This is a compelling travel guide to Lebanon that shows how to visit the Levantine country during the crises, including where to exchange in the black market. It also includes things to do, how to move around, where to stay and more.
Despite its tiny size, Lebanon is the most diverse country in the Middle East, a nation that chaotically combines both Arab and European Mediterranean culture, with their love for good wine and the most exquisite food in the region, without never losing their Arab essence.
Lebanon, however, is not in their brightest moment.
A deep economical crisis fuelled by the port explosion and also COVID-19 has left an impoverished country with terrible inflation, and an absolutely desperate population.
As a traveler, Lebanon has changed a lot, the crisis is particularly palpable but that should not stop you from visiting such an alluring country, which is also desperate for foreign currency.
This guide contains travel tips for Lebanon, as well as a complete itinerary.
If you are interested, remember to check my tips for traveling to Syria
COVID-19 Travel restrictions for Lebanon
For entering Lebanon, you must be in possession of either your COVID-19 certificate or a negative PCR.
Travel Insurance for Lebanon with COVID-19 coverage
IATI Insurance is one of the few providers that offers full Coronavirus coverage, not only when it comes to treatment, but also cancellation costs in case you tested positive before departure.
Readers of Against the Compass can get an exclusive 5% discount.
Visa for traveling to Lebanon
Most nationalities can get a free 30-day visa on arrival at the airport in Beirut, which is extendable for 2 additional months.
You just get an easy, friendly stamp, that’s it, and it’s valid for multiple entries.
How to travel in Lebanon during the crisis
As mentioned, Lebanon is immersed in a hugely deep financial crisis, and below are the things that might affect you as a traveler.
1 – Need to know about money in Lebanon during the crisis
In Lebanon, the official currency is the Lebanese Pound (LBP).
The official exchange rate versus US $ is 1 USD equals 1500LBP.
That’s the official (and old) bank rate. However, because of the crisis, the official rate in the black market is today:
1 USD = 27,000 LPB
The Lebanese pound has devalued more than 15 times in just a few years, it’s absolutely crazy.
Lebanon travel tip – I recommend you download Lira Exchange on your smartphone, an app that gives you the current black market exchange rate.
However, for some reason, Lebanese banks like to keep the old rate.
This means that you should never ever use your credit card in Lebanon, never pay by card, and never withdraw from an ATM, never ever because you’ll get the old rate.
Lebanon is today a cash economy, bring all your money in cash, don’t use your credit card. In the hypothetical case you run out of money, ask someone to send you cash via Western Union or similar, but never without your debit card.
How to exchange money in the black market of Lebanon
They call it black market but basically, the black market for exchanging money in Lebanon is anywhere, including the official money exchange offices which can be found everywhere, especially along Hamra Street in Beirut.
Which currencies do they accept?
You can exchange Euros (€), US dollars, or British Pounds, among others.
That’s the rate all banks
The official currency is the Lebanese Pound (LBP) but you can pay in USD pretty much everywhere, which means that the exchange rate is stable throughout the country. 1USD = 1,500LBP.
If the Lebanese Pound has devalued more than 15 times, does that mean that everything is 15 times cheaper?
No. The currency devaluation has brought massive inflation too.
For example, before the crisis, a bottle of beer in a supermarket used to cost 1,500LBP. Today, you can buy it for 15,000LBP.
2 – Need to know about power shortages in Lebanon
One of the biggest consequences of this unfortunate crisis for the Lebanese people is their shortage of electricity.
As a traveler, if you only stay in fancy hotels and eat in top-end restaurants, you might not notice the issue, since pretty much all use powerful generators.
However, in cheaper hotels, as well as outside of Beirut, power cuts occur pretty often.
By the way, one piece of advice I can tell you is not to order meat from certain cheap restaurants, since their fridge might not be always on due to the power cuts.
3 – Is it safe to travel to Lebanon during the economical crisis?
How to get to Lebanon
How to travel to Lebanon by air
The national airline in Lebanon is Middle East Airlines (MEA), which has several connections across Europe and the Middle East.
Moreover, you can also fly to Beirut International Airport from Paris (Air France), Frankfurt (Lufthansa), Barcelona (Vueling), Istanbul (Turkish and Pegasus) and pretty much any country in the Middle East.
How to travel to Lebanon by land
Lebanon shares a border with Israel and Syria.
- Traveling to Lebanon from Israel: The border with Israel has always been closed, not possible to cross it.
- Traveling to Lebanon from Syria: It’s fully open and very easy to cross. We use it all the time for our group expeditions.
For more information, read my Syria travel guide.
How to travel to Lebanon by sea
Apparently, the ferry from Cyprus to the northern city of Tripoli isn’t running anymore but you can take a ferry from Tasucu, Port of Mersin (Turkey). However, there isn’t any reliable information online regarding departure timings so overlanders should just show up in Tasucu.
Travel reports are more than welcome 🙂
Useful books for traveling in Lebanon
Lebanon Travel Guide by Bradt
This is the most up-to-date travel guide to Lebanon. I am a Bradt Guides fan because all their guides are extremely insightful, both from a local perspective and also, because they give plenty of tips for independent travelers which help you easily plan your itinerary for Lebanon.
Middle East Travel Guide by Lonely Planet
It has only one chapter about Lebanon but, at least, the information here is updated.
Travel insurance for visiting Lebanon
Lebanon is one of those countries where you must travel with insurance, as it is a wild place where people drive crazily.
I recommend IATI Insurance because:
- Plans for all budgets.
- Covers all countries in the Middle East, including Syria and Iraq
- Full COVID coverage
- It covers senior citizens too
- Readers of this blog can get a 5% exclusive discount
How to move around Lebanon
Everything in Lebanon can be reached in less than 2 or 3 hours.
Except for the northern mountains, where you might need to stay overnight, if you wanted, you can visit the entire country on different day-trips from Beirut.
However, in order to enjoy all the places to their fullest, I really recommend spending some nights outside of the capital.
Traveling around Lebanon by public transportation
Lebanon is a very easy country to move around.
There are public buses and mini-vans going to almost every corner in the country from Beirut, where there are 2 main stations named Charles Helou and Cola Station. Charles Helou is ideal for traveling to the north, whereas Cola is to the South.
Travel around Lebanon by taxi
Public transportation – Unlike what you may expect, Lebanon is a very easy country to move around. There are public buses and mini-vans going to almost every corner in the country from Beirut, where there are 2 main stations named Charles Helou and Cola Station. Charles Helou is ideal for traveling to the north, whereas Cola is to the South.
For more information about these 2 stations, check my Beirut Travel Guide and for more details about how to reach each city in Lebanon, check the Itinerary Section on this post.
Self-driving – You can rent a car, no problem. Just be aware that, in Lebanon, people drive like crazy. However, it is no worse than any other Middle Eastern country.
Self-driving in Lebanon
Language – Arabic is the official language but most educated people speak English and French, especially in Beirut. Outside of Beirut, in most occasions, Arabic is the only way to go.
Lebanon is a small country – Everything in Lebanon can be reached in less than 2 or 3 hours. Except for the northern mountains, where you might need to stay overnight, if you wanted, you can visit the entire country on different day-trips from Beirut. However, in order to enjoy all the places to their fullest, I really recommend spending some nights outside of the capital.
Always have your passport with you – The roads of Lebanon are filled with many checkpoints, where you are likely to be asked for your passport. They will not cause you any problem but just want to check your identity.
Internet – Let’s be honest here. Internet in Lebanon sucks, a lot. It is very slow pretty much all across the country and even some budget hotels charge you extra for using it. Your best bet will be buying a SIM Card and using 3G.
SIM Card – You can get one at any store and Alfa or Touch are the best companies for foreigners. Normally, a SIM Card costs 4,000-5,000LBP (around 3USD) and 500MB of data 10USD. However, in order to activate it, you should buy 22USD of credit, at least. I recommend you check their websites to find out about their latest plans. Update October 2018: Apparently, Touch has decreased its prices and offering super good deals, like 4GB for 3USD. Check their website to see their latest deals.
Accommodation – You can find hotels all over the country but just be aware that accommodation isn’t cheap, especially outside of Beirut. In the below itinerary section I recommend plenty of hotels and budget hostels per city-
Read: A travel guide to Palestine
The Lebanese people
During your Lebanon itinerary, you will see that Lebanese people are one of the highlights of any visit to the country, not only due to their kindness and hospitality but because Lebanon is so culturally diverse that you will meet loads of different types of people every day, from Sunni Muslims to Shia, all sorts of Christians, Armenians, Palestinians and Syrians, as well as completely Westernized people.
It’s truly fascinating.
Food in Lebanon
Lebanese food is a Mediterranean cuisine with influences from both the Middle East and the French colonial era and, as in Spain, Italy or Greece, olive oil is the base of any dish.
Typically, most restaurants serve mezza, an array of small dishes similar to the Spanish tapas, which includes both vegetarian and non-vegetarian dishes.
From the classic hummus, kibbeh (a local steak tartar), kebabs and syadye (rice, fish, and almonds in a gravy sauce) to a tasty olive oil of the standard of any southern European country and a strong wine culture, Beirut is home to the best food in the entire region.
Read: Iraqi Kurdistan travel guide
Lebanon travel guide: a 2-week itinerary
Here you will find the best itinerary for Lebanon. It might be a bit challenging to include all of these places in just 2 weeks but, if you plan ahead, it is totally feasible.
Day 1, 2, 3 – Beirut – The most liberal city in the Middle East
What can I say about Beirut which I haven’t said already?
The Lebanese capital is the most westernized and liberal city in the Middle East (outside of Israel), only comparable to Tehran and a city full of contrasts and owner of deep and interesting history.
Beirut is composed of several neighborhoods, each one with its own subculture, so different from each other that, when you are wandering around them, it looks like you are in a different city, from the hipster neighborhood of Gemmazyeh to Hezbollah areas, Armenian, Christian, refugee camps and fancy districts with the most glamorous stores and the best restaurants in the region.
For more information about Beirut, read my article: A travel guide to Beirut
Remember that you can also book a Beirut city tour. CLICK HERE TO LEARN MORE
Where to stay in Beirut
Budget Hotel – Embassy Hotel – This is the cheapest hotel in town. The rooms are getting quite old but, at this price, you won’t find anywhere better. The location is great, however, in Hamra, a very cool area to hang out.
Backpacker Hostel – Hamra Urban Gardens – A sister hotel of Saifi Urban Garden, this hostel is located in the main Hamra Street. It offers both suite and dorm rooms with a seasonal outdoor pool and bar.
Mid-range Hotel – O Monot Boutique – Strategically located at the heart of Beirut, this property was highly recommended by many because of their amazing facilities especially their rooftop bar with a panoramic view of Beirut.
Top-end Hotel – Radisson Blu Hotel – If you are looking for a comfortable place which has a delightful design, a good restaurant and other various facilities, this 5-star hotel is a perfect choice. Located in Dunes shopping center and 5-minute walk away from the beach.
Day 4 – Byblos – The native home of the modern alphabet
With 8,000 years of history, Byblos is considered one of the oldest inhabited cities in the world and the place where the first inscriptions containing the modern western alphabet were found. Byblos derives from the Greek word bublos, meaning papyrus, as the town was the stopping place for the Phoenicians who shipped papyrus from Egypt.
Besides a super interesting museum that explains the history of the creation of the alphabet, in Byblos you can also visit a crusader castle from the XII century, built by the Franks, a restored souq, a beautiful Mediterranean harbor full of restaurants, where you can eat seafood feasts, and some archeological sites containing mainly Roman ruins but also from many other civilizations, from the Neolithic settlements 8,000 years ago to Phoenician, Egyptian, Greek and Ottoman.
The entrance ticket costs 7,000LBP (4.70USD).
Remember that you can also book a tour to Byblos, as well as other places nearby. CLICK HERE TO LEARN MORE
How to get to Byblos from Beirut
Byblos is around 50km from Beirut. A one-way taxi will charge you, at least, 50USD, if you have good negotiation skills, of course.
The budget option would be going by bus, which departs from Charles Helou station and costs 2,000LBP (1,30USD)
Where to stay in Byblos
Byblos can be reached on a day trip from Beirut but, in case you wanna stay here, here’s a few options:
Budget Hotel – Sea Valley – The cheapest hotel in Byblos is a very decent aparthotel.
Mid-range hotel – L’Hotel de mon pere – With stunning panoramic sea views and really awesome breakfast, this super pretty modern hotel serves the best quality in Byblos, at the lowest price. It is really close to the beach and even closer to the Old City of Byblos, so you can’t ask for more!
Top-end hotel – Byblos Sur Mer – This boutique hotel is at the most privileged location in the whole of Byblos, next to the ruins, on the seaside and at the heart of where the exquisite social life in Byblos is, which consists of eating at the seafood fancy restaurants that compose the harbor.
Day 5 – Zahlé – The face of Lebanon you didn’t know about
What I loved about Zahlé was that, even though it is a Lebanese city located in the heart of the Bekaa Valley, it is more similar to the villages of Mediterranean Europe than to Lebanon itself, as this city, with a Christian majority, is famous for its wineries and for its restaurants, serving the best mezza in the whole country.
In Zahlé, you can’t miss Berdawini, located just outside of the city, a green area with a river flowing, plenty of high-quality restaurants, slightly pricey for my taste but delicious.
When I went there, it was not only full of Lebanese people from the middle-upper class but also, there were plenty of Western diplomats escaping from Beirut for the weekend.
You also must go to Ksara Winery, the oldest and most famous winery in the country.
Zahlé is like nowhere else in the Middle East and it reminds me of those Christian, touristic villages in Georgia.
If you are interested in Lebanese wine, you can also book this wine tour. CLICK HERE TO LEARN MORE
How to get to Zahlé from Beirut
Zahlé is on the way to Baalbek, so you should first take a bus to a town named Chtoura. From there, you can get on a second bus to Zahlé.
I got it at Cola Station but there may be a direct bus from Charles Helou station. In any case, the first ride from Beirut to Chtoura cost me 2,500LBP (1.70USD) and 1,000LBP (66¢) for the second one.
Where to stay in Zahlé
There is no cheap accommodation in Zahlé: the most budget accommodation starts at 70USD, so if you are on a budget, you should spend the night in Baalbek or go back to Beirut.
Mid-range Apartment Hotel – Berdawni Apartments – This apartment-hotel is nothing outstanding but it really fulfills its function, with very comfy beds and the best location, right next to Berdwani river, the highlight in town. It is a good value money for money option and, in any case, you won’t find anything cheaper!
Top-end Hotel – La Place Hotel – Located in the old part of town, people love this hotel because it manages to combine the old and traditional with very modern facilities and exquisite decoration. The breakfast is great and they have the purest and kindest Middle Eastern service.
Day 6 – Baalbek – The most impressive and off the beaten track Roman ruins
Visiting Baalbek is one of the best things to do in Lebanon, a city that has some impressive Roman ruins, built on a giant scale and often considered the most important in the Middle East and, controversially, the most off the beaten track Roman ruins in the world, after Palmyra in Syria.
The temple of Jupiter and the temple of Bacchus are the buildings that dominate this stunning architectural masterpiece. Seriously, these Romans ruins are just outstanding and, when I went there, I had the ruins completely to myself.
By the way, the entrance ticket costs 15,000USD (10USD).
Moreover, Baalbek is located in the Bekaa Valley, a Lebanese region that borders Syria. Baalbek is very close to the border and, from the ruins, in the early morning, you are able to hear bombs and gunshots coming from the other site of the border. No need to be alarmed.
The sound is loud because Baalbek is in a valley, so it produces an echo and a feeling that it is happening nearby. The conflict will never go to the other side and, besides, it is highly guarded and there are mountains separating them.
You can also book a great tour to Baalbek from Beirut. CLICK HERE TO LEARN MORE
How to get to Baalbek from Beirut
Baalbek is 90km from Beirut.
From Cola Station, there are buses going to Chtoura, situated half-way, a town from where you should take a second bus to Baalbek. The price of the first bus is 2,500LBP (1.70USD) and the second 2,000LBP (1,30USD)
Where to stay in Baalbek
Even though you can visit Baalbek on a day trip, I strongly recommend spending one night there to see the ruins at sunset time.
Budget Hotel – Jammal Hotel – This is the most budget hotel in Baalbek but you can’t book it online. It is oK for 1 night.
Mid-Range Hotel – Palmyra Hotel – This is, perhaps, the most famous hotel in the country and the reason is that it has never been closed since it was opened in 1874. it has hosted famous people such as Nina Simeone and the President of France, so it has quite some reputation! It is also located next to the Roman ruins.
Day 7, 8 – Tripoli – The most traditional Lebanese city
Tripoli is the second biggest Lebanese city, a city that would probably fit in what you think are the Lebanese standards, with its beautiful old souq of spices, the old medieval architecture and a citadel from where you get awesome views of the city.
In Tripoli, a city famous for its sweets, live the Lebanese people who have the famous Arabic hospitality, as it’s impossible to be wandering the streets, kind of lost, without several locals offering you their help.
This is a city to get lost in around its narrow alleys and an old city belonging to the XIV century.
Furthermore, you can’t miss the fortress of Raymond de Saint Gilles, built in the XI century and the lovely neighborhood around the harbor.
By the way, you probably heard that the U.S. Embassy describes Tripoli as a dangerous city to travel to. Why is that so? Since the Civil War, there have been one-off clashes between Sunni and Alawi Muslims who reside in the neighborhoods of Bab al-Tabbaneh and Jebel Mohsen, respectively. Throughout the years, these clashes have killed several people.
This is a one-off conflict happening in a specific area, far away from the city center. It’s a fight between two small districts and doesn’t go beyond.
The rest of the city is totally cool and safe. However, since I’m an extremely curious human being, I also went to Jebel Mohsen. And what can I say? Life there was merely normal. Again, clashes and bombings happen once a year, not more.
How to get to Tripoli from Beirut
Located 80km, there are buses leaving from Cola Station continuously, as well from Charles Helou.
Prices vary, depending on the bus you take. A one-way ticket with a mini-bus costs 3,000LBP (2USD), whereas modern buses cost 5,000LBP (3.30USD).
Where to stay in Tripoli
There are very few options in Tripoli but these would be the most popular:
Budget Guest House – Haddad Hotel– The facilities and rooms are very old but the staff is a lovely family that will give you a very charming welcome and a great, traditional breakfast. With an awesome location, close to the old city, this is the best place for budget travelers and backpackers. Online booking not available.
Mid-range Hotel – Via Mina Hotel – Being the top rated hotel in Tripoli, Via Mina has a kind of rustic style but with very modern facilities at the same time. It is located right in front of the sea, has a great pool and the staff will bless you with great hospitality.
Day 9, 10 – Kadisha Valley – Lovely Christian mountain villages
If you either want just to relax, eat good food, visit beautiful Christian monasteries or to go hiking, the Kadisha Valley in Lebanon will always be the perfect place for you.
Kadisha means ”holy” and owes this name to the fact that this valley is home to some of the most ancient communities of monastic Christians in the Middle East.
In case you don’t know, monasticism is a way of life for which the person (in this case Christian monks) renounces everything to devote himself completely to spiritual work.
The valley is full of natural caves, difficult to access, that once served as places of isolation for the monks living lives devoted to Christ.
How to get to Kadisha from Tripoli (or Beirut)
If you come from Beirut, you will have to go to Tripoli first.
Once in Tripoli, there are buses leaving from 9am to a small village named Bsharri, which is a great base to explore the rest of the valley. For coming back, the last one is at 4:30pm.
Where to stay in Kadisha Valley (Bsharri)
Kadisha is one of those places where you really should spend one night at least, especially if you come by public transportation. Otherwise, you will just have 1 hour to explore it entirely.
Budget Guest House – Tiger Guest House – This is an ideal place for budget backpackers and, basically, the only cheap accommodation in town. Everything is very simple but the family is lovely and very helpful.
Mid-range Hotel – Bauhaus Chalets Apartment – Breathtaking views, a very accommodating owner, and pretty modern facilities, this hotel is pretty good, given the low range offer in Bsharri.
Day 11 – Saida – A southern, conservative city with a lovely castle
Saida is a small city located 40km from Beirut. Slightly conservative, Saida is a nice place to visit on a day trip, wandering around its labyrinthine covered souq, full of cafés where the Lebanese are sitting outside, looking with expectation at the few foreigners that pass by.
Perhaps, the most iconic building in the city is the castle, built in the XII century, located on a tiny island just 80m from the shore, whose walls turn into a beautiful orange during the sunset.
How to get to Saida from Beirut
To get to the south of Lebanon, Cola Station is the best and only option.
There are several buses running all day long and the price is 2,500LBP (1.70USD).
Where to stay in Saida
Saida isn’t famous for its accommodation. To be honest, I didn’t stay here but came on a day trip from Beirut. In any case, if you plan to stay here, these are the most feasible options:
Budget / Mid-range Hotel – Yacoub Hotel – A very old hotel from 1920, Yacoub is located very close to the old city and the beach, the main city’s tourist attractions. However, many people have complained about cleanliness, especially because it is not a cheap hotel for what you get.
Mid-range Hotel – Al Qualaa Boutique Hotel – This boutique hotel isn’t bad but, for what you pay, the experience should be way better. The location is unbeatable, next to Saida Old Fort and, overall, it is in a very cute building and the breakfast is just great. However, people complain about small details, like power cuts, the shower was not working and a large etcetera.
Day 12 – Tyre – Your beach destination in Lebanon
The most southern city in Lebanon, Tyre brags of being the place where you find the best beaches in the country.
In summer, every day, tons of Lebanese come from Beirut to spend the day and chill at its beaches and eat awesome seafood at the many restaurants that are found around the harbor.
In Tyre, you also find a castle, Roman ruins, a corniche and beautiful and colorful harbor, full of seafood restaurants.
How to get to Tyre from Beirut
Tyre is 90 kilometers from Beirut and buses leave from Cola Station.
However, you should first take a bus to Saida and, from there, take the second one to Tyre.
The price of the first bus is 2,000LBP (1.30USD) and 3,000LBP (2USD) for the second one.
Where to stay in Tyre
In Tyre, accommodation is super expensive. I didn’t stay there but, if you are a beach lover and you can afford it, this is the most popular hotel:
Mid-range Hotel – Asamina Boutique Hotel – Tastefully furnished and with really cozy rooms and comfortable beds and located in the old city, very close to the sea, this is one of the best boutique hotels in the country. They serve an amazing traditional breakfast, with really fresh products and the staff are just extremely accommodating. I think this is the best option in Tyre, better than any of the other resorts, which kind of lack of personality and authenticity.
Day 13 – Go off-beat – The wall that separates Lebanon from Israel
Both Lebanon and Israel have been in continuous war for several decades and, today, diplomatic relations between both countries don’t exist, since they still consider each other to be enemies. This one of the most sensitive borders in the world.
These two Middle Eastern countries share a 79-kilometer border. For the most part, it is unreachable, as it’s located too far from the road. But I was told that there’s one area where you can actually get close to it. I liked the idea pretty much, so I decided to go there.
Visiting it is an adventure, as the whole area is full of military facilities and soldiers from the United Nations, who are guarding the border.
You need to be very cautious when visiting it. I was there by myself, with a camera, and I got arrested. If you wanna read my full story, check out this article: The day I was accused of being an Islamic State spy.
Please note that this is a Hezbollah area, which means that a permit is required. It’s very easy to obtain and you can get it at the police station in the city of Saida.
They give it to you instantly but remember that a permit makes you eligible to enter the area and it doesn’t mean that you can take pictures or walk freely along the wall.
How to get to the Wall from Beirut
Be aware that it is not recommended to get there by public transportation, as you will trigger the suspicion of the Hezbollah Army.
It is not about walking around the wall but just that tourists never go there, so seeing a dude wandering there by himself is kind of weird, according to their eyes.
As I said, I got arrested when I was there but, in part, it was because I had a camera hanging from my shoulder.
Going there on your is your own responsibility but, if you decide to go, here’s how to get there by public transportation.
From Beirut, go to Cola Station and take a bus to Saida (2,500LB, 30 minutes). From Saida, take a bus to Nabatiyeh (3,000LB, 30 minutes). In Nabatiyeh, you need to take a shared taxi towards Kfarkela (5,000LB, 25 minutes). You have to drop off as soon as you see the wall. Please note that you may have to wait for over an hour for the taxi to be completely full.
More information to complement your Lebanon itinerary
All guides and articles for traveling in Lebanon destination
Travel guides to other countries in the Middle East
You will also be interested in: Where in the Middle East is safe? and The most beautiful places in the Middle East.