Beiteddine, Lebanon

Some 50 km (31 miles) southeast of Beirut, Beiteddine which means "The House of Religion" in Arabic, is the name of both a village and the magnificent palace complex that lies within it. The construction of the Beiteddine Palace started in 1788, when Emir Bashir Shihab II, the governor appointed by the Ottomans, decided to leave nearby Deir Al-Qamar and move to a safer haven in Beiteddine. He hired Italian architects and artisans from all over Syria, and after 30 years of construction, the palace was finished in 1818. Emir Bashir Shihab II kept residence there until 1840, when he was forced into exile to Turkey after turning against the Ottomans.

From 1842, the palace was used as a governmental building, first by the Ottomans and later by the French. After Lebanon gained its independence in 1943, the palace was restored and became the president's summer residence, which it remains to the present day. In 1947, the ashes of Emir Bashir Shihab II were transported there from Turkey, where he died in 1850.

The palace and its rooms and courtyards feature beautiful arcades, fountains, facades, carved cedar wood ceilings, antique furniture, inlaid marble and fine mosaics and contains a well-preserved hammam complex. Situated behind this hammam is the tomb of Emir Bashir Shihab II and his wife. In the stables beneath the palace is an impressive selection of 5th and 6th-century Byzantine mosaics discovered in Jiyyeh, north of Sidon. Although Beiteddine Palace functions as the president's summer residence, the main areas can still be visited in summer, except during the Beiteddine festival.

Beiteddine palace's museums, gardens, and immaculate arabesque courtyards continue to inspire awe, making it one of Lebanon's most popular tourist attractions. The best time to visit the palace is in spring and autumn, when the weather is still really nice and all areas of the palace generally are open to visitors. Allow yourself between 2 to 3 hours for a full exploration of the premises.

Mir Amin Palace

There were 3 other palaces in the vicinity, built for Emir Bashir's sons. Of these only one, Mir Amin Palace is still standing and is now a luxury hotel just beyond the main part of the village. This historical boutique hotel, 5 minute drive away from Beitiddine Palace, was fashioned from the ruins of the original palace of one of Chehab's sons, and has 22 rooms decorated in an oriental style, with several restaurants and bars providing ample evening entertainment.

Beiteddine Art Festival

Beiteddine Art Festival is one of the leading festivals in the Middle East held annually each July and August in the external courtyard of the Beiteddine palace. The festival was born despite conditions of war in 1985; its growth and persistence attest to an undying appreciation for arts and culture in Lebanon. What started as an initiative to bring local artists to the stage gradually became an internationally-recognized event that patronizes concerts and performances in classical music, dance, theatre, opera, jazz, and modern world music, offering a podium to famous Lebanese and International artists.

Moussa Castle

About 2 km out of town in the direction of Beiteddine is Moussa Castle, a truly unique waxworks museum. It is a testament to the love of a woman and the stubbornness of its creator. Filled with strange mechanical tableaux, a life-size recreation of the Last Supper and probably the biggest collection of guns and weaponry you'll ever see, it took Moussa nearly 60 years to complete. His tenacity is simply awe-inspiring and the result of his life's work is on display for generations to enjoy.

Deir Al-Qamar

Without a doubt, Deir Al-Qamar or "Monastery of the Moon", 5 kilometers before Beiteddine, is one of Lebanon's prettiest villages with its narrow streets and red tile-roofed stone houses. It also has an interesting history that reflects the country's tolerant religious roots. The village once hosted an active church, synagogue, mosque and druze meeting hall all on the central square. Nowadays, it's a sleepy town, especially charming at sunset when the bats flit overhead and the old buildings on the square resemble a fairytale setting. Deir Al-Qamar's roots lie in the Middle Ages when Fakhreddine, the Druze governor of Lebanon, extended his power throughout the region to cover an area roughly equivalent to modern-day Lebanon. He succeeded in uniting what was once a number of small fiefdoms and made Baaqline village his first capital. But due to water shortages there, he moved the capital to nearby Deir Al-Qamar, which has numerous active springs. Over 3 centuries later, the village remains one of the best-preserved examples of 17th and 18th century provincial architecture in the country.