Travel Tips Lebanon – Traveling in Lebanon is not easy! It’s a chaotic place that works in ways that are often counterintuitive and, to 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 travel company that calls itself a social enterprise and emphasizes responsible tourism by supporting local businesses, especially women-run businesses. Nevertheless, Tourleb has no influence on what I write in this article.
Travel Tips Lebanon
Another disclosure: This article contains affiliate links. If you make a purchase/booking through one of these links, I receive a small commission. This will not affect your price.
Lebanon Tours And Travels
If you are a frequent reader of this site, you know that I almost always choose to travel independently, whether alone or with my husband or a friend. I make my own decisions, navigate the transport system myself, hire taxis or rent 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 bunch of perfect strangers and all their quirks.
To travel independently in Lebanon. It’s just too chaotic a place. Public transportation is actually privately operated minivans that run on an unremarkable schedule from unmarked bus stops. It works, but it will take longer and restrict your movement. Instead, you have to use a car, but the traffic is also chaotic and the signage, when there is any, is often only in Arabic.
Instead, it will be much less stressful to go on tours in Lebanon or hire guides. 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 trip to our interests. Because it was a private tour, not a group, we could also change the plan as we went – spend more time in places that interested us more, skip less interesting places, and stop to rest or eat when we wanted.
At my request, our week’s Lebanon tours focused almost exclusively on historical sites and included all UNESCO sites in Lebanon. But you can follow any other interest with a private tour, at least with Tourleb. You can 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 might want to get out of a trip to Lebanon.
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Now that I’ve got the first piece of advice out of the way, I can continue with more general Lebanon travel tips, but keep in mind that most of these won’t be a problem if you hire guides.
The souks of Saida, Lebanon – another reason to hire a guide is that these souks are mazes!
Everywhere I’ve ever traveled, at least since the turn of the century, upon arrival at the airport I’ve been able to just go to an ATM and withdraw local currency. This is also what I generally recommend to others.
Here is 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 exchange rate for foreign money and fixed the exchange rate at 1500 Lebanese pounds to 1 USD.
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This has far-reaching consequences. If you withdraw money from an ATM, you will only receive the official exchange rate. However, everywhere you spend your money will charge you at the real exchange rate, which was £23,500 to US$1 when we visited.
Let’s say you exchange $50 at a bank or withdraw it in pounds from an ATM. That would set you back £75,000. That
However, the value of US$50 is 1,175,000 pounds! The 75,000 pounds you just paid for is actually worth about $3. That would only buy you a plate of hummus with pita and maybe a soda.
The Sursock Museum is a contemporary art museum in Beirut housed in a former mansion. It has been closed for repairs since the explosion in Beirut in August 2020. From the looks of it, however, it should reopen soon.
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First of all, local people earning minimum wage used to be able to earn a living wage – the equivalent of around US$600 a month. Now that same salary that hasn’t increased is worth more like $30. At the same time, fuel prices are sky high and people cannot pay their electricity or heating bills.
More relevant to you as a traveler in Lebanon: No one accepts credit cards anymore. They will also not accept debit or debit cards. Any transaction like that would go through a bank, which would mean they would have to use the official exchange rate.
Let’s say you charge £1 million to a credit card to pay for your family’s restaurant meal. You
You paid about $43 for that purchase. What comes through on your credit card bill because the banks use the official exchange rate is $667. It’s an expensive meal!
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Now imagine you pay for the same meal and the restaurant charges you in pounds instead of dollars. As credit card fees travel through a bank, the bank will convert your home currency – say US dollars – into pounds using the official exchange rate. In that case, the restaurant will only receive £64,000
A money changer on the street let me photograph his pile of bills. The largest – the green bills at the bottom of the pile – are 100,000 Lebanese pounds each, which is about $4.
Another piece of advice about money. Do not negotiate prices down too much. For many people in Lebanon, things have become so desperate that they may accept a price below their cost just to put food on the table today. Your $5 or $10 savings is far more to them. When you tip people – and you should – be generous.
If you take a tour you will hear the whole history of Lebanon which covers so many eras – the Phoenicians, the 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 will also hear a lot about recent history – independence; the Civil War, which was really a series of wars; Syrian occupation; Israeli occupation; the revolution; the explosion in Beirut.
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If you’re not taking a tour, do some reading ahead of time. There is plenty online about the history of Lebanon. For the latest story from the explosion in Beirut in 2020 to the present, watch the documentary “Enough! Lebanon’s Darkest Hour.”
Once in Lebanon, strike up conversations with the locals. They’ll be happy to tell you their views on why Beirut is no longer the “Paris of the Middle East.” A lot 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 “It’s never going to 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.”
Lebanese are generally happy to see tourists return to their country and appreciate the foreign currency they bring into the economy. That said, there are still security concerns in some parts of the country.
Read your country’s travel guides on Lebanon. Then take them with a grain of salt. What I mean by that is that the US advice says not to go to Lebanon at all, and especially not near the Syrian border. But with a guide we had nothing to fear other than maybe a broken axle on bad roads.
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On the other hand, we had a chat with some backpackers at the guest house where we stayed in Beirut. They went to Baalbek by public transportation without doing their research first. The trip there was no problem, although it took longer than driving directly, as they had to be transferred.
The problem was that those in Baalbek, not knowing any better, decided to take a walk around the city before visiting the extraordinary ruins of Baalbek. A few streets 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 certain side road. All this was expressed in gestures (including the miming of machine guns) and appeared to the travelers to be quite menacing.
More people arrived and they seemed to contradict the first, so some pushed them to go down a side street and others told them to go back towards the archaeological site. They just decided to turn around and go back and the group let them. After telling us the story, they seemed to believe that it was actually two groups of people, some trying to divert them to rob them or attack them, the other trying to help them get out of the situation.