Once known as the Paris of the Middle East, Beirut really took a beating during the 17 year war in Lebanon. The city hasn't really recovered from the bombardments and the influx of refugees, and the destruction, rebuilding, overcrowding and chaos are often a shock to new arrivals. Situated smack in the middle of Lebanon's Mediterranean coast, Beirut is a city of contrasts: beautiful architecture exists alongside concrete eyesores; traditional houses set in jasmine-scented gardens are dwarfed by modern buildings; winding old alleys turn off from wide avenues; and swanky new cars vie for right of way with vendor carts. Although there's not much to see here anymore, it's still a city of vibrancy and charm.

The Hamra area, in the north-west of the city, is now home to the city's banks, hotels, restaurants, cafes and post office. It's also a great place to window shop and soak up the atmosphere. North of Hamra, the American University of Beirut has a small museum of archaeology (it's not as impressive as the National Museum, but the National is still being reconstructed). The museum's collection of Phoenician figurines is particularly interesting. The Sursock Museum in east Beirut is housed in a splendid Italianate style 19th century villa. The interior is also très stylish, and exhibits include Turkish silverware, icons, contemporary Lebanese art and a small but interesting library.

A visit to Downtown will give you a good idea of what the city went through during the war. Parts of the area are being restored, others have been bulldozed and others are an apocalyptic landscape of burnt-out shells. The centre of Downtown, the Place des Martyrs, has been almost completely bulldozed (only the emotive Martyrs Statue still stands), and a huge billboard has been erected to show what the city has in mind for the area. The Grand Mosque is one of the few historic buildings still standing: built in the Byzantine era as a Crusader church, it was converted to a mosque in 1291.

Pigeon Rocks are the most famous natural feature of Beirut. These offshore rock arches are a lovely complement to Beirut's dramatic sea cliffs, and locals tend to congregate here to watch the sunset and get away from the traffic noise. It's a delight to wander along the Corniche, Beirut's coastal road, and just take in the sea air, stop to drink a coffee served from the back of a van or sample some produce from a push-cart vendor.


The ancient city of Byblos, about 40km (25mi) up the coast from Beirut, is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. Byblos was populated during the Neolithic period 7000 years ago. In the third millenium BC it became the most important trading port in the area and sent cedar wood and oil to Egypt. It was the major Phoenician centre until the 10th century BC, and developed an alphabetic phonetic script which was the precursor of modern alphabets. Invaded by Persians, Alexander the Great, Romans, Byzantines and Arabs, Byblos fell into obscurity after it was taken then abandoned by the Crusaders.

Before the civil war Byblos was a mandatory stop on the jet-set circuit, and the historic harbour and picturesque old town remain unspoilt. The ruins, to the south of the old town, are entered through the remains of the Crusader castle which dominates the city's medieval ramparts. There are remains of huts from the 5th millennium BC, the temple of Baalat Gebal from 2800 BC, an L-shaped temple from 2700 BC, two royal tombs and a temple from the early 2nd millenium BC, and an amphitheatre from the Roman period.

Other things to see in Byblos include the Wax Museum, which portrays the history and culture of Lebanon in a series of rather bizarre and sometimes creepy tableaux. Nearby is St John Church, built by the Crusaders. The local souk is lively, and Byblos has a great beach with some underwater ruins. There are only a couple of hotels in Byblos, but plenty of places to eat.


Tripoli, 86km (53mi) north of Beirut, is Lebanon's second-largest city and the main port and trading centre for northern Lebanon. Although more modern than the rest of Lebanon, Tripoli's drawcards are its medieval history and Mameluk architecture. It survived the civil war better than most Lebanese cities and retains an air of Arab charm, with its narrow alleys, souks, slow pace and friendly people. Tripoli is also famous as the sweet capital of Lebanon, and any trip to the city would be incomplete without a visit to one of its lusciously sticky sweet shops.

There are two main parts to Tripoli: Al-Mina (the port area), which juts out into the sea; and the city proper. The centre is Sahet et-Tall, a large square where you'll find the bus stand and places to stay and eat. The Old City sprawls to the east and is a maze of narrow alleys, colourful souks, hammams, khans, mosques and theological schools. It's a lively place where craftspeople continue their work as they've done since the 14th century. It's also home to some fabulous Mameluk architecture, including the 14th century Taynal Mosque, the Al-Qartawiya Madrassa and the intricate mihrab of the Al-Burtasiya Mosque & Madrassa.

Originally built in 1103 by Crusaders, St-Gilles Citadel towers above Tripoli. It was badly burnt in the 13th century, partly rebuilt in the 14th, and has been altered many times since then, but it's still an imposing monument. In Al-Mina, it's worth checking out the Lion Tower, the only surviving example of a group of structures built by the Mameluks to defend the city.


Ancient Tyre, on the coast in the south of Lebanon, was founded by the Phoenicians in the 3rd millennium BC. It originally consisted of a mainland settlement and an island city, but these were joined in the 4th century BC by a causeway which converted the island into a peninsula. In Phoenician times Tyre was famous for its purple dye and glass industries; these days it's known for its Roman ruins.

The old part of Tyre is on the peninsula, while the modern town is slightly inland. Further south, you come to the ruins of Roman-era Tyre. The Roman ruins include a well-preserved road which passes through a monumental archway. It's lined on one side by an aqueduct, and on both sides there are hundreds of ornate, intricately-carved stone and marble sarcophagi. The ruins' hippodrome, built in the 2nd century AD, was one of the largest of the Roman period, seating 20,000 people. A festival is held in the hippodrome every summer.

Tyre is only 20km (12mi) north of the Israeli border, and at times of tension the surrounding area attracts special interest from Israeli gunners. It's wise to avoid the area if tension is high; at other times a visit to the city is considered to be safe.