This is a question I saw appear so many times on online forums when doing research for my recent trip to Lebanon. I saw many conflicting answers too. Many foreign governments warn against visiting parts of this Middle Eastern country and tourist guides often advise to be cautious as well, but locals active on forums such as TripAdvisor seem to suggest everything is fine. So, what’s the deal?
Having just returned from Lebanon myself I can honestly say the so-called security threat is greatly exaggerated. The idea that large parts of the country are unsafe or even hostile territory for foreigners couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, I have seldomly met such warm and welcoming people! A melting pot of religions and cultures, Lebanon turns out to be surprisingly diverse and liberal (even to a certain extent outside the capital Beirut), people are genuinely interested in you and there’s none of the hassling you’d experience in other Arab countries like Morocco.
What’s more, Lebanon has an incredible number of top tourist attractions, especially for such a tiny country. Think ancient ruins, medieval monasteries and castles, Middle Eastern souqs, natural wonders and Mediterranean coastal towns – all at less than a few hours drive from each other. Add to this a fabulous national cuisine and a capital with an exciting nightlife scene and you can start to see why Lebanon is actually the perfect destination for a 1-week Middle Eastern getaway.
So, which places should you visit, how do you get there and how safe are they really? These are my experiences:
The Lebanese capital has risen from the ashes of the civil war, which lasted from 1975 to 1990 and started off with sectarian violence between various religious groups before becoming so complicated with so many different players that I’m not able to recall the entire history. Although the scars of the war are still visible, Beirut has found new glory AND is as safe as it gets. The beautiful, elegant historic centre has been renovated and the city is experiencing a massive building boom (or bubble?).
While the old town may feel rather polished and quiet, it’s the neighbourhoods of Hamra, Gemmayzeh and Mar Mikhael where it’s at. Hamra is the commercial heart of the city and is full of high street shops and bars. In scruffy but buzzing Gemmayzeh and Mar Mikhael you’ll get to experience why Beirut is often dubbed the party capital of the Middle East. The streets here are not just lined with independent designer shops but also with cool bars and night clubs that attract local hipsters and international jetsetters alike.
Great Lebanese food can be found anywhere but in particular on and around Armenia, Gouraud and Hamra street. I had some of the best hummus, labneh, tabbouleh and more in restaurants such as Em Nazih, Enab, El Denye Hek, T-Marbouta and Beit Halab. If you want to learn how to make some of these dishes yourself, book a Lebanese cooking class at Tawlet. I didn’t manage to go there but heard great stories about it. Nice places for brunch include Dar Bistro & Books, a café and bookstore in one, Café Younes, which serves good coffee, and Atelier du Miel, where they use (local) honey in all their dishes. Fancy a sip of the popular local aniseed liquor Arak? Then don’t miss Anise, a cozy bar that specialises in this drink.
For a taste of modern Middle Eastern art, head to the splendid Nicolas Sursock Museum in uptown Achrafieh, or to one of the art galleries in Gemmayzeh and Mar Mikhael, such as Art on 56th and Plan Bey.
If you want to experience the modern Middle East, Beirut is the place to be!
Many people visiting Lebanon decide to stick to Beirut and a couple of nearby tourist sites such as the caves of Jeita Grotto, but my friend and I wanted to leave the smog and pollution of the city behind for a while and headed north. If you don’t speak Arabic it can be quite a challenge to figure out the Lebanese transportation ‘system’ (luckily there’s Uber in Beirut…) and because we were planning to visit several places in one day we decided to arrange a private taxi, who drove us around for a day for $85 (most businesses accept US Dollars). We did take the Connexion bus on the way back the next day though, which turned out to be a really cheap, safe and comfortable alternative.
Our first stop was the ancient town of Byblos (locally known as Jbail). Beautifully situated on the Lebanese coast (fresh air, YES!), its’ one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities on earth. From the medieval Crusader’s castle you have a magnificent view of ruins that go back all the way to the Iron Age, with the Mediterranean Sea in the backdrop. These are the kind of travel discoveries I love!
From Byblos we travelled onwards to Tripoli. Not to be confused with its Libian namesake, Lebanon’s second-biggest city is a real hidden gem. Unfortunately, most governments advise against travelling to Tripoli and even the Lonely Planet issues caution, but I didn’t feel unsafe or uncomfortable for a single second. Quite the contrary, the people here were incredibly kind and helpful. They showed us the way when we got lost (in the city’s massive souq), offered to take pictures of us at one of the many stunning sights (a medieval Crusader’s castle, an Ottoman-era hammam, just to name a few) and helped us get shared taxis for a normal fare (because, to be honest, drivers would rip us off otherwise).
Further reading taught us that the conflict in Tripoli is limited to rare clashes in two suburban neighbourhoods north of the city and does not affect foreigners visiting the historic city centre. So, you should be completely fine! What’s more, although Tripoli is a predominantly Sunni city and can feel quite conservative, there is no need for women to fully cover up. Yes, my (female) friend and I got a few stares, but that was really because we were almost the only foreigners and people were simply curious to find out where we were from.
Accommodation in Tripoli is scarce and the most relaxed area to stay in is the seaside neighbourhood of El Mina. We booked a room in the beautifully renovated Hotel Via Mina and loved it – a little quiet oasis in this bustling city!
The Roman ruins of Baalbek are without a doubt the most spectacular ones I’ve ever seen (and I’ve seen quite a few). The problem with Baalbek is that it’s located in eastern Lebanon, close to the border with war-ridden Syria, in the heartland of militant organisation Hezbollah. As a result, many western governments issue a negative travel advice for this part of Lebanon. Which is a shame, because in reality it’s actually very safe to travel here these days! I heard from lots of fellow travellers who had been to Baalbek by car or even public bus (from Beirut’s Cola Intersection) that they didn’t experience any issues and I felt the same.
If you don’t want to drive there yourself and are not sure about taking the bus, you can do like I did and join an organised day tour. Operators such as Nakhal run guided group tours to Baalbek and surroundings a few times a week. At $95 per person it might seem a bit pricey, but the tour includes transportation from Beirut, a guide, entrance fees to the historic sites, a huge lunch and wine tasting at a nearby winery. Apart from beautiful Baalbek you also get to visit the ruins of Aanjar, an 8th century fortified Islamic town located on the old trade route between Beirut and Damascus.
Perhaps the best thing of all is that you’ll likely be the only one here, so there’s no need to fight over that perfect Instagram shot without any people in it…!
Sidon and Tyre
The region south of Beirut, towards the border with Israel, has a history of sectarian fighting, but at the moment the situation seems relatively quiet and it’s safe for foreign visitors to go there. The main tourist highlights are the historic seaside cities of Sidon (Saida) and Tyre (Sour), of which I only managed to go to the former. From Beirut’s Cola Intersection you can take a public bus or minibus that brings you to Sidon in 45 minutes for a few dollars. Alternatively, you can get a shared taxi (service) for twice the price per person.
Exploring Sidon is a feast for the senses. The city’s lively souq is a sprawling network of tiny streets and alleys filled with shops that sell literally everything, from herbs and spices to jewellery and clothing. Definitely try the locally made senioura biscuits or lokum (delight) here! Also make sure not to miss Palace Debbané. Hidden in the heart of the souq (good luck finding it), this city palace is a breath-taking example of 18th century Ottoman architecture. It just reopened after a long renovation when I was there and I was in awe by its beauty!
From Sidon it’s another 45-minute bus or taxi ride to Tyre, which is famous for its Roman ruins and is a popular seaside holiday destination for Beirutis. Due to a lack of time I wasn’t able to go here, but it’s definitely on my list for my next visit to Lebanon!
Because if there’s one thing I’m sure of, it’s that I’ll be back in this fascinating country. After all, Lebanon has so much to offer. And while – as always – you need to keep an eye on the local news and avoid certain areas, the majority of Lebanon is perfectly safe territory for foreign travellers. Don’t let the international headlines deter you from visiting this mesmerising place!