Cities and attraction
Once known as the Paris of the Middle East, Beirut really took a beating during the 17-year war in Lebanon. The city hasn't really recovered from the bombardments and the influx of refugees, and the destruction, rebuilding, overcrowding and chaos are often a shock to new arrivals. Situated smack in the middle of Lebanon's Mediterranean coast, Beirut is a city of contrasts: beautiful architecture exists alongside concrete eyesores; traditional houses set in jasmine-scented gardens are dwarfed by modern buildings; winding old alleys turn off from wide avenues; and swanky new cars vie for right of way with vendor carts. Although there's not much to see here anymore, it's still a city of vibrancy and charm.
The Hamra area, in the north-west of the city, is now home to the city's banks, hotels, restaurants, cafes and post office. It's also a great place to window shop and soak up the atmosphere. North of Hamra, the American University of Beirut has a small museum of archaeology, although it's not as impressive as the National Museum which re-opened, post-reconstruction, in 1999. The museum's collection of Phoenician figurines is particularly interesting. The Sursock Museum in east Beirut is housed in a splendid Italianate style 19th century villa. The interior is also très stylish, and exhibits include Turkish silverware, icons, contemporary Lebanese art and a small but interesting library.
A visit to Beiru Central District (known colloquially as 'downtown') will give you a good idea of what the city went through during the war. Parts of the area are being restored, others have been bulldozed and others are an apocalyptic landscape of burnt-out shells. The centre of Downtown, the Place des Martyrs, has been almost completely bulldozed (only the emotive Martyrs Statue still stands), and a huge billboard has been erected to show what the city has in mind for the area. The Omari Mosque, sometimes known as the Grand Mosque, is one of the few historic buildings still standing: built in the Byzantine era as a Crusader church, it was converted to a mosque in 1291.
Pigeon Rocks are the most famous natural feature of Beirut. These offshore rock arches are a lovely complement to Beirut's dramatic sea cliffs, and locals tend to congregate here to watch the sunset and get away from the traffic noise. It's a delight to wander along the Corniche, Beirut's coastal road, and just take in the sea air, stop to drink a coffee served from the back of a van or sample some produce from a push-cart vendor.
The ancient city of Byblos, about 40km (25mi) up the coast from Beirut, is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. Byblos was populated during the Neolithic period 7000 years ago. In the third millenium BC it became the most important trading port in the area and sent cedar wood and oil to Egypt. It was the major Phoenician centre until the 10th century BC, and developed an alphabetic phonetic script which was the precursor of modern alphabets. Invaded by Persians, Alexander the Great, Romans, Byzantines and Arabs, Byblos fell into obscurity after it was taken then abandoned by the Crusaders.
Before the civil war Byblos was a mandatory stop on the jet-set circuit, and the historic harbour and picturesque old town remain unspoilt. The ruins, to the south of the old town, are entered through the remains of the Crusader castle which dominates the city's medieval ramparts. There are remains of huts from the 5th millennium BC, the temple of Baalat Gebal from 2800 BC, an L-shaped temple from 2700 BC, two royal tombs and a temple from the early 2nd millenium BC, and an amphitheatre from the Roman period.
Other things to see in Byblos include the Wax Museum, which portrays the history and culture of Lebanon in a series of rather bizarre and sometimes creepy tableaux. Nearby is St John Church, built by the Crusaders. The local souq is lively, and Byblos has a great beach with some underwater ruins. There are only a couple of hotels in Byblos, but plenty of places to eat.
Ancient Tyre, on the coast in the south of Lebanon, was founded by the Phoenicians in the 3rd millennium BC. It originally consisted of a mainland settlement and an island city, but under Hiram in the 9th century BC the island was connected to the mainland by a narrow causeway. When Alexander's troops arrived in the 4th century, he severed the old causeway and built a 'mole' or breakwater. The mole was much larger then the old causeway and it is this which caused the island to become a peninsula. In Phoenician times Tyre was famous for its purple dye and glass industries; these days it's known for its Roman ruins.
The old part of Tyre is on the peninsula, while the modern town is slightly inland. Further south, you come to the ruins of Roman-era Tyre. The Roman ruins include a well-preserved road which passes through a monumental archway. It's lined on one side by an aqueduct, and on both sides there are hundreds of ornate, intricately-carved stone and marble sarcophagi. The ruins' hippodrome, built in the 2nd century AD, is the largest and best=preserved in the world today. A festival is held in the hippodrome every summer.
Tyre is only 20km (12mi) north of the Israeli border, and at times of tension the surrounding area attracts special interest from Israeli gunners. It's wise to avoid the area if tension is high; at other times a visit to the city is considered to be safe.
The trip to Bcharré and the Cedars, about 30km (19mi) inland from Tripoli, passes through some of the most beautiful scenery in Lebanon. The road winds along mountainous slopes, gaining altitude and winding precipitously above spectacular gorges. Villages of red-tile roofed houses perch atop hills or cling precariously to the mountainsides and there are vistas of olive groves, vineyards, lush valleys and mountain peaks at every turn.
The village of Bcharré is home to the Gibran Museum - the famous author/artist was born here and is buried in an old monastery overlooking the town. The museum has a large collection of his oil paintings, drawings and gouaches, as well as many of his manuscripts. You can visit his coffin in the monastery's former chapel: in the same room are a table, chair and other things he owned.
Above Bcharré the road climbs to Lebanon's last remaining forest of Biblical cedars, known locally as Arz Ar-rab (God's cedars). This is only a small forest - although the tree once grew throughout the country, it has been heavily exploited. Some of the trees here are 1500 years old, and the site is classified as a national monument. Below Bcharré, the spectacular Qadisha Gorge holds the tombs of the early Maronite patriarchs, as well as rock-cut monasteries. The gorge is a hiker's paradise, with paths along the top and bottom.
Baalbek, 86km (53mi) north-east of Beirut, was originally named after the Phoenician god Baal. The town was renamed Heliopolis by the Greeks and still later it was made a centre of Jupiter worship by the Romans. During its Roman era, Baalbek was the premier city in Roman Syria. In more recent times, the anti-Western Islamic fundamentalist Hezbollah made its headquarters here, and the town has only reopened to tourists in the last couple of years. The modern town is very small, but its Roman ruins are probably the best archaeological site in the country.
Baalbek's temple complex is one of the largest in the world. The complex is about 300m (984ft) long and has two temples with porticoes, two courtyards and an enclosure built during the Arab period. The Temple of Jupiter, completed around 60 AD, is on a high platform at the top of a monumental staircase; only six of its colossal columns (22m/72ft) remain, giving an idea of the vast scale of the original building. The nearby Temple of Bacchus, built around 150 AD, is pretty well preserved. Outside the main area is a tiny, exquisite Temple of Venus, a gorgeous circular building with fluted columns.