Travel to Syria with Untamed Borders

by Erin Coyle
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“Tell your friends and everyone else to travel to Syria. They are welcome anytime,” says my guide, Taysir, as my group said goodbye to him in Damascus. It was an unforgettable seven-day trip with Untamed Borders.

I have always been fascinated with Syria, so I immediately contacted the company when I saw that it was resuming tours. The trip was my chance to discover history, gain knowledge, and clear misconceptions people may have.

Krak de Chevaliers , Syria, Erin Coyle

The impressive theater at Palmyra still has the original floors (Photo by Erin Coyle)

Safety and Travel to Syria

Safety was never an issue, and I always felt comfortable anywhere we went, even when walking around solo or with other travelers at night. There are checkpoints throughout the country, but it is nothing alarming. They usually check passports or the paper from the tour agency with our details, and occasionally, they inspect the back of the van.

Arriving in Syria

Upon meeting the group in Beirut, the four of us clicked immediately. We all wanted to visit a rich historical country and hoped to encourage others to travel there. After about an hour, we stopped to exchange money, reached passport control, and met our bubbly guide, Taysir. Taysir welcomed us to Syria with a big smile and ensured we would have a wonderful trip.

travel to Syria, Erin Cole

Travel guide Taysir, leading Untamed Borders’ trip to Syria (Photo by Erin Coyle)

The tour began, and my group was eager to see and learn as much as possible. While driving around, we saw pockets of destruction from the war and earthquake, but there were also places under restoration, such as the souq in Aleppo.

Locals are welcoming and happy to see tourists. Culture, food, and warm hospitality are many reasons to visit.

Ancient Culture in Syria: Palmyra

Imagine walking around UNESCO World Heritage sites, such as the complex for the Queen of Zenobia, who ruled Palmyra for six years in the 3rd century.

Known as the city of dates, Palmyra was established around 2000 BC and expanded during other periods. It was also part of the Silk Road trading route.

We first went to an area that housed one of the biggest temples in the Orient. A dozen or so Greco-Roman-style columns and the outside frame of an entrance are still standing, while the rest of the structures are rubble from the war.

travel to Syria

A UNESCO World Heritage site, a complex for the Queen of Zenobia, who ruled Palmyra for six years in the 3rd century. Originally established in 2000 BC, it’s one of the largest temples in the Orient. (Photo by Erin Coyle)

I kept looking around, trying to soak up the history and imagine life during this period while also thinking about the tragedies. The war affected much of the 12 square kilometers of the complex—but the theater still has the original floor. Taysir assured us that, eventually, this city would undergo renovations.

When approaching the ancient city, the nearby neighborhoods show rubble from the remains of destroyed houses, which is sobering. Roughly 10,000 people remain in the city, which used to have 60,000.

Krak de Chevaliers

I did not expect Krak de Chevaliers to be so grand. The most preserved fort from the Crusader period’s bare stone walls from the outside does not prepare one for entering. The two castles inside include stone double archways, a commander’s tower, storage rooms, and horse stables. An eight-meter-deep moat surrounds the inner castle.

I could not stop taking photos because I was in awe of the decor, floral motifs, and medieval architecture. I also had moments of, ‘I can’t believe I’m here walking around the castle.’ It draws visitors in and makes one want to get lost while wandering around as if it’s ready to share its secrets.

The top of the castle provides views of lush green farm terraces, which one may not expect to see here.

Krak de Chevaliers, Erin Coyle

The Commander’s tower at Krak de Chevaliers (Photo by Erin Coyle)

Azem Palace

Another cultural experience is the Azem Palace in Hama. Walking down the old city’s cobbled streets, you will see this Ottoman-style building built in 1755 AD by the Ottoman governor of Syria.

Expect to find old hammam rooms and a sitting room with blue and white wall mosaics. The highlight of the palace was the courtyard. It was peaceful listening to the trickling water from the fountain and a few chirps. The relaxing area felt like a sanctuary.

hammam room at palace in syria

A hammam room at Azem Palace (Photo by Erin Coyle)

Food in Syria

One of my favorite foods was Shakriyeh, lamb with yogurt, and spices such as cumin, coriander, and onion. The hot yogurt is a soup base, and the tender lamb hit the spot.

food in Syria

Dishes such as shakriyeh were part of delicious and varied cuisine in Syria. Another favorite was chicken shawarma with mushrooms and cheese (Photo by Erin Coyle)

Expect plenty of shawarma and falafel shops, but try chicken shawarma with cheese and mushrooms wrapped in crispy bread with sesame seeds on top in Aleppo. Taysir recommended the spot, and having cheese and mushrooms with my shawarma was a first for me, but it was a good combination.

Most hotels serve mezze-style breakfast with olives, hummus, mild soft white cheese, hard-boiled eggs, and labneh—similar to lighter cream cheese. In Aleppo, our hotel also served Mamoomea, an oatmeal-like dish with cinnamon, pistachio, and wheat flour. It is a bit sweet, so a few spoonfuls are enough.

food in Syria, Erin Coyle

Mamoome, an oatmeal-like dish with cinnamon, pistachio, and wheat flour (Photo by Erin Coyle)

Stop at Bakdash, the first ice cream shop in Damascus, which opened in 1895. It’s inside the souq, and the pistachio-flavored, slightly chewy ice cream with cream on top is refreshing.

Vegetarians and vegans may have a slight challenge with food for lunch and dinner. Some hotels might have fish, but if not, travelers can find falafels, salads, and mini flatbreads, such as mini pizzas, with cheese and olives on top.

Bakdash, the first ice cream shop in Damascus, opened in 1895. (Photo by Erin Coyle)

Syrian Hospitality

Everywhere my group went, people greeted us with smiles and said, “Welcome to Syria.'” Locals are curious about where you’re from and are glad to see tourists.

We had tea and coffee offers, requests for selfies, and questions about what brought us to Syria. We felt special and enjoyed our interactions, even if it was a quick hello with a smile.

One night in Hama, a football (soccer) game was one. We returned to the hotel and found fully booked tables with three available seats. We sat down, and before we knew it, we had water, lemon tea, and chocolates given to us. The two women at the table said, ‘Welcome to Syria. You are our guests, so please enjoy.’ My group appreciated this kind hospitality.

We met one person in Damascus who told us he had not seen tourists in seven years. Hopefully, our presence will show signs that things are improving. It was encouraging to see other groups traveling around, even if it was three or four people.

Impressions of Travel to Syria

Syria is a country worth traveling to and an unforgettable experience. The food, culture, and hospitality are all reasons to visit. Expect many ‘I can’t believe I’m here moments’ where visitors are warmly welcomed.

travel to Syria

A group photo.

Travel Tips for Travel to Syria

Americans can take eight weeks to obtain a visa, so contact Untamed Borders before booking the trip. Visa prices vary, depending on your passport, and they only accept cash. Prices fluctuate regularly in Syria, and my visa for an American cost $200, while the Irish passport holders in my group paid $75. The other traveler paid $100 with a Canadian passport.

Syria is a cash-only country, but there is a money exchange before reaching the border. There is also one in Damascus. They accept Euros and Dollars.

Be respectful and mindful when taking photos, and always ask permission beforehand. Your guide can also let you know if it’s appropriate.

Writer Erin Coyle amdiring the arches in Syria (Photo by guide __)

More About Travel to Syria:

  • Visit Untamed Borders to learn more about this and their other international trips.

-All photos courtesy of Erin Coyle, except as credited. Cover photo, by Erin Coyle, depicts the Krak de Chevaliers.

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