Lebanon: Why Everyone Should Visit
by Gwen Bellinger
Friday, July 1, 2016
“I got into the Beirut Arabic Language program! I’m going to go to Beirut for the summer!” I messaged my mom as soon as I got my acceptance letter to the American University in Beirut. She wasn’t thrilled. When I first told her I was applying for immersion Arabic language programs, she quietly rooted for me to go to Jordan or stay in the United States, both countries holding reputations as being “safe.” Growing up in the small town of Hillsborough, NC, the Middle East seemed scary and violent from the media. However, in Lebanon I never felt out of place or in danger. While Lebanon has it’s share of problems, the area of Beirut I lived in safer than the area in Chicago I had lived the last year. Like any country, there are areas that one should avoid.
Lebanon doesn’t get it’s share of credit as a travel destination. Located in the Middle East next to war-torn Syria, most wouldn’t give visiting the country a second thought. Recently when I told some friends about the party scene in Beirut, they said, “but isn’t everyone covered up?” I just laughed and told them absolutely not. Lebanon is an immensely interesting place. In addition to a variety of religious minorities, the country is mostly a mix of both prominent sects of Islam and Christianity. In Beirut, you’ll see stylish women wearing hijabs next to young girls in short skirts and high heels ready for the club. The city has every kind of Western food option you could want in addition to delicious Lebanese food. The parties never stop. Though if you want to immerse yourself in religion and culture, that is easy to do as well. The country is host to thousands of years of history, including impressive Roman ruins, crusader castles, and some of the only remaining Phoenician structures in the world.
English and French are widely spoken, and the city is no stranger to foreigners living, working, and visiting Beirut. If you’re looking for something more “off the beaten path” (or cheaper) than a summer in Italy or France, you should book your ticket to Beirut immediately.
Lebanese food is rich in variety and flavors. My first weekend I visited a restaurant in Hamra called T-Marbouta. Typically, Lebanese food is served as “mezze” or small plates which is shared between everyone at the table. This restaurant offers a large selection of salads, meat platters, and warm/cold mezze. The Fattoush salad is a bread salad mixed with fresh lettuce and vegetables and smothered in a light lime vinaigrette, a standard part of any Lebanese meal.
We also ordered chicken and shish kabab, large platters of succulent chunks of meat, prepared with spices and cooked until juicy. Hummus and pita, of course, are an essential part of the culinary experience. I found the hummus significantly more flavorful and delicious than any I’ve eaten in the United States. Likewise, the freshly made soft pita puts anything you buy in a grocery store to shame. The list of mezze I tried in Lebanon, and at T-Marbouta, is too extensive to list. However, my favorites included the Patata Harra, spicy chunks of fried potatoes; sausages cooked in a thick sweet and spicy sauce, and kibbeh, a meat ball made of minced onion, ground meat (beef, or lamb), cracked wheat, and a mix of spices.
My first weekend we took shots in an outdoor club, Sporting, on the beach. Lights glittered over the mingling crowd of Lebanese and foreigners dancing to the DJ. The ocean crashed against the rocky cliffs next to the edge of the club. A few weeks later we began the night at a new club built in a renovated train station before attending the party at one of the most famous Lebanese clubs, BO18. Located in the parking lot of an unassuming highway, this underground club is built into a bomb shelter. Both inside and outside the club, the crowd continued to swell until 6am when the roof opened in a final climatic conclusion to the night.
We spent many nights watching the World Cup in Mar Mikhael, a trendy neighborhood packed with chic restaurants and bars. The streets became alive at night with young people hanging out on the streets drinking and bar-hopping. The end of each soccer game brought about a mass public celebration for fans of the winning team. Cars of excited supporters drove in packs honking and flying flags of the team’s country. Enthusiasts took to the streets to cheer. The celebrations lasted well into the night.
Beirut boasts one of the best party scenes I have experienced traveling due to its prevalence and creativity. In this city one can find anything from quiet drinks at modest restaurants, to rowdy underground all-night clubs. On one night you can find local bands performing, on another a street packed to capacity of bar-hoppers drinking on the curb, or an elegant roof-top club. Beirut has it all, new clubs and bars are constantly popping up, and the party never seems to stop.
Lebanon is rich in history. Archaeological sites in the country bear witness to thousands of years of civilization. As early as 1200 BC, Phoenicians had established major trading points along the present-day coast of Lebanon. The country is home to some of the only surviving Phoenician structures in the world. While most well-known in Byblos, we visited a site outside of the Southern city, Tyre. We drove around for half an hour trying to find it, since even many of the locals were unsure of its exact whereabouts. The ruins were located in an overgrown field. The stones created a path and the remnants of what was once a temple structure. Mostly wild and overrun with weeds, the site caretaker showed up an impressive mosaic beneath the thick grass. The structure of the temple ascends quite high, and we were given permission to climb the stones to the top.
The main reason most people visit Tyre, however, is for the Roman ruins. We spent over an hour in the ruins, despite the harshness of the sun. A triumphal arch from around the 2nd century marked the entrance to a long ancient road surrounded by ruins. A massive hippodrome came into site at the end, apparently one of the largest and most in-tact in the world.
As part of a trip organized by our university, we visited the Roman ruins of Baalbak, close to the Syrian boarder. Outside of Italy, this has been the best example of Roman ruins I have seen. The temples dedicated to Jupiter and Bacchus are colossal, the first remarkable for its giant columns, the second adored by sculpted figures. Walking through the remnants of Roman past, as the haunting call to prayer echoes through the stone ruins, left a lingering almost transcendent feeling.
Near the end of my summer in Lebanon, we traveled to a few crusader castles. These castles were built by European invaders between the 11th and 15th centuries on their quest to take control of the Holy city of Jerusalem. Climbing the crumbling stairs of the castle offers a wonderful view of the surrounding area. Castles can be found across the country, but the safest and most prominent is located in Byblos, 37 km (23 miles) north of Beirut.
The stereotype of the Middle East being a desert couldn’t be more wrong. Lebanon is proud of it’s cedars, and in 1998 they became a UNESCO World Heritage Site. These beautiful trees were once used by the Egyptians for ship building. Visitors can tour the cedars, the most famous being in the village of Bsharre. Here, in the forest, a number of trees have had sections ornately carved into religious Christian figures.
Jeita Grotto is a system of caves around 9km (5.6 miles) long in Jeita, north of Beirut. These caves have been made tourist-friendly with lights and ramps without sacrificing the integrity of the cave itself. Walking through still grips the imagination. One can take a boat tour through the blue waters and walk along the stalagmites and stalactites of the seemingly melting walls.
A number of hiking trails exist in the mountains, a short drive from the capital. Qadisha Valley is a safe and beautiful spot for hiking. Hiking in this area will take one through fields, orchards, monasteries, and mountains. This allows you to combine the tranquility of Lebanese nature with its history and culture in one activity.