Being on the road for the past year and a half we are constantly trying to stretch our budget. When we booked our trip to Lebanon we were surprised by how expensive it is to visit. Accommodation and food are similarly priced to Europe. We were very lucky to have a friend living in Beirut who offered us a place to stay (thanks Adina!). With sights no more than two hours drive from Beirut, it makes for a perfect place to take day trips from. Luckily renting a car in Lebanon is fairly cheap. We decided it would be nice to have freedom to visit the places we wanted to on our own time.
What we did not know prior to booking a car, was the level of craziness that is driving in Lebanon. We thought Egypt has the craziest drivers, well we were sadly mistaken. Three lane highways become six lanes. Lanes are just painted lines to purposely be ignored, even without traffic. Turn signals are to be avoided at all costs. Merging can be done at any time, at any place. We even saw multiple cars driving the wrong way on highways, driving on the shoulder for 2KM just to avoid driving to the nearest roundabout. These norms of driving in Lebanon took us some time to get used to and serious hyper vigilance.
Once we settled in and overcame our fear of an accident every fifteen seconds, we spent a lovely six days exploring this beautiful nation. Lebanon surprised us in many ways. The hospitality was incredible. The countryside looked more like the Swiss Alps. Food was delicious and had a modern flare. There was snow. While the beaches did not impress us, the coastal cities had a rich and interesting history. Beirut’s weekends were filled with heavy dosages of alcohol, dancing, meeting strangers, and eating someone else’s birthday cake. There are even some decent wineries in Lebanon to sample. While six days is short, we got a heavy dose of Lebanon, and we loved every single bit of it.
Important Things to Know About Lebanon
U.S. and E.U. residents can obtain a visa on arrival, along with the gulf countries in the Middle East and Malaysia. Other countries need to refer to their embassy requirements. According to the Lebanese officials, “Israeli citizens or any other person who holds any passport bearing stamps, visas, or seals issued by Israel are strictly prohibited from entry to the Republic of Lebanon and may be subject to arrest or detention for further inspection.” There is a strict no entrance policy and the customs agents may ask questions on arrival if you have been to Israel, even if you have no proof of stamps. Yana was asked out right by an officer if she had ever visited Israel.
Arabic is the national language of Lebanon. Nearly 20% of the population speak French on a daily basis. There is also a large population of Armenians whom speak their native language. In the cities, most speak English, however once you leave to the countryside it is not commonly spoken.
Lebanese culture is a mixture of Middle Eastern traditions with a Mediterranean flare, and some French influence. With a mixture of religions (50% are Christian or Greek Orthodox) and backgrounds, Lebanon has its own culture unique for the Middle East. In Beirut the nightlife is especially boundless, as one of the liveliest cities on the Mediterranean. Lebanese cuisine and social gatherings are an important part of the culture and daily life in Lebanon.
The Lebanese Pound is the national currency. The pound is pegged to the USD, at 1,507 LBP. Costs in Lebanon are much higher than most of the Middle East and parts of the Mediterranean. Many costs, especially in Beirut, and similar to those in Western Europe and the United States.
When to Visit
Spring and Fall bring temperate climates on the Mediterranean coast and cool temperatures in the mountains. This is the best time to visit Lebanon. During the summer, temperatures reach over 100° Fahrenheit (40°C).
Lebanese food is some of the best food in the Middle East. They have many traditional dishes such as tabboule, fattouch, labneh, hummus, mutabbal, dolmas, and baba ghanouj. It is often that Lebanese add lemon, pomegranite, or other nice additions to these traditional dishes. Lebanese is excellent cuisine for vegetarians. Meat eaters can still get there fix with an assortment of grilled kebabs, kibbeh, kafta, and shish taouk. In addition to the excellent spices and flavors of Lebanese food, there is an abundance of great Armenian restaurants, especially in Beirut.
Arriving into Beirut International Airport is the most common entry point to Lebanon. The only way to get from the Airport to the city center is by car or taxi. Taxis will cost between $20 and $30 USD into Beirut. Beirut only has public buses inner city (http://lebanontransit.org/). While there are several highways in Lebanon, roads in the rural countryside are in very poor condition. This was a result from the Lebanon Civil War between 1975 and 1990 and the 2006 Lebanon War with Israel. While there are some buses that run up the coast between Beirut and Tripoli, most of the inner country is inaccessible by public transportation. It is possible to hire taxi drivers for the day at around $70 USD.
Renting a car is an option in Lebanon and comes with a cost of around $20 USD per day. However, Lebanon (especially Beirut) is one of the craziest places to drive. It is not advised to drive in Lebanon unless you are a very confident and aware driver. Even so, you have a high risk of getting into an accident. Drivers disregard all traffic laws, and are very aggressive, making it dangerous to drive in Lebanon.
Accommodation in Lebanon is expensive. Budget backpacker options at small and basic guesthouses start from $20 USD per night. Costs slightly go down in Baalbek and Tripoli. Due to the size of Lebanon, everything can be visited as a day trip from Beirut. It may be best to stay in Beirut for the duration of the stay and make day trips to all of the popular destinations.
Safety in Lebanon is something that should be of concern and monitored before planning a trip to Lebanon. There are several fragile situations such as the constant tension with Israel, the Syrian refugee crisis, and the latest developments of ISIL presence in border towns. Lebanon has a poor image of safety due to a long civil war (1975 to 1990) and some recent wars with Israel (2006). While there is an enormous military presence, including Hezbollah military units, there continues to be terror attacks throughout the country. However, most tourist sites along the coast are still considered safe to visit. Avoid the Syria border as there has been a clear spillover of the civil war to towns along the border. With all that said, we felt very safe and not once even felt uncomfortable about our safety.
Beirut & Beirut Day Trips
Beirut is a modern city and major economic and financial center in the region. Within Beirut city, there are many activities and sights to see such as the Mohammed Al Amin Mosque, Beirut Souks, Roman Baths, Government Palace, Hamra street, Sursock Museum and Palace, and the Saint Nicholas stairs (escalier del arte). Don’t miss a stroll on the corniche to Pigeon Rocks for sunset. Follow it up with a meal on one of the many excellent dining options in the city. Some favorites are Falafel Sahyoun, Ichkhanian Bakery, and a traditional Armenian meal at Onno. Finish the evening partying it up on Armenia Street.
The south coast of Lebanon is beautiful with two great coastal cities. Saida has one of the best traditional souks in Lebanon, directly across from the Saida Sea Castle. At the entrance of the souk is one of the best falafel sandwiches we had at Falafel Abou Rami. Don’t miss a stop at Khan al-Franj before heading down the coast to Tyre (Sour). If weather is good, head to the beach, one of Lebanon’s best. There are several ruins in Tyre for history buffs. Our favorite was walking through the old town, starting from the lighthouse. We walked through the small streets and alleyways in the Christian neighborhood back to the souk and port of Tyre.
The north coast has some of the best sights in Lebanon, starting with Byblos. Also known as Jbeil, Byblos is one of the oldest known cities in the world. It’s nice to visit the ruins and walk around the quaint old town down to the old port. Continuing up to Tripoli, there are some good stops at the Great Phoenician Trench at Anfah, the Msaylha Castle, the Chekka cliffs and the Phoenician Wall at Batroun. Tripoli is Lebanon’s second largest city. There is a great historical area in Old Mina which can be combined with a walk to the corniche. The Citadel in Tripoli has lots of history, with traditional souks nearby. Not far from Beirut and just off the coast heading into the countryside is the Jeita Grotto. This stunning grotto tour comes with a unique boat ride taking you through the caves. On the way back to Beirut, catch sunset from the top of Our Lady of Lebanon in Harissa.
Cost: Entry to the Byblos ruins are 8K per person. Entry to the Jeita Grotto is 18K per person.
Central Lebanon is the least explored by tourists, but one of our personal favorites. There are beautiful mountains and stunning monasteries throughout the central region that look like the have been plucked from Switzerland or Austria. Kadisha Valley was our favorite part of the countryside. This is also where The Cedars is located, one of the few remaining cedar groves in Lebanon. The Baatara Falls in Tannourine are incredible and unlike an waterfall we have ever seen! The drive to Monastere de Mar Lichaa, a tiny mountainside monastery, is definitely worth a trip.
Some of the best day trips can be to East Lebanon with stops in the Bekaa Valley and Baalbek. Baalbek is home to some of the best roman ruins anywhere in the world. It also is one of the largest temple complexes in the world. These ruins are gorgeous and very well preserved. The Bekaa Valley is home to the Lebanese wine industry. Stop by our favorites, Chateau Ksara (open from 9 – 5 daily) and Chateau Khoury (open 11-7 Tues-Sat, call for apt with the winemaker himself). Obviously, don’t head too far east. (e.i. Syrian border)
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Visited in December 2016.