Discover Lebanon now!

Room with a view! View of the Yacht Club & Marina, with the blue Mediterranean beyond, from my 12th floor room in the Four Seasons Hotel, Beirut

Some key statistics by way of an introduction ….

Population:
About 4.5 million

Lebanese abroad:
About 12 million, making it perhaps the only country of the world with about 3 times as many citizens living abroad than in the homeland. Of course most are now nationals of theseother countries.

Demographics (from Wikipedia):
54% Muslims (Shia and Sunni, 27% each), 40.5% Christian, 5.5% Druze
Also a very small number of other religious minorities – Bahais, Buddhists, Hindus, Mormons, Jews.

Other important stats about economy, quality of life, etc, etc, are available on Wikipedia and make for informative reading.
Area:
10,452 square kilometers. To put this in context for my Pakistan based / origin friends, the province of Sindh is 140,914 sq. kms and the city of Karachi is 3,780 sq. kms.

Location:
At the north-western perimeter of the Middle East, with the Mediterranean Sea on the west, Israel to the south and Syria on the north and the east.

Pigeon Rocks, Beirut Corniche

Lebanon, like Sri Lanka, is a divinely blessed country. In fact both countries, separated quite widely geographically and having quite different genesis, have some remarkable similarities. Both are relatively small area-wise, both are blessed with nature’s bounty in terms of diversity of terrain and natural beauty, both have multiplicity of cultures and a rich heritage. Both have exciting though very different cuisines, and both have warm, courteous and friendly people.

Viviane, my tour guide on a day long trip out of Beirut, which covered Baalbek, the Beka’a Valley and Anjar, epitomized for me the Lebanese people. Studying now for her Master’s in archaeology, she was first of all an expert in all the ancient historic sites we visited. She was fluent in English (besides Arabic and French of course), and knowledgeable about many subjects, including culture and heritage, history and geo-politics, the economy and development, and still more. On the long drives between the cities and places we visited, traversing the countryside, we conversed incessantly on all these subjects and my knowledge and understanding about Lebanon grew exponentially within that one day. She was throughout charming and good-natured, never tiring to answer my unending questions in great depth.

And on the dark side, both these beautiful countries have gone through traumatic and destructive civil wars in their recent history. Thankfully, both are also fast emerging from their tragic past to become peaceful, progressive societies.

I was in Lebanon in March for 5 nights and 6 days. My first visit and my immediate, emphatic and unequivocal recommendation to you: Lebanon is a must visit destination and should be in your priority list of countries to be visited.

One has of course heard good things about Lebanon now and then, mostly in fairly general terms. And about Beirut being the Paris of the East in its heyday. But one never seriously considered visiting Lebanon, for no special reason. Perhaps because Lebanon has not figured in our top of the mind recall when we consider vacationing abroad; with the popular destinations mostly being Thailand, Malaysia and Sri Lanka to our east, and Dubai, USA, UK and European countries to our west. Lebanon simply has not figured in our imagination; perhaps because it is kind of off the beaten track, so to speak.

With no direct flights to Beirut from Pakistan, you have to fly one of the Gulf based airlines with a stopover and change of aircraft in Doha, Dubai or Abu Dhabi. Beirut indeed is an endearing city. But don’t equate Lebanon with Beirut only. The whole country, small as it is, is captivating, full of surprises and to be relished. Crossing the whole county, at the very maximum, is half a day’s pleasant road journey. With Beirut as your base, you can venture out daily to other towns and cities, reaching some in about 30 to 45 minutes.

Tip for accommodation: Stay in a hotel meeting your budget, which is located either in the city center area called Downtown, or along the Corniche. There are plenty of choices.

Top 10 places to visit:

  1. Number 1 by far is Jeitta Grotto, the totally awe-inspiring caves with a breathtaking variety of stalactite and stalagmite formations, eons in the making. I cannot comprehend why Jeitta Grotto is not in the list of the 7 Natural Wonders of the World. Check out this magnificence of nature on the Net. BTW, photography inside the caves is not allowed, even with cellphones.
  2. Our Lady of Lebanon monument (statue of the Virgin Mary) and church on top of a hill in the charming town of Harrisa, with its oh so appealing cottages, all with gardens and greenery and colourful flowering plants.

Our Lady of Lebanon statue, Harissa

03.  The quaint, seaside located historic town of Byblos, which is claimed to be about 7,000 years old, and the oldest continually inhabited city in the world, although at least Baghdad and                         Damascus have similar claims.

A timeless street in the old souk of Byblos

A bookshop in the old market of Byblos

04. The ancient town of Baalbek, about 3.5 hours’ drive from Beirut, with its Roman, Byzantine and early Muslim period archeological sites, also designated World Heritage Sites.

Self at the Temple of Jupiter, Baalbek

05. The Muslim Ummayid period archeological sites in the town of Anjar.

06. The verdant Beka’a Valley, lying between 2 parallel mountain ranges, with some snow-capped peaks and ski resorts. The Valley is Lebanon’s food basket, growing a huge variety of fruits
and vegetables throughout the year, and also some grains and other crops.

07. The northern city of Tripoli, which I could not visit owing to shortage of time.

08. The southern city of Tyre, which also I could not visit.

09. The ancient cedar forest in the north.

10. And if you want to try your luck and/or your skills, go over to the once world famous Casino du Liban, about 50 minutes drive north of Beirut and just beyond the city of Jounieh. The
haunt 5 decades or more ago of celebrities and royalty like Omar Sharif, Prince Albert of Monaco and the Shah of Iran, it is today sadly a shadow of its former self but yet worth a
visit.

And in Beirut itself:

The upscale Downtown area of Beirut

 

  1. Walk along the southern Corniche and marvel at the limestone rock outcrops known as Pigeon Rocks, just a few meters in the sea off the coastline.
  2. Walk through the area known as Downtown, rebuilt (and still being built) as a modern, aesthetically very appealing city center, after the whole area was virtually destroyed by the civil warlasting about 15 years. Think of any famous and luxury brand in the world and it has an inviting outlet in Downtown.
  3. Of course you must indulge in the excellent and very healthy Lebanese cuisine and this is available everywhere. But the one must visit restaurant for Lebanese cuisine has to be the classy, if expensive, Babel Fine Dining restaurant. Large, excellent ambiance, outstanding food and outstanding service to match, Babel offers it all.
  4. Immerse yourself in the vibrant café culture, especially after sunset and active till the wee hours of the night.
  5. Shop if you must, at the luxury brand stores in Downtown, or in the City Center Mall or in the Hamra district.
  6. Take a panoramic view of the city from one of the rooftop bars of high-rise buildings. Go a little before sunset and take in the day view, and then the night view as the sun sets and the city lights come on.
  7. Visit the National Museum and the Sursock Museum. Always good to catch a couple of museums in a new city, to better understand the history and culture of the people.
  8. Visit the Khalil Gibran Garden.
  9. Take a dip in the Mediterranean! At one of the beaches along the Corniche, weather permitting of course.
  10. PARTY! Beirut was once one of the party capitals of the world, with local elite rubbing shoulders at exclusive night clubs with visiting European aristocracy, American business tycoons and Hollywood celebrities and Middle Eastern oil magnates, among other super rich of the world.

Today it is relatively much quieter, first the civil war spoiling the reputation somewhat, even if it ended several years ago already, and second, the civil war now going on next door in Syria keeping foreign visitors away. But still there are a number of outstanding nightclubs where the partying really starts after 11 pm (so make sure you have a good afternoon nap!) and goes on till very, very late. Reservations are essential and be prepared to fork out several hundred dollars at one of these clubs.

My recommendation, if you can get in there on a weekend night, is a new club called Pitch Black. You can tell the genre of its patrons just from the cars parked outside. On the Friday night we went, there was a Rolls, 2 Ferraris and an assortment of Beamers and Mercs outside!

And inside …. well, it’s just wow!

View from hilltop garden of Our Lady of Lebanon monument in Harissa, with the town of Jounieh below and the town of Byblos far in the distance, beyond the last bend in the coastline.

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