As it is in any Muslim country, the call to prayer is called out from mosques five times a day starting in the early morning. It can be a beautiful sound.
Aleppo is a fairly conservative city. Dress appropriately to avoid any problems and to avoid standing out too much. Men should wear shirts and trousers and women should not wear anything that is too revealing. If you follow that simple dress code you should not have any problems. Head scarves are not necessary unless you want to enter a mosque but even then grey robes are available at no extra charge.
There are no hostile feelings towards Americans or Westerners in general (although Americans tend to be subjected to more scrutiny by the authorities than other nationalities). You could, however, find yourself in trouble if you engage in open criticism of and against the Syrian government or the president. Your best bet is to avoid political conversations all together just to avoid any possible problems. If you do engage in political discussions with Syrians, be aware that they might face intense questioning by the secret police if you are overheard. As a general rule, always assume that you are being watched by the plain-clothes policemen (mukhabarat). You will notice that not many uniformed policemen can be seen in the streets, but this is because the police have a wide network of plain-clothes officers and informants.
Friday is a holy day and most shops and historic sites are closed so plan accordingly for this.
Stealing is looked down upon and thus is not very common. Crime is generally low and you should feel safe to walk around in any part of the city at any time day or night. But as in any city, it's a good idea to keep an eye on your belongings, particularly in the souk.
Meals are a bit later than in the U.S. but similar to the times in some European countries. Lunch is from 1 to 3 and dinner around 8pm. Syrians take a siesta in the middle of the day, from about 3 to 6, but this means that the night life is very active. You can return to the markets and public squares that you visited during the day and by 10pm they will be bustling with people selling food and treats and drinks. It is a like a street fair every night.
Aleppo is a beautiful and historic city that anyone who is considering a trip to the Middle East should go see.
Aleppo is close to the main border crossing with Turkey. You will need a visa to enter into Syria. It is typically more convenient to secure a visa in your home country as the consulates in Turkey do not usually issue tourist visas. How you get the visa varies by country so check with a travel agent or consult. Citizens of the predominantly Arab nations, as well as Turkish citizens as of 2009, do not require a visa.
At the border, most nationalities can secure a 2 week transit visa in 20–30 minutes. American passport holders, however, will have to wait between 3 to 10 hours to secure a transit visa, as the border guards must fax Damascus to check with Syrian intelligence, and may be turned away. A transit visa is US$16, payable in USD or SYP. Each border post has a branch of the Central Bank of Syria to exchange currencies. There are no facilities for credit/debit cards. Travellers cheques are also not accepted.
Remember that there is a departure fee of 500 SYP.
Aleppo has quite extensive public transport connections with Turkish cities just north of the border. There are at least two daily bus/minibus services from Antioch (3hr), costing S£250 (bus service) or S£350 (minibus). Gaziantep, on the other hand, has twice weekly trains to Aleppo (5hr, departing from Gaziantep at 8:30PM on Tuesdays and Fridays and arrive five hours later in Aleppo, at an inconvenient 1:29AM after midnight), costing €12.75 pp one-way. There is also a once-weekly train service from Mersin on Turkish Mediterranean coast, also calling at Adana. Trains depart from Mersin at 11PM on Fridays and call at Adana station around midnight. They arrive in Aleppo at 8:10AM next morning and cost € 14/€ 13 pp from Mersin/Adana respectively.
From Lebanon several daily buses leave from Beirut's Charles Helou bus station going via Tripoli and Homs. Currently the prices have inflated quite a bit due to the Syrian conflict (April 2014)
Taxis are everywhere, probably more taxis than people. They are easy to take and very affordable but just make sure it is a licensed taxi.
Minibuses: Called "serveece", these are small white vans that drive around and you can hop on and off by signalling to the driver. 10 lira per journey. They get very full in rush hours.
Rental Cars: Hertz and other rental car agencies are available in Aleppo but the driving can be very hectic and if you are not accustomed to driving in a place with few rules and almost no regard for street signs you should probably not attempt to drive on your own.
- The citadel sits on a hill in the centre of the city and is visible from almost anywhere. Usage of the Citadel hill dates back at least to the middle of the 3rd millennium BC, but the current structure dates from the 13th century. There are tours daily. It costs 150 SP to enter or 10 SP with a student card, as of November 2007. Once inside, there are no signs or explanations of the site so a guidebook is handy. There is a café inside the Citadel.
- The Souq: There are multiple souqs in the city including a covered section. All of the shopping you could want to do from gold and silver, boxes, clothing, fabric and soaps can be found in the various souqs. Bargaining is encouraged and if you know Arabic it will get you a much better price.
- Bimaristan Arghan is a beautiful mental hospital turned into a museum. Entrance is free and you can wander around and look at exhibits, which include old medical equipment, herbs, biographies of famous Arab scientists and other interesting artifacts. The main attractions, however, are the courtyard and two separate spaces reserved for the mentally ill.
- Saint Simeon's basilica (Qalaat Sam'aan): Located 30 miles outside of Aleppo this is an old church that was dedicated to the famous hermit, St Simeon the Stylite. This church was built around the pillar on which Simeon lived and prayed and became a major centre of pilgrimage. There are guided tours. The grounds are beautiful and it is nice to get away from the city for a day. The best way to get there is to hire a taxi in Aleppo to go the whole way, or more economically to take a microbus to the nearest town (Dar Ta'ze) and bargain with the driver to take you the extra 2 km to the church.
- The Great Mosque: There are many mosques in the city but this is the largest and most ornate.
Walk around the city at least a few times to really get a feel for what it is like. It is a vibrant and lively place that will continually surprise you. Any amount of time spent walking around the city will reveal another historical site or point of interest. Check out the Christian section of the city to see a different part of Aleppo. If you want to shop for clothes, al-Telal street is bustling nearly every night with crowds checking out the shops and street stands piled high with every type of clothing imaginable.
Gold: Although the prices are as high as they have ever been, gold is still a worthwhile purchase here. There is a special gold pattern called the Aleppo weave or chain that is made only in Aleppo. All gold is sold by weight and is 22 carat.
Boxes: Aleppo is also famous for its intricate inlay work that can be found in boxes of all shapes and sizes. These boxes are beautiful and can be found at almost all of the shops in the souq. A great, affordable gift to take home.
Wraps/Tablecloths: There are many nice wraps that can be worn as shawls or used as tablecloths that are also available everywhere in the souqs. Another good gift.
Sweets: Pistachios are everywhere in Aleppo and accordingly there are many different kinds of sweets made from the pistachio. These usually come in a decorative box and are yet another good gift.
Coffee and spices: It is impossible to walk through the souq without being caught up in the scent of freshly ground coffee and spices like cumin. You can also buy very ornate pots to make your coffee in.
Soap: One of the most famous Aleppine products is its olive oil soap. Many factories produce this using traditional techniques. The price varies from about 70SP per kilo to as much as 400 SP or more depending on the proportion of olive and laurel oil, prices and assortment is better in the shops just in the 2 roads south of the Clock Tower rather than in the Souq's tourist traps, even if most shop keepers speak very little English (prices per kilo are clearly shown).
Common Syrian street food like falafels and shwarma are excellent and available throughout the city. In the souks you will also find tiny restaurants with a few stools serving up dishes like Fuul (pronounced “fool”), a bean soup served with fresh bread, onions and mint. If you are adventurous, look for the men frying curry-flavoured pancakes near the entrance to the souk. The pancakes are wrapped in bread and topped with hot sauce. Also try and buy some of the freshly made pita bread that is sold everywhere as it is delicious.
For breakfast, a fresh glass of juice (40 SP for a large glass of mixed juice, 50 SP for takeaway) and cheese sandwich (15 SP) can be had from the juice stands near the clock tower. Many cafés also serve great ice cream for a treat.
If you are tired after a day of wandering around the souk, try one of the cafés near the base of the citadel. They offer light snacks and drinks, including a wide range of coffees and refreshing glasses of minted lemonade.
Travellers on a strict budget should be prepared to eat very similar meals everyday as there is not a lot of variety in the diet at the cheaper end of the range.
There are plenty of good restaurants around and meals are very affordable.
In the Christian Quarter (El Jedeide) district
- La Gondole, ☎ +963 21 4124095. Cafe and restaurant featuring a Swimming pool with a sitting table around the pool and outdoors bar under the sunshine.
- Al Mir, ☎ +963 21 3336580. Cafe and restaurant featuring a rerrace with views over the Aleppo Citadel.
- Beit Sissy. A particularly good choice. It has a beautiful courtyard and their shish kebab in cherry sauce is out of this world!
- Sheraton Hotel. It may seem wrong to come to Syria and head for the Sheraton but they do offer an excellent buffet breakfast for 600 SP which, if you're willing to splurge, makes a nice change from the typical Syrian fare and will set you up well for a day of exploring. They also do a fine cup of coffee.
- Kaser Al Wali (Kaser Al Wali), Al-Jdaideh, Aleppo (Zoukak Al-Arbaeen, Al-Jdaideh, Aleppo - Syrian Arab Republic), ☎ +963 21 4461389, fax: +963 21 3322336, e-mail: email@example.com. Kaser Al-Wali, a new offspring of Wanes Restaurants, invites you to take a step back in time to enjoy the nostalgic atmosphere and the reminiscent of the old town of Aleppo. Kaser Al-Wali was launched in 2005 in a 300-year old mansion where you will enjoy a unique dining experience in a historic atmosphere.
- Al- Challal*
- WANES Restaurant
Alcohol is permitted but not widely available. You can find stores selling liquor on a few streets near the clocktower. Try Zaki al-Arsuzi (across from Al Kommeh restaurant) and Jbrail Dalal streets. There is a liquor store a few metres away from the Aleppo Hotel (on a side street from the clocktower). In the new city there is a store at Al Hateb square. Cost is usually 60 SYP for an Efes 16oz (November 2010). Restaurants and hotels that cater to Westerners will generally serve alcoholic beverages.
There is one local beer, called Al-Sharq, while the Damascus brew Barada may also be found. Neither are exactly lethal - 3.7% and 3.4% respectively.
A wide range of other beers from the Middle East and Europe can also be found, usually about 50 SP for a large can, along with wines from Syria, Lebanon and France, starting at 150 SP a bottle.
Arak is a local aniseed spirit which can be found at some small shops.
- Al-Gawaher – Bab al-Faraj Street, Behind Library. Perhaps the best backpacker spot in Aleppo. Rooms have satellite TV and both en suite and shared bathrooms are very clean. Many have balconies and others overlook a common area, where travellers often meet to chat. The rooftop gives great views over the city and is another nice spot to spend the evening. Staff are friendly and English is spoken. Tours can be arranged to the Dead Cities, Apamea and other sites. The only possible downside is that staff are late risers and so getting breakfast can be a problem. Rooms cost 350 SP for a single, 500 SP for a double (November 2007) and 1200 SP for a double with bathroom (June 2009). Breakfast is not included. There is, however, free coffee and tea available 24/7.
- Hotel Alnagm Alakhdar (aka Hotel Green Star) – Around the corner from the Al-Gawaher on Sharia Hammam Al Tal (next to the Sheraton parking entrance off the Clock Tower end of Bab El Faraj - it could not be more central - 963-21-212 60 23, mob. 963 -944-25 76 45), it also has a nice roof terrace but the atmosphere is not nearly as lively. The rooms come with sinks and fans or aircom. There are no TVs in the rooms but two shared ones: one in the lounge and the second one on the top floor. Try and get one on the top floor that opens onto the roof terrace. Staff speak a little English but are very helpful. A double with private bathroom goes for 700 SP as of December 2011 (+100 extra per aircond), and 350 SP for a bed in a 3 bed "dorm" as of May 2010. Breakfast is not included.
- Spring Flower Hostel. Dorm and Roof top dorm available at circa 250 SP. Single rooms ranging from 250-500 SP. Other room prices can be found on the website. Huge book library for lending, trading and buying. Satellite TV and mini-restaurant. The only real backpackers hostel in Aleppo and in a fantastic location, 50 m off Marry St., 100 m from the clock tower and less to the Baron hotel.
- Hotel Kaser Alandaloss - Just off Bab Al-Faraj Street, in sight of the clock tower on a small block, nestled between a couple of soap merchant stores. The rooms are nice, and they have excellent showers and a comfortable central area to sit, eat, use the internet etc.. There's no option for breakfast, but if you want some tea or some food, they are more than likely to make some for you. Around 1200SP for a twin room with a bathroom.
- Tourist Hotel - Well known for having sparkling clean bathrooms, perhaps the cleanest in all of Syria according to some reports.
- Hotel Somar – It is nothing fancy but rooms here are clean with satellite TV, bathrooms and a little shared courtyard. The price is expensive, however, compared to the budget hotels, which offer rooms of a similar standard. A double with en suite bathroom is US$31 as per May 2010. Breakfast is not included.
- Ramsis Hotel, ☎ +963 21 2111102, fax: +963 21 2216700, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Very centrally located close to the citadel and old Christian quarter, one minute away from the museum. A three-star, deluxe hotel. Very comfortable and well-furnished 28 rooms and 8 suites, a street side cafeteria (Down Town Cafe), an open terrace restaurant (The Green Roof), a gift shop, a news-stand and internet access.
- Baron Hotel, Baron St. A colonial throwback whose former guests include Agatha Christie (who wrote much of Murder on the Orient Express here), T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia), Ataturk and Teddy Roosevelt. The hotel is rather run down, but this only adds to its charm. Many rooms have recently been renovated and are in reasonable shape. But in general it is rather grotty for its price. If you cannot afford to stay here or if you stay where the locals do, it is definitely worth the effort to pop into the bar to have a drink and marvel a showpiece at a bygone era.
- Sheraton, ☎ +963 21 212 1111, fax: +963 21 212 1136. Very centrally located close to the citadel and old Christian quarter. Has a pool and several restaurants. US$140 for a standard room with king bed.
- Beit Wakil (from Jdeideh Square, walk down the street into the old city and turn right at the first alley, called Sissi St), ☎ +963 21 2117083, fax: +963 21 2117082, e-mail: email@example.com. A great small boutique hotel in the Christian quarter. Renovated old building with a nice courtyard. The restaurant is very good but a bit touristy. Doubles US$121.
- Dallal House, Raheb Bouhaira St, Al Jdaidah, Al-Telal Entrance, ☎ +963 21 2121155, fax: +963 21 2119433, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Built in 1826, it was a church and a monastery, now converted to a hotel.
- ISIS Hotel, City Centre (Al-Jalla Club, Alazizieh), ☎ +963 21 2126345, fax: +963 21 2126348, e-mail: email@example.com. Offers comfortable and contemporary "Life Style", ideal for tourists, family and businesspeople. It is classified under the A Category standards of four stars.
- Park hotel, ☎ +963 212233283, fax: +963 212233250. Two minutes from the train station, located in the middle of the city centre "Baghdad Station Street". Ten minutes walk to the city centre, and 5 minutes by car to the old souks. Free WiFi internet access in all around the hotel with high speed line. Laundry and pressing service. Airport pick-up and drop-off service.
An internet access in the old town and near the main attractions (the Citadel, the Souq and the Grand Mosque) can be found at Tara Cafe. It is located in the underground lair of the caravansaray of the Adlliyah Mosque and provides standard rates for internet access. It is not an internet cafe, but rather a cafe that provides internet access as a service on laptops that can be rented by the hour.
The Friends Cafe Net is also located in the area of the Citadel. From the entrance to the Citadel, walk straight (south) to a block with shawarma & chicken outlets on the ground floor. The cafe is located just behind the block in a small street called "Jnenyt al-Fariq(1)" (40 SP/hour). From the outlets, follow the street to your right, turn left then immediately right.
The closest internet cafe to most of the budget hotels, in the Bab al-Faraj area, is the Concord, which is in an ice cream parlor and cafe by the same name. It charges 100 SP an hour which is outrageous for Aleppo and Syria and general.
The other internet cafe within walking distance is at Adam Cafe, across the street from the Baron Hotel. Nevertheless, the internet cafe is located in the bottom story of an all-male tea house which may make female customers feel uncomfortable. If you wander around the new Christian quarter of al-Aziziyeh you can find many internet cafes such as Area 51, Montana and Kool Net which charge only 50 SP an hour for high speed access. All of the aforementioned cafes provide discount cards for chunks of time.