Lebanon: Treasure of the Middle East
By Soo Kim Abboud, M.D.
Editor’s note: This article was written before the tragic destruction of many parts of Lebanon in 2006. GoNOMAD welcomes updates about Lebanon and we fondly hope that the country will be restored to its former beauty and prosperity.
The small country of Lebanon, with its rich history and culture, offers tourists breathtaking scenery, unparalleled hospitality, mouthwatering cuisine, and elegant accommodations at an affordable price.
I am an American who recently married a Lebanese-born American. Since our wedding, I have been fortunate enough to have traveled to Lebanon on three separate occasions (twice in the summer, once in the winter). Many American and Europeans still regard Beirut, Lebanon’s capital, as the former “Paris of the Middle East.”
What they don’t realize, however, is that after decades of war and recent renovations, the city is now extremely safe and well on its way to reclaiming its title. This article will hopefully whet your appetite for a trip to this beautiful country.
About the Culture
Lebanon enjoys an unusual position in the Middle East, as the only country besides Israel with a sizeable non-Muslim population. Christians make up almost forty percent of the population in Lebanon, and because of the mix much of Lebanon is segregated based on religion.
Fortunately, tourists of all nationalities and religions are welcomed by both Muslims and Christians, as all Lebanese citizens are extremely proud of their homeland. Lebanon is a small country, with only 3 million inhabitants. Arabic is the spoken language, but many Lebanese (particularly in Beirut) are fluent in both English and French. The French influence is seen throughout the country as Lebanon was a French colony until 1943. All of the hotels and restaurants listed in this article insist that their staff be fluent in English.
About the Climate
Lebanon enjoys warmth year round, particularly in the summer. The months of July and August are particularly warm, with average temperatures reaching into the nineties Celsius with high humidity. If you do venture to Lebanon during these months, a hotel with air-conditioning is a must (all the ones mentioned in this article have it).
The other option is to stay in the mountains, where the low humidity makes even the strongest sun bearable. Lebanon enjoys no rain despite its high humidity during the summer, a fact that is little known, and almost unbelievable (it’s true!).
The winter is very mild in Lebanon, with temperatures in the high fifties to sixties. So if you get a chance to go in the winter, the cooler temperatures can afford you the energy to sightsee as well as the opportunity to ski in the mountains (more below).
Perhaps the best time of year to travel is in the fall or early spring, when temperatures as well as airline prices are lower. Airline tickets to Lebanon from the United States range from 700-1300 U.S. dollars depending on the time of year. From London or Europe the prices are much lower – around 400 U.S. dollars for a roundtrip ticket.
Where and What to Eat
Lebanese cuisine is renowned for its variety and taste, even in the international world, so spend some time (or a lot) enjoying the food. I’ll give you a quick overview on some of the more popular foods you don’t want to miss.
Kibbeh is Lebanon’s staple, sort of what hamburgers are to the American diet. This tasty “meat pie” is made with ground meat, bulghur (cracked wheat), and pine nuts. The meat is either lamb or beef, so ask first if you have a particular aversion for one or the other. It may not sound so appetizing, but forget the word “meat pie” and take a bite – you won’t be sorry.
Lamb is very popular in Lebanon, so lamb-lovers will be in paradise. Don’t forget to order the lamb shish kabobs, with meat so tender you will barely have to chew. All shish kabobs are lamb, unless otherwise specified.
Vegetarian dishes are particularly tasty in Lebanon, and many of the more popular dishes have made their way into mainstream and trendy U.S. restaurants. Hummus (chick pea dip with lemon) is a staple, as is baba ghanoush (eggplant dip).
Arabic bread (flattened pita bread) is used with the dips, and significantly enhances the flavor. Last but not least, tabbouleh salad is made with parsley, tomatoes, onion, lemon, and bulghur, and is not to be missed by the scrutinizing health-conscious traveler.
I need to end this section with a warning – the Lebanese love to eat, and they take their time. Many a time I found myself startled at the amount of time I spent on each meal. If you are dining with the Lebanese, don’t make plans afterwards, or allow yourself two to three hours per meal.
For those who tire of the Mediterranean cuisine, you need not look further than center-city Beirut. The Centreville area, in particular, is replete with international restaurants ranging from Italian to Tex-Mex to Chinese. Scoozi is my Italian restaurant of choice (great veal), and Chopsticks my favorite Chinese restaurant.
Where to Stay
Hotels in Lebanon range in price, but because of the lagging economy, are never too steep. My husband and I have always been able to stay in plush quarters for a fraction of the price you would pay in Europe or other metropolitan cities. For more options, find unique Lebanon accommodations and interesting tours in Lebanon. We will list a few of our favorites here.
The new Movenpick Hotel (see photos) is located in the Raouche area of Beirut, and is situated directly on the sea with two large private swimming pools as well as a private beach. My husband I found their rooms spacious and beautifully decorated, their bathrooms ornate. Room rates ranged from $120 – $1000 (we stayed for $180) US dollars/night depending on time of year and room, which includes a sumptuous all-you-can-eat breakfast at a beautiful restaurant overlooking the Mediterranean Sea.
For those travelers who like to be pampered, the hotel also houses a reasonably priced world-class spa. International cuisine is served in the hotel’s four restaurants, and a walkway along the sea boasting a beautiful view of the “Rocks of Raouche” will put romance into even the most hardened of hearts.
For those who love the mountains, look no further than the Mzaar Intercontinental in Faraya. Beautiful in the winter when skiers from all over the world flock to its wondrous slopes, the Mzaar is also ideal in the summertime for those who wish to avoid the humidity of downtown Beirut.
The resort boasts gorgeous scenery mimicking the Swiss Alps, a swimming pool, and an entertainment complex featuring a bowling ally, salon, spa, restaurants, and movie theatre (with American features). Prices range from $100-$200 U.S. dollars per night, and daily rates also include a full continental breakfast with breathtaking surroundings.
For those who want to avoid both mountain and beach but want to experience the hustle and bustle of a vibrant city, I would recommend the Holiday Inn Dunes located in Verdun, one of Beirut’s busier and newly renovated districts. It is extremely affordable (between $80-$120 US dollars) and is probably the best bang for your buck.
My husband and I were shocked when we entered the room – the crisp linens, large television (replete with American television channels), and spacious room reminded us of much more pricey hotels. So don’t go broke on accommodations – if you stay at the Holiday Inn, you will have a lot more money to spend on drinks or clubs in the evening. And trust me, Verdun is full of them.
What to do
The Lebanese are known for their love of life – all, both young and old, appear to enjoy a good party. The nightlife parallels that of New York City and cities in Europe. Men should be aware that the number of single women far outnumber the men, and that Lebanese women are known for their beauty.
The best nightclubs are located in Centreville, where the cobble-stoned and dimly lit walkways are suited to couples and romantic interludes. Le Sas and Le Senat are two of the more popular nightclubs downtown.
Off the beaten track
Baalbeck houses Lebanon’s greatest Roman treasure, and is a must-see. It is located about an hour and a half from Beirut, and is a full day trip. As an aside, Baalbeck is where Sting chose to sing his hit single “Desert Rose” in 2001, complete with authentic belly dancers.
Beiteddine is a 200-year-old palace that served as the summer residence for past Lebanese presidents, and another must-see. Beiteddine is located about 30 minutes southeast of Beirut, and is an architectural delight filled with numerous courtyards, galleries, and gates from the 19th century.
Although nearly sixty percent of Lebanese citizens are Muslim, they are not strict in their attire. Walking around downtown Beirut, most women are dressed in the latest European fashion, and most look as if they just recently had their hair and make-up done (even the Muslim women). So women travelers, don’t dress down on this trip, and feel free to wear the short skirts and halter-tops. You won’t be alone – Lebanese women love to show off their tanned, trim figures.
Clothes in Lebanon are stylish but tend to be pricier than the U.S. For the avid shopper, I would suggest purchasing jewelry and linens. Gold, yellow and white, is extremely cheap and is routinely 22 ct. Plan on paying half the price you would pay in the U.S. or in Europe. The place to go is Tufenkjian, located in the Achrafieh district of Beirut.
Linens, many of which are ornately woven with gold threading, are extremely elegant in Lebanon and affordably priced (around $50 U.S. dollars). Wow your dinner guests back in America with a beautiful tablecloth – you won’t find anything like it anywhere else. They are also wonderful gifts. The ABC shopping center located in Dbayeh or Verdun (newly opened) is the place to go for these.
Lucky for us, all Lebanese establishments accept U.S. currency. On the other hand, if you hand over American dollars, be prepared to get Lebanese currency as change. The Lebanese currency is in pounds, with 1500 Lebanese pounds equivalent to one U.S. dollar.
Driving in Lebanon
Those of you who have an International Driver’s License may attempt to brave the hazardous roads of downtown Beirut, but I still wouldn’t recommend it. Taxis are extremely cheap (make sure to agree on a price before you get in, and always haggle), and will save you the headache of driving and getting lost later. Although my husband is quite adept at weaving in and out of traffic in Beirut, even he would not recommend driving to the first-time visitor. The good news is that you can drive the entire length of Lebanon in less than two hours.
Soo Kim Abboud is an assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania. Her husband is Lebanese and she has visited the country three times so far.
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