Lebanon travel guide
Lebanon might be scarred by conflict, but the vibrancy of its culture, the warmth of its people and the splendour of its ancient ruins all remain largely intact. After years of political turbulence punctuated with periods of stability, the country is slowly and surely rebuilding its reputation as a tourism destination – Beirut should soon be known again as the ‘Pearl of the Middle East’.
Plenty of countries lay claim to sitting at the crossroads of history. Few can say this with as much certainty as Lebanon.
At different times Lebanon has been part of the Roman, Ottoman, Egyptian, Babylonian and Hellenistic empires, and it’s a sometimes fractious but incredibly colourful mosaic of cultures, religions and cuisines, while the capital displays an abundance of handsome Parisian-style architecture from the French colonial era. Now is the perfect time to see what’s up with a country that won’t be kept down.
Read our Lebanon travel guide for more details.
Read our Lebanon travel guide for more details.
emerging from years of conflict to reclaim its throne as one of the most beguiling countries in the Middle East.
any spring chicken. Empire after empire has left behind it a wealth of fascinating archaeological ruins.
What we rate and what we don’t
Don’t limit your Lebanon tour to hotels. Homestays are a brilliant way to see the country, via home cooking and gardens filled with roses. Staying in nunneries and monasteries isn’t unusual, nor is a warm welcome wherever you go.
The natural world
Descend through forests, in the Horsh Ehden Nature Reserve, where the view is misted up by low cloud, hike in the Lower Qadisha Valley among the tall cedars or explore the Qozhaya Valley, where monasteries cling to the clifftops.
Thanks to the famous Ksara winery in the Bekaa Valley, Lebanon's very ancient vineyard tradition gets some recognition, yet it can still surprise visitors. Ksara is known for Rhone and Bordeaux varieties of red wine. Many of its wines use the Cinsault grape varietal, which thrives in the Middle Eastern climate.
Just outside Byblos is massive cave system known as the Jeita Grotto, which bristles with striking rock formations. Whilst the entrance is touristy, once you're inside you'll find these caves, where photography is banned and silence maintained, deserving of their popularity.
No traveler misses Beirut. It’s not just that Lebanon’s only international airport is here. The city is the country’s biggest. Among the sights: the national museum, the Mediterranean seafront, there’s the ineffable ‘vibe’ – Beirut is the kind of place that stays out late.
Baalbek contains the most important Roman ruins in the Middle East. So celebrated are the temples here that they’re used as a setting for celebrity performances: Sting, Jonny Hallyday, Nina Simone and Lebanon’s own beloved Sabah have all sung at Baalbek International Festival.
‘Skiing in the morning, beach in the afternoon' is unrealistic: who wants to rush their skiing break, or their beach time? Lebanon’s claim that you can ski in the Mzaar Resort, and be swimming off the coast at Byblos in the afternoon, is only realistic for a small window in the spring.
Too much mezze
This is an important service announcement: Do not fill up on mezze. You’ll make multiple rearrangements to the table settings to make space for Lebanon’s famous appetisers. But there is nearly always a second course, often a vast platter of meat and rice, to negotiate afterwards.
Gorgeous cedar forests once covered the whole of Lebanon. Sadly, five millennia of deforestation have shrunk the cedar forests from 500,000 to 2,000. The national parks only have small groves of trees, hardly an epic forest. Luckily there are replanting efforts in place.
If you'd like to chat about Lebanon or need help finding a vacation to suit you we're very happy to help.
Food, shopping and people in Lebanon
Eating and drinking in Lebanon
You can divide Lebanon’s food scene between Beirut and everywhere else. Outside the capital the dishes are Middle Eastern, and every town has its own speciality. Coastal cities invariably sell whole baked fish drenched in spice mixes, whilst the Beqaa valley can lay claim to originating the Lahm bi ajeen – Lebanon's popular meat pies.
Once you get to Beirut, however, the culinary scene fragments spectacularly: there are posh French restaurants and hip Armenian food joints – plus all the mezze you could wish for, served with a hefty helping of French fries. Vegetarians can fill up on ful – a fava bean puree that you’ll quickly get used to trying at breakfast in place of porridge.
People and LanguageIn the last decade, Lebanon’s population has seen a huge increase. According to Human Rights Watch, Lebanon has one and a half million registered Syrian refugees, a large part of the country’s total population of around 6.8 million. Historically the country has seen influxes of Armenians and Iranian as well as many Palestinian refugees. During the civil war, hundreds of thousands of Lebanese people fled – many to South America and particularly Brazil, never to return home.
Arabic is the language of Lebanon, but French is a common second language, and is taught in schools. You might also hear Armenian spoken, and English is a relatively common second language. In Beirut, people might say how are you, and thank you in French (ca va?, merci) then switch to Arabic.
Marhaba - Hello
Keefak/ Keefik - How are you? (m/f)
Shukran - Thank you
Gifts & shoppingBeirut’s old markets were destroyed in the civil war, but you can get your souk fix in the port towns of Sidon, Byblos and Batroun, where you’ll find, among other trinkets, fragrant yellow slices of cedar wood made into hanging signs. You might also see Assia pottery - made in the Batroun region, it’s formed entirely by hand and left unglazed.
Beirut itself has a slightly more ‘Parisian’ side to its shopping – you’ll find the glitzier fashion designers in Beirut’s newly-developed Central District: Hermes, Chanel, and, of course, Lebanon’s own Elie Saab and Reem Acra.
If all else fails: a bottle of Lebanese wine will usually satisfy for a gift. The oldest and most famous – you can even pick up a bottle in the Duty Free – is Château Ksara. Its Réserve du Couvent is perennially popular.
In Beirut’s Armenian Quarter, Bourj Hammoud, you can window-shop among silversmiths operating out of workshops in the narrow streets.
How much does it cost?
Museum entry to Beirut’s National Museum: £2.50
Mezze dishes: £2 – £3.50
Bottle of wine: £5
A brief history of Lebanon
The story of Lebanon is a potted history of western civilisations. But before classical empires got to Lebanon, there were two ancient civilisations doing just fine, thanks: the Canaanites, who were there around 2,000 BC, and the Phoenicians, a seafaring bunch who embarked from the Lebanese coast all across the Med. Phoenicia was eventually taken over by the Persians in around 500BC. Their rule lasted until the arrival of Alexander the Great, two centuries later. Read more
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