There’s no question about it: Libya is in turmoil. Since the popular uprisings of the Arab Spring in 2011 and following more than 40 years of iron-fist rule by one Muammar Gaddafi, the country has hardly emerged well. Today, civil war and factional disputes still rage across the nation, extremism is rife, and much of the old beauty lies in ruins. But all wars must end, and hopes that Libya will one day return once again to the tourist fold remain very much alive.
So, FCO warnings and travel bans of today notwithstanding, we look to the future with optimism: to a time when this great slab of the old Maghreb can showcase its glorious Roman ruins and crumbing Greek cities; when the energy of metropolises like Tripoli and Benghazi can wow travelers; when the rugged Mediterranean coastline can shine and shimmer; and when the deep Islamic cultures and histories of the place can peak through in the dusty medinas and Bedouin camel towns alike.
Lets explore the best places to visit in Libya:
Before the tumult of the civil war and the rising of the Arab spring, Tripoli was a poster boy for North African heritage.
Its winding labyrinth of backstreets melded the warmth and colours of the Med with the dusty and historic character of the Sahel.
Street vendors touted spice-covered, ghee-doused bazins from the roadside stalls; teahouses throbbed with the mellifluous tones of Arabic chatter and the twisting fumes of shisha pipes.
And at the center of town visitors would find the grand Assaraya al-Hamra, spilling itself into the tight-knit lanes of the medina in a medley of mosque minarets and formidable Ottoman towers.
2. Leptis Magna
Founded by the Phoenician Greeks sometime in the first millennium BC, and then raised to greatness by the Romans, who flocked to this coastal spot in western Syria to secure their strongholds in North Africa after the Carthage Wars, Leptis Magna is quite possibly the single most impressive ancient site in the country (sorry Cyrene!). While some sections of the old temples and peristyles here have been transferred to museums and parks in England, the majestic likes of the grand theatre, arches dedicated to Septimius Severus, the fortification walls, some early Roman basilicas, and the crumbling marketplace all still remain.
Much-ravaged Benghazi has had its fair share of troubles in Libya’s wars.
And while the city continues to rattle in the throes of factional trouble, it is trying to shake of the memory of those hard-fought battles during the campaigns of 2011 and 2012, and re-establish itself again as one of the principle port towns in North Africa.
Glimmers of the glorious past still remain too, like the elegant whitewashed homes of the Italian Quarter, the sun-kissed corniche called Lungomare on the Med (palm-peppered and pretty), the old Latin lighthouse on the shore, and the picturesque Maydan al-Shajara square in the very center of city.
A legendary patchwork of temples and ancient townhouses that sits perched atop the Mediterranean cliffs in eastern Libya, Cyrene is one of the greatest relics the Greeks left in North Africa.
Once a booming mercantile colony built by the seafarers of Santorini, the city played host to Hellenic merchants, the heirs of Alexander the Great, and, later, Roman generals and armies.
Today it lies half in ruins; abandoned since it was rocked by a great earthquake in the 4th century AD. Visitors come to tour the colossal shrines to Demeter, see the necropolis, and explore the revered Sanctuary of Apollo.
Whitewashed homes scramble over one another in the heart of desert-shrouded Ghadames.
Meanwhile, winding alleyways hemmed in with adobe walls weave back and forth through the medina that forms the middle of the city – a UNESCO World Heritage Site in its own right.
Nestled between the sand dunes of the northern Sahara just a stone’s throw from the Algerian border, this earthy little Berber outpost is hailed as one of the real jewels of the nation’s backcountry.
Travelers come to explore its palm-peppered roads and shady terraces, and get a glimpse of the Libya that time forgot.
This far-flung town on the edge of the historic Fezzan region was once one of the principal trading points on the Sahara-Sahel caravan route.
Topped by its great mud-brick castle, Ghat still looks the part too, especially with all those crumbling old neighborhoods of adobe Berber homes spreading out from the base of the central mount.
However, the fortress seen today was not actually even there when the kings of the Garamantian Empire ruled the trade links between Carthage and the south in antiquity.
It was built later by the Italians and today, along with the rugged caves and cliffs of the Tadrart Acacus mountains, forms the major point of interest in the town.
Like Cyrene before it, Sabratha followed the predictable trajectory of a onetime Greek colony on the North African coast.
First, it was a receptacle for Mediterranean goods coming southwards, and a marketplace for exotic African goods coming from sub-Sahara.
Later, the whole city was taken over by the Romans, who raised great temples to both local and imperial gods.
There are remnants of a Christian basilica built by Justinian too, along with the grand mosaics that once adorned the interior.
However, the piece de resistance is the ancient theatre, which erupts from the desert in a series of lurching Doric peristyles and arcades.
The birthplace of one Colonel Muammar Gaddafi has not fared well in Libya’s recent upheavals.
Targeted by the rebel forces and used by the loyalists for their last stand, hardly a single street went unscathed in the ensuing Battle of Sirte in 2011. It was here that the onetime leader of the nation was finally captured and killed, marking the end of his more than 40-year-long rule.
Today, other conflicts engulf the town, but efforts are being made to rebuilt and reconstruct the spot, which was once a colonial outpost of both the Ottomans and the Italians.
Like many cities in Libya, Tobruk has seen its fair share of carnage in the last 100 years.
However, Tobruk is best known as a battlefield of a different era: The Second World War.
During the early 1940s, this town was the site of some of the fiercest skirmishes between Allied and Axis troops in the region.
The ordeals were finally settled by the Second Battle of El Alamein.
In the modern era Tobruk remained steadfastly loyal to the Libyan monarchy, and was quick to rise with the tide of the Arab Spring.
Visitors will get to tour the site of these totemic events, and unravel tales of Greek, Roman and Berber history besides.
Lining up along the shimmering Mediterranean coast, the 500,000-strong city of Misrata (also spelled Misratah) represents the third-largest in the country.
Founded by the Greeks (like so many towns in these parts), it grew into one of the principal trading ports in North Africa, with a booming harbour at Qasr Ahmad that dealt in both African and European goods.
Most visitors will come to enjoy the sun-kissed beaches that meld with the Saharan dunes to the east and west of town, while others will tour the great city mosques and the multi-cultural array of architecture that imbues the center.
11. Waw an Namus
Taking us away from Libya’s war-torn cityscapes and ancient sites for a spell of the weird and the wonderful, the black-stained tar and rock fields of Waw an Namus are a truly otherworldly sight to behold.
Set deep in the very heart of the Saharan Desert, the attraction is only just becoming popular with intrepid travelers.
They come to wonder at the great extinct volcanic cone that rises from the sands, its nearby crater lake (shining like a mirror and forever buzzing with a haze of mosquitoes), and the old caravan oases towns of Al Kufrah and Rebiana.
Engulfed by swathes of olive plantations and undulating hills of scrub that roll out to meet the Med and the Sahara to the north and south respectively, it’s one of the prettier spots in the Murqub District.
Visitors to the town, which was the site of some violent clashes during the 2011 revolution, can come and wander rustic olive oil mills and farms.
There’s also a long history to uncover, as Msallata once hailed in as one of the major stop-overs on the way to ancient Leptis Magna during the heyday of Roman rule in these parts.
13. Al Jawf
Al Jawf is surrounded by the sweeping ochre sands at the very heart of the Libyan Sahara.
A small town, it’s largely made up of low-rise adobe homes and camel-dotted streets that come pot-holed and crooked.
And while there’s little to experience in the city itself apart from the earthy Bedouin character of the place, there’s plenty in the surrounding hinterland.
Yep, Al Jawf is the gateway to the Kufra basin; one of the most strategic agricultural areas in the region, famed for its irrigation capabilities and alien-looking crop circles.
This surrounding territory has been much fought over since time immemorial, just as relics like the crumbling 7th-century granaries at Gasr Al-Hajj reveal.
Below the rugged tips of the El-Bhallil mountains and peppered with surprisingly green spots of palm oases, the desert town of Waddan is a great place to come and catch a glimpse of the earthy backcountry character of Libya, and to unravel the deep Islamic histories that have coalesced here over the centuries.
Look up to see the crenulated walls of the great Waddan Castle, which were raised by the onetime Arab rulers of the Maghreb.
Then, be sure to take some time to wander the date palm groves and marketplaces, taking in the bucolic, time-stood-still vibes.
The lakeside city of Sabha is home to the striking bulwarks of Fortezza Margherita (now called just Fort Elena): one of the most dramatic and historic of citadels still standing in the country (it’s even depicted on the back of some Libyan banknotes!).
Above that, Sabha is also considered the best gateway to the Fezzan region, which rolls out to meet the Sahara Desert proper in a patchwork of date palm oases and undulating dunes from the southern edges of the town.