I spent 10 months in Syria studying Arabic at the University of Damascus and teaching, first at the United Nations Relief Works Agency and then at the Iraqi Student Project, an organization helping Iraqi refugees as they apply to U.S. universities.
Must Go in Syria
This ancient crusader castle, close to the Lebanon border, will make you feel like a kid on a playground. T.E. Lawrence, or Lawrence of Arabia, said that Crac was “perhaps the best preserved and most wholly admirable castle in the world.”
It is filled with chapels, tunnels that lead to who-knows-where, and preserved frescoes- all available for your exploration! Wander the underground rooms by holding up lighters and climb through the chipped-away windows.
Marmousa is an active monastery in the mountains of Syria. To reach it, you can take a taxi from the town of Al Nabek into the desert, and be prepared for a steep climb up the winding footpath.
A few monks reside in Marmousa, and welcome visitors to stay overnight for no charge except for a bit of work preparing food and cleaning dishes. Marmousa has a simple, tiny church and many cave-like rooms built into the mountains, which serve as the perfect place to read.
Must Do in Syria
Walk the streets of the Damascus Old City
Push your way through the crowded alleyways. Buy some vegetables or fresh fruit and or clothes, and trip over the enormous roaming cats. Chat with a man sipping sweetened tea outside a smoky café. Watch the sun set behind the turquoise tint of a minaret. The Old City is a wonderful place.
Go into the Omayyad Mosque
This mosque, also known as the Great Mosque, is the fourth holiest place in Islam and absolutely stunning. Walk around the open courtyard and feel its significance from the intensity of those praying around you. For all of you non-hijab-wearing ladies, you will be provided with hooded “special clothes” before you enter the mosque.
Shop at the Aleppo souk
Aleppo has one of the most beautiful markets in the Middle East. It is at the foot of Aleppo’s Citadel, and it filled with enough covered alleys to explore for days. Look through the gorgeous scarf and jewelry selection (which is much cheaper than in Damascus).
Must Eat in Syria
Grab a falafel sandwich with tahini and mint, a shwarma sandwich right off of the stick, a delicious banana milkshake, or a piece of baklava steeped in syrup. Yum.
Meze at an Old City beit
With the lovely ambiance of open roofs and vines winding down the walls, the Old City “beits,” or houses, are an unbelievably cheap and delicious option for dinner. Order a meze- a selection of small dishes like tabbouleh, fattoush, some minced lamb kibbeh, hummus- and feast! Don’t forget to order the polo, delicious mint lemonade, as well.
While it’s not so much a food (though in Arabic, it is said that you “drink” it)… smoke that hookah! Argileh, Nargileh, sheesha, hubbly-bubbly for all you Brits… it has many names, but wow, it goes down smooth in every single café that lines the beautiful Old City alleyways.
Try Art Café Ninar near Bab Sharqi in the Old City; it is filled with rotating art exhibits, cheap beer, and you will find yourself smoking a never-ending hookah right next to a poet or an artist.
Cultural Tips for Travel in Syria
Understand how politically charged things are. Don’t mention Israel (you won’t be able to get into the country if you have an Israeli stamp in your passport), don’t ask anyone about politics, and don’t say the president’s name (Syrians often refer to President Bashar Al-Assad as simply “al ra-ees” or “the president”).
And dear lord, if you encounter any protests or a hint of violence, walk away, and don’t take pictures.
Knowing a few phrases of Syrian Colloquial Arabic will give you so much street cred!
Cheap travel tips for Syria
The buses are the way to go. It costs only about $5 to get from Damascus to Aleppo.
Why stay at a fancy hotel when you can meet so many people at hostels? Syria offers a great selection of dirt-cheap hostels, from the quirky (I stayed in a hostel with a rope ladder and two brown rabbits) to the simple.
Note: Ultimately, things are changing rapidly. Syria is in a violent and unpredictable state, but the wonderful people and beautiful country cannot be forgotten. While I would not (for real, for real, and the U.S. Travel Advisory would agree) advise that you travel to Syria right now, sometime in the future consider going to this historically rich and culturally beautiful place.
Thanks so much for sharing, Kat! Have any of your ever travel somewhere on the ‘do not visit‘ list? Any other Syrian travel tips?