Experiencing alternating periods of calm and chaos over the past several decades, the art of visiting Lebanon has been a stop and go affair over that time. Being a virtual no-go zone during wars with Israel and within itself, there was a time in the last decade where it was generally considered safe to visit most of the country.
With a civil war raging in nearby Syria as of this writing in December 2013, it is once again a sensitive place to explore. Many western governments warn against non-essential travel to the country, and against ALL travel to areas of Lebanon within 10 kilometres of the Syrian and the Israeli border. The city of Tripoli in the north and the southern suburbs of Beirut are considered to be dangerous places by locals and western travel authorities alike.
So why go?
If you’re not a seasoned traveler and you’re just starting out on your globetrotting adventures, hold off on this place for a while. If you’re the type of person who is aware of their surroundings and can listen to the advice of local authorities though, then this nation still contains many elements worth seeing.
Lebanon sits at the crossroads of multiple civilizations stretching back to the dawn of recorded history, and it has the remnants of those days to prove it. The beaches are delightful at the height of summer, and due to the current instability, are tantalizingly empty. Mountains are chock full of snow in the winter, yet when you return to Beirut at the end of the day, you’ll be trading your ski jacket for a causal shirt, as you enjoy the cities’ famed nightlife in considerably milder air than up top.
While this countries’ proximity to the latest Middle East flashpoint may give your parents plenty of worrying fuel, the savvy and smart traveler should have little to fear here. Just keep your wits about you, but don’t forget to take in the culture of a country that desperately needs visitors these days.
NOTE: Plan your regional travels appropriately here if you have Israel included in your travel plans. If they find an Israeli stamp in your passport, or any evidence of having visited a border town NEAR Israel, you will be DENIED entry.
Currency: Lebanese Pound
Languages: Arabic, French, English, Armenian
What To Do
Start your explorations of Lebanon by heading to Tyre from Beirut. In Tyre, the UNESCO recognized Al Bass Archaeological Site possesses the world’s largest preserved remains of a Roman Hippodrome, where many epic chariot races had been hosted in the ancient days of the empire. Also on site is an impressive necropolis (literally translating to “city of the dead” from Greek) that contains several hundred intact stone coffins.
For more beautifully intact Roman ruins, visit Baalbeck to see multiple Roman temples, also under the protection of UNESCO. The temples of Jupiter, Venus and Bacchus are the most notable of the bunch … take care to spot carvings of Marc Antony and Cleopatra amongst the roofs of the structures here. Being relatively close to the Syrian border, the security situation in this area is fluid, so inquire with reliable sources before making the trip to Baalbeck.
Those seeking the architectural relics of the peoples of more recent times should seek out the Beiteddin Palace, located 35 kilometres southeast of Beirut. This gem of Arabic design has many elegant features, with a sweeping courtyard, lovely fountains and graceful arches all make this place a mandatory stop for culture buffs.
Those seeking to walk through a place that has been inhabited since time immemorial should make for the seaside city of Byblos, a place most noted for being a major city within the Phoenician civilization during its heyday. Each group built on top of each other as civilizations rose and fell, with the oldest remnants of settlements dating all the way back to the Stone Age.
As for other activities within Lebanon, be sure to sample the nightlife in Beirut, one of the most liberal cities in the Middle East outside Tel Aviv. The residents over the decades have been through a lot, and have coped with it by making the most of their lives in the most joyous way possible. On at least one of your nights here, you should join them!
To the east of Beirut, the mountains of Lebanon rise. In the summer, go on a hike on portions of the Lebanon Mountain Trail. After hiring a guide for informational and safety reasons, enjoy the views of snowy peaks, unrivalled views of the Mediterranean Sea far below, and multiple ancient castles, temples and churches from many bygone eras.
In the winter, these same steep pitches make for uncrowded, but challenging skiing/boarding terrain. The mountains behind rise to a peak elevation of 10,000 feet, and with wet season occurring during the winter here, there is usually copious amounts of snow, as you will find on your drive up to one of 6 ski resorts near Beirut. As noted previously, the Lebanese love to party, which will make for an après ski that you will be unlikely to forget for a while!
What To Eat
One of the more popular dishes in Lebanon is Shish Tawouk, which is a grilled BBQ chicken dish. When cooking this dish over an open flame, it is marinated with olive oil, lemon, parsley and sumac to give it its distinct flavour!
Vegetarians that are a little wary of many of the meat heavy offerings in this country should indulge frequently in some Tabouleh. This dish is a parsley salad that is made with burghul, tomatoes, and mint, and is usually served as part of a mezze, which is a variety of dishes that resembles tapas.
Breakfast time usually means that many Lebanese will be buying some Manaeesh to begin their day. This pastry looks like a folded pizza, and is topped with thyme, olive oil, sesame seeds, cheese and minced meat, making for a hearty meal for those who consume it.
Finally, make some time to sample many of the fine wines that are produced in the fertile soils of the Lebanese countryside. Chateau Muzar, located 15 miles north of Beirut, is one of Lebanon’s best regarded wineries, with excellent offerings on the red grape end of the market.