Baalbek, in the northern Bekaa Valley, 55 mi/85 km east of Beirut, has the most impressive classical ruins in Lebanon, and it's one of the most important Roman sites in the Middle East.

Although the town predates Roman times, little is left of the Phoenician city of Baal or the subsequent Greek city of Heliopolis. The architectural attractions left standing are entirely of Roman design, built in the first century AD. Some historians attribute the enormous scale and rich detail of the buildings to religious rivalry: Christianity was growing in popularity, and the Romans wanted to encourage the local population to stick with pagan worship.

You'll enter the complex through the Propylaea, a colonnaded entrance, and then proceed through a hexagonal court to the Great Court with its two altars where sacrifices took place. Straight ahead, up the wide set of stairs, is what remains of the Temple of Jupiter. Only six of the original 54 columns still stand, but these give you an idea of the incredible height of the building. The columns are said to be the largest in the world.

Though smaller than the Temple of Jupiter, the nearby Temple of Bacchus is a wonderfully preserved architectural beauty. Take your time walking around its portico, with its intricately carved stone. From this position you have a good view of the huge stone blocks that formed the foundation for the Temple of Jupiter—some of the blocks are believed to weigh more than 1,000 tons. Finally, enter the Temple of Bacchus at its eastern end, walking up the flight of stairs and through the ornate doorway. Peer up at the keystone, which was a popular subject for sketch-happy 18th-century European travelers. Their drawings show the stone hanging perilously low, but it seems to have been reset with modern mortar. An excellent museum is near the exit from the site.

There are some modern cultural attractions as well, the most important being the renowned Baalbek International Music Festival ( in July or August. Baalbek is a good day trip from Beirut. Allow at least a half day (not including travel time) for this impressive site.

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