The UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office advises against travel to the areas around Lebanon's borders.
This diminutive Mediterranean nation is a fascinating nexus point of the Middle East and the West; of Christianity and Islam; of tradition and modernity. It’s a place where culture, family and religion are all-important, but where sectarian violence can too often erupt – claiming lives and scarring both the landscape and the national psyche.
Home to a glorious national cuisine, a string of sexy beach resorts and the Middle East's most glamorous, hedonistic city (Beirut), this is also a country where the fiery orators and fierce foot soldiers of Hezbollah are based, and where huge populations of Palestinian and Syrian refugees currently shelter. Damaged by decades of civil war and the invasions and interventions of neighbouring nations, Lebanon is nonetheless blessed with magnificent mountain vistas, majestic ancient ruins and an indomitable, hospitable people. Lebanon rewards the traveller with food for thought and a feast for the senses and the stomach.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Lebanon.
Baalbek's Temple of Bacchus is often described as the most beautifully decorated temple in the Roman world, and it's certainly one of the best preserved. The portico has eight columns along the facade and 15 along the sides, supporting a rich entablature and an exterior ceiling of curved stone that is decorated with vivid scenes: Mars, a winged Victory, Diana drawing an arrow, Tyche with a cornucopia, Vulcan with his hammer, Bacchus, and Ceres holding a sheaf of corn.
Dominating the centre of modern Baalbek, this wonderful Roman temple complex is one of the Middle East's major archaeological highlights. The monumental Temple of Jupiter impresses by its sheer scale, while the adjacent Temple of Bacchus is astoundingly well preserved, with exquisite carved decoration. A museum in a tunnel under the complex has good information. The much smaller Temple of Venus is opposite the main entrance. In summer the ruins are the atmospheric venue for the Baalbeck International Festival.
Located on the former Green Line, this is Beirut's major cultural institution. Its impressive, magnificently displayed collection of archaeological artefacts offers a great overview of Lebanon’s history and the civilisations that impacted this cultural crossroads. Highlights include the famous, much-photographed Phoenician gilded bronze figurines found buried near the Obelisk Temple at Byblos; a series of human-faced Phoenician sarcophagi and a frescoed Roman tomb, these latter in the outstanding basement, reopened in 2016.
The largest of Lebanon’s three natural protectorates, comprising an incredible 5% of the total land area, this is the largest natural cedar reserve in the country and has more than 250km of hiking trails. It's wonderful to see these beautiful trees in their natural environment, and the cool mountain climate makes a welcome change from the sweltering coast. There are several entrances, all with short-distance hiking trails to observe the cedars and access to longer trails.
One of the Middle East's greatest natural wonders, the stunning Jeita Grotto cave system extends around 6km into the mountains 18km, northeast of Beirut. The simply extraordinary upper cavern, accessed via a cable car from the ticket office, has strategically positioned coloured lights that showcase the stalactites and stalagmites in all their crystalline glory. The flooded lower caves, reached via a tacky toy train, are explored by rowing boat and are closed when the flood levels rise too high.
This sprawling site lies 2km east of the centre, entered off the highway. Just past the entrance is a vast funerary complex, with hundreds of ornate sarcophagi and tombs, several still filled with bones. Next to it, a well-preserved Roman road stretches through an impressive 20m-high monumental archway, probably dating from Hadrian's 2nd-century-AD reign. Beyond it is a large and well preserved Roman hippodrome built in the 2nd century AD; this once held more than 20,000 spectators.
The main square is a showcase of fine Arab architecture, including the Mosque of Emir Fakhreddine Maan, built in 1493, and, behind it, a cobbler's souq housing touristy shops. Above and behind the souq is a beautiful silk khan built in 1595 that now houses a cultural centre. Nearby are the buildings that once housed a Jesuit school and a synagogue, as well as the Palace of the poet Nicolas El Turq, which has a cafe on its ground floor.
This temple was built on a monumental scale and is one of the largest Roman temples known. Dedicated to Jupiter Heliopolitanus, it was built from the 1st century BC onwards on an immense substructure more than 90m long. Though largely ruinous, it impresses by its sheer size.
From where the Qadisha road meets the valley floor, it's a 5km (1½-2 hour) walk to the serene still-working convent of Deir Qannoubin, probably the oldest religious community in the valley (some sources date the building to as early as the 4th century). The permanent residence of the Maronite Patriarchs between 1440 and 1790, its church features a fresco of the Coronation of the Virgin being witnessed by a group of Patriarchs.