From Crusader castles and Mamluk hammams to centuries-old soap factories and UNESCO World Heritage-listed fairgrounds; here are the best things to do in Tripoli, Lebanon.
Tripoli, Lebanon’s second-largest city and the ‘capital’ of the north, has a complex history dating back to at least the 14th century BC. Known as the ‘Three Cities’ (Tri-polis) in antiquity, reflecting its origin as a joint settlement of three Phoenician cities. Tripoli has today seen better days.
History, though, is one of the main reasons to visit Tripoli. In the 9th century BC, the Phoenicians established a thriving trade centre here, before the city later came under the control of various empires including the Persians, the Greeks under Alexander the Great and the Romans, who all left behind significant architectural remains that you can explore today.
During the Crusader period, in the 12th century, Tripoli was captured by Raymond de Saint-Gilles, and it became one of the most important cities in the Crusader States. The Mamluks subsequently took control in 1289, marking a significant phase of Islamic influence on the city’s architecture and culture.
Ottoman rule began in the 16th century, further enriching the cultural fabric of Tripoli with Turkish and Islamic elements. During this period, the city’s economy flourished, particularly in trade, soap production and textiles. In the 20th century, Tripoli played a pivotal role in Lebanon’s independence and subsequent history.
If you’re planning your Lebanon itinerary, then keep reading, as I explore the best things to do in Tripoli.
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The best things to do in Tripoli
I visited Tripoli in May 2022 as part of my wider trip to Lebanon. At the time, the news wasn’t exactly positive about Lebanon in general (the Beirut Port Explosion in 2020 was still incredibly fresh, and the country was in the midst of a hyperinflation crisis that had massively devalued the Lebanese Pound). The news, however, was even less positive about Tripoli.
Despite a long history stretching back millennia, and a rich reputation in the Middle East for soapmaking, architecture and scholarly pursuits, Tripoli seemed to be feeling Lebanon’s myriad crises more than most. In places like Byblos and Batroun, just south of Tripoli, locals flat-out told us not to visit. Banks were being raided by people simply looking to withdraw their money (after funds were largely frozen by the Lebanese government) and a migrant ship had sunk in the Mediterranean after departing from Tripoli with desperate souls looking to escape.
I decided, though, that it was important to visit Lebanon’s second-largest city, even if it was just for a day. After hiring a local guide from Tripoli (contact Aline Bou Abdallah, Lebanese Tour Guide, if you’re visiting too), I set off from Batroun and had an incredible experience exploring this little visited part of the world.
1. Visit the Citadel of Raymond de Saint-Gilles
The Citadel of Raymond de Saint-Gilles, also known as Qala’at Sanjil in Arabic, stands as a historic symbol in Tripoli, Lebanon. Overlooking the city from a hilltop, it was named after Raymond de Saint-Gilles, the Count of Toulouse, who began its construction in 1103 during the First Crusade.
The citadel was initially intended to house the Crusader army but eventually became a stronghold in the defence against the surrounding Muslim territories. Its construction spanned over several decades and witnessed numerous modifications and enhancements. Its walls, towers and chambers tell stories of varying architectural influences, as different civilizations left their mark on Tripoli
After the Crusaders lost the city in 1289 to the Mamluk Sultan Qalawun, the citadel underwent further significant alterations. The Mamluks added various structures, including barracks, mosques and baths. The Ottomans later contributed to the architectural evolution of the citadel as well.
Today, the Citadel of Raymond de Saint-Gilles stands as an enduring symbol of Tripoli’s complex history. Its layers of construction reflect the varied cultural influences that have shaped the city over the centuries. The citadel now serves as a tourist attraction and a significant archaeological site, providing visitors with a glimpse into the historical and cultural evolution of Tripoli and the region. Its imposing presence continues to define the city’s skyline, connecting modern Tripoli with its past.
Read more: 23 Best Places to Visit in Lebanon
2. Explore Tripoli’s many souks
The souks of Tripoli are a labyrinthine of narrow streets and alleyways packed with history, culture, commerce and street food that offers a window into traditional Lebanese life.
Situated within the old city, the souks have been the centre of trade for centuries. They are divided into various sections, each dedicated to specific trades or products, such as gold, spices, perfumes, textiles and traditional crafts. Notable among them are Souk al-Najjarin (Carpenters’ Souk), Souk al-Sayyaghin (Goldsmiths’ Souk) and Souk al-Haraj, where you can pick up some great food!
The architecture of the souks provides a glimpse into Tripoli’s medieval past, with covered alleyways, intricately carved stone archways, and ancient wooden doors. Several historic khans (caravanserais) can also be found here, where travellers and traders would rest and store their goods. Khan al-Saboun is particularly famous for its soap production, a tradition carried on in Tripoli to this day.
3. See Tripoli’s ‘Great Mosque’
The Great Mosque of Tripoli, also known as the Mansouri Great Mosque, is one of Lebanon’s largest and most significant mosques. Constructed in the Mamluk era around 1294 under the rule of Sultan al-Mansur Qalawun, the mosque is a striking symbol of Islamic architecture in the region.
The site of the mosque has a layered history, as it was originally a church dedicated to Saint Mary during the Crusader rule before being converted into a mosque. This transformation is evident in the architectural fusion within the structure, combining both Islamic and Gothic influences.
The mosque’s courtyard and intricate mihrab (prayer niche) are notable features, exhibiting beautiful examples of Islamic art and calligraphy. You’ll be drawn to its 65-meter-tall minaret, which stands prominently over the city.
4. Stroll along the Corniche
The Corniche is a picturesque promenade that stretches along the city’s Mediterranean coastline. Lined with palm trees and dotted with benches, the Corniche is an ideal place for a leisurely walk, although avoid the head of the day.
During the evening, the setting sun casts a golden glow over the waters as the temperature cools, and you’ll see locals enjoying the sea breeze and street food delicacies from nearby vendors.
The Corniche not only offers breathtaking views of the Mediterranean Sea but also reflects the laid-back and communal aspects of Tripoli’s culture, making this a top sight when you’re in the city.
Read more: 16 Things to Do in Saida (Sidon), Lebanon
5. Visit Tripoli’s old Hammams
Tripoli is famous for its traditional baths or hammams, although sadly, most are now historical ruins rather than functioning bathhouses you can actually relax in. The hammams go hand in hand with the city’s soapmaking culture
The most important hammams to visit include the following sights:
- Hammam al-Nuri: Built in the 12th century, Hammam al-Nuri is one of the oldest and most famous in Tripoli. Its design exhibits a combination of Islamic and Byzantine architectural features. Though no longer operational as a bathhouse, it’s open for visitors to explore its decaying beauty.
- Hammam al-Jadid: Also known as the New Bath, Hammam al-Jadid dates back to the 17th century. Its impressive dome and beautiful tiling make it an architectural marvel. Restored to its former glory, it continues to function as a bathhouse today.
- Hammam al-Abed: Meaning the Slave’s Bath, Hammam al-Abed is another fascinating hammam with unique architectural elements. Its vaulted ceilings and ornate details provide a glimpse into the artistry of the Ottoman period.
- Hammam Izzeddine: Built in the 13th century, Hammam Izzeddine is another historic site that showcases the artistic and architectural mastery of the time.
- Hammam al-Sammak: Known as the Fishermen’s Bath, this hammam is located near the port and was traditionally used by fishermen and port workers.
Read more: 13 Things to Do in Batroun, Lebanon
6. Visit Tripoli’s traditional soapmakers
Tripoli is renowned for its traditional soap-making industry, a craft that has been practised in the city for centuries. This tradition is closely linked to the city’s former hammam culture and the abundance of olive groves in the region which were needed for soap production.
Tripolitan soap, also known as ‘Savon de Tripoli’, is primarily made from olive oil, water and an alkaline sodium compound. The process involves mixing, heating and curing the soap in a method that has been handed down through generations.
The soap is often perfumed with natural ingredients like rosewater, jasmine, or herbs, and may include other beneficial elements like laurel oil. It is widely appreciated for its pure ingredients and health benefits for the skin.
The Khan al-Saboun (Soap Khan) is one of the most famous soap markets in Tripoli, where various soap products are crafted and sold. The soap-makers of Tripoli continue to use traditional methods, and their products are sought after both locally and internationally. A visit to one of these soap factories offers an authentic and aromatic insight into an art form that has become a symbol of Tripoli’s cultural identity.
Read more: 10 Things to Do in Tyre (Sour), Lebanon
7. Explore the Tripoli International Fairgrounds
The Tripoli International Fairgrounds were designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2023 in tribute to their significance as an architectural and cultural site. Designed by the renowned Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer in the 1960s, it stands as a striking example of modernist architecture and symbolises a progressive era in Lebanon’s history that many believe has since been lost.
The fairgrounds cover an area of around 70 hectares and consist of multiple exhibition spaces, including a vast domed hall, an open-air theatre, an experimental theatre and a heliport, among other structures. Niemeyer’s signature curves and fluid lines are evident throughout the complex, creating a harmonious connection between the buildings and the surrounding landscape.
Initially intended to host an international fair that would put Lebanon on the global stage, the project was halted due to the outbreak of the Lebanese Civil War in 1975. The unfinished fairgrounds thus became a poignant symbol of unrealised dreams and ambitions.
Today, the Tripoli International Fairgrounds are mostly unused, yet they remain an important architectural site. Many of the structures are in a state of decay, but their stark beauty and the vision they represent continue to captivate visitors and architects alike.
The complex stands as a testament to a time when Lebanon was looking forward to a future full of potential and progress. Efforts have been made to preserve and restore the site, recognising its importance as a cultural heritage landmark. Whether or not these efforts come to fruition, the fairgrounds continue to represent a unique and significant chapter in Lebanon’s architectural and cultural narrative.
Read more: 15 Things to Do in Byblos, Lebanon
8. Dig into the local street food
Tripoli, Lebanon, is a gastronomic haven, boasting a rich culinary tradition that’s an enticing blend of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern flavours, characterised by fresh ingredients, complex spices, and refined techniques.
Here are a few of the best things to try while you’re exploring Tripoli:
- Street Food: Tripoli is famous for its vibrant street food scene. ‘Sfiha’, a meat pie often served with yoghurt, and ‘Ful’, a fava bean stew, are popular dishes. No visit is complete without trying “Knafeh,” a sweet pastry made with cheese and soaked in syrup, often enjoyed in renowned sweet shops like Al-Hallab.
- Seafood: Given its coastal location, Tripoli offers an abundance of fresh seafood. Restaurants near the port serve delicious fish dishes, grilled or fried, accompanied by the iconic Lebanese garlic sauce known as ‘toum’.
- Traditional Restaurants: Traditional eateries provide a homey ambience and offer local classics like Hummus, Tabbouleh, Falafel and Shawarma.
- Olive Oil and Bread: Olive oil, produced from nearby olive groves, plays a central role in Tripolitan cuisine. Local bakeries produce a variety of traditional bread, including ‘Kaak’, a sesame-coated bread ring.
- Local Beverages: Traditional beverages like ‘Jallab’, made from dates, or ‘Arak’, an anise-flavoured spirit, are essential parts of the local dining experience.
9. Visit the Taynal Mosque
The Taynal Mosque is a renowned historical mosque in Tripoli, Lebanon, and an architectural masterpiece representing the Mamluk era. Built in 1336 by Amir ‘Alam al-Din Taynal, the mosque is located on the site of a former church and later a Crusader fortress.
The mosque’s design showcases the sophistication of Islamic architecture during the Mamluk period. Its intricately carved stonework, beautiful mihrab (prayer niche), and elaborate minbar (pulpit) are highlights of its interior, while the exterior is adorned with a stunning entrance and a domed ablution fountain.
One of the distinguishing features of the Taynal Mosque is its beautiful minaret, standing with an octagonal base, providing a prominent landmark in the city. The mosque also includes a library and a school, reflecting its historical role as a centre of learning and religious study.
Today, the Taynal Mosque continues to function as a place of worship and stands as an enduring symbol of Tripoli’s rich cultural and architectural heritage.
10. Take a boat to Palm Islands Nature Reserve
Palm Islands Nature Reserve is a cluster of three islands located off the coast of Tripoli. The islands, namely Palm Island, Sanani Island and Ramkine Island, constitute the country’s only islands and are renowned for their untouched beauty and ecological significance.
Designated as a protected area in 1992, the Palm Islands are home to endangered loggerhead turtles, rare monk seals, and over 300 species of migratory birds. During the summer months, the islands become a breeding ground for these creatures, offering a sanctuary for nesting and reproduction.
The largest of the islands, Palm Island, is also known as Rabbit Island, owing to its rabbit population. It’s a popular destination for day trips, with visitors flocking to enjoy the pristine beaches, clear waters, and opportunities for snorkelling, swimming and bird watching.
The islands’ status as a nature reserve ensures that their unique ecosystems are preserved, and access is regulated to minimise human impact. The Palm Islands stand as a testament to Lebanon’s natural beauty and commitment to environmental conservation, offering a tranquil escape just a few kilometres from Tripoli.
11. Explore the Mina (Port) Area
Connecting Tripoli to the Mediterranean Sea, and known locally as Al-Mina, the port area is a hub of economic activity, handling a variety of goods and playing a vital role in the city’s commerce. Surrounding the port, you can find a lively blend of cafes, seafood restaurants and markets offering fresh produce, particularly fish caught by local fishermen.
Al-Mina also houses historical sites such as the old sea fortress and the Saint Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church, blending the area’s maritime tradition with rich cultural heritage. The Corniche, a beautiful promenade by the sea, is a popular spot for both locals and visitors to take a leisurely stroll and enjoy the views.
12. Admire Tripoli’s Mamluk Architecture
Tripoli is home to one of the largest concentrations of Mamluk architecture in the world. The Mamluk Sultanate, which ruled over Tripoli from the mid-13th to early 16th centuries, left a lasting architectural imprint that continues to define the city’s landscape.
- Characteristics: Mamluk architecture is known for its intricate geometric designs, calligraphy, muqarnas (stalactite-like carvings), and the use of various materials like stone, marble, and ceramics. The Mamluks also introduced architectural innovations like centralised domes and new layouts for mosques.
- Mosques: Among the most well-preserved examples of Mamluk architecture in Tripoli are its mosques. The Taynal Mosque and the Burtasiyat Madrasa-Mosque are fine examples, showcasing intricately carved mihrabs (prayer niches), detailed minbars (pulpits), and splendid domes.
- Madrasas: The Mamluks were patrons of education and built numerous madrasas (Islamic schools). The Khanqah al-Sabuni and Madrasa al-Mustafa are distinguished examples of this educational architecture, characterised by courtyards, elaborate entrances, and living quarters for students.
- Hammams: The city’s traditional baths, like Hammam al-Nuri and Hammam al-Jadid, exhibit Mamluk architectural traits, with vaulted ceilings, decorative tiles, and the intelligent use of light and water flow.
- Caravanserais and Khans: Structures like Khan al-Saboun demonstrate Mamluk emphasis on trade and commerce. These buildings are equipped with storage areas and accommodations, illustrating the combination of aesthetics and functionality.
- Urban Planning: The Mamluks contributed to the city’s layout by connecting various districts with roads and bridges, integrating residential areas, markets, religious, and educational buildings into a cohesive urban fabric.
- Preservation and Influence: The legacy of Mamluk architecture in Tripoli continues to be celebrated and preserved. Several structures have been restored, and their design elements can be observed in modern constructions.
How to travel to Tripoli
Travelling to Tripoli is a journey that can be undertaken in various ways, depending on your location, budget, and preferences. Here’s a quick guide on how to get to Lebanon’s second-largest city:
- By Air: The nearest international airport to Tripoli is Beirut-Rafic Hariri International Airport, located around 85 kilometres south of the city. Numerous international airlines operate flights to Beirut. From the airport, you can reach Tripoli via taxi, rental car, or bus.
- By Bus: Several intercity bus services connect Tripoli with other major cities in Lebanon, such as Beirut, Saida and Byblos. The buses are an affordable and comfortable way to travel, and you can find both public and private operators running regular services.
- By Car: If you prefer the flexibility of travelling at your own pace, renting a car is an excellent option. The highway from Beirut to Tripoli is well-maintained, and the drive offers beautiful coastal views. Be mindful of local driving customs and regulations.
Read more: 20 Best Things to Do in Beirut, Lebanon
The best time to visit Tripoli
Generally, spring (April to June) and autumn (September to November) are considered ideal for visiting. During these periods, the weather is pleasantly warm, allowing you to explore the historical sites, souks, and coastal areas without the intense heat of summer.
The summer months (June to August) in Tripoli can be hot, but if you enjoy the vibrant atmosphere of coastal life, it can still be a delightful time to visit. The city’s proximity to the Mediterranean Sea offers a chance to enjoy the beaches and engage in water-based activities.
Winter (December to February) is cooler, with occasional rain, and is less crowded. It provides a unique perspective of the city’s architecture and allows for a more relaxed exploration of its cultural treasures.
I visited Lebanon in late April/early May, and found that the weather was perfect for walking and hiking, but still a little too cold for a swim in the Mediterranean Sea!
Map of the best things to do in Tripoli, Lebanon
Here’s a map of the best things to do in Tripoli:
FAQ: The best things to do in Tripoli, Lebanon
Here’s a quick FAQ on the best things to do in Tripoli, Lebanon:
Q1: What are the must-see historical sites in Tripoli?
A: Don’t miss the Citadel of Raymond de Saint-Gilles, Taynal Mosque and the Burtasiyat Madrasa-Mosque. These sites showcase the rich history and diverse architectural styles of the city.
Q2: Can I enjoy seafood in Tripoli?
A: Yes, Tripoli’s Mina (Port) Area offers an array of restaurants serving fresh seafood, caught by local fishermen. It’s an ideal place to savour traditional Lebanese coastal cuisine.
Q3: Are there shopping opportunities in Tripoli?
A: Absolutely! The traditional souks like Souk al-Haraj are perfect for exploring local crafts, from soapmaking to intricate metalwork. You can also purchase spices, sweets and textiles.
Q4: Can I visit Palm Islands Nature Reserve?
A: Yes, you can take boat trips to the Palm Islands Nature Reserve, where you can enjoy pristine beaches, snorkelling, swimming and bird watching.
Q5: What cultural experiences are available in Tripoli?
A: Visit the old neighbourhoods, explore the Mamluk architecture or indulge in a traditional hammam experience. Tripoli offers rich cultural explorations that reflect its multifaceted history.
Q6: Are there family-friendly activities in Tripoli?
A: The Lebanese Marine and Wildlife Museum is a great place for families. The Corniche in the Mina area is also a popular spot for leisurely strolls and enjoying views of the sea.
Q7: Can I take a guided walking tour of Tripoli?
A: Yes, guided walking tours are available, offering insights into the city’s historical landmarks, culinary delights, architectural marvels and more.
Q8: What local foods should I try in Tripoli?
A: Sample the famous ‘Knafeh’ pastry, enjoy street foods like ‘Sfiha’ and ‘Ful’, and try traditional Lebanese dishes like Hummus and Falafel in local restaurants.
Q9: Is there modern architecture in Tripoli?
A: The Tripoli International Fairgrounds, designed by Oscar Niemeyer, is a striking example of modernist architecture, symbolising a progressive era in Lebanon’s history.
Q10: Are there any natural landscapes to explore?
A: The nearby Qadisha Valley offers stunning natural landscapes and hiking opportunities, and the Palm Islands provide a glimpse of Lebanon’s natural coastal beauty.
There you have it, the best things to do in Tripoli, Lebanon. What’s going to be top of your bucket list?