For many Americans that were politically conscious in the early 1980s, “Beirut” is synonymous with the suicide bombing that killed 300 servicemen. For the French, Liban represents a decline of global influence after WWII. For Australians, Brazilians, and many other countries that received torrents of refugees during Lebanon’s 15 year civil war, the country is the source of large social groups that had never existed before. For other Arabs, the Lebanese society is often a symbol of westernization and departure from traditional Muslim values. But whatever your background, you will find that Lebanon is full of surprises if you’re lucky enough to visit it.
Beirut has reemerged once again as a chic and cosmopolitan capital city, reclaiming a title that it once held—the Paris of the Middle East. Its downtown has been rebuilt in the wake of the war into a modern, clean, and highly organized center. Nearby neighborhoods like Achrafiyeh and Gemmayzeh are known for their extensive nightlife options, ranging from hole-in-the-wall bars to massive nightclubs with internationally-renowned DJs. Hamra Street connects these East Beirut landmarks with Ras Beirut, on the west side of the city, known for its cultural melting pot and student culture. I studied at the American University of Beirut for a semester and enjoyed the liveliness and friendliness of the Hamra neighborhood. Beirut borders the ocean on both the west and north sides, and the lovely Corniche road follows this coastline. This seaside promenade is perfect for morning jogs and evening strolls, and it is a popular local pastime to bring chairs to hang out by the sea and smoke nargilehs with friends and family. Throughout the rest of Beirut are interesting historical neighborhoods with drastically different political and religious leanings, divisions that can at times lead to violence but recently have seen cooperation and coexistence for the most part.
Outside of Beirut, there are many places worth visiting. In winter, one can ski without the crowds at Faraya or The Cedars and swim in the Mediterranean in the same day, a famously clichéd statement about Lebanon that is entirely true and totally delightful. Jbeil, also known as Byblos, is a short drive north of Beirut along the coast and is said to be the oldest continually inhabited city in the world. It has fascinating ruins of crusader castles and much, much older settlements that will interest archeology and history buffs. In the south, towns like Nabatieh have conservative charm, offering a much more traditional cultural picture of the country than the modern, European cities. Driving through the hills and vineyards is enchanting—the terrain is beautiful, and the rural villages and farms are all welcoming of polite foreigners. Tripoli, in the north, is the country’s second largest city and boasts more coastal atmosphere. It even has islands famous for palm trees and green turtles. Further to the east, the ancient ruins of Baalbek are larger and better preserved than the Parthenon in Greece, albeit much less famous. This ancient Roman city has layers of intricate stonework built on top of it from Arab and Ottoman periods, and is exquisite in its detail, scope, and preservation. A visit here is a must.
Lebanon is so small that visiting the entire country is not difficult at all. One should always do some research on political conditions, but in general it is a safe place for westerners. People are nice, well-educated, and guaranteed to be curious about you. If nothing else, the sheer variety of the country is reason enough to visit.