In between the moments of extreme confusion that I dealt with during my visit to Lebanon, I managed to discover a handful of places that will forever stick out in my mind for one reason or another. And so I wanted to share these places with you so that you have a broader idea of what a traveler may expect to discover during their journey here.
I shall get right to it….
Claims of the ‘Best Falafel in the Middle East’ are thrown around quite often in this part of the world and so when I heard about a special falafel stand, that happens to be one of the oldest in Beirut, I really didn’t expect much. However, it didn’t take long to understand why, despite being located next to three other falafel stands, Sahyoun was the only one of the four with a long line of people waiting to be served. And as soon as I saw the passion and care that went into the preparation of the falafel, I didn’t even have to taste my sandwich to know that it was going to be one of the best I’d ever eaten.
The Greek/Lebanese owner and staff clearly have hit upon a winning formula, as not only was the falafel made of pure chickpeas (unlike others which add bread crumbs into the mix), but the bread was freshly baked and the vegetables and herbs were as fresh as could be. And the cost? A mere 2500 Lebanese Lira ($1.66 USD) per sandwich, making it perhaps the best value meal in all of Beirut. However, you should plan on spending 5000 LL, as after your first bite, I guarantee you’ll want to order a second sandwich (and quite possibly a third after that one!).
Details/Location: Falafel Sahyoun, Bechara Khoury Avenue, Ashrafieh, Beirut / Make sure you visit the one that looks like the photo above as there is a similar place right next door.
Next up is…
Located close to the border with Syria, this small town is home to the most well-known Roman ruins in Lebanon. And while many travelers tend to treat Baalbek as the baby brother of Palmyra, Syria (which has an extensive collection of Roman ruins spread all over the desert), I personally thought that Baalbek was a splendid place. The ruins site is not terribly large, but what made this location stand out was how well-preserved these ruins are, with the Temple of Bacchus in shockingly excellent condition.
Upon entering the site, I glanced around and figured I would wander the ruins for about 30 minutes before leaving but I ended up staying for over three hours. Every step I took led to an even more mesmerizing view than the last, with a collection of impressively massive Corinthian columns always towering high above me. Also, there were only a handful of other visitors during the afternoon I visited and by the time the sun began to set, I surprisingly had the entire site to myself, allowing me to sit high up on one of the outer walls for a perfect view of the changing colors. Admittedly, apart from those 3 hours, there wasn’t much else that stood out about the town of Baalbek and I actually climbed into bed quite early in order to escape the freezing temperatures outside. However, those few hours of exploration were more than enough to make this quite a memorable stop on this current adventure.
Location/Details: Can be reached by shared minivan from Beirut (2 hours, 5000 LL/$3.33 USD), by shared taxi from Damascus (3.5 hours, 700 SP/$16 USD) or by shared taxi/minibus from Homs, Syria (2 hours, 250 SP/$5 USD). *Highly recommended budget hotel: Hotel Shamoun, located just outside the ruins and run by a very friendly local man who offers very good rooms (with perfect views of the ruins from the windows) for $10 USD per person.
And I certainly won’t forget…
This one is not your typical destination as it is the “Hezbollah Tourist Landmark of the Resistance Museum” that is located on the actual mountain that was Hezbollah’s tactical center during the conflict with Israel between 1982 – 2000. It’s a modern, outdoor museum that contains a small collection of Israeli tanks and artillery that were captured during the fighting, as well as a forest trail that passes alongside the command bunker, medical center, rocket launchers, escape tunnels and lookout points that Hezbollah used. Let me just state that the reason I went was purely educational and at times I found myself feeling just as I did when in Saigon visiting the Vietnam War Museums. Obviously, this is a biased museum that only tells part of a much more complicated story, however, I didn’t see the harm in visiting. Learning is learning and this certainly was an interesting educational experience.
Mleeta is open to everyone and costs only 2000 LL to enter. In addition, the drive from Saida (the closest major town) passes through some beautiful mountain landscapes as well as a collection of Hezbollah-influenced villages tucked away in the middle of nowhere that offer an entirely different glimpse of Lebanon. And there’s no need to fear for your safety as the region is perfectly safe to visit and the people in this area were not only very friendly, but genuinely happy to see foreigners.
Details/Location: Mleeta, A-Mel Mountain, near the villages of Habboush and Jarjou’, South Lebanon / Take a local bus from Beirut to Saida, then hire a local taxi for about $30 USD for the return trip to Mleeta, which should include at least an hour waiting time while you visit the museum.
After that visit, I went straight to…
The Armenian neighborhood of Mar Mikhail was perhaps my favorite section of Beirut, mostly due to the constant surprises that await any visitor. At first glance, the neighborhood looks quite simple, but as soon as you step into the quiet side streets, you will discover a thriving art scene, a collection of small design studios, art galleries and retro-furniture shops as well as tiny bakeries, beautiful churches and my favorite place of all…the Papercup Store/Cafe.
Owned by a local woman named Rania, this brilliant place is easily missed if you aren’t specifically looking for it, but passing it by without entering would be a huge mistake. Once inside the warm, cozy shop, you are greeted not only by hospitable staff, a menu offering delicious coffees and rare teas, but one of the most unique collections of magazines and books I’ve seen anywhere, most of which focus on art in some shape or form. Grab a magazine, order a white tea and have a seat on the comfy sofa and before you know it, the afternoon will have vanished. I personally loved the unique concept of this place and when combined with the impeccable design and the infinite knowledge contained in all of those interesting books, the atmosphere was such that I returned almost every day for a two or three hour break.
Location/Details: Agopian Building, Pharaoh Street, Mar Mikhail, Beirut (one block off the main Al-Nahr Street) / Open Monday to Friday from 12:30 – 20:00 & Saturday from 11:00 – 19:00
I never really planned on getting too close to the Golan Heights as I had heard (I can’t remember the source) that it was still quite an unsafe region to visit. But during a visit to some Druze villages in Southern Lebanon, our driver suddenly pulled over to the side of the road and pointed to the Golan Heights, located right in front of us, across the valley below. And you can imagine my surprise when I found no signs of conflict at all. Sure, we passed one ‘checkpoint’ in this area, a checkpoint that was manned by one soldier who waved us on from a distance while lazily puffing on a cigarette in the doorway of a crumbling concrete room at the top of a hill. He clearly was not in battle-ready mode.
Upon seeing how quiet and peaceful this region appeared to be, I couldn’t help but re-think everything I knew about this part of the world. I also ended up speaking with local Lebanese whose villages were located right along the border with Israel and almost all of them expressed a strong desire for peace. Not one of them was at all interested in continued conflict and most spoke of the nearby villages, which happen to be across the border, as neighbors and friends. So there I stood, right on the edge of one area of Lebanon where foreigners are urged not to visit for safety reasons, and for the first time on this trip, I found myself fully confident that long-lasting peace in this region can be achieved.
Location/Details: The best way for a traveler to reach this area is by hiring a taxi, either from Saida or from Beirut. It’s also best to have a guide or driver that can speak English so that they can explain exactly where you are and what you are looking at throughout the trip.
Of course, I saw and experienced plenty more than the above during my stay in Lebanon, and it was quite difficult to choose only five places to write about. But my main goal here, a goal that I felt was quite necessary after my last post, was simply to provide an entirely different glimpse of this tiny, but diverse country that is Lebanon.