Treasure of the
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
Read more GoNOMAD stories about Lebanon