Lebanon to many is a no go area as they still recall the bloody civil war which ended in the 1990s and the kidnappings of westerners that went with it. Occasional flare-ups continue to keep many away but by taking advice and sensible precautions, there’s no reason why travellers shouldn’t enjoy an informative and very enjoyable holiday to the country.
The country is smaller than you’d expect, not much bigger than Yorkshire, meaning that by being located centrally, say in Beirut, most of the wonderful sights it has to offer are within a few hours’ drive.
With a distinct French influence from when France ruled the country at the end of the Great War, the country combines Middle Eastern hospitality and food with French style creating a unique experience for the traveller.
Despite being so small, the country divides into five distinct geographical regions, each very different and offering wonderful attractions for those prepared to hire a car to explore.
The area around Beirut is serene and beautiful with stretches of fine sandy beaches and limestone outcrops such as the Pigeon Rocks which give character to the coast. The mountain behind the city contains the Jeita Grotto, one of the world’s largest cave systems whilst the city itself is renowned for its fine dining, architecture and history.
The name of the Bekaa Valley brings shivers to some for it was here in the 1980s that the Hezbollah group set up camps training for attacks on Israel. Consequently, the region became an aerial battlefield as Israel strove to wipe out the group’s camps in the valley. Prior to troubled times, the valley was known as the ‘Breadbasket of the Roman World’ and its fertility ensured that its exports made it very wealthy. Today, whilst there are still Hezbollah camps in the valley, using common sense means that you’ll rarely encounter any sign of them and the valley has returned to peaceful slumber, agriculture taking off once more and the wineries producing some of the world’s best wines. The Bekaa Valley is also known for its gastronomy and if you’ve enjoyed the food in Beirut, you’ll positively love that of Bekaa. Sometimes there are warnings not to travel to the valley when trouble has flared and following advice should ensure you remain safe.
The Bekaa Valley is overlooked by the Mount Lebanon region, encompassing high mountains, deep valleys, sleepy villages and towns and great opportunities for enjoying outdoor adventure sports. It’s here that you’ll find Lebanon’s ski resorts which are as good as any you’ll find in Europe including five star hotels, great après ski and yet some of the lowest prices for skiing in the world. Elsewhere, you can hike, white water raft, go bird spotting or rock climbing.
One of the best areas to stay in the Mount Lebanon region is Chouf and especially the town of Deir El Qamar which hosts music festivals in summer. The name of the town translates as the Monastery of the Moon, quite an atmospheric name for a settlement high in the mountains.
Northern Lebanon continues the mountainous theme in an area that is more remote and isolated than elsewhere in the country. It’s home to Lebanon’s second biggest city, historic Tripoli as well as the country’s tallest mountain Qornet es-Sawda, 10,000 feet high, and the nearby Cedars ski resort, the highest in the country which enables skiers to enjoy the sport until April each year. The scenery of the region is spectacular with plunging valleys and high green mountains. Tiny traditional villages dot the landscape and whilst staying in traditional inns, you can enjoy many outdoor sports there.
Southern Lebanon is the main part of the country for archaeology and history and has the remains of many ancient civilisations. You’ll find the biggest and best preserved Roman ruins in the world at Baalbek, where, over several square miles, you’ll find villas, temples, a forum and a hippodrome, all in an excellent state of repair. Offshore there are submerged Phoenician ruins it’s possible to snorkel over whilst several crusader castles dot to coast around Tyre and Sidon. The region borders Northern Israel and you’ll have to remain aware and listen out for advice on safety in the region.
Eating out in Lebanon is a treat not to be missed with numerous salads, dips and grilled meat and fish. Flatbread is served with everything and can be cold, warmed or fried and served with pomegranate syrup and parsley. Tabbouleh is a staple made from parsley, garlic and lemon juice and accompanies most meals. Sweetmeats are popular too with dates, honey-soaked pastries and nuts often served with coffee.
Lebanese wines are highly commendable and it was the French who changed the vineyards to more westernised tastes in planting Cinsault and other grape varieties that make the delicious and sometimes heavy reds. Many wineries offer tastings and if you don’t make it out to one, try the cavas in the main cities.
Staying safe is relatively easy despite Lebanon’s reputation and unless you inadvertently stray near the borders with Israel and Syria, you’ll only encounter friendly, hospitable people eager to meet and befriend you. Most people need a visa to enter Lebanon and these are given free for one month upon arrival. Travellers from Israel with Israeli passports cannot enter Lebanon under any circumstances.
Beirut Airport is one of the busiest in the Middle East and Tripoli Airport, a close second. Both airports have flights from the UK with Beirut taking flights from BA and Middle East Airlines from Heathrow whilst Tripoli has flights from Gatwick with Afriqiyah Airways and Heathrow with BA. A nice alternative is to take a holiday to Cyprus and then fly with Cyprus Airways from Larnaca to Beirut for a few days or take the Louis Lines cruise ship that spends a day in Beirut. Once there, a hire car is an essential and with it you should be able to tour most of the country in a few days.
Getting around Lebanon is really easy; there are no trains, internal flights are pointless as the distances are small so the only alternatives are buses, taxis and hire cars. Taxis are most people’s preferred means of transport with fares being cheap and taxis plentiful. Even for reasonably long journeys, fares are good value for the convenience of your own ride. Buses are another good way to get around, especially intercity, and are very efficient.
Car hire is a good way of getting around under your own steam although it can be pricey. Deals are available but it’s best to seek them out online before you travel. Petrol is available everywhere but again is expensive despite Lebanon’s proximity to the oil producing nations of the Middle East. The roads are well signposted in Arabic and English or French and you can drive the entire length of the country in under three hours.
Put aside preconceptions of what Lebanon is like, ignore the scaremongers and dip your toe into the water, perhaps on a city break or cruise from Cyprus. It’s a certainty that you’ll want more. If travelling around Lebanon, check out our guides to what you’ll find in the regions around Tripoli and Beirut and have a fabulous holiday there.