Rob Perkins, writer at Responsible Travel, explores a destination that’s eager to show the world what it’s been missing.
Lebanon still bears the scars of the civil war that kept it well off any popular tourist route for years, but in recent times the country, now thankfully at peace, has seen its profile begin to rise.
The capital, Beirut, is revitalising its reputation as ‘the Paris of the Middle East’, and intrepid travellers are starting to rediscover Lebanon’s historic, cultural and natural bounty.
Here are 10 reasons you should visit Lebanon soon…
1. It’s safe, for the most part
Lebanon’s devastating civil war, which left many parts of the country in ruins, ended in 1990. The years since have been marked by political instability.
There has also been a brief war with neighbouring Israel, and the ongoing conflict in Syria has led to a huge population of refugees.
Although governments advise caution when travelling to Lebanon, it’s actually one of the safest countries in the Middle East, especially when you go with a specialist travel company that knows the country and the security situation well.
Sure, there are still a few areas to avoid or exercise more caution in – some neighbourhoods of Beirut and Tripoli, refugee camps – and in the south of the country a guide is recommended for hiking as there is still some unexploded ordinance lying around.
Essentially, though, you needn’t have any security concerns about visiting Lebanon.
2. It’s under-explored
Even though Lebanon is largely safe for tourists and has been for some years now, it remains relatively under-explored. For travellers who love nothing more than discovering ‘the next big thing’ or escaping the crowds, Lebanon should be on the radar.
Right now, you’re most likely going to find small group tours going there, with numbers kept to a maximum of around 16, and limited departure dates. Outside of the big towns and cities you might need to rough it a little, but your trip is going to have a big impact on local economies that could really use more tourism.
3. The food
OK, speaking subjectively, Lebanese cuisine is some of the best in the world. It’s had centuries to develop (some dishes go back to the Roman Empire and beyond), is influenced by many different cultures from Arabic to Turkish, and lots of recipes have been passed down through generations, giving ample time for them to be perfected.
It’s quite a Mediterranean-style diet, earthy and fresh, with many dishes liberally dressed in olive oil and lemon juice. Your classics include falafel, shwarmas and baba ghanouj, all of which are usually accompanied by generous helpings of pita bread and hummus. —
For dessert, there’s delicious baklava – filo pastry with nuts and honey. Scrumptious! The restaurants of Beirut offer opportunities to explore far more modern cuisine, much of which puts a spin on traditional dishes.
4. The wine
The best accompaniment to Lebanese food is naturally Lebanese wine. This is one of the oldest wine-producing regions in the world, exporting its wines for well over 4,000 years.
Even years of conflict didn’t do much to disrupt the industry. Some of the finest wines originate in the south, especially around the fertile Bekaa Valley.
5. The people
Lebanon’s population is extremely diverse. It has spent centuries at the crossroads between the Mediterranean region and the Middle East, and has been controlled by empire after empire throughout history: the Greeks, the Phoenicians, the Romans, the Ottomans, the Crusaders, as well as a brief occupation by France.
For the most part it’s a very tolerant society, with everyone rubbing along together. What’s amazing, and really gratifying about travelling here, is that even after years of war the Lebanese people remain so welcoming to visitors – a sign of their resilience and defiance.
The active traveller will find plenty to love in Lebanon’s interior. Horsh Ehden is a nature reserve on the slopes of Mount Lebanon, a mountain range that runs the length of the country parallel to its Mediterranean coast.
Much of the reserve is covered in aromatic cedar forest, where wolves are known to prowl. Then slightly further south you’ve got the Kadisha Valley which is a fascinating place that was historically a sanctuary for Christian communities, and you can see many caves used for burial sites.
Some of Lebanon’s oldest trees, thousands of years old, are still growing here.
7. The size
Lebanon is very narrow – at its widest point it’s only around 90km – so most points of interest are only a short distance from each other, making it an ideal destination for touring. Also, you can effectively spend your morning on the beach, have lunch in the city, and be up in the mountains by nightfall. How many other places can offer that diversity?
8. Lebanon is a time machine
This is one of the oldest countries in the world, with the ruins to show for it.
In fact, in Lebanon you’re never far away from the remnants of some ancient civilization, making it a fascinating country to visit for anyone with even a passing interest in history.
Some of the most significant points of interest include Byblos, a charming harbour city just north of Beirut, where the archaeological sites include a Crusader castle and a Roman theatre. It’s said the earliest alphabet was created here.
Baalbek, in the Bekaa Valley where some of Lebanon’s best wines originate, has some truly spectacular Roman temples and other ruins, much of them very well-preserved. Our Lebanon travel guide goes into much more detail on the key historic sites.
Beirut is where East meets West. The Lebanese capital is a wonderfully diverse and really exciting city, renowned for its nightlife and dining scene.
Again, because Lebanon is a pretty compact country it’s possible to base yourself here and take long day trips out to points of interest, or just be sure to bookend your trip with a few days here.
Probably the great joy of Beirut is wandering around the various neighbourhoods, each of which has its own unique character. Downtown is glamorous. Here, boutiques rub up against souks, the Grand Mosque and many buildings that are still pockmarked with bullet holes from the recent way. The historic Hamra district is another must for a wander around, as is the waterfront.
10. Lebanon is a year-round destination
Lebanon is the only country in the Middle East to have four distinct seasons.
In summer it can hit 30°C which in the cities and on the coast can feel slightly oppressive, but you can quickly be up in the mountains where it’s distinctly cooler.
Winter is still quite mild, ranging from 11°C to 20°C in the day on average, and with a bit of skiing at higher elevations.
Or look at travelling in spring or autumn when the weather is warm, generally quite dry, and the landscapes are just magnificent.
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