, souvenirs and extras.
There are rumors that visas for Americans aren’t being issued at the moment. These are rumors and problems of individual companies, not the actual situations with Syrian visas.
Internet in Syria
I was surprised that I was able to connect to wifi pretty much at every hotel I stayed. You could also buy a SIM card, but I felt like I had no need for that.
Food in Syria
Syrian food is absolutely delicious. Similar to Lebanese with local twists. Hummus, kibbeh, kabobs, salads, fresh bread – everything was very tasty.
I also got to try Syrian kanafeh when in Hama and lots of svehha in Damascus. The latter is sort of like a Syrian pizza.
Palmyra, a UNESCO heritage site pictured here used to be one of the most important attractions. Built in 3rd BC, it was incredibly preserved.
Many visitors skip Palmyra as it requires extra driving time, extra permit and naturally cost. Others say “Palmyra has been destroyed”. As you may have heard, sadly, Isis destroyed Palmyra but it doesn’t mean that it’s completely wiped out.
Personally, I still found it incredible so I can only imagine how impressive it was before the destruction.
Is Palmyra safe to visit?
Hotels and restaurants nearby don’t really exist anymore so the closest place to stay is Homs, and you now need to visit it with the military – until they clean up the grounds completely, so it’s not 100% safe but it’s relatively safe.
Are All Cities Destroyed?
Damascus – The city center has been intact, but a small area outside of Damascus is still off-limits.
Aleppo – Lots of people wonder about Aleppo as it was always on the news. Part of the Old Souk is completely destroyed but people are actively rebuilding it. Parts of the old town are gone, but many places are intact.
Homs – The most destroyed city in Syria out of all. Over half of it is completely gone.
Hama – Entirely intact.
Palmyra – Most things are at least damaged and functional buildings are gone, but it’s still impressive to see.
Krak de Chevaliers – Partially damaged, but as the castle is from the XIIth century it’s not fully preserved.
Tartus – Most places are intact, just a small part in town has some damage.
Useful Tips for Visting Syria
1 – My most useful tip is to try going in the summer months.
I visited in March and I surely underestimated how freezing it was. I didn’t think how cold could it be as I’ve been to neighboring Lebanon before. I was freezing the whole trip despite two sweaters and a coat.
I also had to cut my visit at Krak de Chevaliers shorts because it was so windy and cold that I could barely hear my guide. The night in Damascus when the electricity and heating went out I was a frozen ice cube, so come prepared.
2 – I suggest you fly to Damascus (Cham Wings Airlines and Syrian Air) or cross the border between Beirut and Damascus.
I crossed the border above Tripoli on my way to Tartus and it was a bit of a hiccup. The guide had my security clearance, but the staff had no idea how to issue my visa, how much do I pay and I spent a long time walking from one booth to another building to figure it out.
It was extremely windy and cold, so this wasn’t the best experience.
3 – I recommend bringing a friend with you.
I don’t mind traveling entirely solo, but in places like Syria or South Sudan where you spend long hours in the car, it’s nice to have a friend to keep you company. Otherwise, it does feel a bit lonely.
4 – Don’t be disrespectful.
I cannot underline this enough, as I actually saw a blogger going to Syria and acting like he was visiting Disneyland. Don’t be that person who poses in front of the ruins.
5 – Photos are allowed everywhere minus checkpoints.
There are no restrictions on taking photos in Syria. As long as it’s not a checkpoint you can take selfies everywhere (apart from the point. 4, obviously). Locals do that too, especially at the umbrella street in Damascus or at the tomb of Zaynab – the daughter of Fatima, at Sayyidah Zaynab Mosque.