Despite its small geographical area, Lebanon offers such a broad variety of historical sites, shrines, or areas of natural beauty that can be overwhelming for a first-time visitor. On top of that, its thousands-years-old past along with the complexity of the social fabric and the subtle balances (or, frequent imbalances) among various subgroups of the population create even more confusion and ambiguity. Still, Lebanon seems to have the ability to cast a mighty spell on every visitor since we all end up disregarding the chaos in the streets, the apparent lack of any order, or the lingering aura of the ‘70s which blends with the war-scarred buildings and the modern architecture in an ambiance that makes no sense, and we return again and again just to experience the essence of the Lebanese hospitality and dance to the crazy rhythms of the Lebanese heart.
To those visiting Lebanon for the first time, I would suggest they leave quickly behind the siren of Beirut and venture in the countryside, where most remnants of the country’s past can be found and, through them, a further understanding of these quite complex pages of Middle Eastern history can be achieved. Rent a car – preferably with a driver, since, driving in Lebanon seems to me an unnecessarily challenging task – and begin your road trip. I share here twelve favorite destinations which, I believe, should be included in everyone’s first trip, though, of course, they are the rather obvious touristic landmarks, and they merely scratch the surface of the mystery that is called “Lebanon.”
Naturally, a large part of the country’s history unravels along the coastline, following the steps of the ancient Phoenicians and the numerous trade routes that have been thriving ever since.
Starting from Beirut and heading towards the North, there are five destinations a traveler would thoroughly enjoy:
Our Lady of Lebanon Shrine
Just 16 km out of Beirut, there is the city of Jounieh, a coastal town known for its luxurious sea resorts, nightlife, and the Casino Du Liban (a unique institution for a country that is mostly Muslim). From Jounieh, one can take the Téléphérique for a ride up to Harissa where the shrine of Our Lady of Lebanon is located. The ride itself is an exceptional experience with panoramic views on Beirut and Jounieh, the vastness of the Mediterranean Sea, and the green mountain slopes – plus a touch of curiosity when passing close above the Lebanese houses.
The shrine at the top of the mountain is a pilgrimage destination in Lebanon and one of the most important shrines in the world honoring Mary, Mother of Jesus. Although this is a Maronite sanctuary, Virgin Mary is deeply loved throughout Lebanon by all religious communities – something that is vividly demonstrated by the numerous statues one finds throughout the country – and, thus, the site is visited by everyone who wishes to ask for the blessing of the Holy Mother.
The shrine is highlighted by a huge, 15-ton bronze statue of Virgin Mary who stretches Her hands towards Beirut. Walk up the stairs to the bottom of the figure and enjoy the colorful canvas of Lebanon while standing next to numerous people who patiently wait in line just to pray at the location. Regardless of one’s religious beliefs, the site emanates such reverence and love that I had difficulty keeping a few tears from running.
It is believed that Byblos (Jubayl, in Arabic) is the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world. Archaeological evidence proves that it has been inhabited since 5000 BC, while there are signs that first occupations took place somewhere between 8800 and 7000 BC.
The archaeological site is a book on human history written on successive layers of debris and remains that reflect the several historical eras the town has witnessed. Be prepared to allocate a few hours to explore the whole area and connect the dots among the eons.
Once finished, walk around the picturesque alleys with the beautiful old mansions, the myriad cafes and restaurants, and the souvenir shops, enjoying the relaxing ambiance of modern Jubayl. I admit it is a bit too touristic for my taste, however, after the exhaustive journey into humanity’s past, it is a very welcomed change. Notice the countless fossils for sale, the luxurious cars, and the extravagant lifestyle that is so typical of the fun-loving Lebanese: Byblos offers an excellent example of the unique way Lebanese manage to connect past and present, solemnity and fun, importance and triviality.
Another one of the most ancient cities of the world, located further to the north along the coastal line of Lebanon. A beautiful town that has been further renovated and developed over the past years, it is known for the still-standing walls the Phoenicians built in the sea thousands of years ago to protect them from tidal waves.
Also, the surrounding citrus groves lead to the production of Batroun’s famous fresh lemonade – a must-taste – which can be found in all cafes and restaurants. Spend some time in the city ambling through its streets, visit the historic Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox churches, and enjoy the beach which is one of the cleanest rock and pebble beaches of Lebanon.
Lady of Nourieh
Lady of Nourieh (translating to “Lady of Light”) is a Christian shrine located at the edge of a mountainous, pine-covered cape (historically called Cape Theoprosopon – a Greek word that translates into “Face of God”). According to the legend, the first shrine was built in the 4rth century by two sailors who had found themselves sailing in the middle of a dangerous thunderstorm. Virgin Mary appeared, answering their prayers, and took the form of light that guided them safely to the nearby shore. In gratitude, the sailors carved a cave in the cliff and dedicated it to Our Lady of Light. In the 17th century, this evolved into a bigger Greek Orthodox monastery, the remnants of which are still mysterious, holy, and meditative. Sit by the big windows on the rock walls that overlook the sea – the city of Tripoli in the background – and allow the breeze that inevitably blows to whisper stories from the past. Stay in silence, maybe even read a book, or close your eyes and feel the energy of this place which, not surprisingly, is another popular pilgrimage site in Lebanon.
Tripoli is the second biggest city of Lebanon and the largest one in the north, being also a major port. Although it is only 85 km away from Beirut, it takes at least 1.5 hours to reach it by car (even if driving non-stop) due to the heavy traffic in both cities.
With a history dating back to the 14th c. BC, Tripoli has so much wealth to offer that a visitor needs to plan at least one overnight stay. For centuries, it was a major city along the Middle Eastern trade routes but, after 1948, the formation of the Lebanese state, and the political challenges with neighboring Syria, the economy of the city deteriorated significantly. Today, despite its renovated town center and the streets that are packed with cafes and restaurants, the city has some of the poorest streets in the world and is often tenderly called “mother of the poor.” A center of political importance since the Crusaders’ times, its peace and well-being balance on a fragile line which is frequently crossed with disastrous consequences.
Visit the Citadel of Raymond de Saint-Gilles, the largest Crusader fortress in Lebanon and notice how the different eras from the Franks to the Mamluks to the Ottomans can be traced on the walls and the halls of the construction.
Prepare to get amazed by the old city of Tripoli which boasts having the largest amount of Mamluk architectural heritage after Cairo. Although the mosques and the hammams are of significant value, if you are like me, you will fall in love with the life in the souks (markets) and the loveliness of the people. Go through the vegetable and spice souks, spend quite some time in the soap khan where you find some of the best soaps in the world, enjoy the street food, or sit in a traditional small café for a cup of coffee or a refreshing lemonade.
Ideally, it would be best to hire a professional guide to take you around the Citadel and the old souks. However, be careful as, sometimes, they tend to charge outrageous fees. In this case, you can explore the city on your own, it will just take a bit more time and a lot more reading to make the connections among the various eras.
Don’t omit to pass by the International Fair of Tripoli, or explore the old Ottoman railway. Also, visit by boat some of the 11 islands – the only islands of Lebanon – the biggest of which is known as Rabbit Island (or the island of the Palm Trees), a nature reserve for green turtles, loggerheads, rare birds, and rabbits.
Finally, amble through the alleys of Al Mina (what used to be the city of Tripoli before it was destroyed by the Mamluks in 1289) and maybe even choose one of the cozy boutique hotels in the area to spend the night. I stayed at Beit Al Nassim which has a warm, friendly ambiance and almost feels like a homestay.
The historical heritage of Lebanon along the coastline also extends towards the south of Beirut, with two major landmarks:
Forty kilometers south of Beirut we find Sidon (or Saida, in Arabic), the third largest city of Lebanon. Inhabited since the prehistoric times, it was possibly the oldest Phoenician town, and it was from there that a colonizing group left to found the city of Tyre a few kilometers further to the south. The two cities were the most important ports of the great trading empire of Phoenicia, often fighting as to which was the capital. Sidon was famous for the glass craftsmanship, the purple dyes (extracted from the small shell of Murex trunculus, so rare that the pigment became the mark of royalty), and women’s embroidery – all praised in Homer’s poems as well.
Despite my frequent trips to Lebanon, I have (surprisingly) still not visited Sidon, so I will refrain from sharing any highlights that are not based on my personal experience, and I will come back soon with more details.
Tyre is the largest city of Lebanon in the south and a significant port. It is also known as the birthplace of Europa (who, according to the legend, was abducted by Zeus and was taken away to the land that took her name), of Dido (or Elissa) who is considered to be the founder and first Queen of Carthage (today’s Tunisia), and of Cadmus who, going after his sister, Europa, trying to rescue her, turned into a major Greek hero and the founder of the city of Thebes in Greece. All these myths confirm the expansive role of Tyre during the Phoenician era and the influence that the town’s trade activities had in the Mediterranean Basin.
In antiquity, the central city of Tyre was on an island, and there was a smaller settlement on the adjacent mainland. The two cities were finally merged into one during the siege by Alexander the Great, when the Greek conqueror constructed a causeway that connected the two sides, demolishing the town of the mainland to use the stones as building material.
Today, the old city of Tyre is serene and picturesque with beautiful houses, flowers, boutique hotels, and cute restaurants by the sea.
As far as the archaeological sites are concerned, there are two parts: one that is closer to the sea, and another that is more inland. In both, the Phoenician remains are practically non-existent, and only the Roman and Byzantine influences are visible. There are insufficient explanatory signs so do hire a guide (there is a standard fee of 20,000 LBP, around 13 USD) to help you retrace the steps of the past. Unfortunately, professional guides are to be found only on the inland site, which is mainly divided into the Roman part (which includes the Roman Hippodrome, a UNESCO World Heritage Site), and the Byzantine part which is a large cemetery, full of sarcophagi and tombs of various eras and structure.
Finally, we were advised to snorkel in a small bay close to the sea-side site, to marvel at a few ancient columns that are still standing tall in the bottom of the sea (after the destructive earthquake of the 6th century). It seems there are a couple of turtles as well that have turned the place into their home and enjoy swimming around the remnants of human architecture.
Moving away from the coastal line, one can discover a few precious treasures in the mainland.
Located just 18 km north of Beirut, Jeita Grotto (the cave of Jeita) is a major touristic destination and a Lebanese national symbol, while it featured as one of top 14 finalists in the New 7 Wonders of Nature competition.
It consists of two separate but interconnected limestone caves: the bottom one can be visited only by boat since its channels an underground river; the upper one can be accessed through a tunnel and a series of walkways through which one can visit the chambers of these galleries and see the world’s largest known stalactite.
Like all caves, this one as well gives the impression of entering a symbolic womb, and silence is so tangible that you can hear the drops of water in a continuous creative process. Check also in advance if there is any piano concert taking place in the upper chambers during the time of your visit: this is something I still did not have the chance to experience myself, but it certainly is on my bucket list!
Khalil Gibran Museum
Located 120 km away from Beirut, deep into the Qadisha valley, the Khalil Gibran museum is a gem that most first-time visitors will probably miss; however, I believe it is one of the most inspiring places in Lebanon and should be included in the itinerary.
The museum dedicated to the writer, philosopher, and artist Khalil Gibran is hosted in what used to be the Monastery of Mar Sarkis which dates back to the 7th century and was the hermitage of monks seeking shelter. After Gibran’s death and following his request, his sister bought the monastery to turn it into her brother’s eternal home. It hosts more than 400 of his paintings, his furniture, library, and other personal belongings from the years he lived in New York, as well as his tomb.
The ambiance is so meditative, and Gibran’s work emanates such energy and respect, that I left the museum in a state of awe, as if after a deep catharsis. The artist’s constant dialogue with the inner self and his quest for balance between feminine and male energies created a spiritual journey and an urge for thorough introspection. When I finally reached his tomb and read the inscription “I am alive like you, and I am standing beside you,” I almost turned to search for the familiar face, and my heart quivered in an internal sob of sacred ecstasy.
The Cedars of God
On the mountains of the Qadisha valley (the Holy Valley), there is the Park of the Cedars of God, one of the last forests of cedars in Lebanon and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Cedars used to cover the Lebanese mountains for thousands of years, but heavy deforestation and exploitation by the Phoenicians, the Egyptians, the Persians, and the Romans left only a few clusters of them which are now carefully protected.
The park is quite far from Beirut, so it is best accessed from Tripoli and, ideally, it should be combined with the visit to the Gibran Museum. There are many chalets nearby that one can rent for the night (especially if visiting during the winter) to enjoy (like a Lebanese) a full day in the mountains. Still, this can be a one-day excursion, if time does not permit for a prolonged connection with the cedars.
The park hosts a 5000-year old tree, along with several others that date back to 3,500 or 3,000 years ago. It is impossible to miss the power that these ancient presences emanate, as they look from above the unfolding of human history, and they register on the scars of their barks the changing eras. Allow for enough time to walk around, sit under the trees, read a book or meditate, fill the lungs with the well-known pungent aroma, and maybe even plant a cedar, contributing to the preservation of the forest and becoming part of the mountain forever.
Located south-east of Beirut, the Chouf District is a historical region, the heartland of the Druze community, and one of the most beautiful areas of Lebanon. The villages are very picturesque and well-preserved, as opposed to most of the other Lebanese villages which are characterized by anarchy in construction and I find rather ugly.
One should stop at the historic town of Deir Al Qamar to see the remnants of the Palace of Emir El Fakheddin II, and then move on to visit the imposing Palace of Beit Ed-din with its stunning architecture. On the way, stop for a while at Moussa Castle, a castle carved and built single-handedly by Moussa Abdel Karim Al-Maamari over a period of 60 years. Enjoy your coffee at the luxurious Mir Amin Palace Hotel (a former residence of the last Emirs of Lebanon), and maybe move on till the waterfalls of Nahed Merched, to relax by the sound of the giggling water.
If you visit during summer, check the festival agenda for potential concerts hosted within Beit Ed-Din Palace. It is a unique experience, highly recommended! And you don’t have to drive all the way back and forth: with a small extra amount of money, you can take one of the several buses that leave from Beirut especially for the concert’s needs, and enjoy the ride!
Baalbek is a town at the foothills of Anti-Lebanon Mountain, about 85 km away from Beirut in Bekaa Valley, mostly inhabited by Shi’a Muslims (and considered a stronghold of the Hezbollah movement). Despite the seemingly small distance from the Capital, the difficult mountain road makes the journey a long one – for Lebanese standards – and it is recommended to rent a room for the night to have the opportunity to explore the city and the archaeological site without any pressure.
When I was about to visit Baalbek for the first time, I was told that I am in for a pleasant surprise. I thought it would be just another Roman city – and most Roman cities look alike, so I was not expecting something extraordinary. I was wrong: the site will take your breath away! Also known as “Heliopolis in Phoenicia” (meaning, Sun City, that connects with the solar cult there), the area is famous for some of the best preserved Roman ruins in Lebanon, including one of the largest temples of the empire. The main gods worshipped were Jupiter, Venus, and Bacchus.
I had the opportunity to visit the site only during the Summer Festival for a concert hosted in the backyard of the majestic temple of Bacchus. The ambiance of the venue had such an effect on the experience that for days I kept reminiscing, mesmerized under the spell of the ancient gods. So, if you visit Lebanon over summer, check for potential concerts in Baalbek, it will become one of your most memorable experiences. Buses from Beirut are available here as well – which is a necessity because the ride is really tiresome unless you make arrangements to spend more days in town. Finally, don’t forget to taste the local delicacy, the famous Baalbeki safiha: small meat pies, enhanced with the freshness of lemon juice squeezed on top just before devouring them.
Photo credits: © Konstantina Sakellariou (unless stated otherwise)