Syria travel guide, including map of Syria, top Syria travel experiences, and tips for travel in Aleppo, Palmyra and Damascus
Syria is one of the world's great unsung travel destinations. And it's unsung for a reason: the country's testy relationship with the West has largely protected its rich history and natural wonders from the erosions of tourism.
The size of the country means any visitor can pack plenty in. The classic route is north-south between the big cities, with an excursion to the desert halfway – but there are plenty of variations.
If you want a city-break, you have two great metropolises to choose from, each now boasting many characterful boutique hotels. There's the capital, Damascus – perhaps the world's oldest continuously inhabited city – and Aleppo, its equally venerable northern cousin, whose moody, all-dispensing souks seem to rise straight from some Biblical illustration.
History buffs can take their pick – Bronze Age relics, Crusader Castles, Ottoman remnants, some of the best ruins in the Roman empire – plus the lack of ropes or barriers at major sites makes the whole country a living museum. For wilderness lovers, great sweeps of Lawrence of Arabia desert are still home to Bedouin tribes, and firelit nights under the stars beckon.
More and more people are cottoning on that Syria is politically stable, safe, inexpensive and remarkably close to Europe. Just keep it to yourself.
Women should dress modestly but there is no need to cover up excessively – a wander through Damascus' Christian quarter on a Thursday evening will make you wonder why you were even worried. However, bare flesh will get you the wrong sort of attention, so cover shoulders and tops of arms. Skirts to the knee are mostly fine but to be sure, wear loose-fitting long sleeves and trousers. Take a scarf in case you have to enter a mosque where none are provided.
Some men, especially in the countryside and in more conservative Aleppo, might not expect to shake hands with a woman. If in doubt, the hand-on-heart gesture is always polite and respectful.
Climate Spring (March - May) is the ideal time to visit - days are sunny but cool (18-20°C) and orange blossom flowers sensationally. Autumn (Sept - Oct) is also pleasant. Summer temperatures rise to a searing 45°C, while winters are similar to the UK - chill, wet, grey and occasionally snowy.
Festivals Time your visit to get even more from your trip to Damascus. At Easter, especially Maundy Thursday, the locals spend the evening promenading around seven churches in Bab Touma. On the last day of May there are processions for the Virgin around Bab Touma. In September the Festival of the Holy Cross in Maaloula takes place – think pagan bonfires, fireworks and dancing in the street. In December (5th in 2010) the Shi’a Muslim festival of Ashura celebrates the martyrdom of the prophet’s grandson, Hussein, and takes the form of processions, chanting and sometimes self-flagellation with chains. Seyyeda Zeinab, 10km south of Damascus, is the place to watch this.
Check when Ramadan falls as travel at this time can be challenging: 11 Aug-9 Sept, 2010; 1 Aug-30 Aug, 2011.
Damascus International Airport (DAM) lies 26km from the city centre and is currently being refurbished; Aleppo Airport (ALP) is a 20-minute, 6km journey from Aleppo city centre. If you're visiting both Damascus and Aleppo, consider flying into one and out of the other to save a long drive back.
Buses are the most convenient way to travel, and serve most parts of the country. Choose between luxury coaches (more expensive, more comfy) and service or microbuses (basic but cheaper). There’s a comfortable overnight train from Aleppo to Damascus, and it's also possible to take the train from Istanbul to Damascus.
In town, taxis are cheap and plentiful. Check that the meter is on before setting out, or agree a price. Cham Car based at the Cham Palace Hotel, Damascus, offers good-value car hire. It’s not advisable to drive after dark.
Syria is not as good value as it used to be, but it’s still inexpensive. Accommodation costs in the now-ubiquitous boutique hotels – often converted from Ottoman houses and palaces – are cheaper than Europe or the US, and big discounts are available off-season.
Budget accommodation is mainly in the big cities, of variable quality, and often noisy. Take earplugs. There are few campsites, but unofficial camping (even at historic sites) may be tolerated if you ask permission.
Expect meat kebabs, chickpeas in various forms (falafel etc) and bread. Picnics are a good way of avoiding the repetitive nature of Syrian restaurants: whole roast chickens (found at rotisseries on many main roads through small towns) are a great picnic food, and flat bread, tomatoes and hummus are never hard to find. Tea and coffee are ubiquitous; alcohol is, perhaps surprisingly, easy to find.
No particular vaccinations are required for Syria. Tap water should be avoided. Food is generally clean but avoid eating tabbouleh, a notorious stomach-turner. Damascus is very dusty: in winter the heavy air pollution can affect asthma sufferers.