Syria is perhaps the quintessential Middle East destination, with countless riches to show for its seven millennia of history: spectacular desert palaces, rambling archaeological sites, ornate Islamic mosques, Crusader castles, chaotic medieval souqs, and a complex, rich cuisine. Yet while Syria has long been popular with savvy expats, Arabs and a few adventurous Europeans (French and Italians especially), it still remains undiscovered by many who have been deterred by US embargoes and sporadic troubles in neighbouring Lebanon.
If Syria is the essence of the Middle East, then its capital Damascus is the archetypal city. Get lost in the labyrinthine Old City, haggle for spices and textiles in the souqs, take in the archaeological riches from some of the region’s finest ancient ruins, absorb the intricate interiors of old Ottoman houses, and steam away the stresses of the day in an atmospheric hammam.
From Damascus, it’s a breeze to do day trips to Bosra, for one of the world’s most perfectly preserved Roman theatres, or to mystical Maalula and the convent at Seidnayya; and not far from there, to the magical, remote Mar Musa Monastery. A short drive up the coast, Lattakia, on the sparkling Mediterranean, boasts some of Syria’s best restaurants and cafés, while further north, Aleppo has one of the Middle East’s most complete old cities and an atmospheric medieval souq.
Set in some of the country’s most arid landscapes, the sprawling ruins of Palmyra must be the region’s most striking. Famous for its ancient wooden waterwheels, Hama has a charming historic quarter, while underrated Homs boasts atmospheric souqs, buzzy cafes, and a young student population. The amateur archaeologist in you will enjoy kicking back among the colonnades (the longest in the world) at ancient Apamea and scrambling around the Crusader castles of Qala’at al-Hosn (Krak des Chevaliers) and Qala’at Marqab.
A more adventurous road trip will take you to the surprisingly lush plains of the Euphrates and the majestic ruins of the castle Qala’at Najm, the lonely desert ruins of Rasafa, the desert palace of Qasr al-Heir al-Sharqi, and the hillside citadel of Halabiyya. Venture even further east toward the Iraqi border and you can take in the emerald banks of the Euphrates from the stark ruins of Dura Europas.