Visiting Syria as a tourist – a week in government controlled areas

I Love Damascus

Before you read this (controversial) blog post, I would like to give a small introduction.

When I visited Syria, July 2018, most of the country was government controlled. As a result, the government controlled areas were fairly safe to visit as a tourist. Travel advice for Syria has been very strict according to our government: all travels should be avoided and there is a very high risk involved. When I walked around in Damascus at night, I felt safer than in most European cities. Women are not afraid to walk alone in the dark. Harassments are not tolerated by Syrians and passersby would immediately help people in need. I really liked Damascus. It is a vibrant city with active nightlife.

To be clear: With all the positive comments I am giving about Syria, I might sound like I am pro-Assad. But, I try to see everything as unbiased as possible and don’t choose sides. I am not a journalist, I am not here to spread pro-Rebel or pro-Assad information. The conflict is too complicated and both sides share biased information to their favoured media. We are not sure about what is fake and what is not. This is a travel blog and you can come here for advice and my experiences in the parts of Syria you can visit as a tourist. Please do not feel offended. Enjoy!

 


I visited Syria as a tourist in July 2018. If you want to visit Syria too, read my blog post I wrote.

It all started in November 2017. I had booked a flight with Aegean Airlines to Beirut in February 2018 but was interested to visit Damascus. I contacted the Syrian Embassy in Brussels to apply for a visa. As requested, I filled in all documents, sent them a scan of my passport and waited for 12 weeks. Guess what, I have never heard of them and I had to leave to Lebanon without a Syrian visa. I met a few people in a hostel in Beirut. One of them, an Irish guy was brave enough to visit Syria too. However, he went to the border without a visa and was denied to enter the country. I then knew I will never be able to enter Syria without a visa too.

In April 2018, the idea was still in my mind. I kept searching the internet for hours and managed to find a few e-mail addresses and phone numbers of so called tour agencies. I added the phone number to my contacts and hoped one of them had WhatsApp. That’s how I got in contact with a “fixer” for my visa and transport in Syria. An interaction with the embassy in Belgium wouldn’t even be necessary to get the Syrian visa. All I had to do was send 200$ by Western Union (WU) to him. I know it sounds strange to do but it was my only hope to visit Syria. So I went to the website of WU to send the money. Turns out you can’t just send money to Syria, you have to visit an office.  I managed to send the money but WU took almost 20% (!) commission fee. Weeks passed, and in the meantime I booked a flight to Beirut again. I was scheduled to visit Syria from 25th until 31st of July.

A few days before I was flying to Beirut I received a WhatsApp message with a photo of my visa. It was going to happen. I must admit I started to become a little bit nervous. I was scheduled to land in 01:50 AM in Beirut, which means I would cross the border to Syria at around 4 to 5 AM. I was starting to ask myself questions: How will the immigration officer react in Beirut with my travel plans? How will the border crossing be? Is it safe to cross in the dark?

Visa Syria Document Proof

I arrived in Beirut airport and I was standing in the line to enter Lebanon. I received a card on the plane which I had to fill in and hand to the immigration officer. One of the boxes said “Your address in Lebanon“. I just filled in “no overnight in Lebanon” and I’d see what the officer will say. After 15 minutes of standing in the queue it was my turn. I handed out this card along with my passport and a few seconds later he asked me “where are you going?“. I told him with a cool voice: “To Damascus.“. He didn’t even look at me, stamped my passport gave it back to me. Wow. Much easier than I thought.

As I left the airport, I was scanning the arrival hall for a paper with my name. Bingo. I introduced myself, shook his hand and I followed him to his car. He was a Syrian from the South, but I couldn’t talk with him that much as he only spoke Arabic. “Welcome welcome, my name is Youssef“. He said.

I had too much adrenaline in my system to fall asleep during the drive to Syria. After an hour on the Lebanese roads the driver, Youssef, asked me “Coffee?“. I said yes, so we stopped at a place. “My friend” he said. Apparently he knew the people at the coffee stop very well. I asked for sugar but they stared at me as I was speaking Chinese to them. No sugar I guess. I received a small cup of coffee with a very strong taste. This must be the traditional Arabic coffee. I wanted to hand over money but Youssef, my driver started shouting “No money! You, Welcome!” and he handed over some money to the coffee maker. I was surprised about this act of generosity.

We proceeded and arrived a few moments later at the Masnaa border. It was fairly busy for being night-time but everything proceeded quickly. I received my Lebanese exit stamp, we proceeded to the Syrian side, handed out my passport and the visa document and received my entry stamp to Syria. Before we enter Syria, the trunk of the car was opened and a few questions were asked about the items that were inside the car (a bag of vegetables of Youssef for example). We left the gate and were officially in Syria. It felt very strange… about 5 kilometers long was a dark road between two mountains and with giant posters of Assad. We then passed our first checkpoint with two soldiers who greeted me and said “Welcome to Syria! Do you like Chai?![Chai – Arabic for Tea]. My driver hands out a bill and we progress to Damascus. This happened a few times that he gave some money at the checkpoints.

R.I.P. ESTA – This stamp bans me from the USA ESTA program, If I ever want to go to the USA again, I have to go to the US embassy and do the long visa procedure.Syrian Lebanese Passport Stamp Masnaa Border

I managed to get some Syrian pounds as it is the only accepted currency. During my visit 1000 Syrian pounds equalled to 1,70€. A bill of 2000 Syrian pounds is the highest bill available and is introduced recently due to inflation.Syrian pounds Assad 2000 SYP

After three hours of driving, we finally entered Damascus. A few checkpoints later we arrived in Bab Touma, the Christian district of Damascus. I was going to stay at the most prestigious hotel of Damascus: Beit Al-Wali Hotel. I took my luggage, greeted Youssef and walked to my hotel. Surprisingly, even at 5-6 AM, there were still a few people on the streets.

The street to the five star hotel, Beit Al Wali.Bab touma street

I quickly checked in and went to my room to sleep. The next day will be interesting, as I have a day on my own in Damascus.

 


 

After waking up a few hours later and leaving my room, I started to realise how beautiful this hotel actually is. See for yourself :).Beit Al Wali Hotel DamascusBeit Al Wali Hotel Damascus (2)

After breakfast, I was ready to leave the city. The hotel staff advised me to drink some tea first. Syrians can drink tea all day, even when the weather is hot.Teatime Beit Al Wali Hotel

I was ready to walk around in Damascus, mainly in Bab Touma and outside around the district. Don’t get me wrong, I liked to roam through the narrow streets, but Damascus has normal roads too. The streets were empty because it in the middle of the day, the hottest moment, so people do a “siesta”.

Damascus Streets (4)You can find posters of Assad in almost every street of Damascus.Damascus Streets One particular street in Bab Touma with beautiful flowers.
Damascus Streets (2)
Because everyone loves cats right? I bought some Burek-ish street food with meat inside and shared my meal with these little cuties. Damascus Cats
Small street for pedestrians and bikers.
Damascus Streets (3)
This is at the Bab Touma square – on the left is the checkpoint, on the right the police station. Soldiers at checkpoints are not allowed to be photographed so I didn’t take a photo of the checkpoint.
Bab Touma Checkpoint and Square

I returned to the hotel to take a shower, as 38°C was way too hot for me. I took a power-nap and before I knew it was dark. So I went outside for a short evening walk.

The beautiful hotel courtyard in the eveningBeit al Wali Hotel at nightAt the entrance of one of the many churches in Bab Touma
Church Bab Touma
Nice car in front of the hotel for a wedding
Wedding DamascusFaith over Fear Damascus

 

The next thing on the plan was to go to Krak Des Chevaliers via Homs. I had a tour guide picking me up with a driver.Road to Homs

The first things you pass when leaving Damascus city is Douma, which is inside district East-Ghouta. The severe destruction that took place recently is very depressing to see. Douma has a very historical point of the Syrian war. It is said to be the first area to rise up against the president, Bashar Al-Assad. Douma was the city with a suspected chemical attack in April 2018. Afterwards, the place was cleared from the rebels and is now back in government’s control.Douma East Ghouta (6)Douma East Ghouta (5) Douma East Ghouta (4) Douma East Ghouta (3) Douma East Ghouta (2) Douma East GhoutaDouma East Ghouta (8) Douma East Ghouta (7)

 

When we left the districts of Damascus, we were driving in a dessert-like area next to the mountains, known as the Anti-Lebanon. As we come closer to Homs, we pass the mountains and a sudden strong wind hits the car. It was interesting to see all the askew trees on the side of the road, because of the wind coming from the Mediterranean sea. Before heading to Krak Des Chevaliers, we stopped at a road restaurant near Homs with very cheap Syrian food and free coffee or tea.

Side Road Restaurant Syria

We proceeded to the castle and the closer we were getting, the more destruction of small villages we started to see. The Krak Des Chevaliers and its surroundings were occupied by Rebels. In 2014, the Syrian Arab Army recaptured the castle and the surroundings. Since then, the castle is starting to get reconstructed. The castle has been recognised by UNESCO as World Heritage Site. Krak Village Destruction Syria (3)Krak Village Destruction SyriaKrak Village Destruction SyriaKrak Village Destruction Syria (2)

We finally approached the amazing castle, which looks in pretty good condition!Krak Des Chevaliers Syria Castle

The entrance of the castle – the first armed person without military uniform I see in Syria.
If you haven’t noticed, on top of the castle is a Russian flag.Krak Des Chevaliers Syria CastleKrak Des Chevaliers Syria Castle

This is the inside of the castle. This part of the castle was used as horse stall. It is a strange feeling to walk around and know that a few years ago armed rebels used to live here.Krak Des Chevaliers InteriorKrak Des Chevaliers Syria CastleBefore leaving the castle, I took a selfie with my guide and driver.Krak Des Chevaliers Syria Castle
Time to return to Damascus.Homs to Damascus Road

We returned to Damascus to look for a local Syrian restaurant. We eventually found a good place and sat down. The amount of food we got was just incredible. We received unlimited flat bread, some hummus and a mix of several vegetables. I then ordered something with chicken and mashed potatoes. Everything was so delicious, but even me, I couldn’t finish it. When we received the bill, which was about 8000 Syrian Pounds, I decided to pay instead of splitting the bill. We had eaten a ton of food with 3 persons for 8000 SYP or less than 14 euro!Al Kamal Damascus Restaurant

As it was getting dark, I returned to the hotel and checked Couchsurfing if I could meet with a local. Luckily I found a woman from Damascus who would like to meet for a drink. We walked around in Bab Touma to look for a place to eat and drink something, so we ended up in something like a “lounge” where they also serve food. Nevertheless, it was a very interesting experience to talk with a local about Syria :).Couchsurfing Meetup in Syria Damascus


 

The remaining two days I strolled around Damascus, doing some sightseeing, talking with locals, buying souvenirs. I spent one day with a guide and the other day on my own. Some interesting places I visited was the Umayyad mosque, known as the fourth most holy place for Muslims. I also visited several souqs in Damascus with spices, nuts. You can even find a gold souq in Damascus.

Umayyad Mosque in the centre of DamascusUmayyad mosque Minaret Damascus SyriaUmayyad mosque Damascus SyriaUmayyad Mosque Damascus Syria (4)Inside Umayyad Mosque Damascus Syria Inside Umayyad Mosque Damascus Syria

 

Only a few metres from the mosque you can find the largest souk of Damascus. Look how busy the place is!Damascus Souk SyriaTamarind drink is a traditional cold drink that is sold by these guys. It has a very sweet taste and is refreshing on hot days like these. For me it tasted a little bit like cherry juice.Damascus Souk Tamarind drink SyriaA meeting place for locals to have a drink.
Cafe Damascus Souk Syria

 

The gold souk.
Gold Souk Damascus Syria

 

The spice souk was very interesting. There are also traditional medicine practitioners in the souk, for example this very kind person. I bought hibiscus, caraway and the local soap from him!

Traditional medicine damascus syriaMore spices…Spice souk Damascus

 

This used to be the hammam in Azm palace in Damascus
Azm Palace Hammam

 

I Love Damascus Sign Syria

 

Damascus is a beautiful city with a lot of history and culture. Everything feels very normal in Damascus. In the city centre you can’t see any signs of the war. This is only when you leave the centre and see for example Douma / East-Gouta district, as I have shown. Syrians are really very hospitable people and everyone is ready to help you if you have a question. Let’s hope the war will end as soon as possible. Peace to Syria.

Still haven’t seen enough? I’ve made a short video of my trip in Syria. Enjoy!

28 Comments on “Visiting Syria as a tourist – a week in government controlled areas

  1. Hey! Super interested in this trip. I’ve got a blog myself and thinking of doing such a trip – would be great if you could send me your visa contact details by email.
    Thanks!

    Like

  2. Hi Thanks for your sharing. I have same question like travelling _the_unknown: I’m still looking for the way to get a visa. May I know your contact as well? Thanks.

    Like

  3. hi,

    thanks for sharing!

    Would like to visit Syria soon. Would like to know about the agency you had contact.

    Thanks!

    Like

    • It is simple, go to Beirut, and by car you may travel to Damascus or Lattakia in case you like the sea side.

      Like

  4. Great stuff, amigo. Found this off of ThornTree. I’m going to be in Lebanon at Christmas and was hoping to visit Damascus around then or for the new year. I join the other posters in interest in meeting your contact. I am Canadian. Thanks for a great post.

    Like

  5. Hey George,
    Very interesting article, thank you for sharing!
    I am interested in visiting Syria as well! Could you please share the contact with me?

    Thank you very much in advance!

    Like

  6. Hi. I’m going to Syria next month and you surprised me with informations about Visa on border. Irish guy didnt get Visa because od … What? Beacause that was lebanese border or Syria is not giving any visas on its borders to EU passport holders?

    Like

    • Hey Julico Cezar,
      how are you organizing the trip? Are you using a company? I’d love to have more info! Could you please message me?
      Thank you!
      Stefan

      Like

      • Hi Majak
        I’m traveling only with wife and dog in my camper. For directions and tour destinations I’m responsible. For security my Staffordshire Bullterrier and for unical atmosphere is responsible my wife…. 😂

        Like

      • Hey Julico Cezar,
        Sounds great haha! Do you run a blog, instagram etc where i could follow you? I’d really like to read how the trip gos along!

        Like

      • By on arrival visa, do u mean u get one at the Syrian border? Or apply beforehand to pick it up? Im a bit confused, sorry thanks for ur help! I looked at the Belgium Syrian embassy link but the request form is only in Arabic..
        Cheers 🙂

        Like

      • it is not this easy for EU citizens to get a visa. The embassy in Belgium didn’t help me at all. So I am not sure why you are promoting this. I had to get approval for visa from Damascus and didn’t go to the embassy.

        Like

      • So you did not go to the embassy and surprised why did not you get a visa?!

        I am answering people’s questions not promoting.

        At least there is a Syrian embassy here, meanwhile, the Belgian one is closed there!

        Even for high skilled workers the European visa is taking long time and effort and not assured.

        Like

      • What I mean is that the embassy in Belgium didn’t help me so I had to find another way to get a visa; which is by a pre-arranged paper to get a visa at the border.

        Like

      • How did you arrange the paper in order to get a visa at the border?

        Like

  7. Hello there, amazing blog post article! I’m from Canada and was also wondering if you would be able to email me the information on how to get the VISA to Syria? Thank you very much!

    Like

  8. Hi Thanks for your sharing.I’m still looking for the way to get a visa. May I know your contact as well? Thanks.

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: