Lebanon is of course so much more than Beirut. If you have the time during your visit we highly recommend you travel outside of the bustling capital. During our recent trip to Lebanon we opted for a guided day trip with Lebanon Tours to Anjar, Baalbek and Chateau Ksara all in the Beqaa Valley. Before traveling we reached out to a travel blogger (Bart from Offbeat Traveling) who had traveled to the Beqaa Valley to get his thoughts on the current situation in the area. For those of you who don’t know the geography of Lebanon, the Beqaa Valley is located in between the Lebanon and Anti-Lebanon mountain ranges. The Anti-Lebanon mountains serve as the border with Syria. We made the decision to travel to some of Lebanon’s most historic sites in spite of the travel advisories and to travel with a reputable tour operator.
We began our day trip early in the morning with a convenient pick-up by Ahmad, our driver for the day, at our hotel in Beirut. We set off in his dark blue Mercedes heading east and ascending the great Lebanon Mountain range, before eventually descending into the Beqaa Valley towards our first stop of the day, Anjar located on the border with Syria.
The city of Anjar is well known for the large number of Armenians who reside there and because of the Umayyad ruins, the reason for our visit. Prior to the civil war in Syria, Anjar was a major tourist draw. Sadly during our visit we were the only visitors.
It cost 4,000 Lebanese Pounds to enter the ruins, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The day trip package did not include the entrance fees, but did include a private guided tour of Anjar. We met Asador, a friendly and well-informed archeologist who would be our tour guide for our visit just outside the entrance. The city of Anjar was founded during the Umayyad period by Caliph Walid Ibn Abd Al-Malak (705-715) and served as an important center of trade during its brief existence. It was an important transit point between the major commercial centers of the time, Beirut, Damascus, Homs and Tiberius.
The site, which lies at the foothills of the Anti-Lebanon Mountain range is just 2 kilometers from the border with Syria. The ruins are preserved well enough to give you a real sense of the city’s layout. The excavations have been aided by assistance from the US and South Korean Embassies.
We learned much more from our guided tour by Asador than had we walked around ourselves. Hiring a local guide, especially someone trained in archeology or history to conduct a tour is valuable for impactful travel. Archaeologists or historians are often highly educated and can be under-utilized in the local job market, particularly one that has been affected by a loss of tourists. This is particularly important in a market like Lebanon when many foreign visitors are no longer venturing out to sites like Anjar. The tour was informative and provided insight from the local perspective.
From Anjar we drove north along the Beqaa Valley passing several refugee camps of displaced people from Syria and several military checkpoints. The city of Baalbek, named after the Phoenician deity Baal lies at the northern end of the valley and is home to another UNESCO World Heritage site, Baalbek. We made a quick stop at a Roman limestone quarry not far from the ruins. The quarry’s notoriety comes from possessing one of the largest monoliths ever discovered, Stone of the Pregnant Woman. Its name, given by locals, reflects the belief that any woman who touches the stone will experience increased fertility.
The monolith also known as the Stone of the South is one of the largest Roman monoliths ever quarried measuring 42 meters long and 2.5 - 4.4 meters high and weighing roughly 1200 tons. Other monoliths from the quarry were used in the building of the temple of Jupiter, which at the time would have been an engineering feat to move. There is also a great story to creation of the quarry as a tourist destination. A local man was the person who fought to preserve the site of the monolith and quarry. For years the local man fought in spite of others simply stating it would be of no interests to tourists to preserve the quarry as a tourist destination in itself. The naysayers were proved wrong and the local man now runs a shop near the entrance to the site not far from Baalbek.
Originally built as a Phoenician city, Baalbek a city of temples retained its religious function during the Roman Empire and is one of the finest examples of Imperial Roman architecture at the height of the empire. Easily the most magnificent ruins in Lebanon and one of the most well preserved temples I have ever seen. The cost to enter is 15,000 Lebanese Pounds.
The ruins are a complex of three temples built and continuously overlaid for more than two centuries. The temple of Jupiter is the principal temple, the temple of Venus the smallest of the three primary temples, and the temple of Bacchus the best preserved. Bacchus was by far the most exhilarating, as the enormous walls were still in tact including details of the columns and inscriptions.
Like at Anajr our day trip included a guided tour, this time by Charbal, a knowledgeable and friendly guide, who we met just outside the gates of Baalbek. Again, we often don’t hire local guides when exploring ruins, but taking into consideration the magnitude of the site it was well worth the investment. The hour long tour amongst the most well preserved ruins from the Roman Empire seemed as if the complex was open to only us. Baalbek is enjoyed by only a handful of tourists these days. During our visit we did not encounter more than 10 other travelers all of whom were accompanied by a guide.
A piece of advice-carefully examine your change in Baalbek, particularly the 100,000 and 50,000 Lebanese Pound notes. There is counterfeit currency problem in the city and we fell victim to it. If you notice a problem make sure you bring it to the attention of your guide or the police immediately.
Where to Eat in Baalbek
After climbing around both Anjar and Baalbek we were ready to eat. Ahmad knew of a great local restaurant outside of Baalbek called Sfiha Lakkis. We happened to be the only foreigners in the restaurant. Ahmad recommended we order the local dish, Sfeeha a meat and tomato sauce pastry. Unaware of their size we ordered two, which meant two orders of 12! We took what we couldn't eat to go.
To accompany our Sfeeha we ordered hummus, and labneh, which came with a bowl of fresh vegetables and giant pieces of bread! A delicious meal.
We rounded off our day trip y with a tour of Chateau Ksara, a winery established by Jesuit priests in 1857. For those of you who don’t know, Lebanon has a robust wine industry. An important fact about Chateau Ksara is that it was the first winery in Lebanon to produce a dry red wine. We took a tour of the cave the wines are stored in and then had a complimentary tasting with several of their wines. If you taste something you love they have a huge shop to purchase a bottle to bring back to your hotel.
Lebanon has much to offer and should certainly not be overlooked simply because of the security situation in neighboring Syria. The country remains safe and can make for a pleasant place to travel.
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