6 of the best things to do in Lebanon

The must-do activities in this confluence of history, culture and nature

Chris Wilson
Wednesday 30 August 2023 10:55 BST
Lebanon is an accessible slice of the Middle East
Lebanon is an accessible slice of the Middle East (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Though just a small slice of the Middle East, Lebanon is a country with a history and influence that belie its modest size.

Home to lively cities, beautiful coastal towns, remarkable natural beauty and some of the oldest ruins on the planet, Lebanon has a surprisingly diverse range of things to see and do.

Beirut is a charming blend of the old and the new and a more liberal alternative to other Middle Eastern capitals, while cities such as Saida, Tyre and Byblos fuse the beauty of the Mediterranean coast with ancient ruins, old souks and Ottoman-era influences.

Moving inland will take visitors across verdant hillsides, soaring mountains, cedar forests and Christian monasteries, the presence of which reflect the welcoming and accepting nature of much of the country as a whole.

Easily accessible and small enough to explore in a week or so, Lebanon easily captures the imagination and has enough character to keep you entertained when you visit. Below, we’ve rounded up the best things to do.

Visit the capital

Beirut is as hectic as it is characterful (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

A vibrant capital that’s as hectic as it is characterful, Beirut is somewhere to explore where East meets West, Christianity meets Islam, old meets new and the present carries constant reminders of the past.

The city’s main landmark is the imposing Mohammed Al Amin Mosque, a honey-hued and blue-domed structure with four soaring minarets and space for 3,700 male worshippers. Anyone looking to learn about the country’s history should visit the National Museum of Beirut, which houses the country’s most widespread collection of artefacts dating back to ancient times, though the more artistically minded will prefer the Sursock Museum, which showcases a range of contemporary art and sculptures.

But Beirut is a city that is best experienced by wandering through its streets rather than ducking in and out of museums and galleries. Mar Mikael and Gemmayze are the most atmospheric districts – full of nightlife options and international cafes and restaurants – while the Beirut Souks area is a network of modernised streets and shops more akin to a western shopping centre than the market stalls common in other Middle Eastern countries. Down by the water, the city’s Corniche promenade and Zaitunay Bay are two polished areas of skyscrapers and yachts that offer a relaxed place for lunch by the water.

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Discover Byblos

Byblos is one of the world’s oldest cities (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Byblos is one of the world’s oldest continuously inhabited cities, with evidence of continued inhabitation since around 3000BC (and the first evidence of settlement potentially dating back as far as 8000BC). This famed old city – also the supposed birthplace of the Phoenician alphabet, an early ancestor of our modern-day version – lies less than an hour up the coast from Beirut, so it’s perfect for a day trip.

A beautiful port city filled with stone buildings and cobbled streets, Byblos is a place where several periods of history can be discovered. The ruins of a Roman temple and theatre lie near a 12th-century Crusader Castle and the St John-Mark Cathedral, and the city’s souks and perimeter walls attest to early Ottoman influences.

But Byblos is not just a great trip for would-be archaeologists and historians. The city used to be a hedonistic haunt of celebrities such as Frank Sinatra in the 1960s, and today it still retains a sense of relaxed luxury, from its sun-drenched harbour and golden beaches to the lively nightlife of the souk area and the high-end resorts dotted along the coastline.

See historic Saida

Saida is a thriving port city (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Once part of the Egyptian Empire and later flourishing under the Phoenicians, Saida is another Lebanese port city with an impressively long history. Today, it is centred around its Old Town, the beating heart of which is the Saida Souk, one of the oldest in Lebanon. Enjoy getting lost in this labyrinth of winding alleys, and spend your time haggling with vendors for sweets, jewellery and traditional crafts or just trying out some of the various street food stalls.

Close to the souk you’ll find the Great Al-Omari Mosque, a fortress-like mosque that is open to non-Muslims outside prayer times, or you can admire the intricate decoration of the Debbane Palace, an Ottoman-era aristocratic residence. Just a short walk from the palace lies the city’s Sea Castle, the remnants of a Crusader-era castle that sits on a small island out in the Mediterranean.

Hike through cedar trees in the Shouf Mountains

The Shouf area is one of Lebanon’s most untouched regions (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

These mountains are located in the vast Shouf Biosphere Reserve, a protected region that contains around 5 per cent of Lebanon’s total land area. A place of verdant hills, hidden waterfalls, crisp mountain air and some of the country’s last remaining cedar forests, it has over 150 miles of hiking trails to explore.

The areas around the charming villages of Deir El Qamar and Maasser Al-Chouf are particularly striking, and at roughly an hour away from both Beirut and Saida, they’re ideal destinations for a day away from the cities (there are also accommodation options on the reserve if you want to stay overnight).

Descend to Jeita Grotto

The caves of Jeita were discovered in 1836 (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

One of the country’s most awe-inspiring natural wonders, Jeita Grotto is an extensive network of caves that stretches for over three miles into the mountains of the Nahr al-Kalb valley. Accessed via cable car or toy-like train, the caves are split into an upper and lower cavern. The lower section, consisting of several flooded caves, is explored by rowing boat, while the upper caverns are traversed on foot. Both are lit up by multicoloured lights that draw attention to a series of rock formations, stalagmites and stalactites that adorn the cave walls.

Explorable in around 90 minutes and lying just 11 miles away from Beirut, exploring the Grotto is a good option for a day trip that takes in some of the most amazing nature in Lebanon.

Take in the beauty of the Qadisha Valley

The Qadisha valley is also home to the Forest of the Cedars of God (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

A verdant, rugged landscape of towering mountains and the odd russet-roofed village, Qadisha Valley is another of Lebanon’s unmissable natural sights. The Qadisha River flows through the bottom, and the very top is the Qornet As Sawda, the country’s highest peak at 3,090 metres.

Best accessed by car via the winding mountain roads – with plenty of opportunity to stop for a walk – the valley is Unesco-listed as “one of the most important early Christian monastic settlements in the world”, and today vistors can see several monasteries punctuating the jagged hills and cliffs. The picturesque village of Bcharre is the gateway to the valley, where a path takes visitors down to the Deir Mar Elisha, one of the main monasteries in the valley. If you visit at the right time, you can also ski – the town is home to The Cedars, Lebanon’s most popular ski resort.

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