Where to go in Lebanon
Although a relatively small town, Arnun has an impressive sight:
Beaufort Castle, which sits atop a 1,000-ft/305-m cliff overlooking
the Litani River. Many conquerors have walked along the battlements of
this Crusader castle. However, the castle was damaged during the civil
Baalbek, in the northern Bekaa Valley, has the most impressive
classical ruins in Lebanon, and it's one of the most important Roman
sites in the Middle East.
Although the town predates Roman times, little is left of the
Phoenician city of Baal or the subsequent Greek city of Heliopolis
(City of the Sun). The architectural attractions left standing are
entirely of Roman design, built in the 1st century AD. Some historians
attribute the enormous scale and rich detail of the buildings to
religious rivalry: Christianity was growing in popularity, and the
Romans wanted to entice the local population to stick with pagan
You'll enter the complex through the Propylaea, a colonnaded entrance,
and then proceed through a hexagonal court to the Great Court with its
two altars where sacrifices took place. Straight ahead, up the wide
set of stairs, is what remains of the Temple of Jupiter. Only six of
the original 54 columns are still standing, but these alone give you
an idea of the incredible height of the building. The columns are said
to be the largest in the world.
Though smaller than the Temple of Jupiter, the nearby Temple of
Bacchus is a wonderfully preserved architectural beauty. Take your
time walking around its outer portico, marveling at the intricately
carved stone. From this position you also have a good view of the huge
stone blocks that formed the foundation for the Temple of
Jupiter—some of the blocks are believed to weigh more than 1,000
tons. Finally, enter the Temple of Bacchus at its eastern end, walking
up the flight of stairs and through the ornate doorway. Peer up at the
keystone, which was a popular subject for sketch-happy 18th-century
European travelers. Their drawings show the stone hanging perilously
low, but it seems to have been reset in recent times with modern
There are some modern cultural attractions as well, the most important
being the renowned Baalbek International Music Festival. It is once
again being held there annually in July or August. Baalbek can be seen
as a day trip from Beirut. Allow at least a half day (not including
travel time) for this impressive site. 55 mi/85 km northeast of
This splendid mountain resort is perched above the eastern end of the
beautiful Kadisha Gorge. The town's red-tiled roofs, olive groves and
mountain scenery remind us of a Greek village—or half a dozen other
scenic spots along the eastern Mediterranean. Although it's popular
both as a cool summer retreat for coastal dwellers and a winter base
for snow skiers, Bcharre can seem downright dead in the off-season.
Sightseeing options are limited to several churches and the Gibran
Museum, which pays tribute to Khalil Gibran, Lebanon's most famous
author and Bcharre's native son. Bcharre is also a convenient base for
visiting the Cedars of Lebanon or hiking in the 30-mi-/50-km-long
valley below. Note that the road leading east from Bcharre over the
mountains into the Bekaa Valley (and to Baalbek) is open only during
the summer. 40 mi/65 km northeast of Beirut.
Beirut needs no introduction—but it definitely deserves an update.
For many people, the very name Beirut is synonymous with civil war and
chaos. Indeed, it would be hard to underestimate the devastating
effects of the 17-year conflict, which turned the heart of a bustling,
cosmopolitan metropolis into a virtual ghost town of rubble. But now,
a decade after the end of the civil war, visitors can see how the
Lebanese are rebuilding their capital and bringing life back to the
city center. Even with its turbulent past, Beirut continues to be an
exquisite experience: a bewildering composition of cultures and
faiths, perched on a breathtaking sweep of Mediterranean coastline.
Atmosphere, not necessarily a long list of sights, is what Beirut
delivers best. Its mix of peoples, religions and cultures gives the
city a dynamic edge, and watching Beirutis go about their everyday
business is an interesting form of sightseeing. The best place to take
it all in is along the Corniche. In a city of few open, green spaces,
this long seaside promenade functions as a kind of park, a public
gathering space. You'll see people of all ages, in all forms of dress,
walking, jogging, eating and generally visiting there. The Corniche
also has wonderful views of the coast. Pigeon Rocks, a group of rock
formations set in a cove in Raouche, is the most dramatic of the
views, as well as a popular backdrop for evening drinks.
Even Beirut's No. 1 sight is a bit unorthodox. The historical
downtown, the neighborhood most devastated during the civil war, is
the focus of a huge redevelopment project. Government buildings,
mosques and churches have been or are being restored there. Among
these are the Grand Serail, the Municipality Building, Al-Omari
Mosque, St. George's Greek Orthodox Cathedral and St. George's
Maronite Cathedral. Near the Grand Serail are the restored Roman
Baths. Other downtown archaeological sites are being restored for
public viewing. New shops and restaurants are also drawing crowds
Relics of Beirut's past can also be seen in local museums. The
National Museum, which reopened in 1999 after being closed for many
years, showcases antiquities in a well-thought-out manner. A smaller,
yet still impressive collection is on view at the American University
of Beirut Archaeology Museum. The AUB's beautiful campus is also worth
exploring. Finally, the lovely Sursock Museum occasionally displays
antiquities, but its primary focus is on contemporary Lebanese art.
Between museums, take time to explore the surrounding neighborhoods.
Ashrafieh, where the Sursock Museum is located, has narrow, winding
streets and some beautiful old residences. Hamra, south of the
American University, is a good place to soak up the city's daily life.
At the end of the day, head back to the Corniche to see the sunset and
take in the wonderful evening atmosphere.
Before the civil war, Beirut was a hothouse of experimentation, its
liberal atmosphere attracting artists, performers and directors from
all over the Middle East. The postwar scene is significantly smaller
and, in the absence of state or private subsidies, much quieter than
in the 1970s. However, the last few years have seen a resurgence of
public interest in the arts, which has led to the creation of several
new artistic movements.
Chief among these is Shams, a loose theater/cinema/performing arts
collective dreamed up by members of the Lebanese New Wave of the '70s
but designed to showcase the best of fresh, young talent. Shams
events, almost all in Arabic, are held throughout the year at the
Beirut Theater in Ain el-Mreisseh. Other theatrical venues include Al-Madina
Theater (Clemenceau) and the Monot Theater (Ashrafieh). The various
foreign cultural centers, especially the French, the British and the
German ones, also put on an array of performances throughout the year.
The Lebanese approach to nightlife involves eating as much as
drinking, and the combination can make for some late nights indeed.
From the quietest to the most decadent, your options include sipping
drinks at a cafe; taking in a movie or a live show; or dancing until
dawn (even on tabletops) at the multitude of clubs and bars that have
shot up in recent years. Or, of course, you can do all three.
While many guidebooks still point travelers in the direction of Hamra,
the real nightlife beat has definitely moved east. Those in the know
head for the cafes and clubs in the Monot section of Ashrafieh (such
as Babylone, Pacifico, Rai) or the zany, all-night funspots of Kaslik,
near Jounieh (about 30 minutes north of Beirut). Another good dance
spot is BO 18, next to Forum de Beyrouth. Hamra is fairly dead after
dark, though student clubs, such as Goa and Smuggler's Inn, are still
hopping. The remainder of west Beirut's nightlife is confined to the
larger hotels and a couple of seedy strip joints. Many nightspots
don't keep precise hours, but dance clubs generally open in the early
evening and stay open until sunrise.
The Palace of Beiteddine is one of the most popular day trips from
Beirut, and the drive through the beautiful Chouf Mountains is an
added bonus. The palace, completed in the early 1800s, is the product
of Italian architects and Levantine artisans. Touring the complex of
rooms and buildings, connected by terraces and courtyards, can be a
bit disorienting, though: You're never quite sure where you have or
haven't been. But don't give up until you've seen the baths, the
kitchens, the harem, the reception room and the nicely landscaped
gardens. There are several museums and exhibitions on site, including
the Ethnographic Museum, the Joumblatt Memorial Exhibit (honoring the
late Druze leader) and a nice collection of Byzantine mosaics
displayed in the former stables. An international festival is held at
the palace every summer in July or August.
On your way to or from Beiteddine, you can stop off in Deir al-Qamar,
a scenic town with many well-preserved historical buildings. You'll
also, no doubt, notice Castle Mousa along the way. It was built by a
man with a strange fetish for things medieval. It belongs in a
category with Bavaria's Neuschwanstein and Disneyland's castle, but
trust us, it's even less authentic. Beiteddine is 30 mi/45 km
southeast of Beirut.
CEDARS OF LEBANON
Today, a cedar tree graces Lebanon's flag, but few of the fabled trees
remain. If you want to see them, it will require some effort on your
part. The best place to get a look at the famous trees is at the grove
on Mt. Makmal (about 5 mi/10 km east of Bcharre). At 6,000 ft/1,800 m
above sea level (take along a sweater), a cluster of large old cedars
survive. There are two entrances to the park: one off the main road,
among the souvenir stands, and another one farther up the road on the
way to the ski resort (this entrance seems to stay open later). In the
midst of the trees is a strange piece of art. A French artist, who's
involved in the campaign to protect and plant cedars, carved a
sculpture out of the trunk of a dead tree rather than let it be
chopped down. Also, see if you can pick out the two trees called Adam
and Eve—their trunks are joined at the "hip." Mt.
Makmal is 45 mi/75 km northeast of Beirut.
This fresh-air village in the Mount Lebanon range is a gateway to some
of the best scenery in the country. Located near the Kadisha Gorge,
Ehden is also a good base for visiting the Horsh Ehden Forest Nature
Reserve, which protects native flora and fauna. There are several
churches and monuments in the town, but nature viewing and hiking are
the biggest draws. 60 mi/100 km northeast of Beirut.
While other cities may claim to be the oldest continuously inhabited
city in the world, Jbail, or Byblos, has the goods to back its
claim. And visitors will be happy to discover that the evidence
(spanning approximately 6,000 years) is located in a relatively
The Byblos Archaeological Site, as it's officially called, has a
mind-boggling inventory, including a Crusader castle and the ruins of
a Persian castle, Amorite temples, a Greek well, a Roman theater and a
necropolis containing the tomb of King Hiram. (His sarcophagus, as
well as many other artifacts unearthed in Jbail, are on display in
Beirut's National Museum.) The archaeological site also has some
Bronze Age remains, though to the untrained eye they look like little
more than crushed stones.
In the modern—that is, medieval—center of Jbail you'll find the
Romanesque-style Church of St. John the Baptist. The souk area is
located nearby, but it's a bit too clean and airy to be called
authentic. You're more likely to buy jeans or shoes there than
traditional Lebanese crafts. 22 mi/35km north of Beirut.
The Lebanese love to show visitors this natural wonder, with its many
stalagmites and stalactites in a series of caves. In summer, a boat
ferries passengers across a subterranean lake, which is the source of
the Dog River. In the past, concerts with hundreds of listeners have
been staged in the grotto, but most visitors will have to settle for a
sound-and-light show. 12 mi/20 km north of Beirut.
Jounieh's setting is still one of the most beautiful along the
Lebanese coast. For the best view of the crescent-shaped bay, take the
steep cable car (telepherique) up to Harissa. (The
station is in the middle of Jounieh, between the highway and the old
coastal road.) At the other end of the cable car line you transfer to
an incline car, which takes you up to the lookout point surrounding
the shiny, white statue of the Virgin of Lebanon. If you want to go
still higher, you can climb the ramp around the statue's base—the
closer you come to her lowered, outstretched hands, the narrower the
ramp becomes?and the pushier the people get. The view is spectacular,
though, and the virgin, seen from close up, has a sweet, sad charm all
On your way to or from Jounieh you can stop off at Nahr al-Kalb
(the Dog River) to view the inscriptions carved into the river-gorge
walls by a long line of conquering armies. Jounieh is 15 mi/20 km
north of Beirut.
Like most coastal cities in Lebanon, Sidon (Saida in Arabic) was a
Phoenician settlement (founded around 4000 BC). Its name means
"fortified," but apparently this didn't stop a long list of
invading armies over the centuries.
An earthquake inflicted heavy damage in 1837, but there's still plenty
to see: the picturesque Crusader Sea Castle (on a small island
connected to the mainland by a walking bridge), the Great Mosque
(originally a Crusader church) and the Frankish-style Castle of St.
Louis. Be sure to visit the Khan al-Franj, near the souk area.
Originally an inn for traveling merchants, it has been restored and
now serves as a cultural center. The Temple of Eshmoun is just north
of town and is one of the best preserved Phoenician sites in Lebanon. Sidon
is 25 mi/40 km south of Beirut.
Lebanon's second-largest city (pop. 240,000) lies a bit off the beaten
tourist track, but Tripoli merits a day's visit. It has a more
distinctively Arab atmosphere than other cities in Lebanon and also
has many Crusader-era and medieval sites. Worth visiting are the
12th-century St. Giles Castle (the citadel) and the Grand Mosque with
its Lombardy-style bell tower, as well as the Old Town's many other
mosques, madrassahs (theological schools), hamman
(bathhouses) and khans (inns) currently being restored. Take
time to stroll through the souks, and don't pass up some of the best
pastries in Lebanon at the patisserie RaF'at Hallab Fils on Rue Tall
near Sahet et-Tall, the city's main plaza. 50 mi/80 km north of
Beirut. more information about Tripoli-Lebanon can be found on Tripoli-Lebanon.com
As a Phoenician city, Tyre was so powerful that the Mediterranean Sea
was then called the Tyrian Sea. For centuries its walls were deemed
impregnable, but today it depends on its status as a World Heritage
Site for protection.
Greek, Roman and Byzantine remains mingle in two archaeological sites
open to visitors. One set of excavated ruins is on the Old Town's
southern end—it used to be an island before Alexander the Great
built a causeway to it and centuries of silt filled in the rest. About
half an hour's walk to the east is the other archaeological site,
which includes a Roman necropolis, triumphal arch, aqueduct and the
reconstructed Hippodrome (used in the film Ben Hur). 50
mi/80 km south of Beirut.
If you want to overnight in the Bekaa Valley (before or after visiting
Baalbek), Zahle is a good spot. This resort town is situated in a nice
river valley, and it's known as the restaurant and wine capital of
Lebanon. At the upper end of the valley are several outdoor
restaurants, all of them with long, white-tablecloth-decked tables set
for hundreds of guests. After dinner, you
can go window-shopping or stroll around town looking at the nice old
villas—there's not much else to do there. 35 mi/55 km northeast