From a Roman necropolis and an ancient hippodrome to one of the best beaches in Lebanon, here are the best things to do in Tyre (Sour).
Tyre, known as Sour in Arabic, is one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world. With a history spanning over 5,000 years, Tyre’s strategic location on the Mediterranean coast of Lebanon led it to become a crucial centre of ancient civilizations.
Phoenician Tyre, a significant maritime trade hub throughout antiquity, was renowned for its purple dye production. This purple dye, made from the murex sea snail and known as Tyrian purple, was highly sought after across the ancient world by nobles and royalty.
The city’s influence expanded under King Hiram I (980-947 BC), who is credited with developing Tyre’s fortified city walls and grand temples. Tyre even founded prosperous colonies across the Mediterranean, including the famed Carthage in North Africa.
Tyre fell to Nebuchadnezzar’s Babylonian army in 573 BC after a 13-year siege but regained some of its former glory under Persian rule before Alexander the Great later besieged Tyre in 332 BC during his conquests. His forces built a causeway connecting Tyre to the mainland, turning the city from an island into a peninsula forevermore. Roman rule followed, and the city prospered as part of the Eastern Roman Empire. It suffered during the Islamic conquests and Crusader period but remained inhabited.
Today, Tyre stands as a testament to its past, boasting several UNESCO World Heritage Sites, including the Roman Hippodrome and the archaeological sites of Al-Mina and Al-Bass. Its rich history makes it a fascinating city, a bridge between the ancient and the modern world, and one of the best places to visit in Lebanon.
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The best things to do in Tyre
Located a one and a half hour’s drive south of Beirut, I only visited Tyre on a day trip from the Lebanese capital (with a stop in Sidon on the way down), but there’s more than enough to do here to warrant an overnight stay or two. However, I won’t lie, when I visited in May 2022, the day trip was cut short due to massive protests and political rallies in Tyre.
This was, it transpired, the day before the elections, and things were tense given Lebanon’s ongoing financial crises, hyperinflation, and recent disasters like the Beirut Port Explosion. Tyre is also a predominantly Shi’ite Muslim city, and being located in southern Lebanon, there were Hezbollah flags, gun-toting supporters, and armed convoys barricading the roads into the old harbour.
My tour guide and driver, a Maronite Christian from the north, didn’t feel safe at the time, and he made a hasty exit once we ran into roadblocks. Don’t let that put you off, though, just don’t visit during the elections. I still had the chance to explore the ancient ruins and UNESCO sites around Tyre, which I have to say are some of the most impressive in the world, and there’s bound to be no other tourists around. We had the place to ourselves, and it was quite an incredible experience. We even visited nearby ‘Hezbollah Disneyland’, too, which our guide seemed to think was much safer than the city!
Read more: 23 Best Places to Visit in Lebanon
1. Visit the Tyre Hippodrome
The Tyre Hippodrome, part of the city’s UNESCO World Heritage site, is one of the largest and best-preserved Roman hippodromes in existence. Constructed during the 2nd century AD, it was a significant centre of entertainment throughout antiquity, where thousands would gather to witness the thrilling spectacle of chariot races.
The Hippodrome’s sheer scale is astounding, extending about 480 meters long and 90 meters wide. It could once accommodate approximately 20,000 spectators, making it the second largest in the Eastern Roman Empire. The arena featured a spina, the central barrier of the race track, adorned with statues and monuments.
The structure is noteworthy for its architectural layout. It includes sections of raised seating (cavea), a judge’s box and circular turning posts (metae). Though now in ruins, its remnants still evoke a sense of the grandeur and excitement that once permeated this historical sporting venue. Walking through the Tyre Hippodrome today, you can almost hear the echoes of the crowd and the thunder of the chariots racing down the track.
Read more: 16 Things to Do in Saida (Sidon), Lebanon
2. Step back in time at the Al-Bass Archaeological Site
Visiting the Al-Bass Archaeological Site in Tyre is like stepping back in time. This UNESCO World Heritage Site, a lasting testament to the city’s ancient grandeur, is an archaeologist’s dream; and there will be few other visitors around to spoil the experience!
The site is home to the remarkably well-preserved ruins of a Roman-Byzantine necropolis, boasting an extensive cemetery, a monumental arch and the remains of an aqueduct. A key feature is the unique collection of intricately carved sarcophagi, providing an insight into the artistic sensibilities and daily lives of the time (if you can read Greek or Latin that is!).
The monumental arch, originally part of the city’s main Roman road, welcomes visitors to the site. It stands as an iconic symbol of Tyre’s Roman period. The ancient road, lined with columns, extends towards the necropolis, its stones echoing with the tales of the countless people who once tread upon them.
The aqueduct, once a crucial water supply source for the city, showcases the Romans’ engineering prowess. Its arches, though weathered by time, maintain a certain majesty that leaves visitors in awe.
Al-Bass’s silent ruins narrate stories of Tyre’s past inhabitants, their lives, and their afterlives. It provides an unparalleled opportunity to comprehend the socio-cultural fabric of the ancient world.
Read more: 13 Things to Do in Batroun, Lebanon
3. Explore the Al-Mina Archaeological Site
The UNESCO World Heritage-listed Al-Mina archaeological site is a surprisingly well-preserved window into the ancient world that once thrived there.
Covering a vast area, Al-Mina is an archaeological treasure trove that encapsulates different historical periods from the Phoenicians to the Roman, Byzantine and Crusader eras. The site reveals the comprehensive layout of an ancient city, complete with a network of streets, public buildings, homes and colonnades.
One of the site’s significant landmarks is a large rectangular arena. This ancient structure, believed to have been used for athletic games, is a testament to the cultural and social activities of Tyre’s inhabitants during the Roman era.
The Al-Mina site also contains the ruins of a Byzantine church and a Crusader cathedral, revealing the religious diversity and shifts that occurred in Tyre over the centuries.
4. Relax on white sands at the Tyre Coast Nature Reserve
The Tyre Coast Nature Reserve is a haven of natural beauty on the southern coast of Lebanon. Spread across more than 3.8 square kilometres, it’s the largest sandy beach in the country.
The reserve holds international importance as it is a critical nesting site for endangered marine turtles, specifically the green and loggerhead turtles. During the nesting season, these creatures make their way onto the beach to lay their eggs, a spectacle that offers a rare glimpse into the life cycle of these marine species.
In addition to its role in marine conservation, the reserve is also home to an array of wetland birds. It serves as a resting point for migratory birds travelling between Africa and Europe, transforming into a birdwatcher’s paradise during migration seasons. Species spotted include egrets, herons, and kingfishers, among others.
The Tyre Coast Nature Reserve illustrates the diverse ecological landscapes of Lebanon and represents a concerted effort to protect and preserve its unique natural heritage. The reserve’s existence ensures a safe haven for its marine and avian inhabitants, safeguarding the rich biodiversity for future generations.
5. Walk around the Old City and Harbour
Each corner of Tyre’s Old City tells a story that unfolds over centuries, with remnants of Phoenician, Roman, Crusader, and Ottoman influences in its architecture and culture.
The Old City is characterised by narrow, winding alleys, lined with traditional Lebanese houses, many of which feature the iconic triple-arched windows. Among these charming lanes, you’ll find the Christian Quarter, a vibrant and colourful section of the city where the influence of Tyre’s Christian community is prominent.
Walking through the Old City also takes you to the picturesque old harbour, dotted with traditional fishing boats. Restaurants along the waterfront serve fresh seafood and offer stunning sunset views.
6. Take a stroll through Tyre’s Old Souks
Tyre’s Old Souks are a hub of culture and commerce that hark back to the traditional Lebanese lifestyle. Wandering through the labyrinth of narrow alleys, you’ll be enveloped by the sights, sounds and scents of these old marketplaces.
The Souks are a mosaic of small shops and stalls, each offering a variety of goods that range from locally produced crafts, textiles, and jewellery to a mouthwatering selection of traditional Lebanese food and sweets. Whether you’re looking for an authentic souvenir or just want to sample local delicacies like Baklava and Zaatar, the Old Souks of Tyre caters to every taste.
The traditional architecture of Lebanese souks, characterised by stone structures and intricate woodwork, lends the market an old-world charm. Amidst the hustle and bustle, one can find cosy cafés that serve traditional Lebanese coffee, offering a peaceful respite for visitors to soak in the atmosphere.
7. Gorge on fresh seafood in Tyre
Eating seafood in Tyre is an experience in itself, combining the richness of Mediterranean culinary traditions with the freshness of the local catch. The city, being a coastal town, is renowned for its seafood, offering a variety of dishes for you to chow down on.
From grilled fish and calamari to shrimp sautéed in garlic and lemon, the flavours are authentic, rich, and satisfying, particularly in the old harbour area, where dishes are prepared fresh from the boats.
A standout dish is the ‘Sayadieh’, a traditional fisherman’s meal. It’s a hearty dish consisting of rice cooked with caramelised onions and an aromatic blend of spices, topped with grilled or fried fish. Paired with a side of tahini sauce and pickled vegetables, it’s a must-try for any seafood lover.
A few of the best restaurants to try include:
- Cloud 59: Located on a cliff overlooking the Mediterranean Sea, Cloud 59 is a popular seafood restaurant in Tyre. Their menu includes a variety of fresh seafood dishes, from grilled fish to calamari. The restaurant’s location offers spectacular views, especially at sunset.
- Diwan Al Sultan Ibrahim: Known for its Lebanese and Mediterranean cuisine, Diwan Al Sultan Ibrahim offers a variety of mezze dishes, grills, and seafood options. The atmosphere is warm and welcoming, making it a favourite among locals and tourists alike.
- Tavolina: If you’re in the mood for Italian cuisine with a Lebanese twist, Tavolina is worth a visit. They offer an array of pizzas, pasta, and other Italian classics. The restaurant’s charming ambience adds to the overall dining experience.
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8. See Qana, where Jesus turned water into wine
Visiting Qana, a small village located approximately 10 kilometres southeast of Tyre, is believed by many to be the biblical Cana of Galilee, where Jesus performed his first miracle of turning water into wine. This makes Qana an important pilgrimage site for Christian visitors from around the world.
Upon arrival, one is greeted by the sight of the ‘Grotto of Qana,’ a system of ancient caves which, according to local tradition, served as the location for the biblical wedding feast. Inside, visitors can observe remnants of ancient vessels carved into the stone, adding a layer of intrigue to the site.
Another point of interest is the ‘Sanctuary of Our Lady of Qana,’ a modern church built above the ancient grotto. It houses a collection of artworks depicting the life of Jesus, including a representation of the Last Supper.
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9. Visit Mleeta Landmark (Hezbollah Disneyland)
A short drive from Tyre brings you to Mleeta, one of the most unique tourist destinations in Lebanon. Known as the ‘Resistance Museum’ or the ‘Tourist Landmark of the Resistance’, Mleeta is an open-air museum that provides a different perspective on Lebanon’s recent history.
The site was once a strategic base for Hezbollah during conflicts with Israel. Today, it has been transformed into an exhibit showcasing remnants from these periods of conflict. You can explore underground tunnels, bunkers, and displays of military equipment, including tanks and artillery.
The ‘Resistance Path’, a walking trail through a forest, exhibits several installations that detail the experiences of those who lived and fought here. Alongside these displays, your Hezbollah guide will provide context and share personal stories of conflicted periods of Lebanese history.
Mleeta isn’t a conventional tourist site. The journey from Tyre to Mleeta offers an insight into Lebanon’s history, far removed from the ancient ruins and old city quarters but equally significant in understanding the country’s narrative.
10. Explore Crusader history at Beaufort Castle
Located around an hour’s drive from Tyre, the Beaufort Castle, or Qalaat al-Shaqif, is a captivating historical site in Lebanon. Set atop a 300-meter high ridge, the castle offers breathtaking views of the Litani River, the Golan Heights, and Mount Hermon.
The Beaufort Castle has seen a string of occupants since its construction in the 12th century. Initially built by the Crusaders, it was later captured by Salah ad-Din in 1190, then passed into the hands of the Mamluks, and Ottomans, and finally, used as a strategic outpost during the Lebanese Civil War and Israeli occupation.
The castle’s architecture reflects its turbulent history, showcasing both Crusader and Arab design influences. The thick walls, deep moat, and sturdy fortifications bear witness to the numerous battles it has withstood.
Visiting the Beaufort Castle is a journey through layers of history. Exploring its ruined walls, chambers, and archways, visitors can imagine the fierce battles fought and the tales of knights, sultans, and soldiers. Despite the ravages of time and conflict, the castle retains an impressive aura of might and resilience.
How to travel to Tyre
Travelling to Tyre is an adventure in itself, as I discovered during election season. Check government advisories, like the UK’s FCDO warnings, before making the journey. Beirut, the capital of Lebanon, is the primary international gateway, with its Rafic Hariri International Airport receiving flights from around the world.
Once in Beirut, Tyre is around 80 kilometres away. Renting a car is a popular option, allowing you the freedom to explore at your own pace, or a guide and drive as I did. The drive to Tyre, along the coastal highway, takes approximately an hour and a half, offering scenic views of the Mediterranean Sea.
Public transport, such as buses and shared taxis, known as ‘servees’, are also available. They are an affordable, albeit less convenient, way to reach Tyre. The journey can take two to three hours, depending on traffic and stops.
The best time to visit Tyre
For those interested in sightseeing and exploring the city’s archaeological sites, spring (April to June) and autumn (September to November) are considered the best times to visit. The weather during these periods is generally mild and pleasant, ideal for outdoor activities. These seasons also see fewer tourists, so you can explore at a leisurely pace without the crowds.
If your main aim is to enjoy the beautiful beaches of Tyre, the summer months (July to September) are most suitable. Keep in mind that temperatures can rise quite high during this period, often reaching above 30 degrees Celsius. Despite the heat, summer attracts the highest number of tourists, resulting in a lively atmosphere.
Winter (December to March) can be a bit chilly and rainy but it offers a different perspective of the city, and the tourist crowds are at their thinnest.
Read more: 20 Best Things to Do in Beirut, Lebanon
FAQ: The best things to do in Tyre (Sour)
Here’s a quick FAQ on the best things to do in Tyre (Sour), Lebanon:
Q1: What are some of the must-see historical sites in Tyre?
A: Tyre is home to several UNESCO World Heritage Sites, including the Al-Mina archaeological site and the Al-Bass archaeological site, where you can explore the remains of Roman streets, buildings, and a necropolis. The Old City, with its charming Christian Quarter, and the ancient harbour are also not to be missed.
Q2: Is Tyre a good place for beach activities?
A: Yes, Tyre has some of the most beautiful sandy beaches in Lebanon. The Tyre Coast Nature Reserve offers a peaceful beach setting and is a protected nesting site for endangered sea turtles.
Q3: What are some recommended activities in Tyre?
A: Aside from historical exploration, you can enjoy a walk in the Old Souk for shopping and tasting local food, bird-watching in the Tyre Coast Nature Reserve, or a relaxing day at the beach. The harbour area is also perfect for a seaside stroll and fresh seafood dining.
Q4: Are there other attractions near Tyre worth visiting?
A: Absolutely. Mleeta and Beaufort Castle are within driving distance and offer unique historical perspectives. Mleeta provides insights into Lebanon’s recent history, while Beaufort Castle is a stunning medieval fortress.
Q5: When is the best time to visit Tyre?
A: Tyre can be visited year-round, but spring (April to June) and autumn (September to November) are often considered the best times for pleasant weather and sightseeing. Summer (July to September) is ideal for beach activities, despite the high temperatures.
Q6: How can I reach Tyre from Beirut?
A: Tyre is approximately an hour and a half drive from Beirut. You can rent a car or use public transportation, such as buses or shared taxis (‘servees’). The coastal route offers stunning views of the Mediterranean Sea.
There you have it, the best things to do in Tyre (Sour), Lebanon. What will be at the top of your travel itinerary?