Lebanon, with a population of only four million people, has an unusually large number of activities to keep tourists entertained. The conclusion of ancient history buffs’ trips will be tiring: you can’t turn around without stumbling over a world-class archaeological site. Those wanting to join in the fun may visit a lively capital where bacchanalistic parties erupt all hours of the day and night. Ancient cedar forests and breathtaking mountain views are available for those searching for tranquility.
The city of Beirut is a metropolis of atmosphere rather than world-class attractions. Explore the city on foot, taking your time. Whether you come across a decaying Ottoman-era manor covered in bougainvillea (and sometimes decades-old bullet holes from the Lebanese Civil War), a couple at the table next to you at happy hour who request that you share their nachos, or an elderly taxi driver with a luxurious moustache who sings old Arabic songs a cappella at full volume: this is a city where little events matter.
If you’re fascinated by ancient history, then a stroll around the neighbourhood of Hamra is a must. Start at the National Museum of Beirut or the St George Crypt Museum for rare artefacts and an insight into life during Roman times in Berytus, which was once known as ile centre d’activité intellectuelle antique. Continue your journey through Hamra by browsing used book shops and stopping for coffee at one of the local cafes (T Marbouta is recommended). Take a stroll down to the Corniche, Beirut’s main shared space (Bay Rock Cafe has amazing views of Pigeon Rocks), for a spectacular view of the sunset over the Mediterranean. Café Em Nazih is where you go for cheap and cheerful Lebanese mezze, as well as post-dinner drinks at Coop d’Etat, which is on the top floor of Gemmayzeh.
Ancient Rome’s breadbasket, the Bekaa Valley is packed with historical monuments. The world-class ruins of Baalbek, where the Roman solar religion Heliopolis was founded, are the valley’s highlight. One of the finest and most spectacular Roman ruins in the world, featuring more than a dozen 19m-high columns and exquisite reliefs, is the Temple of Bacchus, built around 200 AD. After a day of exploring ancient ruins, take some time to unwind at one of the many wineries located on the route between Lebanon’s Bekaa and the coast, which run along the highway back to Beirut. The proprietors of Chateau Ksara and Domaine des Tourelles disagree as to which was the first in Lebanon to mass-produce wine and arak (Lebanon’s national aniseed-flavoured distilled spirit), but enjoy watching the setting sun bathe the Anti-Lebanon range in pink light.
Travel advisories are in place for this region by some governments, and the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office warns against all non-essential travel to Baalbek.
Tripoli, located two hours from Beirut, is Lebanon’s second-largest city. It’s packed with fantastic and diverse historic and cultural attractions, and Tripolitans are known for being the most hospitable people in the country. In a word, few tourists visit because there is no official tourist infrastructure in Tripoli. Don’t make the same mistake: although Tripoli lacks shopping malls and museums, it more than compensates with ambience.
Start your day at the unfinished Oscar Niemeyer International Fairground, a neglected mid-20th-century monument to Brutalist architecture. Continue on to the medieval souqs, which are still active centuries later. For directions to the hammam and Madrasa Al Nouriyat, some of Tripoli’s finest black-and-white marble-striped Mamluk structures, ask locals. Press on to Libya’s Raymond de Saint-Gilles Crusader Citadel in Tripoli or call it a day and unwind with a cool drink in Al Mina, scented with frangipani trees,
turn off the world for a little bit at one of Lebanon’s best-kept secrets: that is, its stunning south beaches. With crystal blue waters and gentle waves perfect for beginners, it’s no wonder why sea turtles flock here. The most picturesque beach location can be found in Tyre; about two hours from Beirut. Head to Cloud 59, an aesthetic watering hole with excellent food options before taking a walk down to the Tyre Coast Nature Preserve–one of only a few natural gems left in all of Lebanon containing scuttling crabs and beautiful sprawling grains of sand.
Lebanon is also home to Tyre, which include the world’s largest and best-preserved Roman hippodrome. This ancient structure once seated 20,000 fans of chariot racing. Today, it stands in the Al Bass complex alongside a reconstructed monumental archway and an eerily well-preserved Roman necropolis.
The friendly Sunni hamlet of Sidi is an hour north of Tyre. There are some nice sights in this area, including a Crusader castle and the fascinating Musee du Savon, but it’s the laid-back atmosphere in the medieval souks and on the seaside corniche that really draws people in. After sampling a falafel at Abou Rami, go across the road to enjoy a nargileh (flavored water pipe) with everyone else in town while basking in the cool evening air off the sea.
Buses leave from Beirut’s airport to serve the coastal highway (take buses to Tripoli from the Dawra Transport Hub in Beirut and to southern cities from the Cola Truck Terminal). However, if you want to see Lebanon, hire a car for a lengthy drive at Beirut’s airport.
Is Lebanon safe?
Before travelling, always check your government’s stance and travel advisory on the areas you plan to visit. In general, it is significantly safer to stick near Lebanon’s interior and coast rather than the borders of Israel and Syria. Also note that street crime rarely happens here: if you drop something valuable on accident, chances are high that it’ll still be there when you come back for it – or someone will have run after you to return it. In rural regions, residents may be a bit more wary of foreigners than their city counterparts, but everyone is helpful and pleasant as long as you respect local customs and dress properly (don’t show thighs, upper arms or midriffs).