Think You Know Lebanon? Think Again…
Why Visit?Here’s my top five reasons to visit Lebanon:
- Amazing, tasty food – you’ll never go hungry
- Incredibly warm and welcoming people who can fluently speak Arabic, French and English
- Very few tourists, it’s highly likely you’ll have the place to yourself and be the only one at historical sites
- Unlike any other Middle Eastern country, Lebanon produces wine and beer and has its own unique culture
- Even with all the warnings, I found Lebanon to be a safe place to visit and explore
What Is There To See In Lebanon?Where do I even begin? This small Middle Eastern country sure packs a huge amount of adventure in to a small space. Everything from hiking, skiing and beaches are available here, one day you can be exploring one of the world’s oldest cities and civilisations then the next you’ll find yourself at a wine tasting, sampling the home-grown delights.
Although you could spend a long time here and not see everything, my advice would be to visit for at least 5 days and try to cram everything in. My itinerary included:
Day 1 – BeirutOnly three days prior to my arrival, a terrorist attack occurred in Southern Beirut. Naturally this would scare 99% of tourists away, thankfully for Lebanon I’m part of the 1% who won’t back down to terrorists!
The city is known for being the “Paris of the East”, the French-colonial influence still exists everywhere. For me, this makes it an exciting destination to check out as many parts of the Middle East are seen as unfriendly to Western visitors. This is simply not true of Lebanon.
If you arrive early enough, my best advice is to simply walk around and start soaking up the atmosphere.
Day 2 – Baalbek, Anjar and KsaraAlthough the FCO currently advise against all travel to Baalbek and the Beqaa Valley region (correct as of November 2015) I still decided to visit upon seeking local advice and guidance, thankfully I was perfectly fine.
Baalbek is the must-see tourist site of Lebanon, it is absolutely magnificent. I had the whole site to myself except one other tourist and some locals who are allowed to visit for free. In Greek and Roman history this site was known as Heliopolis, thankfully for us even in the conflict-prone area the site is still one of the best preserved Roman-ruins in Lebanon and I hugely recommend you add it to your list of places to see!
Anjar. Where do I begin? Well, sadly it’s been badly restored and that kind of ruins the atmosphere, however be very careful when visiting this area as it’s only 5km from the Syrian border.
If you’re looking for a unique souvenir to take home, look no further than some of the Hezbollah merchandise that was being sold as you leave the archaeological site…I didn’t see it being sold anywhere else!
Speaking of souvenirs, I bet many tourists wouldn’t necessarily know about Lebanese wine. I visited Chateau Ksara, one of the best available in the country for a wine tasting session and thankfully picked up some nice Christmas presents along the way. Definitely worth checking out.
Day 3 – Byblos, Jeita Grotto and HarissaByblos, one of the world’s oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, prominently situated on the Mediterranean sea. With a very fine example of a Crusader Castle, a visit to Lebanon wouldn’t be complete without visiting Byblos!
Before visiting, I hadn’t really read anything about Jeita Grotto, other than it was an essential part of any trip to Lebanon. Thankfully for me they weren’t wrong, these caves were absolutely magical and although you weren’t allowed to take photos inside, I managed to snap this beauty.
Once you’ve finished underground, head over to Jounieh to take a cable car up to the Our Lady of Lebanon statue that stands tall and proud overlooking the city, just a short ride from Beirut.
Day 4 – BeirutIf you haven’t quite crammed everything into the first day you’ll need extra time to explore further. By not choosing to do a day trip today you’ll also get a well-deserved lie in!
Walking around Beirut is a bit like an obstacle course, there’s many factors to take into account including drivers who do whatever they like and you’ll take your life into your own hands just trying to cross the road.
Lebanon sadly hasn’t had a public train service for many years, there had been plans to build a high-speed line but sadly due to finances and the Syrian civil war this appears to have been put on hold. In Beirut, there’s a small section of track in the Mar Mikhael area that you can even walk down, it’s safe and there’s no risk of being hit by a train as there’s none left in the country!
If you arrive with no expectations, you’ll be wowed and amazed by just how much Beirut is changing. The marina area for me was lovely, the water was incredibly clear and I’ve never seen so many fish, proving how pristine the water is.
I used Google Maps on my iPhone to plan what I was going to see, then I downloaded them to ensure I wouldn’t get lost with no internet. I’d strongly advise getting a paper map too, just in case.
Day 5 – Tyre, Sidon and MleetaSituated in Southern Lebanon, the cities of Tyre and Sidon, now referred to as their Arabic names Sour and Saida, were previously under Israeli occupation during the war. Thankfully the sites are still very much intact after being under threat.
Entrance fees were quite cheap, costing only 8,000 Lebanese Pounds (approximately £4) to gain access to both Saida Sea Castle and Sour Roman ruins.
Other than a few local couples exploring the site I had the place to myself, on such a beautiful sunny day it was the perfect time to visit. After being subjected to several wars, the castle interior houses nothing of significant value but from the outside it looks stunning. You’ll need to look for some old photographs to discover its original beauty, also note that there are no guides available at this site.
The Southern city of Tyre (Sour) was one of the ancient powerhouses of the world, located at a key trading route meant the city thrived from the wealth. These days sadly the city is mostly known for being at the forefront of war, used by Hezbollah in 2006 against Israel.
There’s still lots to see here, spend some time walking around the heavily damaged hippodrome which has some panoramic views across the whole site.
One place that I wasn’t expecting to be taken was Mleeta. A museum dedicated to the 2006 Lebanon-Israel war, this wasn’t on my itinerary and so it was a bit surreal seeing everything for myself as every vehicle, shell and bunker was original and genuine. I’ve decided not to post pictures of it on here out of respect to both countries and instead show the natural beauty of Southern Lebanon.
How To Get ThereLebanon only has one international airport in Beirut, currently it’s a fly in, fly out destination due to the civil war happening in Syria in the North and East whilst on-going disputes with Israel mean you cannot go South.
Many major airlines fly to Beirut, from the UK this includes British Airways and the national flag-carrier MEA (Middle East Airlines).
Is It Safe To Visit Lebanon?YES!!!
That’s my simple answer. Of course there are issues that the country is dealing with, but in general terms the majority of the country that a tourist would visit is safe for you to see. Everywhere I went everyone told me not to visit Tripoli as the situation on the ground changes daily.
If you decide to hire a car to drive yourself round you’ll need nerves of steel as the Lebanese drive like crazy! I saw a number of fatal accidents whilst travelling through the country, trust me just hire a guide!
Current IssuesYes, it is true Lebanon is currently surrounded by conflict, however they themselves are not at war. The country is struggling financially due to the burden of having their population increased by 3 million in the last 4 years. A shocking statistic I discovered was that 1 in 5 people (possibly even more) who live in Lebanon are refugees.
Not long ago the country found itself without a rubbish collection, there is still political issues and you’ll notice huge piles of rubbish on the pavements at the side of the road. It won’t hugely affect you and after a while it becomes the norm.
It’s strongly advised not to visit Tripoli as the situation there changes frequently. Daesh (ISIS) do not occupy any part of Lebanon and are only present at a tiny section just across the border from North Eastern Lebanon, however it’s unlikely you’ll visit this place.