Backpacking Lebanon: the ultimate travel guide.
This post is about Backpacking Lebanon. Lebanon is a small, but diverse country located in the Middle East, bordered by Syria, Israel and the Mediterranean Sea. It wasn’t on my radar until a friend of mine showed me his pictures. He convinced me to go to Lebanon with him. Or was it me convincing him to visit Lebanon again?
Backpacking Lebanon was an incredible experience. There was so much variety that during my week it felt like I was in a different country every day. Ancient history, green hills, delicious food, some of the best Roman ruins in the world and bustling middle eastern bazaars. Lebanon has it all.
Why Backpacking Lebanon
Backpacking Lebanon might sound like a scary idea to some. Bordering Israel and Syria, the region had its fair share of problems. For many the Middle east is associated with fanatic muslims, war and conflict. In short, an area to be avoided. Truth is that Lebanon has a very volatile history itself and the political situation is rather complex.
My experience backpacking Lebanon was very positive though and I felt safe wherever I went. Many travellers visit Lebanon and come home with memories of friendly people, beautiful nature and impressive historical sights. If you stick to the touristic places and avoid the border areas it is unlikely you will have any problems.
But Lebanon isn’t as safe as Jordan. Lebanon is msaybe not the best destination for novice travellers. Lebanon requires that you inform yourself of what is going on as the political situation can change quickly Reading up about the history and latest developments will help you a lot in staying safe and understanding the country. But the rewards are great.
The country might have some security concerns, but Lebanon is also considered to be one of the more liberal and culturally diverse countries in the Middle East. This is largely due to its history as a cosmopolitan center of trade and commerce, as well as its multicultural religious and ethnic makeup.
For example, Lebanon has a diverse population that includes significant numbers of Christians, Muslims, and Druze, as well as smaller communities of Jews and Armenians. As a result, Lebanon has a relatively tolerant and pluralistic society, where people of different backgrounds coexist and practice their beliefs freely.
The landscape of the country is just as diverse as its population. Ancient cedar tree forests, mountains and a beautiful Mediterranean coastline with beaches and underwater caves. You can swim, hike and even ski in winter.
Lebanon is also full of history. Sidon and Byblos, an ancient Phoenician city that is more than 7000 years old, belong to the oldest cities in the world. The country also has lots of Roman Ruins. Other great civilizations that once ruled Libanon are the Ummayads, the Abbasids and the Ottomans.
Travel infrastructure is still limited. In most places there are only a few hotels to choose from. There are hardly any tour operators. Yet, it isn’t too difficult to travel around. I managed to travel in Lebanon for a week with public transport and used Beirut as a base. Beirut has enough options for backpackers and the country is small enough to make day trips and be able to see the best places to visit in Lebanon.
Visa requiremets for Backpacking Lebanon
Most nationalities can get a visa on arrival at the airport in Beirut that is valid for 30 days. One month is more than enough for any Backpacking Lebanon trip, because it is a small country. However, you can extend your visa with a maximum of three months.
Note that if you have an Isaeli stamp in your passport or answer ‘yes’ to the question if you have ever been to Israel or Palestine they will not allow you entrance to the country.
How to travel to Lebanon
Any Backpacking Lebanon trip will start in Beirut. Because the land borders with Syria and Israel are closed, the only option is to fly into Lebanon. Beirut international Airport has great connections with the rest of the world. Pegasus has cheap flights through Istanbul.
Places to visit in Lebanon
In this travel guide on backpacking Lebanon I will only mention the best places that are easy to visit for independent budget travellers and that are in safe areas of the country.
Beirut is a liberal and cosmopolitan city and used to be called the Paris of the Middle East untill sectarian violence between the different religious groups caused a civil war lasting 15 years from 1975 till 1990. The city has recovered and is returning to its former glory with a brand new center full of expensive designer stores.
Before exploring Lebanon, take your time to explore Beirut with all of its diverse neighbourhoods such as lively Ashrafieh, posh Gemmayze and hip Hamra. All are vibrant areas with nice shops and restaurants, but each with its own unique culture and atmosphere.
I liked my visit to the Al Amina mosque, the peaceful gardens surrounding the American University of Beirut and the Corniche. The boulevard near the sea where families go out to enjoy the sunset and see the famous pigeon rock.
Logistics: Getting around Beirut is easy. There are minivans and shared taxi’s. A shared ride is called a servees and the driver will pick up and drop off other passengers on the way. You just tell the driver your destination and he will either accept you if he is going the same way or not if your destination is too far off.
Beirut is also the perfect place to explore Lebanon. Because Lebanon is not a big country it is easy to visit most places as a daytrip from Beirut. For destinations outside of Beirut there is the Cola intersection with buses heading south of the country and Charles Helou for buses heading north of the country.
Accomodation: budget travellers can stay in the Grand Meshmosh Hotel or the Hamra Urban Gardens. They are basic hotels woth dormitories in safe areas of Beirut. For a bit more luxury and private I can recommend the Beverly Hotel Beirut ot the Parisian hotel.
Byblos, also known as Jbeil, is an ancient coastal city in Lebanon. It is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, with a history that dates back over 7,000 years. Throughout it’s history it has been a major center of trade, culture, and religion. The archeological sites and ancient ruins are a testament to its rich and diverse past.
Byblos has an old Crusader castle, Roman ruins and a medieval harbour. Nowadays Byblos is a small town that is predominantly christian. It has lots of character with its seaside location and restored bazaar. From the cute mediterrean port you can take boat trips to the sea.
Logistics: Byblos is the perfect day trip from Beirut. From Beirut’s Cola intersection & Charles Helou station there are frequent buses to Byblos, also known by locals as Jbeil (1 hour). Alternatively you can use Byblos as a more quiet alternative to base yourself in Lebanon.
Accomodation: There are few budget places in the ancient center of Byblos. The Ahiram hotel is within walking distance of the old town of Byblos.
Jounieh and Our Lady of Lebanon
Just south of Byblos in Jounieh you can take a cable car up the mountain where you can visit Our lady of Lebanon. It’s a popular spot for Lebanese tourists and it is easy to see why. The iconic Our Lady of Lebanon is a towering statue of the Virgin Mary that overlooks the city and the Mediterranean Sea. The view on the sea and the town below is stunning.
Logistics: You can easily combine this with a daytrip to Byblos. The buses between Byblos and Beirut pass through Jounieh, ask the driver to let you out in Jounieh and walk to the cable car.
Accomodation: You can stay in either Byblos or Beirut.
Lebanon is such a varied country, but still I didn’t feel I experienced the Middle east untill I visited Sidon. When I think of the middle east I imagine exotic bazaars with the smell of spices, friendly merchants, delicious Lebanese street food and tea stalls.
The bazaar in Sidon was exactly that. With the lack of tourists it is as authentic as it can get. no souvenirs, but fresh food and vegetables, muslim fashion, barbers, meat shops, bakery’s and delicious food.
But the bazaar is not the only reason to visit Sidon. Sidon is over 6000 years old. It is home to several well-preserved archeological sites that are worth exploring, including the Sidon Sea Castle and the Temple of Eshmoun.
Logistics: From Beiruts cola intersection there are frequent buses to Sidon, also known as Saida (1 hour).
Accomodation: There are not a lot of accomodation options in Sidon. It is best to visit Sidon on a day trip from Beirut.
Tyre, also known as Sour, is a historic coastal city in southern Lebanon.The old city of Tyre is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that is renowned for its well-preserved Roman ruins, including the ancient Roman columns, the Triumphal Arch, and the Roman Hippodrome.
Besides Roman ruins, Tyre is also known for its religious diversity, with both Christian and Muslim communities that have a vibrant local culture. Don’t miss the christian neighbourhgood with its colorful homes and the nice port on the mediterranean sea. This area of town is full of nice boutique hotels and there is a relaxed atmosphere.
Tyre also has the largest and best preserved example of a Roman hippodrome, a stadium for horse racing and chariot racing. Actually just a large open field, but there are some well-preserved mosaics that are very beautiful.
Logistics: From Beirut’s Cola intersection there are frequent buses to Sour/Tyre (2-3 hours)
Accomodation: It is not cheap to stay in Tyre, but if you have the money you can stay in the boutique hotels Dar Alma or Dar Camelia.
Baalbek and the Bekaa valley
Another highlight of my time backpacking Lebanon was my visit to Baalbek in the Bekaa valley. One of the best preserved Roman Ruins in the Middle East that reminded me a lot of Jerash in Jordan. In Greek and Roman times it was called the city of the sun (Heliopolis). The acropolis consisted of several temples of which the temple of Bacchus is one of the best preserved.
A visit is well worth the effort, not only for the roman ruins, but also for the scenery in the surrounding Bekaa valley. Unfortunately it is also a Hezbollah stronghold and close to the border with Syria and therefore you should inform about the security situation at the moment. Read more about my visit and how to get to Baalbek here.
Logistics: From Beirut’s Cola intersection there are frequent buses to Baalbek (2-3 hours)
Accomodation: The best hotel is the historic and upmarket Palmyra hotel. It is in a renovated old home and has lots of charm, but probably not within the average backpackers budget. The Kanaan group hotel offers cheaper places to stay.
Bcharré and the Qadisha valley
The Qadisha valley was another highlight of my time backpacking Lebanon. A beautiful gorge valley scattered with Maronite villages, monasteries and cave churches with stunning views on the surrounding mountains. Actually this was the only place where I felt a daytrip was not enough.
Bcharré, the main town in the Qadisha valley is a charming place from where you can do several treks to explore christian churches and monasteries in the valley below. Bcharré was also the home of famous poet Khalil Gibran. We visited the small museum dedicated to him.
Logistics: From Beiruts Dora roundabout there are buses to Bcharré (2-3 hours) every two hours. The alternative is to take a bus to Tripoli and then to Bcharre.
Accomodation: The Tiger House Guest House is one of the few budget options in Bcharre. It is pretty basic, but a good base to explore the area.
When to go backpacking Lebanon
April and May are considered to be some of the best months to visit Lebanon. It is no longer as cold as winter, but not as hot as in Summer. Furthermore, in spring the flowers bloom in the semi-arid regions. September and October are other popular months with mild temperatures and great weather.
November is a transition month, but sees a lot of rain. After that it will be winter and it might surprise you, but from December till March it can get pretty cold in Lebanon.
However, that doesn’t mean winter is not a good time to travel to Lebanon. Because it is off season places are less crowded and prices are lower. Just don’t forget to bring some warm clothes and keep in mind that many indoor places have no heating.
Summer runs from June till August and it will be very warm in Lebanon. This is a very popular time to visit the coastal cities and their beaches.
Language and Culture in Lebanon
Lebanon is a very multicultural country. Its culture is diverse and rich, reflecting its long history and the influences of various civilizations and religions. Christians, Sunni Muslims and Shia Muslims all make up about a third of the population and there are also minorities like the Jews and the Armenians.
It’s difficult to spreak of one culture, but as a whole the people in Lebanon put a high value on strong family ties and their community. Hospitality is also an important part of Lebanese culture, with guests being warmly welcomed and offered food and drinks.
Lebanon also has a rich tradition of arts and literature, with many Lebanese artists, writers, and poets gaining international recognition. Lebanese literature, in particular, is known for its strong literary tradition and its influence on Arabic literature as a whole. Lebanese music and dance is also popular throughout the region.
The official language of Lebanon is Arabic, specifically the Lebanese dialect of Arabic which has some unique features compared to other dialects. However, many Lebanese people also speak other languages, such as French and English.
French was historically widely spoken and used as the language of education and diplomacy. It is still commonly spoken today by many Lebanese people, especially in more urban areas. English is also common, particularly among younger generations.
What to eat when backpacking Lebanon
In my personal opinion, Lebanon has the best food in the Middle East. Lebanese cuisine is renowned for its delicious and healthy Mediterranean-inspired dishes, which are often characterized by the use of fresh herbs, vegetables, fruits, and lean meats.
So let’s start with breakfast. Fuul is a popular warm bean mixture with lemon and olive oil that is often eaten with bread. Another traditional breakfast consists of a flatbread called manakeesh. They can have different types of toppings, but my favourite is cheese or zaatar. A spice mix of wild thyme, sumac and sesame that you will find in a lot of other Lebanese dishes too.
Lunch is the main meal and usually involves some meat with a lot of different side dishes. Almost every meal comes with bread and a salad. The popular tabbouleh is made from chopped parsley, tomatoes, onions, mint, and bulgur, dressed with olive oil and lemon juice. Popular spreads and dips to eat with the bread are hummus (made from chickpeas and tahini) or baba ganoush (made from aubergines and tahini).
Popular meats are Kebab (Grilled skewers of marinated meat) and Shawarma (Thinly sliced marinated meat). A personal favourite was Kibbeh. A dish made from ground meat (usually lamb) mixed with bulgur wheat and spices, and typically served fried or baked.
Lebanon is very vegetarian friendly as well. Falafel are fried balls made from ground chickpeas, onions, garlic, and spices, typically served in a pita bread with vegetables and tahini sauce. They are a cheap way to fill your stomach in Lebanon.
At last, Lebanese love their sweet deserts. Bakeries offer a variety of baklava. One sweet and filling desert that is quite popular is Knafeh. It is basically cheese in sugar syrup with crushed pistachio’s and cashews.
How to travel in Lebanon
Lebanon is at the same time easy and difficult to travel in as a foreigner. Travel infrastructure for foreign travellers is still in its infancy. There aren’t a lot of travel agencies and outside of Beirut there aren’t a lot of budget accomodation options.
I recommend to base yourself in Beirut. the country is small enough that you can visit most places on a day trip.There are minivans that travel between Beirut to most other destinations like Byblos, Sidon, Tyre, Baalbek and Bcharré. At the other hand there are no timetables. minivans seem to leave at random times from random departure stops.
As a foreigner it is almost impossible to figure out the system, but luckily people are very friendly. In Beirut there are two intersections that function as some kind of busstop for destinations outside of Beirut. The Cola intersection with buses heading south of the country and Charles Helou for buses heading north of the country. Minivans leave when full. Once you are at these intersections it is very easy to catch a bus.
With the help of friendly locals, I managed to travel in Lebanon with public transport. For Sidon, Byblos and Tyre it was very easy. The minivans filled up quickly and I never waited more than 10 minutes. The bus to Baalbek did take very long to fill up (almost two hours).
Some informal rules apply. The two front rows are reserved for women. Men can only sit here when there is really no more space available. Tell the driver where to get out and pay when you leave.
If this sounds too daunting then you can also decide to rent a car. I did rent a car for my trip into the Qadisha valley where public transport is more limited.
Useful apps for Backpacking Lebanon
Maps.me: use maps.me for offline navigation. Helpful if you go hiking in Lebanon or need to find your way in Amman.
Careem: the Middle Eastern version of uber also works in Beirut. It is an easy way to order a taxi or get an idea of how much a taxi should cost on a certain route.
Money matters when backpacking Lebanon
Lebanon uses the Lebanese Pounds. In the bigger cities there are enough ATM’s that dispense Lebanese Pounds. You can also exchange Euro’s and dollars. Once you go outside of the cities, it is best to bring enough money with you in Lebanese Pounds.
Lebanon and the Middle East in general is not as cheap as other destinations like Egypt, India or South East Asia. Expect to pay around 60 dollars a day if you travel on a budget.
accomodation – around 30 dollars for a dormitory bed in Beirut, around 40 to 80 dollars for a double private room.
food – less than 10 dollars if you stick to fastfood snacks like falafel or shawarma rolls, around 20 – 30 dollars if you go to a more midrange restaurant.
transport – Travelling by mini van is very cheap, expect to pay 4 to 10 dollars when you go outside of Beirut.
Update: As of 2023 there is a shortage of foreign currency and some ATM’s don’t dispense dollars or euro’s.
Is Backpacking Lebanon safe?
The subject of safety in Lebanon could be a whole different article and there is no straightforward answer. Lebanon is relatively safe compared to its neighbours (Syria and Israel), but the political situation is fragile and complicated. Lebanon is not a country to visit without reading about its history . You should get yourself up to date with the most recent developments.
Christians, Sunni Muslims and Shia Muslims all make up about a third of the population and tensions between them do exist and flare up occasionally. Add significant numbers of Palestinian and Syrian refugees. There is no war in Lebanon itself, but the conflicts in the neighbouring countries also have an impact.
Political unrest can suddenly flare up and terrorist attacks do happen occasionally. Therefore, stay away from big events or protests, don’t make pictures of military sites and listen to the authorities. There are a number of military checkpoints that are there for your safety. Simply listen to the police. I found them to be very friendly and helpful towards me as a traveller.
At last, use your common sense. Crime happens, like everywhere in the world. Look after your belongings and don’t walk around looking wealthy. Use a money belt under your clothes if you need to carry a lot of money or another safe place.
Despite these warnings I still recommend to visit Lebanon. Throughout my week in Lebanon I always felt safe. The people in Lebanon are very kind and helpful. They were always ready to help out and point me to the right bus or tell me the right amount of the bus.
Update: as of 2023 the security situation in Lebanon has unfortunately detoriated due to rampant inflation, increasing poverty and crime. The country is in a deep financial and economic crisis with water and electricity issues as a result. There was even a cholera outbreak in october 2022.
Unsafe Areas in Lebanon
Be careful when visiting the following areas. Most of the times there is nothing goin on, but inform yourself about the recent events if you plan to visit.
Hezbollah areas: Hezbollah is a prime target for both ISIS and Israel. This includes the Shia neighbourhoods of Southern Beirut, the Southern border with Israel and the Bekaa valley. The first two have no tourist appeal anyway, but for the Bekaa valley read my post on visiting Baalbek. You can visit Baalbek and I did visit some Shia neighbourhoods in Beirut out of my own interest. It felt safe, but people were a bit suspicious. Although I had one of the best shawarma at a local restaurant with some of the friendliest people. Try not to stand out too much and avoid taking pictures.
Tripoli: clashes between the Sunni and Alawi Muslims in Tripoli are not uncommon. I did visit Tripoli and when I was there it was peaceful, but there were clashes the week before and it was still very quiet in the streets. There was a bit of a tense atmosphere and a large military presence.
Refugee camps: Almost a quarter of the population in Lebanon is a refugee. There are a lot of Palestinian refugee camps and in recent years also Syrian refugee camps. Its better not to visit a refugee camp on your own. They are not tourist destinations, but if you really want to go, come with an established organisation such as the Shatila child and youth center.
Border areas: avoid getting close to the border with Syria and Israel.
Solo Female travel
For solo female travellers it is good to keep in mind that Lebanon is relatively liberal. In fact, it is not a muslim country and almost half of the population is either Cristian or atheist.
Its multicultural nature means that people are used to various traditions and cultures coexisting alongside each other. Therefore it is one of the more liberal middle eastern countries and easy to travel alone as a women.
In my experience, Lebanon is more relaxed for female travellers than countries like India or Egypt. I received almost no harassment from men.
When I travel to the Middle East I usually wear more modest clothes than I would at home. In Beirut I could see most women wearing western clothes. The Bekaa valley felt a bit more conservative. To make things easy I made sure I kept my legs and shoulders covered wherever I went in Lebanon.
Books about Backpacking Lebanon
Thomas L.Friedman – From Beirut to Jerusalem: Excellent book to learn more about the more recent political history of the country.
Bradt guide Lebanon: There is no recent Lonely Planet about Lebanon. The Bradt Guide has the best travel guide about Lebanon at the moment
Lonely Planet Middle East: The Lonely planet does have a brief chapter about Lebanon in the Middle East Guidebook. I would recommend the Bradt guide though.
Salma Hage – The Lebanese Cookbook: a wonderful cookbook about the Lebanese cuisine to make the things you eat in Lebanon at home. everything I made from this book was absolutely delicious.
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16 thoughts on “Backpacking Lebanon: the ultimate travel guide.”
I never really knew Lebanon had so much to offer! (PS, I love your photos!)
Oh my, this country may not be the top of everyone’s bucket list but it certainly is on mine. I fell in love with Lebanese cuisine a couple of years ago and I’ve been intrigued about Lebanese culture and history for about the same length of time. To be honest from your photos and writing it sounds like such an amazing country to visit. So jealous!
Libanon staat al jaren hoog op mijn lijstje, en nu helemaal, schitterende foto’s! Ben je met een georganiseerde tour geweest of heb je zelf alles geregeld?
You literally opened my eye to this interesting country. I’m a solotraveler and this just might be my next stop. Thanks for including what you did for accomodation as well. Great post
Love traveling the Middle East. People are so friendly, and yes, the food is amazing!
A friend of mine growing up was Lebanese and the stories she told made me want to visit the place. I’ve been a bit obsessed with the Middle East since I lived in Doha, Qatar for a spell three years ago and Lebanon is most definitely on my list, particularly Beirut. Would love to see those Roman ruins one day!
Love Middle East, but never actually went to Lebanon. So envious! Didn’t even know that Tyre looks so charming. Oh, you must have had great time. 🙂 Photos are amazing. 😉
Oh gosh you had me at “food” lol what a stunning country!
Always a pleasure getting to know about a country that i know very little about. Thanks for the information.
I loved this article! Now I have to put Lebanon on my travel wishlist as well 🙂
Wow! Lebanon are gorgoeus! Never knew these exists! Thanks for sharing the post 🙂
I have never considered Lebanon but after reading this I am really intrigued. Thanks for the inspiration.
Great post. I really want to go to Lebanon. Helpful to know that most of what you did were day trips. I’ll keep in mind that Bcharre needs more time. And helpful tips about border areas and other safety issues.
I’ve been wanting to visit Lebanon and appreciate your guide on safe areas. Lebanese food is my favourite so I would just eat my way through the country.
I would love to visit Lebanon! Beirut sounds like such a fun city, and there are so many beautiful day trips to take! How was the language barrier there?
I am about 25% Lebanese and have always wanted to visit in order to see it firsthand the way much of my family has. My mother always warned me about the dangers of going there, but it seems like things are safer than they were then. Is it very difficult to conversate with little command of the language or are they relatively accommodating to English speaking tourists? How long do you think is “enough” time to really get a chance to appreciate Lebanon for all of it’s many facets? i.e. cuisine, history, culture, people, etc…