Most people, when you say you are going to Syria, are more than a little surprised. Some wonder if the country is open to visitors, others wonder if it’s safe, and still others just wonder why you’d go in the first place. I would reply that if you are interested in cultural travel, wish to be on the cutting edge of opening tourist markets, and have more than a little bit of adventure in your blood, this is a great destination. I traveled to Damascus from Beirut and stayed for 2 nights and 3 days. It was a short visit (too short, really) and, though I wish I had more time, it was a great add-on to my Lebanon trip, and I was at least able to get a sense of this exciting and fascinating country.
While it is quite far for Americans to travel exclusively to Syria, I do recommend a visit in combination with Lebanon or Jordan. Certainly religiously minded folk would be keen to see many of the ancient sites. If you happen to be traveling from Israel, you need to make sure the Israelis do not stamp your passport (they can stamp a separate piece of paper) and then you still would need to arrive from an Arab country.
Getting into Syria by land is certainly possible, but not without some challenges. In my case, a friend and I traveled from Beirut to the Bekaa Valley in the morning to see Balbaak (the impressive ancient Roman ruins), then took lunch in Zahle at Alibaba Restaurant (really good food and charming setting along a river), followed by an afternoon tour of Chateau Ksara (for excellent Lebanese wine tasting). The Bekaa Valley visit was convenient because it happens to be on the way to Syria – and by 3:30pm, we continued on.
If one does not stop off in the Bekaa, then a private car from Beirut should take 3 hours (it is really just 1.5 hours to Damascus, but you should leave about 1.5 hours extra for border delays). It’s a lot closer to Beirut than I would have thought. If you ask Lebanese for taxi advice, be aware that they might suggest taking a taxi to the border, then finding a taxi on the Syrian side. This approach is definitely the least expensive – anywhere from $20 to $50, depending on how hard you negotiate. But since we didn’t know the border situation and since it was summer (and hot!), we chose a private car service (air conditioned) with special permission to cross into Syria from Lebanon (ask at your hotel). The cost should be $150 one way (all the way to Damascus). For $20 or so extra, the driver can likely go inside at the border station and help with the border forms – both on the Lebanese side and then the Syrian side. It’s wise to have someone accompany you because it is more than a little chaotic. With luck, you might be able to get processed fast through the “diplomatic” line, but not always; depends on the mood of the desk clerk and his interest in processing an American faster.
Note that a visa is needed for Syria and it’s important to get one before traveling there (Lebanon does not require a visa). I got mine quickly by mailing my passport and visa form to the Syrian embassy in D.C. Easy. Be aware that on the visa application form, they will ask if you have been to “Occupied Palestine” (Israel), so reply “no.” Furthermore, if you’ve been to Israel and have a stamp in your passport, then it will be necessary to get a new passport (I had to do this).