Have you been to Beirut?
February 3, 2011 3:03 PM   Subscribe

Should I go to Lebanon in April? What do I need to know if I go? I have a chance to attend a conference there, and need to decide quickly if I'm going, and if so, how long I want to spend there and if I want to go anywhere else in the area.

I have an opportunity to go to a conference in Beirut, Lebanon in April. I need to figure out if I want to go, and if so, if I want to do any traveling before or after the conference. I need to make any decisions quickly and major political unrest will cancel the trip, per my employer, who is paying for the travel.

Have you visited or lived in Beirut? What can you tell me about being a tourist there? Are there other places in Lebanon I want to go? What about Jordan? Israel? If I have a week to be a tourist in the Middle East, where should I go? (I understand about the going to Israel last/passport issues and have political issues with the Israeli government but could be convinced that I should visit.)

I've never traveled in the Middle East, although I've lived in Europe and traveled extensively there, mostly by myself. My employer is willing to let me take time before or after the conference, and is fine with me flying in to one place and out of another. I can take about a week off from work for vacation. I don't have unlimited funds for travel, but this also feels like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

Recommendations for restaurants and things to do in Beirut also welcome.

Bonus points for information on traveling as an American woman alone there, or for two women traveling together.
posted by gingerbeer to Travel & Transportation around Lebanon (14 answers total)
Well, one point of reference is this advisory posted on October 08, 2010:
    The Department of State continues to urge U.S. citizens to avoid all travel to Lebanon due to current safety and security concerns.
Remainder of statement is here.
posted by exphysicist345 at 3:50 PM on February 3, 2011

Best answer: Uh, watch the news between now and April, and follow the State Department's travel advice. But yes, plenty to do and see as a tourist in Beirut, and in Lebanon; that said, with a week, I'd probably take the chance to see a bit of Syria and Jordan too. (You'd be cramming it if you aimed to include Israel too, but you could manage it; I haven't been there myself, though.) For travelling by yourself or as a pair of foreign women, just take a look at the advice in the Rough Guide; it'll suggest caution in certain respects rather than not going. There are some threads around here that would be useful to you, too, I think.

Lebanon is tiny (half the size of New Jersey), so it's easy to see a lot of it--even as a day trip from Beirut you can more or less get to the far end of the country and back. Outside Beirut you might want to take a look at Tripoli, Baalbek, the sea castle at Sidon, the mountains around Bsharré... While since I was there, though. Beirut has a lot to do and see, especially in the bars and clubs line, but an up-to-date guidebook can give you much better information about that than I can.

There are some ideas about Syria (including some from me) here, though they're a bit focused on Aleppo because of the OP's family interest. Aleppo is amazing but a bit harder to be in as a foreign woman than Damascus, I'd say; you could manage without company in the latter, but you'd probably want it in the former. Palmyra underwhelmed me a bit, but the Krak des Chevaliers (and other Crusader castles) and the basilica of St Simeon (qal'at Sam'an) are great, and visiting them in April would be wonderful: warm weather, countryside full of flowers.

In Jordan, too, lots to see: cities perhaps not as interesting, but some remarkable places to visit--Petra and Wadi Rum being the obvious ones (I've been to Petra and it is indeed phenomenal; I haven't been to Wadi Rum), but some less obvious places like Umm Qais (a favourite of mine), the Dana nature reserve, or the castles at Ajloun or Kerak are also memorable in my experience or those of people I know. I haven't been to Dana but a woman friend of mine camped there, by herself if I recall. (The campsite is very well-monitored.) I haven't even mentioned the Dead Sea, partly because I haven't been there. Jordan being little bigger than Lebanon, you can often combine two things in one day, or even morning: for example, leave Amman in the morning, stop off at Mt Nebo then at Kerak on your way south, arrive at Wadi Musa (where you stay to visit Petra) in the late afternoon, and get up early next day to be in Petra in the early morning sunshine.

If you were going to visit Israel too, you'd probably want to fly into Beirut, out of Tel Aviv, and loop overland via Damascus and Amman. It should 'work' on the borders that way, though Israeli border guards might want to know what you were doing in these Arab countries. They're quite used to people coming overland, though, en route from Istanbul to Cairo. You may also need to show proof of onward travel at different borders, which might be awkward if you're trying to get into Syria and your proof of onward travel is a ticket out of Tel Aviv. The distances involved are fairly small but the journey times can be long because of border formalities--hence my suggestion that it'd be a bit much to do in a week. Visas tend to be kind of pricey for Americans, too, which might influence your plans.

As might the political situation in the region! But other things being equal, April is the right time of year to go.
posted by lapsangsouchong at 4:23 PM on February 3, 2011

Go, go, go! It's a strange, fascinating part of the world.

The DoS stuff is pretty boilerplate. I've lived in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia and the Western expats tune out those sorts of things--that all their governments issue.

Obviously things can change, though they'd be well chronicled in news reports, blogs and such.

I know lots of American and Western women who traveled to Lebanon, Syria, etc., in recent times, to include the Bush era (and people over there hated him with the heat of a thousand suns).

Dunno whatcha might make of Khalil Gibran, but the museum and its area look interesting.

Go, go, go!
posted by ambient2 at 5:14 PM on February 3, 2011

Response by poster: Thanks, lapsangsouchong. As I recall, you were helpful last year when I went to Islay after this same conference was in Liverpool.

My organization will make the decision on whether or not we're all going to this conference, which is a reasonably well-organized international conference, in terms of our safety, and we're prepared for that to be a last-minute decision if things change there.
posted by gingerbeer at 5:22 PM on February 3, 2011

I've been to Jordan and Israel but not Lebanon.

Jordan - Petra is indeed pretty great and otherworldly. It is a carved rock city in the middle of nothingness, miles of empty desert. My western-woman traveling friends and I went and got Very Pointedly Stared At by local men young and old; I would tend to cover up and would travel with a friend, but it was not unsafe. I didn't see much of Amman and this was long enough ago that it's probably changed anyway.

Israel - Jerusalem is obviously an amazing place. I found it to be overwhelming, in terms of history, physical historical stuff to see, religious stuff, political and cultural present day things, and the intensity of Israelis (to oversimplify: gruff and brisk and pushy like New Yorkers). Plus of course, the interest of a modern city with art and modern museums and restaurants etc -- the old city is only a fraction of what's there.

Dead Sea etc - beautiful desert landscapes/oases; if you have been in the American desert west a lot this would be less essential, I think. It is a whole other perspective on things like Biblical history, because you can take a short bus ride between the locations of things like the Sermon on the Mount and the Sea of Galilee, etc, which to my mind have always had a kind of fairy-tale quality of unreality to them. It is very powerful to feel like these are real places, with real traversable-on-foot distances between them, etc. (I realize this is a confession of being very provincial, but there it is.)

But yeah - be sure that you are up to date on the very latest info as you're traveling.
posted by LobsterMitten at 6:39 PM on February 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

Also Masada is a major site of historical/cultural significance in Israel, if you're considering doing things for that reason. It's a bit out of the way IIRC and the typical tourist thing to do is to get up really early and hike up it, which is a looong hike, for sunrise. Which is pretty inspiring and definitely gives you a sense of scale of the small band vs Roman army deal; great if you are a history buff or interested in some background for Zionist issues.
posted by LobsterMitten at 6:53 PM on February 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

I want to go to Beiruit but at this point, my family would probably not let me. I loved Jordan, specifically Petra, but I also loved swimming in the Dead Sea. Best wishes, I would love to go.
posted by kat518 at 8:36 PM on February 3, 2011

I can't really speak to Lebanon -- the 2006 war was more recent when I was planning my trip. I did visit Syria, Jordan and Israel, though. I would totally go, unless the situation deteriorates. (I'm guessing Israel will be paying more attention to their south border in the upcoming months.)

Personally, I don't think you have enough time to hit Israel, unless it's a lifelong dream or something. The only way to hit it on the ground without crossing minefields is Lebanon-Syria-Jordan-Israel, and at that point you're on your third half-day-long border crossing in a one week add-on trip. It's possible -- I did it with Syria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia in my passport, and the Israelis don't do the knee-jerk rejection that happens the other way -- but it's still not exactly a 20 second, two questions and a passport stamp.

Jordan is pushing it, too -- except Petra was my favourite place on my whole 7 country trip. (Particularly recommended if you were a 14-year old boy, or had the mindset of one, when Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade came out.) Wadi Rum and Jerash are awesome, too, but add the three up and we're at around 5 days, and you're talking something like a week available.

So, Syria. Damascus is a must; the souk and the main mosque are incredible. It's also the hub, especially for southern Syria. Krak des Chevaliers is astounding; it's an amazing castle, built to intimidate, and intimidate it did. Aleppo is a really neat city, the markets and the citadel are great, and I wish I had more time there. Qalat Salah-al-din is another good castle, not quite as impressive as K de C, but pretty impressive nonetheless. Palmyra is a great ruin, made more awesome due to the desert location -- you can't be in the Middle East without seeing desert, can you?.

And don't forget to see some Lebanon! Baalbek I've heard great things about, and there's Byblos and Tripoli too. When I was researching a couple of years ago, I think the Baalbek-Damascus border crossing was the always-open one, and the northern crossing from Tripoli-Homs (which would put you right past Krak des Chevaliers) was a little more shady. That said, it could cut down on travel; you could work your way through Lebanon up to Tripoli, then cross, do Krak, then down to Damascus. Add in an overnight to Palmyra, and that's about a week.
posted by Homeboy Trouble at 10:05 PM on February 3, 2011

The DoS stuff is pretty boilerplate. I've lived in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia and the Western expats tune out those sorts of things--that all their governments issue.

If you live there, sure, a bit different if you are traveling and are making sure your travel insurance still covers you.

That said, I had a colleague in Beirut 2 weeks ago on their day of protest and that was quite contained, though the ongoing situation should be monitored.

I was in Beirut myself last July and it was fine though I happened to arrive during World Cup and there was quite some fireworks, shots and noise which can be surprisingly unnerving if you have not experienced that before when traveling.

Do not travel to the southern border areas in Lebanon. The mountain region is recommended.

I would forget the other countries you mentioned at this time. Israel especially, if you plan to fly out of Beirut as you will have trouble or be denied from reentering the country to catch your flight home if you have Israeli stamps. If you want to travel elsewhere, go to Istanbul. It's so beautiful, easy to get to from Beirut, and stable.
posted by wingless_angel at 3:58 AM on February 4, 2011

Good friend of mine is part-Lebanese and has spent a fair bit of time in that part of the world. I just messaged him to ask for advice.
posted by Infinite Jest at 4:32 AM on February 4, 2011

Seconding that if you want to add another country, Turkey/Istanbul is a great choice.
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:19 AM on February 4, 2011

Yes, go to Beirut - it's a fantastic city. I would also see Baalbek, it can be done as a day trip from Beirut and is absolutely fantastic. When I was there I was almost by myself at the ruins, which was amazing.

All the countries you mentioned are great. Jerusalem is stunning, Damascus is a fantastic city (and Syria is a great country) and Petra in Jordan is truly great. If you only have one week you have plenty of hard choices to make.
posted by einarorn at 10:33 AM on February 6, 2011

From my friend:

"I'm not sure how Lebanon is getting on right now- I know there was some nervousness recently with Hizbollah getting more political power. Places to visit in Lebanon- I suggest the Cedars/ Bcharre/ Qadisha Gorge on Mt Lebanon (Christian area) and Baalbek (Muslim area). You can ski on Mt Lebanon right now- my sister was just there and went snow boarding. Baalbek is a Roman era ruin- really cool. Other places to visit- Petra and Wadi Rum in Jordan of course, but my favourite place in world is Palmyra in Syria. Also in Syria worth a look is Basra and Crac des Chevaliers. I never went to Aleppo so can't comment on there. She won't be able to get into Lebanon and Syria if she has an Israeli stamp in her passport- but you can ask at the Israeli border for a stamp on a separate piece of paper- but you've got to be ready for a serious grilling (think hours rather than minutes)."
posted by Infinite Jest at 4:48 AM on February 15, 2011

Response by poster: Update -- I am definitely going (well, pending political unrest that causes my employer to say we're not going.) And going to Istanbul after the conference for 4 days. I'm really excited about this trip. Sad that I can't fit Syria and Jordan in to this trip, but I'll have to go back at some point. Thank you for all of the information -- this has been very helpful.

Any additional recommendations on Lebanon and Beirut would be gratefully accepted, including places to stay or places to eat in Beirut.
posted by gingerbeer at 8:00 PM on February 15, 2011

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