Backpacking Lebanon: the different faces of the middle east.
Backpacking Lebanon was not on my radar untill a friend showed me pictures of his last trip. He convinced me to go with him or was it me convincing him to visit Lebanon again? Either way we were both looking forward to travel to this fascinating country.
Backpacking Lebanon turned out an incredibly beautiful 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 middle eastern bazaars where you can shop till you drop. Lebanon has it all.
A travel guide to backpacking Lebanon: A one week itinerary
Cosmopolitan Beirut (1-2 days)
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 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 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. Depending on the distance it costs between 2000 or 3000 LBP.
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.
Daytrip to Ancient Byblos
Byblos is the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world and the place with the first inscriptions of the modern western alphabet. It is full of history with Roman ruins and a medieval port. Nowadays Byblos is a small town that is predominantly christian. It has lots of character with its seaside location, restored bazaar and old Roman fort. From the cute mediterrean port you can take boat trips to the sea.
Logistics: from Beirut’s Cola intersection & Charles Helou station there are frequent buses to Byblos, also known by locals as Jbeil (1 hour).
Daytrip to Jounieh & Harissa
Just south of Byblos in Jounieh you can take a cable car up the mountain to Harissa where you can visit Our lady of Lebanon. It’s a popular spot for Lebanese tourists and it is easy to see why. The view on the sea and the town below is stunning. If you go during sunset it is a magical place.
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.
Daytrip to Saida: Strolling through Sidon’s bazaar
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. Don’t miss the castle on a tiny island stretching out in the sea.
Logistics: From Beiruts cola intersection there are frequent buses to Sidon, also known as Saida (1 hour).
Daytrip to Sour: the largest Roman Hippodrome and the port of Tyre
The coastal city of Tyre is well worth a visit for it’s cosy port and the surrounding christian part of town full with colourful buildings. You can easily explore it on foot and the area is home to several nice boutique hotels and good restaurants serving delicious Lebanese cuisine.
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.
As usual, we were the only tourists. Tyre is pretty close to Israel and there is quite a big number of Palestinian refugees. Right next to the Roman ruins was a big Palestinian refugee camp. While we were exploring the ruins we could actually hear gunshots going off in the camp. Somehow the ruins in Tyre felt less safe than our visit to Baalbek.
Logistics: From Beirut’s Cola intersection there are frequent buses to Sour/Tyre (2-3 hours)
Daytrip to Baalbek: Exploring Roman ruins in the Bekaa valley
Another highlight was my visit to Baalbek in the Bekaa valley. One of the best preserved Roman Ruins in the Middle East. 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)
Daytrip to Bcharré: Hiking in the Qadisha valley
The Qadisha valley was definitely a highlight of my trip. 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 every two hours to Bcharré (2-3 hours). The alternative is to take a bus to Tripoli and then to Bcharre.
Lebanon’s delicious food
Lebanon is like heaven for a foodie like me. There is delicious food everywhere you go. My favourite is taboulleh, the simple parsley and mint salad. Another favourite cheap snack was falaffel. Lebanese cuisine is an attraction in itself and trying out different things will bring you delicious surprises.
Is Backpacking Lebanon safe?
Travelling to Lebanon is safe. However, it is good to read about Lebanons fascinating history and current politics before you go. Keep yourself updated with the latest news. Even though it is relatively safe compared to its neighbours, the political situation is fragile and complicated.
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 and it is actually a miracle that things are stable and quiet at the moment.
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 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.
Refugee camps: Almost a quarter of the population in Lebanon is a refugee. 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.
Is backpacking Lebanon safe for solo female travellers?
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 easy middle eastern countries to travel alone as a women.
Backpacking Lebanon: Accomodation
Lebanon is not cheap to travel in and especially accomodation is costly. We decided to base ourselves in Beirut and make day trips to the places we visited. We rented a cheap appartment through Airbnb.
It was a very strange place with lots of old stuff, almost like a museum. It felt like the owners left during the civil war and never returned. The true story was even more sad. The owner married a German lady who was teaching german in Beirut and they had stayed during the civil war. The german lady only returned to Germany with her sons after her husband died a couple of years ago.
Backpacking Lebanon: Transport
Travelling by public transport in Lebanon is easy. From Beirut there are frequent buses to most towns like Byblos, Sidon, Tyre, Bcharré (Qadisha valley) & Baalbek (Bekaa valley). For destinations south of Lebanon there is the Cola intersection and for destinations north of Lebanon there is Charles Helou station.
When I was there in 2015 I paid between 2000 LBP and 3000 LBP for a bus ticket depending on the distance.
Last update: January 2019