Last week I went on holiday. To Syria. It is the 31st least-visited country in the world, with 90,000 tourists per year, although few of those are from outside the Middle East. No wonder, the country may not be the most natural or appealing holiday destination to most people. Both Damascus and Aleppo are however now safe to visit, either alone or with a guide. I felt totally comfortable and secure and had a great time among smiling and very accommodating people. You can fly into Damascus from several cities, including Kuwait, Amman and Baghdad. Cham Airways is your best bet, although Syrian Air and Fly Damas also operate.
The connections from Norway were not very good, so I rather took a taxi from Beirut airport to Damascus. We left just after midnight.
“How long time will it take to get there?” I asked.
“One, two or three hours. Just let me know and I will drive accordingly,” Maataz joked. Sort of. I asked him to get me to Damascus fast, and he certainly did. The 50 year old drove like a fighter pilot on acid, and we arrived at my hotel only 1 hour and 40 minutes later. That included several stops at security checkpoints in both countries and the usual formalities while crossing the border. Normally you should calculate around three hours for the trip, sometimes four hours if traffic is bad. I paid 110 USD, but I have heard about people paying everything from 90 to 250. The bus or a shared taxi is naturally much cheaper. The Syria-Jordan border has been closed for quite some time, but there are rumours that it will reopen soon.
Western credit or debit cards are not widely accepted, so bring enough USD or Euro to pay for everything you need during your stay, including accommodation. There are ATMs, but they only work with local cards. You will also need local cash (Syrian pounds) to pay for small things, exchange in a bank or settle for a poorer exchange rate in your hotel. Do note that you will need 2,500 Syrian pounds (5 USD) upon leaving the country. Why? To pay for the exit form and for an official to stamp it.
I stayed in the Syrian capital for three days, and I was surprised at the lively nightlife. Syrians know how to party! Who would have thought? There are around 50 bars, lounges, roof terraces and nightclubs by Straight Street alone, and the Syrians sure know how to party. Thursday is the big night out here, although Friday is also pretty good and Saturday is decent. You will however find bars that are open any night, and Marine Music Bar even has live music seven nights a week.
Or have a tea or a hookah pipe at one of the many cafés. And you can of course not leave town without having shawarma, falafel, manakeesh (Syrian “pizza”) and camel kebab.
The Old City is an intriguing and lively labyrinth of narrow streets and alleyways. And there is a lot of history here. We are talking about a city that is between 10,000 and 12,000 years old, which makes it the world’s oldest continuously inhabited city.
You cannot visit Damascus without exploring the Souq al-Hamidiyya, a huge market with hundreds of small shops. The streets are for pedestrians only, and are covered by a roof to protect people from the sun. You can get anything from spices, leather and food to utensils, souvenirs and clothes. I love walking around and just inhaling the smells of cumin, cinnamon, pepper, nutmeg and cloves.
But how get you get access to this facinating country? You will need to register with immigration authorities in advance, a slow and bureaucratic process at any embassy or consulate. I tried to send my application to the Syrian embassy in Stockholm, but they later called and told me thay I would have to show up in person for an interview and that the application process would take at least 2-3 weeks. But it turned out that there is a much faster way, although at a cost. For 300 USD you will get a registration with the immigration department. It is valid for 3 months. The process will take one week, usually less. I actually had my visa in 36 hours. How?
Basel Alhasan is your man. I met him for a meal and a few drinks in Damascus. The 40 year old has been to over 60 countries, and he is very well connected in Syria. You have to be in order to navigate all the red tape around here. He is the CEO of Travel King, a tour operator in Damascus. The only drawback is that you can only pay via Western Union.
Do note that you will also need to pay for the visa itself on the border. I paid 72 USD for that, but the price depends on which passport you have. You will not be able to buy the visa unless you are registered in the system of the immigration department.
Travel King also offers guided tours, transport, flight tickets and hotel bookings. For many areas in Syria, having a guide is highly recommended for security purposes and often necessary in order to get the needed permits.
The best way to contact Basel is via email (basel(a)travelking-sy.com) or Whatsapp (+963 936 194 494). Say hi from me.
Or if Syria is a bit too hardcore for you, you can at least see some of the photos I took on my last visit below.