Beyond Beirut - Travel in Lebanon

Lebanon's compact size means that visitors on all but the quickest of trips can discover the country's major sites on day trips from Beirut. The below extracts are adapted from the Beirut Focus Guide & Lebanon Handbook, by Middle East expert Jess Lee.

(c) Jess Lee
The Roman ruins of Baalbek

During the 1960s it seemed that nothing could rain on Lebanon’s parade. The darling of the jet-set brigade, Lebanon had a ‘ski in the morning, swim in the afternoon’ tourist campaign which catapulted the country to the top of the list of must-see Middle Eastern destinations. People flocked to Beirut to play before heading to the Bekaa to gape at the mammoth temples and tumbled columns of Roman Baalbek, ending their day, cocktail in hand, harbour-side in Byblos. Lebanon was a tourist-brochure dream.

Then it all went horribly wrong. Fifteen years of civil war brought the nation to its knees, pulverised the capital and caused a reign of chaos to hail across the countryside. The tourism industry belly-flopped into history and unless you were a journalist, Lebanon was a place you avoided like the plague. Since the end of the war in 1990, the journey from no-go zone to tourism hot-spot has not been smooth. Outbreaks of sectarian violence, a spate of high-profile assassinations, the 2006 July War between Israel and Hezbollah and continuing political unrest and upheaval have kept Lebanon in the media-eye for all the wrong reasons considerably hindering efforts to entice visitors back. Most recently, sporadic outbreaks of violence caused by overspill from the Syrian civil war have yet again thrust Lebanon under the media spotlight.

(c) Jess Lee
Martyr's Square in Beirut commemorates the hanging of Lebanese nationalists by the Ottomans in WWI.

Lebanon though has a knack for reinvention and this bite-sized cornucopia of the Middle East is bouncing back onto the tourism stage. Beirut, still wearing the scars of war on its sleeve, is the Arab world at its most cosmopolitan and is a proud emblem for Lebanon's remarkable recovery and survival after years of turmoil and is a buzzing city. Visitors are once again strolling down the restored cobblestone alleys of Byblos. Heading inland reveals spectacular scenery and tumbled temples. In a state this small (the entire country is roughly only half the size of Wales) the fact that foreign travellers are still something of a novelty outside the main centres is staggering. There is much more to this pint-sized nation than meets the eye...

Crusader Castle archaeological site, Byblos

North of Beirut: Beautiful little Byblos (Jbail) has an unhurried Mediterranean charm. With its pretty harbourside souq & important archaeological site, it is the main north coast highlight, but even ugly-looking Jounieh has an Ottoman-period heart hiding some charming buildings from that era. Thrill-seekers shouldn't miss a ride on the terrifying Jounieh teleferique, while those who like a flutter will enjoy a night out at the casino. Just out of town and not to be missed is Jeita Grotto, one of the largest collections of stalactites and stalagmites in the world - the formations are breathtakingly beautiful. Just north of Byblos the sleepy hamlet of Batroun is worth a stop for its delicious lemonade alone. 

Byblos harbour

East: Directly east of Beirut, the mountains of the Metn rise steeply from the coastal plain. A number of summer resorts have grown up in these mountains - places where Beirutis can come to escape the heat and humidity of the city. Beit Meri and Broummana can both be visited as a short round trip from Beirut, returning via the town of Bikfaya, and offer impressive views and an appealing summer climate. Meanwhile, the Mount Lebanon region is a winter-sports enthusiast's dream - you can launch yourself onto the slopes during the day and still get back to Beirut in time for a late dinner. When the snow melts, most of the resorts here press the snooze button and revert back to charmingly sleepy alpine hamlets.

South: To the south of Beirut, running parallel to the coast, lie the Chouf Mountains, home to large swathes of densely forested slopes speckled with red-roofed villages hugging the ridges. The Beiteddine Palace is this region's most spectacular monument, a sumptuous example of the opulent lives of the Emirs.

Inland: Awesome in their sheer sale and mesmerizing in their richness of decoration, the ruins of Baalbek are Lebanon's premier attraction. The ancient splendour and massive dimensions are humbling. Surrounding the ruins is the modern town of Baalbek; unfortunately, due to the current situation across the border in Syria, Baalbek and much of the Bekaa Valley have been labelled no-go zones by many western government travel advisories. Check the situation carefully before you decide to travel here; check the FCO website for up-to-date advice.

Jess Lee is author of the Beirut Focus Guide and the Lebanon Handbook - available from our online shop today.
This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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