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.
I’ve never really thought of Lebanon when deciding to travel somewhere, but it sounds really interesting! Where did you stay while there and how was the general environment? Were the people welcoming? And now i’m really craving a falafel. 🙂
Hey Siham – I stayed at basic budget hotels while in Lebanon, of which there are a few in most towns/cities. The people were welcoming although I will say that I did not unfortunately experience the overwhelming hospitality that others have experienced or talk about over there. No problems at all, definitely friendly people, but the same as anywhere else. This is just my experience though.
Great post. Thanks for going into so much detail about location and ina way reviewing it all with out really doing it like a review. I am saving your blog alot because I plan on visiting this part of the world on my RTW trip.
Keep up the good work, Im loving it.
Hey Jaime – It’s excellent to hear that you might be headed this way on your RTW trip! It’s a very rewarding region of the world as I’m sure you already know. Definitely let me know once you have your plans in place and I appreciate your comment as always!
between the old roman ruins, falafel and the cafe sounds like an interesting journey!
Hey Greg – I’m not sure if I can think of a better combination of places!
Now you made me hungry again! Your posts always do that to me. 🙂 Those Roman ruins are spectacular too.
I always love going to a museum that has a totally different point of view than I learned in school. It really makes you think about your assumptions.
Sorry Jennifer 🙂 Food is just too important of a travel factor for me to avoid!
I ate my share of falafel in Egypt for 3 weeks, but come to think of it, I think most (if not all) included bread mixed in (though I smothered them in sauces). I bet that eatery in incredible!
Interesting list of sites. I’ll be very interested to check out the Baalbek ruins when I get to travel to Lebanon some day!
Hey Mark – It probably was full of bread crumbs as I’ve discovered that almost all of them are. It seems to be quite rare to find a pure chickpea version of falafel but knowing that it exists makes me want to search for it in every place I visit!
The Papercup cafe sounds like heaven…
Hey Rose – You would love that cafe. It is unlike any other I’ve ever visited. So simple but so interesting at the same time 🙂
Reading about those falafels made my mouth water. I simply love them.
I now realise that I really have to go to Lebanon one day. Those ruins at Baalbek sound fascinating, as does the Papercup cafe.
Hey Maria – How can anyone not like falafel?? And Baalbek definitely should be visited if you make it to Lebanon. The fact that it is not too crowded offers such a unique ‘ruin’ experience.
It’s good to see someone reporting the other side of all the conflict that has historically gone on in that region. It always seems as if the ordinary citizens have no interest in entering wars. It always seems as if governments use countries as pieces in some real-life game of Risk. Sigh.
That falafel sounds good right now…
Hey Kyle – It is very true. Even yesterday I was talking with a local Syrian about where else I should visit in this region and his suggestion was Israel! And I might have mentioned it before but Jerusalem Falafel by Thapae Gate serves up some decent falafel over in Chiang Mai, although it’s a bit pricey.
I don’ know if Lebannon has the best food in the area as I have not been there yet, but I was interested to hear that was the opinion of our Egyptian tour guide. He thought Egypt had the second best Middle Eastern food.
Hey Chris – The food in Lebanon was definitely wonderful although for the budget traveler, not as accessible as it is in Syria, where it costs much less to enjoy a typical Middle Eastern meal. Although, if a guide from another Middle Eastern country claims that Lebanon has the best food, that’s quite a statement as usually people tend to claim their own as the best 🙂
Glad you found papercup. It’s my fav cafe in Beirut. I wanted to grab one last cup of tea there today on this, my last day in Lebanon, but alas – they’re closed on Sundays.
Hey Michelle – That’s a shame that you didn’t get a chance to go there one last time. It was such a warm, comfortable place to spend a few hours. I remember the morning I arrived at 10am only to learn that they didn’t open until noon. I was so disappointed! (But I returned later in the afternoon of course). Such a good place.
Safe travels home!
Gotta grab me some of those falafels one day! Thanks for another post that makes me add another destination to the ever growing list! The museum looks the most interesting to me as I love seeing the world through the perspective of others if I agree or not!
Hey Forest – Looks like you have to make a Syria/Lebanon trip soon! And that museum sure was interesting as I also like to hear every side of a story no matter what my own personal stance happens to be.
Very cool post, I like knowing what made the biggest impression on people and food always makes an impression on me.
Hey Ayngelina – Well, food always seems to play a major role when I’m traveling no matter where I am 🙂 It’s crazy how much thought I put into my decisions of where to eat when I’m on the road but I don’t want to miss out on anything yummy!
Earl, I’m loving your posts. Thanks for going into so much detail and spreading some light on this region of the world. Forgive the ignorance, but my wife and I are new wanderers, now in our first country of many to come. Would you see any issues at all for women in any of these countries you’ve been to lately? Wondering if there would be any places where we’d have to be a little more careful, or avoid.
Hey Brad – It’s a good question you asked and actually, there wouldn’t be any issues in this region for women travelers. As for Syria, it is of course wise to dress conservatively (this goes for men as well) but that’s about it. Almost all of the female travelers I’ve met here have commented on how safe they feel in Syria and how rare it is for men to bother them (which can be a problem in some countries).
In Lebanon, and especially in Beirut, you’ll find men and women dressed quite modernly and showing quite a bit of skin given the significant Christian influence. And while many of the female travelers I met in Lebanon did mention that the men were a bit aggressive towards them, a woman traveling with a man probably wouldn’t face the same annoyances. Basically, you definitely don’t need to avoid this part of the world!
I wish I would’ve eaten lunch before I read about the falafels 🙂
Hey Jasmine – I’ve now been running around Syria again trying to find some falafel that matches up to the ones in Beirut, although I don’t think it’s possible. Glad to see another falafel fan out there!
Very nice recap of Lebanon. Did you fly into Lebanon or did you cross on land from Syria?
Hey Jill – I crossed overland from Syria to Lebanon (the border near Damascus) and overland from Lebanon back to Syria (the border north of Tripoli). It was a painless process both times!
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The world over this is the same: if the food is good competitors and copycats will pop up as close to you as is humanly possible; but customers will always be willing to wait in a long time to get what they consider the best! Whenever I travel I always follow the line. It’s rarely led me wrong.