Beirut has fascinated me since I first heard it described as the ‘Jewel of the Middle East’ in Nathalie Abi-Ezzi’s book, A Girl Made of Dust. The autobiographical novel is set in the early 1980s, during Israel’s invasion of Lebanon at the time of the civil war. Told from a child’s perspective, the novel is unique and riveting and describes Lebanon’s capital as a once vibrant and beautiful city with ‘buildings shimmering on the horizon and the sea stretched out beside them’.
Sadly, along with 120,000 deaths, much of the beautiful city of Beirut was destroyed during the civil war, which began in 1975 and lasted for 15 years. Today many buildings are derelict in the city, with construction often halted due to financial reasons or government regulations. However, the city still holds much charm and beauty, both natural and man made, and makes a convenient base to explore more ancient parts of Lebanon.
As well as the amazing historical sights to discover, there’s also a range of delicious food and wonderfully friendly, hospitable locals to meet. Depending on which travel advice site you visit, travel warnings can vary substantially. We follow the UK government’s site as we find the Australian site to be prohibitively cautious (warning of Polar bear attacks in Norway for example). While there is a definite military presence in the country, we personally felt safe and secure at all times and mainly traveled to regions outside of Beirut with local guides. It was truly an amazing and unique trip. Here are our favourite 10 things we did during our stay.
Top of our list is the awe-inspiring, expansive and very well preserved Roman ruins at the outskirts of Baalbek. Historically known as Heliopolis or the ‘sun city’, the archaeological site is extensive, including three large temples dedicated to Jupiter, Bacchus and Venus, the later of which was destroyed in the 4th century and replaced with a basilica.
Once a hub for Palestinian and Lebanese resistance, the town is still synonymous with Hezbollah. In our opinion it felt very safe for tourists, with the only Hezbollah influence we saw being green and yellow labelled t-shirts sold by vendors outside the ruins.
Only excavated at the turn of the 20th century, the intricately carved detail on the temple walls and columns has been impressively preserved. The circular egg shaped structures below represent fertility.
Not to be confused with Tripoli in Lybia, this city in Northern Lebanon also goes by the Lebanese Arabic name Ṭrāblos. There are strong warnings against travel to the city, however, tourists are free to walk through all of the attractions. There are numerous attractions to visit, including a well preserved old town, as the city escaped much of the destruction during the civil war. The city is famous for it’s sweet treats, with Hallab 1881 a favourite shop.
There is also a large area of authentic Souks (markets) to explore and Turkish baths (hammams) from the Ottoman empire to enjoy (if you’re a man, women can still see the baths but not use them). Below is a shot of the dressing room inside the baths.
In Tripoli, there are wonderful examples of Mamluk architecture, a style of Islamic art from the reign of the Mamluk Sultanate (1250-1517). The 14th century style is characterised by the pattern of black and white stones.
The Citadel of Raymond de Saint-Gilles is a crusader fortress originally built in 1102. The citadel later burnt down in 1289 and was rebuilt several times, with the current building constructed by the Ottomans. While it is now used as a base for the Lebanese Army, tourists can still explore the site.
The Ottoman Clock Tower in Al-Tell square was erected in 1906 and is one of the most iconic monuments in Tripoli.
3. Jeitto Grotto
Less than 20km north from the capital, these expansive upper and lower karstic limestone caves have amazingly well developed stalactites, stalagmites and columns. No photos are allowed but this makes the experience even more engaging.
In the lower cave you can take a short boat ride through low hanging rock to an impressive subterranean cavern. Definitely not for the claustrophobic.
There are over 7 layers of history to explore at Byblos, also known as Jbail. The city is believed to have been founded as early as 8800 BC and is suggested to be one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world (from at least 5000 BC). Due to it’s historical significance Byblos is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and we highly recommend seeing the ruins with a guide. We visited with a wonderful guided tour from Lebanon Tours & Travels, which also included a private transfer from our hotel in Beirut and several other sites along the way.
Byblos is perhaps most famous as the birthplace of the Phoenician alphabet, the basis of many subsequent alphabets such as the Aramaic alphabet (ancestor of modern Arabic and Hebrew) and the Greek alphabet (ancestor of Latin, Cyrillic, Runic and Coptic alphabets).
The most notable structures at the ruins are a Crusader Castle and a Roman theatre.
Also worth a visit is the beautiful 12th century church of saint John.
Finally, the charming Phoenician port is the perfect spot for a walk or drink at one of the many harbour-side cafes, and is particularly beautiful at sunset.
5. Southern coastal cities
Tyre (Sour) is a UNESCO World Heritage site containing two impressive ruins, one of which includes one of the world’s largest and best preserved Roman hippodrome– a horse/chariot racing stadium.
The other archaeological site of interest is Al Mina, which contains Roman ruins of ancient columns, a rectangular theatre and a palaestra (wrestling school).
The modern town of Tyre has a lovely promenade to wonder down. This has many nice restaurants and lovely views of fishermen trying to catch dinner!
Sidon (Saidda), located halfway between Beirut and Tyre is the 3rd largest city in Lebanon. There are some interesting souks to wonder through as well as nice religious buildings to see, however undoubtedly the main attraction of the town is the Crusader era sea castle ruins.
Beirut is fondly known as the ‘Paris of the Middle East’ due to the influence of past French colonial rule on Lebanon’s culture, food and language. In fact many Lebanese are tri-lingual, speaking Arabic, English and French. Beirut has much to offer people from all walks of life with a varied cafe/bar/restaurant scene, a number of significant religious buildings, monuments and treasures from past wars and cultures, and natural beauty within easy reach.
The National Museum of Beirut houses many treasures from excavated sites around Lebanon, such as Baalbek, Byblos, and Tyre. One could easily spend half a day wondering through this place, soaking in the history spanning several thousand years.
While there are countless churches, mosques and even a synagogue or two across Beirut, undoubtedly the grandest of them all to an unbiased observer is the Mohammad Al-Amin Mosque, located downtown. This huge building is sometimes referred to as the Blue Mosque, although should not be confused with the more famous mosque of the same name in Istanbul. Mirroring the country’s religious variety and tolerance, Saint Georges Maronite Cathedral and church can be found within a stones throw of the mosque, making it incredibly easy to see all at once.
The coast to the north and west of Beirut gives a lovely change from the busy city too. A walk along the promenade can be a relaxing way to forget you are in a capital city. With the famous and picturesque Raouche Rocks right off the coast and easily viewed from the promenade, it makes a nice afternoon wondering along with this as the destination.
7. Bcharre – Qadisha Valley
Bcharre is situated 1500m above sea level at the top of the Qadisha valley, surrounded by countless towering mountains, making it a picture perfect location to relax. The spectacular scenery and rugged terrain are undoubtedly major attraction of this area, however the entire valley is UNESCO World Heritage listed area due to its incredible significance for Christians and the endangered but nationally beloved cedar trees. As the cedar is on Lebanon’s flag, it is worth coming to this area just to see the majestic trees and understand their importance to Lebanon’s history. The many monasteries, churches & chapels throughout the valley can be hiked to from Bcharre and are well worth the effort. If you come in winter then skiing is also possible in the snowy mountains surrounding Bcharre and hiking is possible year round if you prepare well.
8. Aanjar ruins
We visited these ruins on the way to Baalbeck and while the ruins at Aanjar are less extensive and preserved than Baalbeck, they are nonetheless worth a visit. This site is also unique in Lebanon, in that there are not layers of history as at other sites, instead the ruins are solely the result of the 8th century Umayyad caliphate, the first of the Arab dynasties. It is also Lebanon’s sole example of an inland trading centre, linking Damascus and Homs in Syria to Baalbek and Sidon in Lebanon. Of particular note are the many arches, built to be resistant to seismic activity due to lack of mortar between the bricks.
9. Harissa- Cable Car
For a few euro you can ride the 1,570m cable car to the top of Harissa for stunning views of the coast. At the top there is a large statue of Our Lady of Lebanon which is revered and worshiped by locals. There is also an amusement park for children and several restaurants.
There is an amazing amount of delicious food to be had in Lebanon, from mini meat pizzas served with lemon juice, to a plethora of divine cheeses, particularly Labneh. The hummus is amazing and can be ordered as a more filling dish with pinenuts or meat. Pickled vegetables and various salads of slightly different combinations of cucumber, tomato and mint are always on offer. For easy street style food, wraps containing all of the above fillings can be purchased from many street side vendors.
For drinks I couldn’t go past freshly squeezed lemon juice with mint, while traditional Lebanese coffee is quite bitter and dark.
Tips and advice
The currency in Lebanon is Lebanese Pound (LBP). For 1 Euro expect nearly 2000 LBP. A taxi from the airport to city is around 30-40,000 LBP which is around $25. Bartering exists in Lebanon so be ready for that, initially offering less than you want to pay.
Safety is an issue that we were asked about extensively before our trip. While there is definitely more of a military presence than other countries we’ve been to, we felt completely safe during our trip, indeed safer than in some western European countries. As usual, common sense and a respect for local cultures is essential. We also followed the UK government’s guide for travel safety advice.
Admission fees cost between 5-10 Euro for the main attractions. Accommodation is relatively cheap, we paid between 40-60 euro for a modest double room per night.
Transport. Travelling by (large) car is the norm and while distances are not extensive traffic jams can be lengthy at times. Public transport is in the form of buses (mainly between towns), with no trains or trams, and buses are in the form of mini vans rather than large coaches. Seat belts are often lacking in cars and driving is quite erratic, with three lanes often used instead of the marked two. Horns are used frequently, often (and annoyingly) by taxis to alert pedestrians of their potential services. While it is definitely not the worst traffic conditions we’ve seen, it is quite different to Australia and Europe. We often traveled as part of a guided tour, either privately with a hired driver or in a larger group in a minivan.