Beirut, Baalbek and the Chouf Mountains – 3 days in Lebanon

Tiny Lebanon has had a long, and turbulent, history. It still bears the scars, but it also has a fantastic cultural legacy. Beirut is well known for its vibrant nightlife and restaurant scene, but it also happens to have one of the most beautiful museums of antiquities. And it is very easy to combine a stay in town with more cultural day trips around the country. Impressive Roman ruins, 19th century palaces, snowy mountain roads and vineyards are all only an hour or two away!

Lebanon itinerary highlights:

  • Eclectic Beirut
  • The striking temple ruins of Baalbek
  • Beiteddine palace in the lovely Chouf Mountains
  • Lebanese food! Whether you prefer traditional or innovative cuisine, you’re in for a treat

Distances are short, so Beirut makes for a perfect base. We stayed at the wonderful Hotel Albergo, a quirky boutique hotel housed in an old mansion. Each room is differently decorated and the great top floor bar and restaurant feels like somebody’s living room. It’s in a convenient central location, surrounded by bars and restaurants, and within walking distance of most city-sights.

The best way to travel around the country is by rental car. It’s not difficult to find your way around with the help of Google Maps, but you do have to be a bit of an assertive driver: the rule in Lebanon is there is no rule. If you don’t feel comfortable driving you can negotiate taxis for half or full day trips. Driving in Beirut itself is rather complicated and Ubers are cheap, so only get a rental car for the days you want to get out of the city. The days in this itinerary are interchangeable, just be aware that some museums are closed on Monday or Tuesday.

Day 1: Baalbek temples

After breakfast, pick up your rental car (or organize a taxi). Baalbek is only 90 km away, but roads out of town are often congested. Stop along the way for an early lunch at Berdawni in Zahle, a popular spot with outdoor eateries lined up along a river. Many are closed outside the summer season, but the restaurant at the Casino Arabi hotel is always open and serves tasty Lebanese food.

Not far from Zahle are the Niha Temples, four temple ruins near the small village of Niha. The two most important ones are located right at the edge of the village. Of these, the “Lower Great Roman Temple”, looming over the nearby houses, is rather impressive. The two “Upper Roman Temples”, about 2 km away, are not much more than piles of rubble. It is a nice drive to get there though, just follow the street signs guiding you along a pretty country road winding through fruit orchards.

Next, head to Baalbek, or Heliopolis, as it was known to the ancient Greeks and Romans. The large temple complex overlooking the modern city and the snowy mountains beyond is one of the most impressive archeological sites I’ve ever seen. Baalbek’s structures are huge and have withstood time incredibly well.  Adding to the experience is the fact that there are few tourists around. At least in part this is due to the conflict in nearby Syria: the border is only a few kilometers away and many western governments label the area a no-go zone. In reality it is usually perfectly safe, but do check the current situation before going.

You will need a couple of hours to properly explore the site, from the awe-inspiring Great Court and the Temple of Jupiter/Baal, to the Temple of Bacchus, one of the best preserved Roman temples in the world. Baalbek’s temples were intricately decorated with refined reliefs and sculpture, much of which is still discernible. More statues and decorative elements are exhibited in an underground passage within the complex.

Stop for coffee and delicious Lebanese sweets on the way back at Al Baba in Chtaura, right along the road and next to Ghazali supermarket. Head back to Beirut in time for dinner at ever-fashionable Liza (reservations recommended).

Day 2: Chouf Mountains, vineyards and Beiteddine Palace

Have a big traditional breakfast at Al Falamanki before heading out of town towards the Chouf Mountains. Make a quick stop at Deir Al Qamar, a pretty village nestled in the hills, to take a look at the 16th-18th century buildings around the main square.

From Deir Al Qamar it’s a few minutes’ drive to Beiteddine Palace (open 9am-5pm, except Mondays). Built in the early 19th century for Emir Bechir Chehab II, Beittedine is still used as a summer residence for the Lebanese president. Parts of the palace are open to the public and you can visit its courtyards, lavish reception rooms and hammam. The palace also houses a nice collection of Byzantine mosaics. Not far from Beiteddine, Coara restaurant serves organic vegan food and makes for a great lunch spot.

Next, continue on a scenic drive through the Chouf Mountains. You can stop at Shouf Cedar Biosphere Reserve for a walk among some of Lebanon’s few remaining cedar trees (the country’s national symbol), although the admission price is a bit high if you only plan on a short visit. There are several trails and entrances, check out their website for more information. On the other side of the mountains is Chateau Kefraya winery, where you can stop to taste some wine and have a light bite. The food is nothing special but it’s nice to go for a stroll in the vineyard.

Take the direct road back to Beirut, which should only take about an hour and a half. Drop off your rental car. For dinner, I highly recommend Mayrig, which serves delicious Armenian food. Have drinks before or after in one of the many bars around Gouraud street.

Day 3: cultural Beirut

On Saturdays, a great place to start the day is the farmer’s market, Souk Al Tayeb (9 am-2 pm). It’s small but there are lots of local delicacies to try. From here you can take a little walking tour of central Beirut, past the Omari Mosque to the massive modern Al Amine or Blue Mosque, St George’s Maronite Cathedral and the Cardo Maximus archeological site next to it.

Next, head to the wonderful National Museum of Beirut. Situated right on the Green Line which divided the Muslim West and the Christian East of Beirut during the civil war, the museum suffered extensive damage. It has been beautifully restored, and shows a small but exquisite collection of archeological artefacts, including mosaics, statues and statuettes, colorful delicate glassware, and an impressive collection of sarcophagi.

For an introduction to modern and contemporary Lebanese art, go to the Sursock Museum next. Housed in the luxurious early 20th century villa built by aristocrat Nicolas Ibrahim Sursock, the collection is modest but interesting. Follow up with lunch at Tawlet (closed on Sunday) for home-style cooking from different regions in Lebanon. Spend the rest of the afternoon wandering around East Beirut’s neighborhoods, checking out the shops and galleries and the remaining Ottoman and French Mandate architecture. Finish the day at one of Beirut’s cool and trendy restaurants, like Baron or Seza.

In the summer months you’ll might want to add a few days to this itinerary to head to the beach. Alternatively, the Mediterranean island of Cyprus is just a short flight away. Check out my  4 day Cyprus road trip for some inspiration!

 

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