Traveling in Lebanon is not easy! It’s a chaotic place that operates in ways that are often counter-intuitive and, for a foreigner, very confusing. That’s why I’ve put together this list of Lebanon travel tips. Following this advice will help you avoid situations ranging from merely awkward to downright dangerous.
Disclosure: Our trip to Lebanon was sponsored by Tourleb, a Lebanese tour company that calls itself a social enterprise and emphasizes responsible tourism by supporting local businesses, particularly women-run businesses. Nevertheless, Tourleb has no influence over what I write in this article.
Another disclosure: This article contains affiliate links. If you make a purchase/reservation through one of these links, I will receive a small commission. This will not affect your price.
If you’re a frequent reader of this site, you know that I almost always choose to travel independently, whether solo or with my husband or a friend. I make my own decisions, navigating the transportation system by myself, hiring taxis or renting a car. I just don’t like having to follow someone else’s plan, and I certainly don’t like having to deal with a crowd of perfect strangers and all their quirks.
My #1 tip: Hire a guide/driver
Nevertheless, my first and most important Lebanon travel tip is not to travel independently in Lebanon. It’s just too chaotic a place. Public transportation is actually privately-run minivans that run on no discernable schedule from unmarked bus stops. It works, but it’ll take longer and limit your movement. Instead, you’ll need a car, yet the traffic is also chaotic and the signage, when there is any, is often only in Arabic.
Instead, taking tours in Lebanon or hiring guides will be much less stressful. If you can afford it, a private guided itinerary like we did with Tourleb is perfect because we got to see exactly what we wanted to see and shape our week’s travel to our interests. Because it was a private tour, not a group, we could also alter the plan as we went along – spend more time in places that interested us more, skip less interesting sites, and stop for rests or to eat whenever we wanted.
At my request, our week’s worth of Lebanon tours focused almost entirely on historical sites, and included all of the UNESCO sites in Lebanon. But you can follow any other interest with a private tour, at least with Tourleb. You could focus on food, or just the Roman archeological sites, or just religions in Lebanon (There are quite a few!), or architecture, or mountain hiking, or whatever else you’d like to get out of a trip to Lebanon.
If you can’t afford a whole tour shaped to your needs, you have essentially two choices:
- Sign up to day tours from Beirut with companies like Nakhal & Co., which has set tours it offers regularly. These will allow you to see sights outside of Beirut without navigating the roads or the bus system. They have two disadvantages, though, which make them less desireable, at least to me. They operate on a set itinerary, which means you might be stuck seeing sights you have no interest in. Second, you never know whether the other travelers on your group tour will be people you’ll very much like or people who drive you nuts (I’ve experienced both!). See my post about the two full-day tours I took with them in Lebanon (pre-pandemic and pre-economic crisis).
- The better option is to hire a guide/driver for the day. Tourleb offers private day tours, or you can ask at your hotel if they can recommend someone. If you do the research ahead of time about what you’re going to see, you could also just go with a driver, who only drives and doesn’t serve as a guide. Then you can hire a tour guide at the entrance to the major sites.
Now that I’ve gotten that first piece of advice out of the way, I can go on with more general Lebanon travel tips, but keep in mind that most of these won’t be a problem if you hire guides.
Everywhere I’ve ever traveled, at least since the turn of the century, I’ve been able, on arrival at the airport, to just go to an ATM and withdraw local currency. It’s what I generally recommend to others as well.
Do NOT do this in Lebanon.
Here’s the situation as of this writing (April 2022): Lebanon is in the midst of an economic crisis involving extreme inflation. As inflation worsened, the government of Lebanon chose to ignore the real rate of exchange for foreign money and fixed the exchange rate at 1500 Lebanese pounds for US$1.
This has far-reaching consequences. If you take money out of an ATM, you’ll only receive the official exchange rate. Yet everywhere you spend your money will charge you at the real exchange rate, which was 23,500 pounds to US$1 when we visited.
Let’s say that you exchange US$50 at a bank or withdraw it in pounds from an ATM. That would get you 75,000 pounds. The real value, though, of US$50 is 1,175,000 pounds! That 75,000 pounds you just paid for is actually worth about $3. It would only buy you a plate of hummus with pita and maybe a soda.
This has other consequences as well:
First of all, local people earning minimum wage used to be able to earn a basic living – it was the equivalent of about US$600 per month. Now, the same wage, which hasn’t gone up, is worth more like US$30. At the same time, fuel prices are sky-high and people can’t pay their electric or heating bills.
More relevant to you as a traveler in Lebanon: no one accepts credit cards anymore. Nor will they accept debit or ATM cards. Any transaction like that would go through a bank, which would mean they’d have to use the official exchange rate.
Let’s say you charge 1 million pounds to a credit card to pay for your family’s restaurant meal. You think you’ve paid about US$43 for that purchase. What will come through on your credit card bill, because the banks use the official exchange rate, is $667. That’s a pricey meal!
Now imagine you pay the same meal and the restaurant charges you in pounds rather than dollars. Since credit card charges travel through a bank, the bank will convert your home currency – let’s say US dollars – to pounds using the official rate. In that case, the restaurant will only receive 64,000 pounds, the real equivalent of only about US$3!
You can see why credit cards are out of the question!
What this means for you:
- Bring plenty of cash in US dollars. Expect to pay everything in cash, including hotels, tour guides, drivers, tips, food … everything.
- Because the exchange rate keeps shifting, the tour company you hire might have trouble agreeing a price much ahead of time. They just don’t know how much your dollars will be worth by the time you visit. They’re likely to ask you to bring the money with you in cash, since they have no way to receive the money ahead without going through a bank. The same goes for hotels.
- Change your dollars for pounds at exchange bureaus, not at banks. A big chain of exchange bureaus is called Whish, though there are others as well. Ask a Lebanese person what the current exchange rate is; they all have an app on their phones that gives the daily price.
- Make sure your dollar bills are not torn. They’re likely to be rejected by the exchange bureaus, even with the slightest imperfection.
- Do not change money with people on the street. They’ll offer you a decent rate, but you can’t be sure their bills are not counterfeit.
Another bit of advice about money. Don’t bargain prices down too much. For many people in Lebanon, things have gotten so desperate that they might accept a price below their costs just to put food on the table today. Your savings of $5 or $10 is far more to them. When you tip people – and you should – be generous.
Do your research
If you take a tour, you’ll hear the whole history of Lebanon, which covers so many eras – the Phoenicians, Greeks, the Roman Empire, the Byzantine empire, the Ummayad Empire, the Crusaders, the Mamluks, and the Ottoman Empire, and I’m probably leaving out a few. You’ll also hear plenty about more recent history – independence; the civil war, which was really a series of wars; Syrian occupation; Israeli occupation; the revolution; the Beirut explosion.
If you don’t take a tour, do some reading ahead of time. There’s plenty online about Lebanon’s history. For the most recent history from the Beirut blast in 2020 up to today, watch the documentary “Enough! Lebanon’s Darkest Hour.”
Once you’re in Lebanon, start conversations with locals. They’ll be happy to tell you their views on why Beirut is no longer “the Paris of the Middle East.” Much of it has to do with official corruption, and I found it fascinating to hear how often the mood could shift from despair and fatalism “Things will never get better” to the more hopeful “We have to work to get more people at home and in the diaspora to vote so we can get rid of these corrupt politicians.”
Is Lebanon safe?
Lebanese people, in general, are happy to see tourists return to their country and appreciate the foreign currency they bring into the economy. Having said that, there are still safety issues in some parts of the country.
Read your country’s travel advisories about Lebanon. Then take them with a grain of salt. What I mean by that is that the US advisory says not to go to Lebanon at all, and especially not near the Syrian border. Yet, with a guide, we had no reason to fear anything except, perhaps, a broken axle on poor roads.
By contrast, we struck up a conversation with some backpackers at the guesthouse where we stayed in Beirut. They went to see Baalbek by public transportation without doing their research first. The trip there was no problem, though it took longer than driving directly would have, since they had to transfer.
The problem was that in Baalbek, not knowing any better, they decided to take a walk around the town before visiting the extraordinary ruins of Baalbek. A few blocks in and they were accosted by a group of people, all urging them not to go there and indicating that they should turn down a particular side road. This was all expressed in gestures (including miming machine guns) and seemed to the travelers to be quite threatening.
More people arrived, and they seemed to be contradicting the first, so some were pressuring them to go down a side street and others were telling them to go back toward the archeological site. They decided to just turn around and head back, and the group let them. After the fact, telling us the story, they seemed to think it was actually two groups of people, some trying to divert them to rob them or attack them, the others trying to help them get out of the situation.
The story was rather unclear to me, and I can’t be sure it was actually a dangerous situation, but whatever happened, it scared these travelers – especially the one woman in the group – and could have ended badly. We had been to Baalbek just two days earlier and experienced nothing of the sort. With our tour guides from Tourleb, we didn’t feel in any danger at any time the entire week.
The point is: if you’re not with a guide, do your research. I don’t just mean research online. The economy of Lebanon has gotten so much worse since the blast in 2020 and the war in Ukraine that some people are just desperate. Things can change quickly. Notice the date on anything you read online and ignore it if it’s more than a few months old. Check with locals. Ask where it’s safe to go and where it’s not and follow their advice.
What to wear
If you’re going to enter any churches or mosques, both men and women should wear clothing that covers the knees. Women’s shoulders should also be covered, and women should not show cleavage. To enter a mosque, women should cover their hair entirely with a scarf. You are likely to be refused entry otherwise.
Having said that, pretty much anywhere else it’s perfectly acceptable to wear shorts and tank tops, unless you will be visiting a conservative area like Tripoli.
Depending on the time of year, it could be quite hot and sunny in Lebanon; wear a hat and/or use sun lotion.
Driving in Lebanon
You might think that it’s a good idea to rent a car and drive rather than hire guides or go on tours. I’d certainly advise against it unless you have nerves of steel.
- Rules of the road are mere suggestions in Lebanon. Two lanes become three if a person decides they want to drive between your car and the one next to you. You can pass on the left or the right or use the shoulder to pass, if that suits you. At intersections, the car that has priority is simply the car whose driver is boldest; in other words, intersections turn into an ongoing game of chicken: a multi-player game of chicken. Also, if it’s more convenient to drive on the wrong side of the road, people will. Cars will stop and park by the side of the road pretty much anywhere, even on highways.
- At the same time, the roads are in terrible condition in many places: full of potholes. Cars swerve around them as best they can, but it makes for very tense driving – and probably lots of damage to cars.
- Signage pointing to major towns might be in English lettering, but many signs are only in Arabic, if there are signs at all.
Watch your step
Watch your step! Streets and sidewalks are uneven and often broken. Stairs often vary in size. Dogs poop in the middle of the sidewalk. Don’t sightsee while walking. Instead, stop before you look around.
Lebanon is not wheelchair-accessible. There are steps and broken pavement everywhere, and many sidewalks are blocked by trees or too narrow for a wheelchair. Some hotels have elevators, but none of the main sights do.
Our guides told us that locals don’t drink the tap water. You can buy bottled water easily enough, and your hotel might provide it as well. Having said that, we ate salads at most meals all week. Likely the vegetables were washed with tap water, yet we didn’t have any stomach problems. It made me wonder if the local avoidance of tap water was really just a manifestation of the Lebanese people’s deep distrust of government.
Not only is fuel expensive, but electricity for many people is only available a couple of hours a day. If you stay in a hotel, this is unlikely to affect you very much because hotels can afford generators and the fuel to power them. However, the lights are likely to blink off and back on from time to time, as the grid’s supply dies and the generator kicks on. Please be patient with your hotel’s staff. Use electricity sparingly, since generator fuel is so expensive right now. The same goes for hot water: keep showers short because it costs the hotel a lot to heat the water. Keep your phone nearby so you can use the flashlight function as needed.
This also means that street lights are often not working, making it hard, sometimes, to watch your step walking back to your hotel from dinner. Your phone flashlight will help.
Some businesses have had to close down because of the lack of electricity, or they only operate during daylight hours. Restaurants, in particular, that can’t afford to run a generator will close down because of they don’t have refrigeration.
Where to stay
Don’t stay at big chain hotels – if you stay at guesthouses like where we stayed in Beirut, The Grand Meshmosh Hotel, you can meet other travelers more easily and share tips with each other. The Grand Meshmosh is clean, with simple rooms ranging from hostel-style bunks to private rooms with en-suite bathrooms. The big selling point, though, is the common area/lounge/bar, which seems to encourage guests to start conversations.
Besides, the money you pay at a big international chain may help pay local employees, but the profits most likely leave the country. Locally-owned and operated hotels keep the cash in-country.
Use the map below to find accommodations in Beirut, or zoom out to look for rooms in other parts of Lebanon:
The same goes, of course, for any purchases you make. Eat at local restaurants, buy locally-made products, and avoid any international chains.
In Byblos we stayed at Aleph Boutique Hotel, a bed and breakfast that was distinctly more luxurious than the Grand Meshmosh and that had a wonderful view over the Byblos ruins. The disadvantage of that type of hotel, though, is that you don’t meet other travelers as easily.
There is very little informational signage at most of the historical sites. It’s worth hiring a tour guide on-site if you haven’t set up a tour ahead of time. Make sure the guide is licensed and ask at the entrance kiosk what the set price for tour guiding is. If the tour is good, tip them as well: times have been especially tough in the tourism industry.
(By the way, if there’s one historical site that you must not miss, it’s Baalbek, a stunning Roman temple complex. Read my article about Baalbek here. If you’re traveling from Beirut, this private tour includes Baalbek.) To read about all five of Lebanon’s UNESCO sites, read my UNESCO article here.
Try out all the food – it’s all good! Ask locals what they’d recommend that you order. Mezze is popular: a sort of Middle Eastern version of tapas, with small dishes of various foods served with pita. The local version of pizza is delicious as well; you won’t necessarily see any tomato sauce or cheese on it. Seafood is generally wonderfully fresh in Lebanon. And the sweets are pretty amazing too.
Do what we saw our tour guides doing: ask the restaurant to package up the leftovers – there are always leftovers – and give them to the next beggar you pass.
While Arabic is the official language, French is very widely spoken too. Many Lebanese, especially in the tourism industry, also speak English.
Don’t let all this advice discourage you!
What I’ve written here might make the idea of traveling to Lebanon feel daunting. Don’t let it stop you, though. It’s a fascinating, dynamic country where people, despite living in what is essentially a failed state, still manage to get by and still show tremendous pride in their country, its history and its accomplishments. Especially if history and religions interest you, you’ll love Lebanon!