Lebanon is a lovely little Mediterranean country that’s squeezed between the mountains and the sea, these days – unfortunately – pilots have to maneuver to a longer route to reach Beirut in order to avoid flying above Israel and the chaotic areas of Syria, Beirut airport (Rafic Hariri) is a basic, a bit outdated and not a very busy airport, not very organized either.
Tourist visas are granted on arrival for Arab nationals and many other nationalities while GCC and first world citizens enter the country visa-free, however, visa on arrival is subject to security check, you have to ask someone who would guide you to a small room on the corner where you’ll find an Egyptian-style police office, a mid-age bad tempered officer scrolling the screen of his mobile phone and a few younger officers arguing loudly whether a Montenegro passport holder should be allowed to enter or not, the officer would browse your passport asking routine questions about where you come from, what your job is, where you are going to stay and for how long, and most importantly he would ask you to show how much cash you brought, that shouldn’t be less than $2000 US dollars per person, then if he’s convinced he would sign your entry card and ask you to buy a stamp (it’s 25K Lebanese Pounds but if you don’t have Lebanese banknotes the bank would charge you $20 USD which is 30K LBP)!
Currency in Lebanon is another story, US dollars are very comfortably used even for taxis and grocery, however it’s very rare to get your change in USD even if you paid in USD, it’s very confusing when you give a $100 note to buy something that’s worth $20 then you get back 120K LBP! it takes a while to do the math! the good news is that a fixed exchange rate is agreed upon country wide (1 USD = 1.5K LBP), a good hack is to always ignore “000” in Lebanese banknotes and consider the 1000 LBP as the base unit, this buys you a can of coke as a reference, however it’s still very confusing to use 2 different currencies simultaneously (not to mention exchanging numbers back to your homeland currency as well), sometimes you hear the price in LBP while other times you hear it in USD.
Mobile phone lines are another tricky thing in Lebanon, there are 2 networks (one is managed by Egyptian Orascom and the other by Kuwaiti Zain) but it’s a complete maze of rates and validities, I bought a tourist sim with 1GB data and $5 credit for $20 which sounds OK but I’m not quite sure if this was the real price, you can never know!
Transportation is the worst thing in this little beautiful country, although Lebanon is considerably small but getting around is not that easy unless you are fine with paying $100/day for a private car with a driver, and since that’s not my traveling style I used taxis (both hail taxis and call taxis), service (pronounced in French just as pronounced in Egypt), Bosta (an old bus just as in the 70s songs of Fairouz that runs to the outskirts of Beirut) and even private cars that operate – illegally of course – as taxis, taxis don’t have a specific color here so it’s yet another obstacle that confuses tourists, you can only identify a taxi by its red license plates.
Food – on the other hand – is one of the greatest advantages of Lebanon, food is really good on all levels from street food to fine dining, snacks are also great, Manaquish with its wide range of selections and additions, Booza (arabic ice cream) has endless flavours, roasted nuts, even coffee, Lebanese people in general have a gourmet taste.
P.S. this is – by far – the highest rate of smokers I have ever seen in any country, shisha is being sold and smoked almost everywhere, cigarettes are heavily consumed, smokers include a very high percentage of women and young girls as well, this country really smells like tobacco!
Beirut is a crowded and noisy city, it doesn’t have much attractions except for the Raouche rock view and the downtown area that was renovated a few years ago after ages of destruction and ruination since the civil war, some buildings are left ruined on purpose as a comemoration for the tragedy such as Beit Beirut (first pic of the album above) while the rest are re-built or renovated, the adjacent waterfront (Zaitunay Bay) is another live and vibrant area with its marina and high rise buildings, the old downtown (Hamra) still has its own flavor as a popular area for shopping and food, however if you dig more into non-touristy neighborhoods you will find hidden treasures such as Armenia street where the majority of inhabitants come from Armenian origins, shop signs are written in Armenian, people on the coffeeshops speak Armenian and listen to Armenian radio stations, the food is even Armenian, here you can find the best “Basterma” you have ever tasted.
Laying on the eastern outskirts of Beirut, high above the mountains overlooking the city from one side and yet more mountains from the other (800m above sea level), a relatively high-end area where views are breathtaking and weather is considerably cooler than the city, churches and monasteries are everywhere (which is the case in most of Lebanon), hiking is a popular activity here although routes are challenging due to the drastic slopes and turns, you can get up here in a Bosta from “Dowra” roundabout in Beirut for $1 per person, but expect a very slow ride, I wouldn’t mind that since the views are incredible.
The famous téléphérique ride from Jounieh seaside all the way up to Harissa on an altitude of 650 meters over the top of the mountain, the ride is around 10 minutes each way, the return trip costs 9K LBP on weekdays and 11K on weekends (weekend in Lebanon is Saturday and Sunday), the views are great and picturistic both ways, you’ll end up at a large plaza in front of a huge cathedral and “Notre-Dame du Liban“, a large statue of Virgin Mary that you can climb spiral steps to reach, within a short walking distance is Basilica of Saint Paul that has great views both sides as well, Jounieh is about 30 minutes from downtown Beirut heading north, you can still get there in a “service” that costs $1 pr person from Dowra, and the same service continues to the coastal city of Jbeil (Byblos).
A very ancient harbor city just 20 minutes from Jounieh and less than an hour from Beirut, layers of history are overlaying here, Roman temples, churches, mosques and castles are all together, the old fishing harbor is very cosy and the surrounding area is full of life around the Old Souk with its stone paved alleys, it’s a very small spot that holds all the attractions of the city within walkable distances, boats can be shared in a small tour around the coast.
Al Shouf province to the south of Beirut is a cluster of mountains, Deir Al Qamar is an ancient beautiful stone world heritage registered town overlooking the mountains (790m above sea level), it was the capital of Lebanese Emirs for a long time, it offers great views, breeze and silence in an atmosphere of ancient stone churches, stone houses a monumental plaza with one mosque, on the other side is Beit El Dine (850m above sea level) with its famous monumental Palace, you can hike up and down the mountain but that would be a very tough trail where you have to climb over 130 meters, walking however is very pleasant in this atmosphere and surroundings.
This area is the homeland of the mysterious “Druze” sect where you can spot them everywhere with their unique costume that they all wear all the time and their slightly different accent, Beit El Dine palace itself was the residence of one famous Druze leader.
One final tip: keep a copy (either digital or printed) of your birth certificate with you because if your name is close to one of the wanted persons you will be asked to present an official document that shows your mother’s name as an evidence that you are someone else, the most surprising and awkward question I’ve ever been asked at an airport was that in Rafic Hariri: “shou essem emmak” ?!!