Lebanon in a week: The ultimate road-trip guide

With just a week to spend in Lebanon, a tightly-packed powerhouse of Middle Eastern history that is about half the size of Wales, you can embark on a road trip across some of the region’s most spectacular scenery and visit some of its most fascinating, friendly and off-the-beaten-track destinations.

When you land in Beirut, rent a car – however you will need to be a competent, confident driver to handle the Lebanese penchant for white-knuckle driving without breaking a sweat. Take it slow (if that is at all possible in the vehicular maelstrom of central Beirut) and try not to develop the local fondness for speeding around blind mountain bends.

Once well on your way along the country’s rather chaotic coastal highway, make for the far northern city of Tripoli (around 91km from Beirut). Spend the day plumbing the depths of the city’s Mamluk-era souq (market), which dates back to the 14th and 15th Centuries and is home to a plethora of historic madrassas (religious schools), mosques and khans (travellers’ inns).

Look in at Hammam al-Abd, situated in a tiny alley in the very thick of the souq, to see if it is open for business. Men are welcome at any time, but women will need to reserve the entire bathhouse to arrange admission. Head to the seaside district of Al Mina for a fresh fish dinner, then top it off with a plate of sticky pastries at locally renowned sweet-maker, Rafaat Hallab and Sons, on Rue Tall.

Wildlife enthusiasts, meanwhile, should charter a boat trip from Al Mina out to the fascinating, Unesco-rated Palm Islands Reserve, the domain of loggerhead turtles, monk seals and hundreds of species of migratory birds. Then, head out to the wild Qadisha Valley for superb hiking. Nearby Bcharré, the pretty village birthplace of Lebanon’s legendary poet Khalil Gibran, best known for his 1923 The Prophet, makes a great place to stop for a local mezze lunch and a stroll around the Khalil Gibran museum.

Those looking for true automotive adventure should – in summer months at least – continue from Bcharré up to the Cedars, one of the country’s most popular wintertime ski resorts. In summer months, it is possible to hike to the peak of Qornet as-Sawda, Lebanon’s highest mountain.

After the five-hour round trip to the summit, hop back into the car and drive out into the wilds of the Bekaa Valley. With a good map, a bit of luck and a few stops to ask directions from friendly locals, you will eventually reach the ancient town of Baalbek, best known today for being the headquarters of the Hezbollah party. You are unlikely, however, to see many traces of the self-proclaimed “Party of God”. Instead, check into the creaky old Palmyra Hotel where luminaries including Jean Cocteau and General de Gaulle once slept, and explore the spectacular ruins of ancient Heliopolis – the “Sun City” – whose Temples of Bacchus and Jupiter hold their own among the Mediterranean’s finest.

From Baalbek, drive south via the pretty town of Zahlé, whose Cafés du Bardouni, a string of open-air restaurants strung along the Bardouni River make a grand spot for a long lunch, to Sidon, an ancient port city sporting a fine 13th-century Crusader sea castle and a superb 14th-century Great Mosque. Stop in at its Musee du Savon (Soap Museum) to see how the sudsy stuff is traditionally made, before continuing south to Tyre, a city rarely visited by tourists, whose ancient ruins make it a fascinating destination. Explore the Byzantine streets and immense funerary complex, and do not miss the largest, best preserved Roman hippodrome in the world. Afterwards, dine out with locals on the Rue Abu Deeb, or linger over seafood at the waterfront Le Petit Phoenicien.

Back in Beirut, be sure to leave time to explore its diverse districts (this time leaving the car firmly in the hotel car park). Stroll through Downtown, which was extensively reconstructed following Lebanon’s long, painful civil war, mingle with American University students over a nargileh (water-pipe), watch the world go by at sunset on the seafront Corniche, and take your pick of cool dining destinations on Gemmayzeh’s Rue Gouraud.

Finally, order a glass or two of fine champagne at one of the city’s stellar nightclubs – try Crystal on Rue Monot for bling or B018 in Quarantine for subterranean cool – then sit back, watch Beirut’s beautiful people out to play, and toast to the completion of a road trip with which few others back home will be able to match.

Source: November 2010 – Lonely Planet