Lebanon: Fact File
Updated: Sep 7, 2019
Lebanon: Little in size, big in soul
Little Lebanon punches above its weight class: this tiny coastal nation on the far eastern edge of the Mediterranean is filled to the brim with natural wonders, sweeping vistas, ancient ruins, culinary delights, and friendly faces. Here's your first-timers guide to visiting Lebanon!
(Click here to access your free online guide to Lebanon!)
What's the big attraction? Well, for starters, visitors to Lebanon will want to check out these "must-see" sites across the country:
Beirut: Grit and glamour coincide in this ram-packed capital city, with a night life buzz that is the envy of the region. Most visitors flock to Hamra for the shopping, restaurants, night life, and proximity to the student buzz of American University. The downtown core also draws visitors for high-end shopping with a more modern feel.
Raouche (also known as Pigeon Rocks): These iconic natural rock formations at Beirut's westernmost end are best photographed at sunrise for maximum breathtaking beauty. Boat rides around the rocks are available: check at your hotel or the local tourism office for details, or just walk down the hill to the waiting boats and bargain for a ride. (However, as with many popular tourist attractions around the world, beware inflated prices and sub-standard service from drivers and nearby cafés and restaurants.)
Jeita Grotto: Vying for a spot as one of the seven wonders of the natural world, this cavern is absolutely breathtaking in scale and beauty. The upper cavern is accessed via a cable car. The interior lighting is well-placed to illuminate the cave features, without being garish or too obvious. From the bridge in the upper cavern, be sure to look down to the crystalline blue waters of the lower cavern sparkling 60 metres (200 feet) below. The lower cavern is explored by boat: though brief, the boat tour is magical for the sheer beauty of the water up close. Beirut's main water supply is fed from these caves and other nearby rivers: the water is safe to drink, but wait for your boat guide to tell you where and when to taste the cool water!
Bekaa Valley: Wine country -- among other things -- the Bekaa Valley is the breadbasket of Lebanon, holding a vast majority of the nation's arable land. The scenic drive across the valley with snow-capped mountains on both horizons is worth the visit alone. Dial up the enjoyment with a tour of the Ksara Winery, one of the best known producers in the region. Tours and tastings available without appointment.
Ruins: The coastal cities of Sidon, Tyre, and Byblos all have some level of Roman ruins for exploration (Tyre's are perhaps the most "Roman" of these three). Sidon and Byblos both have additional layers of excavation, dating as far back as the Phoenicians. Sidon's souq (market) is well-known, and worth an exploration. Byblos ruins are perhaps the most "historic," with visible layers of Phoenician, Roman, and medieval Crusader ruins. The adjacent Byblos town souq is home to some trendy bars and eateries, making for a pleasant day-long visit. The ruins par excellence, however, are those of the Baalbek temple complex in the Bekaa Valley: the largest Roman Temple complex known, the Temples to Jupiter, Bacchus and Venus are so extensive, it's hard to imagine how much larger the surrounding city must have been in its prime. The temple complex is so impressive, many visitors find it outstrips even Rome for quality and magnitude. If you have time for only one visit to ruins of any variety, make it Baalbek.
Cedars of Lebanon: Several nature reserves exist to protect the famous species of cedar tree unique to this region. The largest and most well-known is probably Chouf nature reserve. The views are spectacular both from the park and on the drive up to the reserve. There are a number of short, circular route walking trails departing from the ranger station.
Flag, Funds, and Facts:
The Lebanese Flag is a tri-band of red, white and red, emblazoned with a green cedar tree. The red represents the blood of martyrs shed for the nation's independence, the white for the snow-capped mountains. (Fun fact: Lebanon is derived from the Arabic word for white, named so for the snowy mountains).
The money is the Lebanese Lira (LL). It is fixed agains the US Dollar at 1500 LL to $1 USD. Notes come in denominations of 1000; 5000; 10,000; 20,000; 50,000; and 100,000. Small coins of 25, 50, 100, 250 and 500 lira exist.
Driving in Lebanon is on the right side of the road.
European-style plugs (Type C) are most commonly found, though types A, B, D and G are also found.
Lebanese are (rightly) proud of their cuisine. Anyone familiar with Middle Eastern cuisine will find the typical fare of hummus (chickpeas blended with tahini -- ground, roasted sesame seeds), shawarma sandwiches (shaved meat or chicken roasted on rotating skewers) and baklava-style sweets (thin pastry layered with nuts and honey) across the country.
Less commonly known from abroad, however, is manoushe: a flatbread covered with zaatar (a herb blend consisting largely of thyme) and drizzled with olive oil, typically eaten for breakfast. Kunafe, a popular dessert, is a sweet-cheese filled semolina pastry soaked in sugar syrup. And in more rural or traditional settings, you may find various animal parts on the menu, including sheep's brains or testicles (see video below for my experience!).
For popular quick eats in Beirut, stop by Barbar in the Hamra district for a shawarma sandwich. The crowds outside attest to the popularity of this joint, especially popular with the late-night crowd. For slightly more upmarket, but still casual, fare, try Kebabji on Hamra street for a delicious sampling of grilled meats and tasty salads.
For visitors heading into the Bekaa Valley, a visit to a winery is a must. Sampling the region's wines -- grown with grape stock imported from France by Jesuit priests in the 1800s -- is a fine way to pass the afternoon. For visitors passing through Anjaar (home of some Ummayad dynasty ruins with impressively organised ancient city planning), the expansive Shams restaurant is a fabulous dining experience, complete with burbling fountains in a lush covered garden environment. Be sure to save room: if you opt for starters, main and dessert, you may have to roll yourself out the front door by the end.
Faith & Festivals:
Lebanon is fairly proportionally split between Maronite Christian, Sunni Islam and Shia Islam. Each sect has a representational number of seats in the government as well. A minority population of Druze lives in the mountainous regions to the south of Beirut.
The major Christian and Islamic festivals are celebrated throughout the country -- which can mean a great experience of local culture, or a bad experience due to limited public services and opening hours. Check your travel dates and confirm any reservations before departure if you intend to visit during the major Christian festivals of Christmas and Easter, or the Islamic holidays of Ramadan, Eid Al-Fitr and Eid Al-Adha.
A number of holy sites are dotted across Lebanon, many of which are shared across the monotheistic faiths. The pilgrimage sites of Harissa and Maghdouché both house towering statues of the Virgin Mary with commanding views from the mountaintops on which they stand. Many women come to Maghdouché in particular, in the hope of a blessing of fertility.
A curious, lesser-known festival -- commonly celebrated in Christian areas like Maghdouché -- is the Feast of Saint Barbara on December 4th. The feast commemorates the female saint who is traditionally believed to have escaped pursuit by Roman soldiers through the use of cunning disguise. Today, her feast day is not on the traditional Roman Catholic calendar, but is still widely celebrated by Christians in the Levant. Children will dress up in costumes and meander through the neighbourhood, feasting on sweets and collecting money from neighbours. The holiday is sometimes jokingly referred to among locals as "Lebanese Halloween". To experience the festival, be sure to visit in early December, and stay in one of the many majority Christian villages around the Chouf district.
Beirut is the obvious choice to stay, as it is the main port of entry for most visitors. Lebanon's small size means it is entirely possible to visit most places outside Beirut as a simple day trip. If you're visiting for just a couple of days, then this is probably your best option. However, longer visits may benefit from moving to different regions and spending a few nights to get a richer experience of local life outside the capital city.
Beirut itself has a notorious reputation for being ugly and unattractive. After years of civil war, the rebuilt city can have a slip-shod, brutalist architecture vibe, with little regard to preservation of history and reconstruction. But, on closer inspection, the city is delightfully photogenic in the details. Big picture skylines of Beirut will probably not win photography awards, but duck down the lanes in the Hamra district and you'll find street art, stories-tall graffiti, vibrant local eateries and cafes, and quirky store facades that echo back to the 1960s and 70s.
The corniche, a pedestrianised seawall along the northern edge of Hamra is a great morning or evening stroll. The stretch along the seaside is great for people watching -- fishermen, joggers, cyclists, families and friends all enjoying the cooler hours of the day. Work your way west in the morning or east in the evening to avoid the strong glare of the sun in your eyes.
The far western end of the corniche bends around to the famous Raouché arches; the far eastern end dissolves into the port area and downtown core. A walk from one end to the other is do-able in around an hour, though exhausting in daytime heat. At the Raouché end, a host of overpriced cafés and high-end hotels perch on the cliffside. For unobstructed views of the rocks, either grab a window seat in one of the many cafes, or slip past the roadside barriers at the south end of the public viewing plaza to get down to sea-level.
For the eastern end of the corniche, the city centre boasts high-end shopping complex set behind the twin attractions fo the mosque and church. Wide, Parisian-style boulevards are flanked by golden-stone shopping complexes. A little further to the east, the ritz and glamour give way to steel-and-glass mid-rise apartment buildings and financial services office towers.
For general nightlife, buzz and "old Beirut" feels, Hamra district is your best choice to stay. The neighbouring American University campus lends a student vibe to the neighbourhood, offering a fine mix of budget eats and upscale dining. I personally can recommend The Mayflower hotel, one of Beirut's long-standing establishments. Somewhat dated decor, but clean and centrally-located, the Mayflower is value for money in what can be an expensive city.
For a more elegant and refined feel, the downtown core is best situated for access to luxury shopping and central bus station services.
Staying further afield in Beirut is probably not best suited to the casual traveller, as traffic and public transportation can be death-defying at its best.
Outside Beirut, longer-term travellers may want to consider night stops in Byblos (to gain the full experience of the souq and the nightlife), Tripoli (if intending to explore the 'far north' for a few days). At the time of writing in 2019, extended and independent visits to Baalbek (near the border with Syria) and Sidon and Tyre (south towards the Israeli/Palestinian border) are not recommended by several official government channels; however, savvy travellers can take this advice with a grain of salt, provided they understand the contexts and risks of doing so in a part of the world that is prone to unexpected flare-ups and tension.
Levantine Arabic is the spoken dialect. Speakers of other dialects of Arabic may struggle with certain aspects of the Lebanese variety, as it is partially influenced by French (France occupied the region for a portion of the early 20th century). Pronunciation is often "softer" than Gulf Arabic, and there are large numbers of loan words from outside standard Arabic.
French is widely spoken, as it is a medium of instruction in many schools. Large numbers of French travellers visit the region, and there is a close relationship between the two countries to this day. In fact, the standard Arabic greeting of "salaam walaikoum" is often replaced with a simple "bonjour." The polite response is "bonjourain" (literally, "two bonjours").
Standards of spoken English are generally high; and travellers should not encounter much difficulty communicating in English in greater Beirut. Having a familiarity with French (or better yet, Arabic) will certainly calm any linguistic frustrations that may crop up. Outside Beirut, communicating exclusively in English may be more difficult. Equip yourself with some basic phrases, and as always, a great deal of gracious patience when engaging with locals in their tongue and on their turf.
This post has been made possible partly in cooperation with Lebanon Tours. To book your excursions and tours through Lebanon, visit their website at lebantontours.info.
Special thanks to @le.royzo for his special assistance and additional information.