I was hosted by TourLeb while visiting Lebanon. All thoughts and opinions are my own.
Want to experience Lebanon firsthand? Come with me on a GROUP TRIP to Lebanon this Summer (Aug 19 – 27, 2023). Space is limited. Reserve your spot with a deposit by clicking this link.
“Have you been to crazy countries before, or is this your first time?”
My guide, Nada, asked me moments after I slid into her car at the busy Beirut-Rafic Hariri International Airport, weary after the 20-hour journey from Los Angeles to Beirut.
“Yes?” I replied, after making eye contact with my boyfriend Jacob sitting next to me in the back seat. My family is from the Philippines and Jacob’s is from Mexico, after all. Despite it being our first time in the Middle East, we didn’t feel out of place in a country worlds apart from our own, both geographically, culturally, and socio-politically. In fact, my heart was racing for a different reason. I was thrilled to finally set foot in a place I’d dreamt of visiting since I was 13.
“Good,” she chuckled, and with that we whizzed off to Beirut. Welcome to Lebanon!
Despite being one of the smallest countries in the world, Lebanon is fascinatingly, multi-dimensionally rich. Within just 4,036 square miles, Lebanon encompasses six million people, 18 religions, multiple languages and dialects, diverse geography, and more than 6,000 years of history that has carved the country into what it is today.
While traveling in Lebanon is relatively safe, there are lots of things you should know before you visit this country. Familiarizing yourself with Lebanon’s culture, religions, safety, politics, and economic situation will help you orient yourself more quickly.
Once you do, you’ll be able to better appreciate the spirit of Lebanese people, their joy, their food, and their joie de vivre.
So, let’s get into it. Here are 14 things you should know before traveling to Lebanon!
14 Things You Must Know Before Visiting Lebanon
1. Guide vs Solo: Should You Visit Lebanon On Your Own?
First, do you need a guide when traveling to Lebanon? As a frequent solo traveler and avid trip planner, I am used to being fiercely independent when I travel abroad. So, I tend to only seek out local guides for individual activities, like walking tours and cooking classes.
But, after spending 10 days traveling in Lebanon, I can say with certainty that I wouldn’t have been able to do or see even half of the things I got to experience without having a local guide.
Lebanon is a chaotically beautiful country and many things work differently than you might be used to.
Some examples of this include:
- Street signs often only shown in Arabic or French
- Local guesthouses often not searchable on platforms like Booking.com and Airbnb
- Guesthouse staff, on occasion, not speaking English
- Navigating different cultural intricacies, from visiting mosques to traveling to more conservative parts of the country – like Tripoli and Saida
- Money being more difficult to understand in general (more on this later)
- More sensitive areas, like the Beqaa Valley near the Syrian border, having heightened precautions in order to visit safely
And so on.
Visiting Lebanon With TourLeb
I visited Lebanon on a private, almost fully-guided itinerary with TourLeb, a women-owned tour company-meets-social enterprise that prioritizes responsible tourism and uplifting local businesses.
The TourLeb staff are unmatched in their knowledge of Lebanon, and I often joked throughout my trip that Nada has the entire country’s six million people on speed dial. In fact, she and her co-founder Joelle started TourLeb after traveling around Lebanon to interview 6,000 people across 1,000 villages to publish a book, Hyphen Islam Christianity, about the people and stories that interweave together to create the oft-hyphenated identities of Lebanon.
So, yes, they’re extremely well connected!
TourLeb offers a couple different options to help travelers visit Lebanon:
- Fully Bespoke Private Tours: Ranging from $900-$1500 per week for a couple (or $250 per day for parties of up to 4). This is what I did when I visited Lebanon!
- Itinerary Planning: $30/day to give you a blueprint for your own self-guided Lebanon holiday.
- Day Trips: Whether you want a private day trip (like, to visit the Beqaa Valley or Tripoli) or are interested in joining one of TourLeb’s weekly day trips that explore off-the-beaten-path Lebanese villages, they often provide excursions that can help you see more of the country even if you’re on a budget.
Want to Visit Lebanon with Me?
I’m hosting a group trip to Lebanon this summer! From August 19 – 27, 2023, we’ll walk the footsteps of ancient Romans, cheers to delicious mediterranean wines, dance the night away in Beirut, experience unmatched Lebanese hospitality, uncover palaces and hammams, soak up the sun at the beach, and eat like you’ve never eaten before.
See the full itinerary here or click the button below to reserve your spot! (LIMITED SPOTS AVAILABLE)
While I recommend having a local guide for your Lebanon trip, you might prefer flying solo. If you do, I still recommend hiring a driver – at least for your first visit – because navigating the roads, army checkpoints, and any unexpected situations in this country would be very tricky without one!
2. How to Get to Lebanon
Getting to Lebanon is actually easier than you might think!
While there are currently no direct flights from the USA to Lebanon, you can often find routes that only require one layover. Airlines like Emirates, Turkish Airlines, Qatar Airways, and Air France have regular Beirut routes with layovers in Dubai, Istanbul, Doha, or Paris. Compare airlines and prices on Google Flights or Kayak to see which route is best for you.
When you arrive in Lebanon, you’ll be landing in Beirut. You’ll fill out a brief immigration document and go through customs upon arrival. Unlike the bad rap US customs officials get, customs officials in Lebanon are actually so kind and welcoming to tourists!
The only thing you need to remember? You cannot have any Israeli passport stamps or security stickers in your passport. If you do, you’ll be denied entry to Lebanon.
3. Lebanon’s History
From the ancient Phoeniciean and Assyrian eras, to Roman and Byzantine regimes, to Crusaders, Mamluks, and eventually, Ottoman Rule, this ancient land had been molded and shaped by countless layers of influence and culture.
When 300 years of Ottoman rule dissolved after WWI, Lebanon finally became the country we know today. But, its complex history only gets even more nuanced in the last 100 years. Starting with the French Mandate (which is why you’ll hear French as commonly as you will Arabic) in the early 1900s, to the war in the 70s, to the economic and electricity crises of today, to the Beirut Blast of 2020, Lebanon has been dealt a series of hurdles – emerging from each even more resilient than the last.
Spend some time exploring this country and you’ll begin to see these layers reveal themselves.
You’ll see it in the ruins that rival those of Athens, the French and Arabic dialects that echo across the souks, the ancient fish fossils of Byblos, the neighboring churches and mosques, and the chic cafes that are serenaded by daily calls to prayer.
4. Safety in Lebanon: Is Lebanon Safe to Visit?
You might be asking yourself – is Lebanon safe? And with everything going on, is it safe to travel to Lebanon now?
General Lebanon Safety Overview
In general, traveling to Lebanon is quite safe for tourists. Much safer than the news and our government-issued travel advisories would have us believe. I want to stress this, because the country is desperately in need of tourism and many Lebanese people are quite eager to shed the negative perceptions of their country that the media have long associated with Lebanon.
In fact, I was often met with a combination of surprise (that an American would be visiting their village, restaurant, or hotel!) and delight that resulted in some of the most unbelievable hospitality I’ve ever experienced.
Geographic / Political Situations Surrounding Lebanon
Now, with that said, Lebanon still presents safety issues you should be aware of.
You shouldn’t visit refugee camps or the borders between Lebanon and Syria, particularly without a guide. The southern region of Lebanon is also the main location of Hezbollah’s conflict with Israel as well, and you’ll begin to see a UN presence once you reach the southern seaside town of Tyre for that very reason.
However, I traveled to both Tyre and the Beqaa Valley near the Syrian border, and in both cases I felt safe and had absolutely no issues. I was super happy to have my TourLeb hosts explaining the history, sociopolitical tensions, and safety protocols every step of the way so I knew what to expect at all times.
In fact, one of my favorite meals was in Rayak, just minutes from the Syrian border crossing to Damascus.
On the day we traveled to the Beqaa Valley, there was one moment I was particularly grateful to have a local guide. We were visiting the Baalbek ruins, and saw a wedding near the entrance to the site. Our guide told us to anticipate gun shots, as shooting up into the sky is a common way of ‘celebrating’ the new couple’s union. Within moments, we heard gun shots off in the distance. Had we not been briefed on this cultural practice, we would’ve been so spooked!
Economic Situation in Lebanon
Lebanon is undergoing an ongoing economic, fuel, and electricity crisis. While crime rates are actually fairly low in the country, desperate times can mean some desperate situations, and petty theft isn’t unheard of as local people navigate unprecedented economic hardships. Keep close watch of your belongings but also, use this as an opportunity to patronize local businesses and support the local economy with your tourism dollars.
Safety for Women and Solo Female Travelers in Lebanon
Economic and political landscapes aside, I can’t tell you how many times I was told that Lebanon is one of the safest places for woman to travel solo in the Middle East. Likening this to Lebanon’s Arab and Muslim influence (combined with the fact that English and French are widely spoken, making it easier for solo travelers that don’t speak Arabic to get around), people strive to treat solo female travelers the way they’d treat their own sisters, and want to make extra sure these travelers feel safe and welcome when moving throughout the country. This is especially true in the areas more commonly frequented by travelers, like Beirut, Byblos, Batroun, Jounieh, and Tyre.
Above all else, you can read as much as you want about safety while traveling in Lebanon ahead of time. But, one of the best things you can do is check in with locals throughout your trip. They’ll often have the latest advice on what’s safe, what isn’t, and what precautions you might want to take.
5. Languages Spoken in Lebanon
The national language of Lebanon is Arabic. However, as I just mentioned, French is also super prevalent due to the country’s French Mandate era of the early 1900s. Today, just under half of the Lebanese population is French-speaking, and another 15% are partially French-speaking, as most schools still teach using French as a second language.
Because of the coexistence of French and Arabic, Lebanese people have derived some unique expressions that blur the lines between the two languages. One example of this is saying “merci kteer” instead of “merci beaucoup” to express “thank you very much.” “Merci” is French for “thank you,” while “kteer” is Arabic for “many.”
Beyond that, English is commonly spoken by around 30% of the population, especially those in the tourism and business industries. Younger generations also lean heavily towards English in day to day conversation.
6. Religions in Lebanon
It is often said that without Lebanon’s enduring political and economic issues, the country could be a model for how the rest of the world can coexist. As a small country with more than 18 religious communities, Lebanon is a multi-faith society where mosques and churches coexist and bell towers and calls to prayer are equally common sounds of daily life.
Approximately 60% of the Lebanese population is Muslim (including Shiite, Sunni, Druze, Ismaili, and Alawi), and 40% is Christian (including Catholic communities like Maronites, Armenian Catholics, Greek Catholics; and non-Catholic communities like Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, Protestants, etc).
Lebanon is not without its own religious tensions and disagreements. But, as a country that recognizes and respects several religious communities, it is a remarkable thing to witness as a visitor! Here, you can visit mosques and churches in pretty much any city, hike through the Christian monasteries of the Kadisha Valley, and witness the Druze community’s Jumblatt Palace in the Chouf. All of it makes up equal importance in the fabric of what makes Lebanon, Lebanon.
7. Currency and Exchanging Money in Lebanon
Due to decades of debt, Lebanon is experiencing a financial crisis that can be felt in all aspects of daily life. It’s so bad that Lebanese people are largely unable to withdraw money from their bank accounts, and many salaries that were once livable are now worth mere fractions of what they once were.
Lebanon uses the Lebanese Pound or Lira, and you’ll see online that $1 USD = approximately 1,513 Lebanese Pounds. But (and it’s a BIG but!), Lebanon widely operates on a black market exchange. On the black market, $1 USD = anywhere from 24,000 – 35,000 Lebanese Pounds at the time of writing this article.
Because of this, you’ll want to bring your own local currency to Lebanon and exchange currency there, versus trying to find Lebanese currency abroad (most likely, you will not be able to anyway). Once in Lebanon, exchange your money at a reliable place using the ‘black market’ exchange rate, which fluctuates hourly. This way, you’ll get a fair exchange against the actual market value of everyday life in Lebanon.
I found that navigating the money exchange in Lebanon was one of the most confusing parts of visiting the country. Fortunately, my guide helped with this throughout my 10 days in Lebanon.
8. Lebanon Geography and Places to Visit
When we think of the Mediterranean, most people may first think of Greece, Italy, or Croatia. But Lebanon is a Mediterranean gem in its own right, with beautiful coastlines and many stretches of crystal clear, aquamarine waters.
Bordering Lebanon are Israel to the south, and Syria to the north and east. No doubt, this is a region all too familiar with conflict and tension. However, in my experience – going with a guide allowed us to travel all over Lebanon while remaining both informed and safe. There are military checkpoints throughout the country monitoring the roads. At one point after visiting Baalbek in the far east, we found ourselves wine tasting on a vineyard just a stone’s throw from the Syrian border. Again, with our guides monitoring the daily conditions of the region, we felt incredibly safe and welcomed by the people in the Beqaa Valley!
Though Lebanon is a tiny country, it will surprise you – from Mediterranean coastlines, to mountain regions fit for skiing in the winter, to verdant green valleys and relaxing wine regions, Lebanon’s geographic diversity is truly unbelievable.
Some of the Top Places to Visit in Lebanon Include:
- Beirut: The Paris of the Middle East and the capital city of Lebanon, Beirut should be on any first-timer’s list when traveling to Lebanon. Come here historical city center and neighborhoods, stay for the incredible food and nightlife!
- Byblos: Also known as Jbeil or Jebeil, the seaside village of Byblos is a remarkable symbol of civilization. Byblos has been continuously inhabited throughout the past 8,000 years, and today, the historic center is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
- Jounieh: A once sleepy fishing village that now hosts a long list of attractions, Jounieh is just 30 minutes outside of Beirut and well worth a visit. Take the Teleferique cable car, visit the Casino du Liban, explore the famous Jeita Grotto, or go paragliding over the Mediterranean coast. The views are unbelievable!
- Tripoli: You shouldn’t miss the dizzying, magnificent city of Tripoli in northern Lebanon. Here, you’ll find the largest crusader fortress in Lebanon, a labyrinthine network of souks, and the chilled out fisherman’s village of El Mina which is not to be missed.
- Baalbek: The ruins of Baalbek are so impressive, they are absolutely worth the trek. Here, you can find some of the finest remaining structures of the Roman Empire, like the Temple of Bacchus.
- Saida and Tyre: You can visit the southern seaside towns of Saida and Tyre on a single day trip. Visit the Crusader Sea Castle and the old souks in Saida, and the Hippodrome and Al Mina ruins in Tyre, before ending the day on the Tyre Port and Christian Quarter.
- Chouf: Chouf (also referred to as ‘The Chouf’) is a beautiful region filled with palaces, mountainside villages, a cedar tree reserve, and a large population of Lebanese Druze. Don’t miss the Jumblatt or the Beiteddine Palaces.
- Kadisha Valley: The famous Holy Valley is located high up in the Mount Lebanon chain, and has been home to countless monastic communities for centuries. The drive through the Kadisha Valley is one of the most stunning in all of Lebanon, featuring rugged landscapes dotted with churches and monasteries throughout. You can visit them by car or even hike between the monasteries on foot.
Read my list of all the places you should visit when traveling to Lebanon next!
9. Culture and Etiquette in Lebanon
Lebanon is home to a myriad of cultures and customs, and while there is no sole “fixed” way of doing things, I found the country to be incredibly welcoming and inviting for foreign travelers.
I observed Lebanese teens in Beirut dressed in shorts and sneakers hanging out with friends at local bars, streets filled with locals smoking shisha and playing cards until late in the evenings, veiled and unveiled women at restaurants sharing tea and gossip, you name it.
With all that said, there are some things you should keep in mind when visiting Lebanon.
General Tips to Follow When Traveling to Lebanon:
- You can dine with both hands – dining with the right hand only doesn’t really apply in Lebanon
- PDA isn’t extremely taboo, but outside of holding hands, tourists should probably do it sparingly (no need to attract unnecessary attention or judgment, especially from more conservative onlookers). And, unfortunately I’d say LGBTQ+ couples should exercise more caution here and adhere to a zero PDA policy when out and about.
- Punctuality isn’t really a thing in Lebanon – hours are more fluid and you shouldn’t judge your tours or reservations if they don’t start immediately on time.
- Lebanese hospitality is unparalleled. I can’t stress this enough! I’ve never had a better breakfast, better hosts, or better conversations than I did while on this trip. Be a gracious guest and try everything when offered homemade food, be prepared to stay long periods of time and engage in conversation, and bring gifts when appropriate. Hosting is seen as an honor and a privilege, and it isn’t uncommon for even those with the smallest homes to invite you in for a coffee as their guest.
- To most Lebanese, Israel is a huge point of contention. Regardless of your understanding of the situation, it’ll serve you well to simply respect the opinions of locals. And, if you’ve ever traveled to Israel in the past, make sure there is no evidence of that trip in your passport when entering the country.
- While daily life can be quite relaxed in Lebanon, you should never forget that the country is in the crossroads of conflict. Always remain alert and vigilant with your belongings and with the locations you travel to when traveling to Lebanon, and rely on the advice of locals at all times.
10. Weather in Lebanon
Lebanon generally has a mild Mediterranean climate, with hot summers and rainy winters. The coastline will be hotter and more humid than inland and mountainous regions, which can even get enough snowfall in the colder months for skiing and snowboarding.
If you’re wondering when is the best time to visit Lebanon based on the weather, March – May, and September – October are ideal. However, we came in early November and it was still so warm. We even took a dip in the Mediterranean! The only caveat is that in the winter months, the sun will set around 4:30 pm and your daylight hours will be shorter.
Depending on where you plan to go, I recommend packing a variety of clothing fit for both the coastal areas and mountain regions, with some extra layers for any chilly evenings.
11. What to Pack for and Wear in Lebanon
Lebanon is a pretty liberal country. So, what you pack will be dictated by your activities and the places you want to visit, rather than based on any particular custom or requirement.
You’ll generally find very casual as well as stylishly dressed people in Beirut, and naturally, a bit more traditionally and modestly dressed people in less densely populated areas. No matter where you go, it won’t be uncommon to see women in modern sundresses and jeans alongside women in veils or burkas in the same setting.
My Packing Tips for Lebanon:
- Avoid dresses and skirts / shorts that are extra short, as well as plunging necklines or backless tops (to me, this was honestly less about feeling inappropriate, and more about making sure I was not making any local men or women feel uncomfortable)
- Pack swimsuits with a bit more coverage (bikinis are totally fine, but I personally didn’t bring any that were more skimpy)
- Stick to breathable fabrics – Lebanon can be hot especially along the coasts!
- Bring layers if you plan to visit Lebanon’s mountain regions, particularly in the winter months
- Bring a variety of scarves, as you’ll need to cover your hair and shoulders when visiting mosques out of respect. I tied one to my purse every day so I could throw it on when needed.
- When visiting mosques, as well as more conservative cities like Tripoli and Saida, it’s best to wear pants or a skirt / dress that falls below the knees
- Take your shoes off when entering a mosque. If you don’t like the idea of being barefoot, wear socks. The floors will most likely be carpeted!
- Men should avoid wearing shorts or tank tops in mosques, as your shoulders and legs need to be covered, too
12. Transportation and Getting Around when Traveling in Lebanon
You could theoretically rent a car and drive while traveling in Lebanon, but I wouldn’t recommend it. Especially if it’s your first time traveling to the country. The roads are confusing, everyone drives with their own rules, and there are military checkpoints throughout the country that – while generally safe – can seem intimidating for foreigners.
Careem, a transportation app similar to Uber and Lyft, is supposed to be available in Beirut and Jounieh. But, I didn’t get a chance to confirm this for myself while I was there. If you use this app (or any others) when visiting Lebanon, let me know in the comments!
All that said, if you can swing it, I highly recommend booking tours with transportation included, and / or hiring a private guide like we did with TourLeb. If we had driven ourselves, we probably would’ve done less than half of the things we had on our itinerary. The logistics would’ve been too much to navigate, and there are certain parts of the country – like Tripoli and Baalbek – where it really is best to visit with a local that knows their way around.
13. Food, Alcohol, and Tipping in Lebanon
Lebanese people are serious about their food – and it is my absolute favorite cuisine in the world for this very reason.
Their Mediterranean climate combined with fresh Middle Eastern herbs and centuries-old traditions make even the simplest dining experiences a phenomenal occasion. You’ll want to try all of it, and you’ll want to do a good amount of walking during your visit to balance it all out 🙂
Some of my absolute favorite bites of food in Lebanon included:
- A simple, yet crisply fried falafel pita (which cost less than $1 USD) in Saida
- Handmade zaatar and cheese manakish (well, anything covered in zaatar, to be honest)
- Savory sesame-studded ka’ak filled with cheese and, you guessed it, zaatar
- Sweet, indulgent knafeh covered in orange blossom syrup and stuffed into a pita, which coincidentally made for a fantastic hangover breakfast
- Mezze for every meal of the day
- Lahme baajin made on the side of the road in the Chouf
- Freshly prepared kibbeh at a cozy restaurant tucked into the mountains of Ehden
I could keep on going – the food is just that good.
Alcohol Etiquette in Lebanon: Do People in Lebanon Drink?
Lebanon is one of the most liberal countries in the Middle East, and you can easily – and abundantly – enjoy alcohol throughout most of the country. In fact, Lebanon proudly produces tons of local beer, wine, and even spirits.
The only restrictions on this will be in the more conservative parts of the country, like Tripoli and Saida, where alcohol will be sparse or nonexistent out of respect for larger concentrations of Muslim populations.
Outside of this, you will be able to easily find and enjoy a drink in Lebanon freely and without worry.
Tipping in Lebanon: Is It Appropriate?
When it comes to tipping in Lebanon, it’s generally advisable to either round up or pay 10 – 15% at restaurants depending on the service you received.
You’ll also want to carry small bills for other tipping encounters, including supermarket trips (if they carry your groceries to your car), gas station stops (an attendant will fill your tank), and buying drinks at a bar.
14. Travel Insurance For Traveling to Lebanon: Do You Need It?
Whether or not you need travel insurance is your own personal choice. But, keep in mind that without insurance, any incidents (stolen gear, hospitalization, etc) will need to be covered out of pocket while abroad.
Some reputable travel insurance companies with good reviews include:
It’s hard for me to put into words how much I loved my time traveling in Lebanon, so I’ll end by saying this: if you’re feeling adventurous and considering visiting Lebanon, you must do it. Lebanon has been without a doubt one of the most culturally enriching, delicious, eye-opening, educational, authentic, raw, and fun countries I’ve visited to date, and I can’t wait to go back!
P.S. Skipped to the end? Don’t fret! While you can travel to Lebanon on your own, some might feel more comfortable visiting with a local tour company. If that’s you, you might want to consider traveling to Lebanon with TourLeb. Mention ‘Rachel Off Duty’ when booking to get up to 15% off a private tour of 3 days or more. Contact them here.
Or, travel with me to Lebanon on a group trip this summer (August 19 – 27). See the itinerary and reserve your spot by clicking this link.
Are you considering traveling to Lebanon? Did you find these tips helpful? Let me know your plans in the comments!
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