Despite its small size, Lebanon is a country which offers a ton to see and do. From historical ruins to breath-taking natural beauty, there's a little of something for everyone. And it certainly doesn't hurt that the food and wine are delicious! We had an amazing visit to Lebanon in March and saw so much of the country. My brother-in-law and his wife have lived in Beirut for two years so they knew all the best places to go. Thinking back on the trip, I'm sharing a list of the 10 things I think you should not miss when visiting Lebanon.
Logistical Tip: Book a rental car for your day trips outside of Beirut. Though there are some public buses, they are not an efficient mode of transportation and take much longer than driving yourself. We booked our car online and picked it up at the Avis rental car office in downtown Beirut. If you're renting for multiple days, you can park in one of the lots around the city overnight or check with your hotel to see if they offer parking.
1) Historic Quarter and Souks of Byblos
Byblos, or Jbeil, is one of the oldest Phoenician cities with the first inhabitants settling as far back as 8000 BC. It has been continually inhabited since Neolithic times (around 5000 BC). Visiting this UNESCO World Heritage site, you'll see ruins from a variety of different historic periods as you wander through the town. If this isn't enough incentive to visit, Byblos has another claim to fame - the origin of our contemporary alphabet was discovered here as well!
During our visit, we wandered through the old town, admiring the historic architecture and the old souks. Jeremy stopped in one of the shops and bought a Lebanese coffee pot (rakweh). Since we arrived in late-afternoon, we were just in time to head down to the waterfront for sunset. The view of the sun setting over the Mediterranean Sea is magnificent. And, the waves crashing against the rocks are the perfect foreground for photos.
Getting there: It's only about a 45-minute drive from Beirut to Byblos which makes it an easy day trip.
2) Baatara Gorge Waterfall
The Baatara Gorge Waterfall is a spectacular site you don't want to miss - especially if you're visiting Lebanon in the spring. From the parking area, you'll hike ~a quarter mile (300 m) down to the waterfall. The path is stone steps at the start, then a dirt (or muddy) trail towards the end. When it's wet, the mud becomes quite slippery so be sure to hold on to the hand rails.
As you approach the falls, you'll see the water entering the chasm from a hole at the top of the hill. In the spring, the stream above is fed by the melting snow of the surrounding mountains so the waterfall is quite full. I can imagine that by summer when it's drier, the falls would not be as impressive.
When you get to the viewing point, you'll be in the middle of the waterfall. It plunges deep into the cave below (~250 m), passing a couple natural bridges carved out of the limestone. Walk around the trails to see the waterfall from numerous vantage points, but be careful as some are quite slippery.
Getting there: Located ~70 km from Beirut, it takes ~1.5-2 hours by car. Our day trip included a trip to the waterfall and then Byblos. The trip from Byblos to the waterfall (or back) takes ~1 hour. When we went, the roads nearing the waterfall were in rough shape with deep pot holes and snow, so I don't recommend renting a car with too low a bottom.
Weather Tip: The weather at the Baatara Gorge Waterfall is much cooler than on the coast. Be sure to bring a jacket. If you are going during spring, perhaps bring a heavy jacket. The car told us the temperature when we arrived at the parking area was 5º C (41º F). It had been 19º C (66º F) at the coast when we started our drive into the mountains.
I almost didn't have my winter coat for this snowy excursion! Want to know why?
Check out my post 'Lost Luggage in Lebanon (And How We Handled It'!
The first thing I ate in Lebanon - manakish (or manakeesh, manaqish) - was my favorite food discovery. As I was walking down the street, I smelled something that I identified as pizza. Immediately I wanted it. (What is it about pizza that always makes me want it no matter what time of day it is?) Come to find out, what I was smelling was the Lebanese version of pizza - manakish. They're sold all over Lebanon at small shops and only cost ~US $1.50.
Manakish is a Levantine dish which is basically dough topped with za'atar*, cheese, or minced meat. My favorite manakish was the cocktail - one with za'atar and cheese.
*Za'atar is a staple condiment which is a combination of spices including thyme, oregano, and marjoram combined with sesame seeds and salt.
4) Roman Ruins at Baalbek
Another UNESCO World Heritage site, the Phoenician city of Baalbek houses one of the best and most well-preserved examples of Imperial Roman architecture of its time. Though the city was religiously significant during Phoenician times, it flourished under Roman rule when most of the temples were built. Pilgrims flocked to Baalbek to worship 3 deities in particular - Jupiter, Venus, and Mercury.
Now the temples are in varying stages of ruin, but several columns and walls remain. It's incredible how tall and large some of the columns are. To think, they built all of those temples without machinery! One of the temples is still in fairly good condition - the temple to Bacchus (the wine god). After all, you have to have priorities....
Getting there: Close to the Syrian border, Baalbek is a ~2-2.5 hour drive from Beirut. Though we were never stopped, there are several check points along the road. It's a good idea to bring your passport with you so you have identification in case you need it.
5) Lots of Mezze
Lebanon has so much delicious food to sample. By ordering mezze, you can try several dishes each meal and work your way through a lot of food. When we first arrived in Lebanon, I wasn't sure how much to order. In Hong Kong, portions tend to be on the lighter side. So, if you're getting small plates, you order a lot to fill up.
After a few meals in Lebanon, I'd recommend 4-5 mezze dishes for 2 people's dinner. If you're ordering a main dish, order fewer mezze dishes. I ended up very full after many of our meals - my ordering eyes are always bigger than my stomach.
Some of my favorite mezze dishes:
6) Hiking in the Kadisha Valley
The Kadisha (or, Qadisha) Valley is home to some of the first Christian monasteries in the world. Scattered throughout the valley, you can hike to these monasteries as well as several hermitages that are not accessible by road. Bring a picnic lunch and choose a picturesque location to sit and eat - there are many! The views are magnificent and the peaceful setting is the perfect spot to sit and reflect.
Getting there: St. Anthony's Monastery (Mar Antonios Qozhaya) is a ~2-2.5 hour drive from Beirut. It's a good place to stop and see the monastery (and use the restroom), as it's near the start of a trail into the valley.
7) Wine Tasting in the Bekaa Valley
Lebanon's Bekaa (Beqaa) Valley is home to several notable wineries. Although not as well-known as European wines, I found Lebanese wine to be delicious. The winery and vineyard tours that we went on (in addition to tasting the wine) were unique. We visited two wineries on the way back to Beirut from Baalbek: Château Ksara and Château Kefraya.
Getting there: The Bekaa Valley is approximately a 1.5 hour drive from Beirut. Some of the vineyards are close to each other, but Château Ksara and Château Kefraya are a ~30-minute drive from each other.
8) Street Art
I love finding street art everywhere I go and Beirut was no exception. Be on the lookout, especially when walking down alleyways, to find murals! Though some of my favorites that I found I saw as we were driving out of the city. I tried to snap a couple photos quickly.
9) Strolling the Corniche in Beirut
A popular site to visit in Beirut is the Raouche Rocks along the Corniche. The rocks jutting up out of the water are interesting and the sea is a lovely shade of blue-green. Start your walk here at the rocks - perhaps grab a coffee and sit overlooking them. Then, head north along the Corniche.
Beirut doesn't have a lot of public parks, so everyone flocks to the Corniche to walk, run, bike, skate, etc. - it's a flurry of activity. In the summer, men will swim in the sea just off the Corniche. There's not much shade along this walkway, so be sure to wear sunscreen if you need it.
After walking along the Corniche for ~4km, you'll come to the Beirut Marina Port and the Yacht Club. There are several chain restaurants in this area, but Zaatar w Zeit is a local chain and the shawarma wrap is pretty good. By the time we got here, I was hungry so I grabbed a wrap, sat out on a bench, and gawked at all the large yachts. I think all of them are bigger than my Hong Kong apartment!
10) Cedars of Lebanon
The Cedars of Lebanon have the distinction of being the oldest documented forests in history. They have played an important role throughout Lebanon's history, including being used for building ships and temples. During the early 20th century, the Ottoman Turks deforested many cedar forests and only the highest and most remote survived. They are still appreciated in Lebanon today, including being featured prominently on the Lebanese flag.
There are a few different forests you can visit to see the cedar trees. Since we were visiting Lebanon in March and the cedar forests are so far up in the mountains, we were limited by the snow. We visited the forest in Maaser El Chouf, but couldn't do much hiking due to the snow coverage. The forest was beautiful though and peering through the trees, we had gorgeous views of the valley below.
11) Nargile (Shisha)
Since I realize this isn't for everyone - and isn't great for your health - this one is a bonus. Shisha (they call it Nargile in Lebanon) has been one of my occasional guilty pleasures since college. In case you aren't familiar with it - shisha is a flavored tobacco. It's placed into a bowl, covered with foil and coals. Then, as you inhale, the smoke is pulled through the water bowl at the bottom and then into the pipe. The smoke is flavored, so not like cigarette smoke. However, it's still tobacco so there are still health risks.
I've tried shisha in several countries, but this was my first experience in the Middle East. Having someone with experience preparing your shisha makes such a difference when you're smoking it. No burning taste, they replace the coals often, and it lasts for a long time.
Again, I do not recommend this as a frequent activity. But, it's fun to try it when visiting Lebanon because they know their stuff!