From Crusader castles and soap museums to sweet shops and hidden hammams, here are the best things to do in Saida (Sidon), Lebanon

With a history stretching back over 6000 years, I was surprised to discover that Saida (or Sidon, as it’s also known) is one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world. And yet there are so few tourists who know about this Lebanese destination, and even fewer who dare to visit.

Once a thriving Phoenician city-state and a hub of commerce on the ancient maritime trade routes, Saida’s strategic location on the Mediterranean attracted many conquerors over the millennia, including Assyrians, Babylonians, Egyptians, Greeks, Romans and Crusaders, each of whom left their unique imprint on the city’s architecture and history.

During the Phoenician era, Saida was known for its glass manufacturing and purple dye, a symbol of royalty and wealth in the ancient world. In Hellenistic times, it was the birthplace of the renowned philosopher Zeno of Sidon. When the Romans came, they built spectacular monuments, many of which are still visible today, like the Temple of Eshmun.

The Crusaders’ influence is present in the Sidon Sea Castle, a fortified structure built in the 13th century which still stands as a seafront landmark. During the Ottoman period, Saida was a prosperous city with caravanserais, hammams and souks that you can explore in the labyrinthine alleys and souks of the old town. There’s the Soap Museum, Debbane Palace and a beautiful coastal location, just south of Beirut, that’s reason enough in itself to visit.

If you’re planning a trip to Lebanon, then keep reading, as I list the best things to do in Saida.

Best things to do in Saida

I visited on a day trip from Beirut, spending most of a long morning and early afternoon exploring the best things to do in Saida (as the locals call it, rather than Sidon, which you read in Western history books!).

Saida is quite compact, and allowing time to inevitably get lost in the souks, this was more than enough time to see the main sights, including the Sea Castle, the Soap Museum, the Debbane Palace and a few of the old Ottoman hammams (sadly, the hammams are now museums, rather than working Turkish baths).

Aside from enjoying one of the best falafel sandwiches I’ve ever had in my life (head to Falafel Abou Rami opposite the Sea Castle), this wasn’t quite enough time to really immerse myself in Saida’s culture, however. If you want to go beyond sightseeing, stay a few more days, or use Saida as a base to explore nearby destinations like Tyre (or Sour, as it’s called) or Mleeta (otherwise known as Hezbollah Disneyland).

1. Cross the causeway to Sidon Sea Castle

Perched on a small island off the coast of Saida, Sidon Sea Castle is a remarkable monument to the city’s Crusader past. Constructed in the 13th century as a fortress and military base, it stands as a testament to the city’s strategic importance throughout history.

The castle was part of the Crusader state known as the Kingdom of Jerusalem, which was established after the First Crusade in the 11th century. Its construction was part of a later pattern of castle-building across the Levant aimed at consolidating Crusader control and protecting their territories.

However, Sidon Sea Castle didn’t remain in Crusader hands for long. In 1291, the Mamluks, an Islamic military caste that had come to power in Egypt, captured Saida along with other coastal cities, marking the end of Crusader rule in the Levant. The Mamluks added the large square tower that remains a prominent feature of the castle today.

Over the centuries, the castle was repeatedly damaged by earthquakes and battles, and it was partially restored several times. Despite these upheavals, Sidon Sea Castle remains standing today, a testament to the turbulent history of the region.

You can only access the castle via a narrow causeway, originally connected to the mainland by a movable drawbridge but now made of sturdier stone. Visitors to the castle can explore its fortifications and towers and view archaeological remnants from its long history.

Sidon Sea Castle and Cauesway

Read more: 23 Best Places to Visit in Lebanon

2. Take a stroll along Saida’s Corniche 

Saida has a marvellous Corniche, with a seaside promenade that stretches along the city’s coastline, offering beautiful views of the Mediterranean Sea. This lively area is a popular spot for both locals and visitors who come here to enjoy leisurely walks and fiery sunsets.

The Corniche is also lined with several cafes, restaurants and street vendors selling local delicacies. The area becomes particularly busy in the evening when people come to relax and enjoy the cool sea breeze.

One of the most noticeable landmarks visible from the Corniche is the historic Sidon Sea Castle, which you’ll have fantastic views of as you stroll along the seafront.

Saida’s Corniche

Read more: Is Lebanon a Country? Everything You Need to Know.

3. Visit the Sidon Soap Museum

The Sidon Soap Museum is a curious destination that tells the tale of the city’s age-old soap industry. Housed in an old soap manufacturing building known as the ‘Audi Soap Factory’ that dates back to the 17th century, much of the old factory has been meticulously restored.

You’ll walk through the traditional process of soap making the Lebanese have practised for centuries, from the initial boiling of oils to the setting of the mixture in large shallow trays, to the cutting of soap into individual bars. The museum shows how Saida’s soap makers have passed down their techniques from generation to generation.

Several types of soap are on display, including the famed ‘ambar’ soap made with a unique blend of oils and local, natural ingredients. The exhibits also delve into the history and importance of the soap industry in Saida, underlining how it shaped the city’s identity.

The factory is still operational, offering visitors a first-hand glimpse into soap making in the 21st century too, which hasn’t changed much at all. You’ll leave with a newfound appreciation for the art of soap making, which the Lebanese have long held dear.

Hundreds of stacked bars of soap at the Sidon Soap Museum

Read more: 13 Things to Do in Batroun, Lebanon

4. Lose yourself in the labyrinth of the Old Souks

The Old Souks in Saida offer a dizzying journey into the city’s cultural heritage, as you quite literally lose yourself in the labyrinth of narrow streets and winding alleys.

From old family-run bakeries and traditional sweet shops to stalls overflowing with colourful spices, fruits, and vegetables, the souks offer a sensory overload of sights, sounds, and scents.

I stumbled across a local shop named ‘Lokum’, where Marwan Sharaf has been cooking up delectable sweet treats for decades. I couldn’t tell you where his shop is exactly, but if you wander around for long enough, you’ll find him, and he’ll show you how he makes sweets.

Indeed, the souk’s food is one of the highlights of Saida. Street food stalls sell a range of Lebanese delicacies, from fresh falafel and shawarma to sweet treats like baklava and kunafa, while cafes make strong Turkish coffee and there’s plenty of Sheesha around.

Marwan Sharaf’s Sweet Shop in Saida’s Souk

Read more: Souk el Tayeb: How the Beirut Farmer’s Market Offers Hope Amid Turmoil

5. Unravel layers of history at the Great Mosque (Al-Omari Mosque)

The Great Mosque, or Al-Omari Mosque, is one of the oldest and most significant religious sites in Saida. Located in the heart of the old town, the mosque offers an intriguing glimpse into the city’s layered history.

The mosque’s origins date back to the Crusader era, when it was built as the Church of St. John in the 13th century. However, following the Mamluk conquest of Saida in 1291, the church was converted into a mosque and named after the second caliph of Islam, Umar ibn al-Khattab.

The building’s unique architecture reflects a blend of Crusader and Mamluk styles. It features an austere stone exterior, an inner courtyard with a small fountain for ablutions, and a beautifully decorated prayer hall.

The prayer hall’s horseshoe arches and intricately carved wooden minbar (pulpit) reflect the Islamic architectural influences, while some elements of the original Crusader structure, including the thick walls and vaulted ceilings, have been preserved.

A minaret rises above Saida

Read more: This is the Sultan Qaboos Mosque Grand Mosque. The Most Extravagant Mosque in Oman.

6. Delve into Saida’s mercantile past at Khan El Franj

Khan El Franj is one of the most distinctive historical landmarks in the city of Saida. Constructed in the 17th century during the Ottoman era, it stands as a testament to the city’s historical prominence as a major centre of trade and commerce.

‘Khan’ is a term used in the Middle East for a caravanserai – an inn with a central courtyard where travellers could rest and recover from the day’s journey. ‘El Franj’ translates to ‘the foreigners’, indicating that this khan was built to accommodate foreign merchants, particularly those from Europe.

The structure features a spacious courtyard surrounded by two-story arcades, with the ground floor initially housing stables and storage, while the upper floor contained rooms for the merchants. The architecture reflects the utilitarian aspects of its original purpose but also reveals beautiful arches and stonework that evoke the charm of its past.

Today, Khan El Franj has been carefully restored and repurposed. It serves as a cultural centre hosting various events, exhibitions, and concerts.

Khan el Franj

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7. Live the noble life at the Debbane Palace

Debbane Palace, a historic mansion dating back to the 18th century, offers you a journey into the Ottoman era and a glimpse into the lives of Saida’s nobility.

Built in 1721 by the Debbane family, a prominent local family, the palace exemplifies the Ottoman architectural style. It features a beautiful courtyard, intricate stonework, arched doorways, and beautifully decorated interiors with frescoes and wooden ceilings. The palace consists of two floors: the lower floor for winter living and the upper floor for summer, each adorned with period furniture, traditional ornaments, and family relics.

Interestingly, Debbane Palace has managed to withstand the numerous earthquakes and military conflicts that have impacted Saida over the centuries. This resilience has preserved its original structure, making it one of the few remaining examples of its kind.

Today, Debbane Palace is a museum open to the public. Visitors can wander through the beautifully restored rooms, learn about the history of the palace and its inhabitants and enjoy panoramic views of the old city from its roof.

Read more: 10 Things to Do in Tyre (Sour), Lebanon

8. Worship like a Phoenician at the Temple of Eshmunn

The Temple of Eshmun is an ancient place of worship located near the city. Dedicated to Eshmun, the Phoenician god of healing, the site dates back to the 7th century BC.

Nestled by the Awali River, the temple complex was a place of healing and renewal. Sick individuals would visit the site, offering sacrifices to Eshmun in hopes of a cure. The site’s sacredness was emphasised by its beautiful location and peaceful ambience.

The temple complex includes various structures, such as a healing sanctuary, a sacred pool, and several chapels. The architecture represents a fusion of styles, reflecting different periods of construction and restoration by successive civilizations, including the Phoenicians, Persians, Greeks and Romans.

The site was excavated in the 20th century, revealing a wealth of artefacts, including sculptures, inscriptions, and votive offerings, providing valuable insights into ancient Phoenician religious practices and beliefs.

Read more: 15 Things to Do in Byblos, Lebanon

9. Jump into the Ottoman baths at Hammam al Jadeed

Hammam al-Jadeed, translating to ‘The New Bath’, is one of Saida’s most historically significant landmarks. Situated in the old town, this traditional public bathhouse dates back to the 17th century, offering a fascinating glimpse into the social and cultural life of the Ottoman era.

The architecture of Hammam al-Jadeed, with its domed ceilings and octagonal pool, reflects the typical features of Ottoman hammams. This three-sectioned structure – the changing room, warm room, and hot room – was designed to facilitate the traditional bathing process. Beautifully decorated with intricate tile work and carvings, the hammam boasts an ambience of tranquil relaxation.

These bathhouses played a significant role in social life in Ottoman times. Beyond the obvious health and hygiene aspects, they were places for social gatherings, relaxation, and even conducting business. Patrons would spend hours there, alternating between hot steam rooms and cold plunge pools, relaxing, and socializing.

Today, Hammam al-Jadeed, like many other traditional hammams, has ceased functioning as a public bath. However, it has been preserved and is open to the public as a historical site.

Old hammams are hidden all over Saida

10. Go underground at Khan Sacy

A ‘khan’ was traditionally a caravanserai or an inn where travellers and merchants could rest and conduct trade. Khan Sacy, which translates to ‘The Soldier’s Khan’, was originally used as a military barracks during the Ottoman period.

Constructed in the 17th century, Khan Sacy reflects the architectural characteristics of the Ottoman era. The khan features a central courtyard, surrounded by arcaded rooms on two levels. These rooms, once serving as lodgings for soldiers and storage for goods, highlight the building’s utilitarian purpose.

Despite the simplicity of its design, Khan Sacy bears the distinct marks of Ottoman aesthetics. The arches, stonework, and layout of the building reflect the architectural style common during the period of its construction.

Inside Khan Sacy

11. Head offshore to El Zireh island

El Zireh is a small and serene island off the coast of Saida, offering visitors a peaceful retreat away from city life.

El Zireh is famous for its sandy beach, clear turquoise waters and rich biodiversity. It is home to several species of birds, making it a paradise for nature lovers and bird watchers. The island is also surrounded by an abundance of marine life, providing opportunities for snorkelling and diving (yes, you can scuba dive in Lebanon!).

Access to El Zireh is provided by local fishermen who operate small boats, adding to the island’s charm and authenticity. Once there, visitors can bask in the sun, take a refreshing swim, or simply enjoy the tranquillity and natural beauty of the place.

A trip to El Zireh offers a unique combination of relaxation, adventure, and historical exploration, making it a must-visit destination for those visiting Saida.

The author, overlooking Saida’s Mediterranean Coast

12. Visit the Basilica of our Lady of Mantara

The Basilica of Our Lady of Mantara is a religious site located in the town of Maghdouche, a few kilometres from Saida. This holy sanctuary is deeply intertwined with local Christian traditions and is a revered pilgrimage site for believers.

According to local legend, the Virgin Mary is believed to have waited in this cave while Jesus was preaching in Saida. The cave, therefore, is considered sacred, and in the mid-19th century, a statue of the Virgin Mary was ‘discovered’ within the cave, which has since become a focal point of the site, attracting thousands of pilgrims annually.

A magnificent basilica, designed in the shape of a Phoenician temple, was constructed over the cave in the 1960s. Its impressive architecture, featuring a bell tower and a bronze statue of the Virgin Mary, is visible from afar.

Read more: From Phoenicians to Picasso: How to explore the best of Malaga’s history

13. Explore the ruins of Saint Louis Castle

Saint Louis Castle, like the Sea Castle, was also constructed by the Crusaders in the 13th century, on a site which had been used for thousands of years for defence.

Over the centuries, Saint Louis Castle has witnessed numerous conflicts and conquests. After the Mamluk takeover in the late 13th century, the fortress was partially destroyed and later reconstructed. Today, despite the impact of time and conflicts, much of the castle’s original structure remains intact.

14. Dig into local Lebanese food

In my humble opinion, Lebanese cuisine is some of the best in the world, and when visiting Saida, you can indulge in an array of delectable local dishes that reflect the region’s rich culinary tradition.

Here are some of the best dishes to consider digging into:

  • Hummus and Tabbouleh: These are staples of Lebanese cuisine. Hummus is a creamy dip made from chickpeas and sesame paste, while tabbouleh is a refreshing salad made with bulgur wheat, tomatoes, parsley and a lemony dressing.

  • Manakish: Often referred to as Lebanese pizza, manakish is a flatbread typically topped with za’atar (a mixture of thyme, sesame seeds, and sumac), cheese, or ground meat.

  • Falafel: These deep-fried chickpea balls are crispy on the outside, soft on the inside, and usually served in pita bread with fresh vegetables and tahini sauce.

  • Kibbeh: Considered Lebanon’s national dish, kibbeh is a mix of minced meat, bulgur wheat and spices, which can be served raw, baked, fried, or cooked in a soup.

  • Shawarma: Marinated strips of meat (often chicken, beef, or lamb) are stacked on a vertical spit and slowly roasted, then shaved off and served in a wrap or a sandwich.

  • Baklava and Knafeh: For dessert, baklava, a sweet pastry made of layers of filo filled with chopped nuts and sweetened with syrup or honey, is a must-try. Knafeh, a cheesy pastry soaked in sweet sugar-based syrup, is another local favourite.

Remember to pair these dishes with traditional drinks like Lebanese coffee, mint tea, or a refreshing glass of Arak, an anise-flavoured spirit popular in Lebanon.

Is this the best falafel in Lebanon?

15. Indulge your sweet tooth at Al Baba Sweets

I was surprised to discover that Saida is famous for its sweets. The city is particularly renowned for its traditional sweet treats and Lebanese pastries and has been a hub for these delicacies for centuries.

One of the most well-known sweet shops in Saida is ‘Al Baba Sweets‘, which has been operating since the 1950s and is beloved by locals and tourists alike. The store is known for its outstanding selection of traditional Lebanese desserts, such as baklava, maamoul, knafeh, and a variety of others.

Baklava is a sweet pastry made of layers of filo filled with chopped nuts and sweetened with syrup or honey. Maamoul, on the other hand, are small shortbread pastries filled with dates, pistachios, or walnuts, typically shaped into rounds or domes.

Knafeh is another favourite Lebanese dessert, which is a cheese pastry soaked in a sweet, sugar-based syrup. It’s often eaten for breakfast or dessert and is a staple in many sweet shops throughout Saida.

In addition to these, Saida is also famous for its ‘Sanioura‘, a type of dry cake made from semolina, tahini, and sugar, typically enjoyed with a cup of tea or coffee.

Sweets for sale in Saida

16. Take a day trip from Saida

If you’re hanging around in Saida, there are plenty of great day trips to make from the city. Here are a few of the best options:

  • Beirut: Lebanon’s capital and largest city, Beirut, is approximately a one-hour drive from Saida. This Middle Eastern metropolis offers a mix of historic sites, nightlife and gastronomic delights. Key attractions include the Beirut National Museum, Mohammad Al-Amin Mosque, Raouche Rocks, and the neighbourhoods of Gemmayzeh and Mar Mikhael.

  • Tyre (Sour): This ancient Phoenician city, around a 40-minute drive south of Saida, is known for its Roman Hippodrome, a UNESCO World Heritage site, and beautiful sandy beaches. The old city’s charming alleys and souks are worth exploring too.

  • Jezzine: This picturesque town is famous for its stunning waterfalls, scenic landscapes, and traditional Lebanese crafts, particularly cutlery. It’s a perfect getaway for nature lovers, around a one-hour drive from Saida.

  • Deir el Qamar: A historical village located in the Chouf District, around 1.5 hour’s drive from Saida. It’s known for its well-preserved 17th and 18th-century architecture, the Fakhreddine Mosque, and the Palace of Emir Younes.

  • Mleeta: One of the most interesting destinations I visited in Lebanon. Mleeta, or ‘The Tourist Landmark of the Resistance’, is an open-air museum run by Hezbollah, for the purpose of showing visitors the Hezbollah side of Lebanese history (yes, it’s very one-sided!).
It’s all fun and war at Hezbollah Disneyland

Read more: 20 Best Things to Do in Beirut, Lebanon

Map of the best things to do in Saida

Here’s a map of the best things to do in Saida, Lebanon:

How to travel to Saida

Located in southern Lebanon, about 45 kilometres south of the country’s capital, Beirut, Saida sits on the eastern Mediterranean Sea and is the third-largest city in Lebanon.

To get to Saida, most international travellers first arrive at Beirut’s Rafic Hariri International Airport. From the airport, the city of Saida is easily reachable by car or bus. The journey typically takes around one hour via the coastal highway, offering beautiful views of the Mediterranean Sea.

For those comfortable with local transport, there are regular buses and service taxis (known as ‘servees’) that depart from Beirut’s Cola transportation hub to Saida. This is an economical option but might require some knowledge of Arabic or local assistance.

For convenience and flexibility, hiring a private taxi or renting a car from the airport or downtown Beirut is also an option (I always used Beirut Transfer when booking airport pickups). Lebanese roads are generally in good condition, and the route to Saida is straightforward.

Once in Saida, the city is compact enough to be explored on foot, especially the historic old town area. However, taxis are readily available and reasonably priced for longer distances.

It’s a beautiful drive from Beirut to Saida

The best time to visit Saida

Generally, the most favourable time to visit Lebanon, including Saida, is during the spring (April to June) and autumn (September to November). During these seasons, the weather is usually mild and comfortable, which is ideal for sightseeing and outdoor activities. The countryside is also particularly beautiful during these times, with spring bringing a bloom of wildflowers and autumn offering a change of colours.

The summer months (July and August) can be quite hot, with temperatures often reaching well over 30°C. However, this is also the peak tourist season, with numerous festivals and events taking place. Despite the heat, the coastal city of Saida remains relatively comfortable due to its proximity to the sea.

The winter months (December to March) can be cooler, and it is less crowded with tourists. If you prefer a quieter visit and don’t mind the cooler temperatures, this could also be a suitable time. It’s worth noting, though, that some outdoor historical sites may be less accessible during this season due to weather conditions.

Saida is sunny all year round

FAQ on the best things to do in Saida

Here’s a quick FAQ on the best things to do in Saida:

Q1: What are the top attractions to see in Saida?

A: Some of the top attractions in Saida include the Sidon Sea Castle, the Soap Museum, the Old Souks, Khan El Franj, Debbane Palace, the Great Mosque (Al-Omari Mosque), the Temple of Eshmun and Saint Louis Castle.

Q2: What historical sites are there to visit in Saida?

A: Saida is rich in historical sites. Visitors can explore the Sidon Sea Castle, Debbane Palace, the Temple of Eshmun, and the Great Mosque (Al-Omari Mosque). The Old Souks also offer a glimpse into the city’s history.

Q3: What unique experiences does Saida offer?

A: Visitors can experience traditional soap-making at the Soap Museum, explore the bustling market at the Old Souks, take a boat ride around Saida’s sea castle, or enjoy delicious Lebanese sweets for which Saida is famous.

Q4: Are there outdoor activities to do in Saida?

A: Yes, there are plenty of outdoor activities in Saida. Visitors can take a stroll along the Corniche, go scuba diving in the Mediterranean Sea, or visit el Zireh Island for a beach day.

Q5: What local dishes should I try in Saida?

A: Saida offers an array of Lebanese dishes. Must-tries include Kibbeh, Tabouleh and Fattoush. Saida is also famous for its traditional sweets like Baklava, Maamoul and Knafeh.

Q6: Are there any nearby destinations that I can visit on a day trip from Saida?

A: Yes, Saida’s location makes it easy to explore other cities in Lebanon. Destinations like Beirut, Tyre (Sour), Jezzine, Byblos (Jbeil), and the Shouf Biosphere Reserve can all be visited on day trips from Saida.

Q7: When is the best time to visit Saida?

A: The best time to visit Saida is during spring (April to June) and autumn (September to November) when the weather is mild and comfortable. However, the summer can also be a good time if you don’t mind the heat.

There we have it, the best things to do in Saida, Lebanon! What’s on your Lebanese bucket list?