10 awesome things to do in Lebanon
And here I am, sitting at my desk, trying to remember and summarize, in one single sentence, the best thing about Lebanon and what I enjoyed the most. I write it down, delete it and re-write it again, with no success. I am having my second cup of coffee but still, I haven’t been able to condense the beauty of Lebanon in just a few words. I’m trapped. This is perhaps the most difficult introduction I have ever written since I started blogging.
I keep on wondering and wandering but there’s too much information. Was it the high mountain areas and the green meadows from the north of the country? Or maybe the several small Christian villages I visited? And what about the monasteries, lost in the mountains and inhabited by monks? Or perhaps was it the ruling chaos which I love in the Middle East, combining the Arabic with a Mediterranean culture, love of good wine, and offering the best food in the region? And what happens with the hipster and underground culture in Beirut, a place where one drinks and forgets that he is actually in the heart of the most turbulent region on Earth?
It doesn’t matter how hard I try, I just can’t, because, in Lebanon, there is way more than that, since this Levantine country also has a fascinating history, which goes from Byblos, one of the most ancient inhabited cities in our civilization, to some of the most impressive Roman ruins that exist today and the huge cultural and religious diversity, concentrated in such a tiny space.
There’s so much to say about it and I can assure you that, if you ever decide to travel to Lebanon, you will absolutely love it because, in addition to this, this isn’t only one of the safest countries in the region but, since only a few travelers decide to come here, you will able to enjoy an authentic experience. The following article contains a summary of the best things to do in Lebanon.
Where are all these awesome places to visit in Lebanon?
For prices and costs of traveling in Lebanon read: How much does it cost to travel in Lebanon?
Beirut – The most culturally diverse and liberal city in the Middle East
What can I say about Beirut which I haven’t said already? The Lebanese capital is the most westernized and liberal city in the Middle East (outside of Israel), a city full of contrasts and owner of a deep and interesting history. Beirut is composed of several neighborhoods, each one with its own subculture, so different from each other that, when you are wandering around them, it looks like you are in a different city, from the hipster neighborhood of Gemmazyeh, to Hezbollah areas, Armenian, Christian, refugee camps and fancy districts with the most glamorous stores and the best restaurants in the region.
Where to stay
Budget (Hostel) – Saifi Urban Gardens – This hostel offers the cheapest accommodation in Beirut. The dorms are clean and the furniture is pretty new. Café Em-Nazih (the restaurant previously recommended) belongs to the hostel and the breakfast in there is included. Price: From 30,000LBP ($20). I stayed here during my second visit in Beirut.
Budget (Hotel) – Embassy Hotel – This is the cheapest proper hotel in Beirut and, the one that some local Lebanese recommended to me. If you are not into hostels, this will be your best choice. Price: From 50,000LBP ($34)
Mid-Range (Hotel) – Lavender Hotel – I stayed here during my first visit in Beirut. This hotel offers modern double rooms with a kitchen. If you can share it with someone else, this might be your best option. It’s located in Hamra. Price: From 90,000LBP ($60)
Beirut is a different world and that is why I have also written this comprehensive guide: Beirut travel guide
Byblos – The native home of the modern alphabet
With 8,000 years of history, Byblos is considered one of the oldest inhabited cities in the world and the place where the first inscriptions containing the modern western alphabet were found. Byblos derives from the Greek word bublos, meaning papyrus, as the town was the stopping place for the Phoenicians who shipped papyrus from Egypt.
Besides a super interesting museum that explains the history of the creation of the alphabet, in Byblos you can also visit a crusader castle from the XII century, built by the Franks, a restored souq, a beautiful Mediterranean harbor full of restaurants, where you can eat seafood feasts, and some archeological sites containing mainly Roman ruins but also from many other civilizations, from the Neolithic settlements 8,000 years ago to Phoenician, Egyptian, Greek and Ottoman.
How to get there – Byblos is 50km from Beirut. Going by taxi will cost you at least $50 (one-way). Buses leave from Cola Bus Station in Beirut. Price: 2,000LBP ($1,3). This is the location:
Where to stay – Usually, most travelers go to Byblos on a day trip from Beirut but, in Byblos, there are also plenty of hotels. Nevertheless, like in the rest of the country, there aren’t budget options. Byblos Comfort Hotel is the most economical one. Rooms from $60.
Baalbek – The most impressive and off the beaten track Roman ruins
Many travelers consider Baalbek one of the best things to do in Lebanon, a city that has some impressive Roman ruins, built on a giant scale and often considered the most important in the Middle East and, controversially, the most off the beaten track Roman ruins in the world, after Palmyra in Syria. The temple of Jupiter and the temple of Bacchus are the buildings that dominate this stunning architectural masterpiece. The entrance tickets cost 20,000LBP ($13).
By the way, Baalbek is located in the Bekaa Valley, a Lebanese region that borders Syria. Baalbek is very close to the border and, from the ruins, in the early morning, you are able to hear bombs and gunshots coming from the other site of the border. No need to be alarmed. The sound is loud because Baalbek is in a valley, so it produces an echo and a feeling that it is happening nearby. The conflict will never go to the other side and, besides, it is highly guarded and there are mountains separating them
How to get there – Baalbek is 90km from Beirut. From Cola Station, there are buses going to Chtoura, situated half-way, a town from where you should take a second bus to Baalbek. Price: 2,500 + 2,000 = 4,500 ($3)
Where to stay
You could visit Baalbek on a day trip from Beirut, but the valley region has some other interesting spots, so I decided to spend a few nights in Baalbek.
- Budget – Hotel Jupiter – I stayed here. Simple, slightly sad but quite economical, offering relatively clean rooms for 30,000LBP ($20), but easily negotiated down to 22,000LBP ($15). It doesn’t have Wi-Fi, so you can’t book online. It’s located right next to the ruins:
- Middle Range – Palmyra Hotel – According to Lonely Planet, this is the best choice and, not only because of its beautiful colonial architecture but also, because of its history. During the WWI, Palmyra was the accommodation of the German Army and, during the WWII it was used by the British as the headquarters.
Zahlé – The face of Lebanon you didn’t know about
What I loved about Zahlé was that, even though it is a Lebanese city located in the heart of the Bekaa Valley, it is more similar to the villages of the Mediterranean Europe than to Lebanon itself, as this city, with a Christian majority, is famous for its wineries and for its restaurants, serving the best mezza in the whole country.
In Zahlé, you can’t miss Berdawini, located just outside of the city, a green area with a river flowing, plenty of high-quality restaurants, slightly pricey for my taste but delicious. When I went there, it was not only full of Lebanese people from the middle-upper class but also, there were plenty of Western diplomats escaping from Beirut for the weekend. You also must go to Ksara Winery, the oldest and most famous winery in the country.
How to get there – It’s on the way to Baalbek, so you first should take a bus to Chtoura and, from there, you should take a second bus to Zahlé. Price: 2,500 + 1,000 = 3,500 ($2.3).
Where to stay – In Zahlé, accommodation is limited and expensive. I walked around the city for a long time and the cheapest place I found was a hotel with rooms starting at $70. It’s better to spend the night in Baalbek.
Tripoli – An authentic Lebanese city
Tripoli is the second biggest Lebanese city, a city that would probably fit in what you think are the Lebanese standards, with its beautiful old souq of spices, the old medieval architecture and a citadel from where you get awesome views of the city. In Tripoli, a city famous for its sweets, live the Lebanese people who have the famous Arabic hospitality, as it’s impossible to be wandering the streets, kind of lost, without several locals offering you their help.
Tripoli is a city to get lost in around its narrow alleys and an old city belonging to the XIV century. Furthermore, you can’t miss the fortress of Raymond de Saint Gilles, built in the XI century and the lovely neighborhood around the harbor.
By the way, you probably heard that the U.S. Embassy describes Tripoli as a dangerous city to travel to. Why is that so? Since the Civil War, there have been one-off clashes between Sunni and Alawi Muslims who reside in the neighborhoods of Bab al-Tabbaneh and Jebel Mohsen, respectively. Throughout the years, these clashes have killed several people.
This is a one-off conflict happening in a specific area, far away from the city center. It’s a fight between two small districts and doesn’t go beyond. The rest of the city is totally cool and safe. However, since I’m an extremely curious human being, I also went to Jebel Mohsen. And what can I say? Life there was merely normal. Again, clashes and bombings happen once a year, not more. For more information, check out this article from Wikipedia.
In my opinion, Tripoli is one of the best things to do in Lebanon.
How to get there – 80km from Beirut, there are buses leaving from Cola continuously. Price: 3,000LBP – 5,000LBP ($2 – $3.3).
Where to stay
Budget– Palace Hotel – I stayed here. It’s quite similar to the Jupiter Hotel, in Baalbek. It’s located in the city center. Rooms start at 30,000LBP ($20) but you can negotiate it down to 20,000LBP ($13.30) – Online booking not available
Mid/high-range – Chateau des Oliviers – More luxury than mid-range but, to be honest, in Tripoli, it seems that there’s no mid-range. Rooms start at $100+ but, according to Lonely Planet and a local friend, the high-quality service makes it an unforgettable experience.
Kadisha Valley – Lovely Christian mountain villages
If you either want just to relax, eat good food, visit beautiful Christian monasteries or to go hiking, the Kadisha Valley in Lebanon will always be the perfect place for you. Kadisha means ”holy” and owes this name to the fact that this valley is home to some of the most ancient communities of monastic Christians in the Middle East. In case you don’t know, monasticism is a way of life for which the person (in this case Christian monks) renounces everything to devote himself completely to spiritual work. The valley is full of natural caves, difficult to access, that once served as places of isolation for the monks living lives devoted to Christ.
How to get there – You can come from Beirut but it would take you over three hours. It’s better to spend the night in Tripoli, as from there, there are buses (from 9 am) that stop in the village of Bsharri. For coming back, the last one is at 4:30 pm.
Where to stay – In the Kadisha Valley, all the accommodation is really expensive, except for the Tiger Guest House, a guest house targeting independent travelers, located in Bsharri.
Saida – A southern, conservative city with a lovely castle
Saida is a small city located 40km from Beirut. Slightly conservative, Saida is a nice place to visit on a day trip, wandering around its labyrinthine covered souq, full of cafés where the Lebanese are sitting outside, looking with expectation at the few foreigners that pass by. Perhaps, the most iconic building in the city is the castle, built in the XII century, located on a tiny island just 80m from the shore, whose walls turn into a beautiful orange during the sunset.
How to get there – From Cola Station, there are several buses all day long. Price: 2,500LBP ($1.6).
Where to stay – To be honest, we recommend visiting Saida on a day trip from Beirut.
The wall that separates Lebanon from Israel
Both Lebanon and Israel have been in a continuous war for several decades and, today, diplomatic relations between both countries don’t exist, since they still consider each other to be enemies. This one of the most sensitive borders in the world.
These two Middle Eastern countries share a 79-kilometer border. For the most part, it is unreachable, as it’s located too far from the road. But I was told that there’s one area where you can actually get close to it. I liked the idea pretty much, so I decided to go there.
Visiting it is an adventure, as the whole area is full of military facilities and soldiers from the United Nations, who are guarding the border. You need to be very cautious when visiting it. I was there by myself, with a camera and was detained. If you wanna read my full story, check out this article: The day I was accused of being an Islamic State spy.
Permits: Going to Hezbollah areas in Lebanon requires a permit. It’s very easy to obtain and you can get it at the police station in the city of Saida. You get it instantly. Please note that a permit makes you eligible to enter the area. It doesn’t mean that you can take pictures or walk freely along the wall.
How to get there – From Beirut, go to Cola Station and take a bus to Saida (2,500LB, 30 minutes). From Saida, take a bus to Nabatiyeh (3,000LB, 30 minutes). In Nabatiyeh, you need to take a shared taxi towards Kfarkela (5,000LB, 25 minutes). You have to drop off as soon as you see the wall. Please note that you may have to wait for over an hour for the taxi to be completely full.
Tyre – Your summer destination in Lebanon
The most southern city in Lebanon, Tyre brags about being the place where you find the best beaches in the country. In summer, every day, tons of Lebanese come from Beirut to spend the day and chill at its beaches and eat awesome seafood at the many restaurants that are found around the harbor. In Tyre, you also find a castle, Roman ruins, a corniche and beautiful and colorful harbor, full of seafood restaurants.
How to get there – It’s 90km from Beirut. From Cola Station in Beirut, you must go first to Saida and then, take a second bus to Tyre. Price: 2,000LBP + 3,000LBP = 3.3$.
Where to stay – Like in Saida, I also recommend visiting Tyre on a day trip from Beirut.
The Lebanese food!
I know, I know. This isn’t actually a place but the point is that in Lebanon, you can’t miss its food, as this country offers unequivocally, the best food in the entire Middle East. Lebanese food is a Mediterranean cuisine with influences from both the Middle East and the French colonial era and, as in Spain, Italy or Greece, olive oil is the base of any dish. Typically, most restaurants serve mezza, an array of small dishes similar to the Spanish tapas, which includes both vegetarian and non-vegetarian dishes.
From the classic hummus, kibbeh (a local steak tartar), kebabs and syadye (rice, fish and almonds in a gravy sauce) to a tasty olive oil of the standard of any southern European country and a strong wine culture, Beirut is home to the best food in the entire region.