Public transportation is widely available in Lebanon. It can be really cheap, and once you understand the system and have just a little bit of Arabic, it’s not too hard to navigate. We didn’t have a car our first two years in Beirut and in all that time, we only rented a car once, to go shopping for baby furniture.
There are lots of options to get you where you need to go, with a wide range of prices as well as levels of convenience.
At first glance it may seem like there is absolutely no bus system. There aren’t really bus stops or time tables, and even the bus routes are more like suggestions. But once you get a general idea of where the different buses pass, it’s a great option for getting around town.
There are two types of buses, big buses and small minibuses. Both use the same system. You stand on the side of the road of the route, wait for the bus you need with empty space to slow down, and hop on.
The number of the bus is posted on the front window, and the bus will have a red license plate to let you know it’s officially registered as public transportation.
To be honest, the bus is my least favorite option for getting around Beirut. My first big bus ride I was pregnant, car sick, and what should have been a 20 minute ride at most took over an hour. Not because there was traffic, but because the bus driver was driving at a snail’s pace looking for passengers. He also took several coffee breaks and pulled over numerous times to chat with friends he saw walking by. The rest of the passengers were just as fed up as I was with the driver, so I know it wasn’t a typical bus ride, but it ruined the whole big bus experience for me.
As the big bus feels slow and clunky, the minibuses feel a bit like Frogger. These things are fast. I learned early on not to sit near the door because it’s often left hanging open and the way these guys dart in and out of traffic leaves me fearing for my life and my belongings. But they will get you where you need to go, they are plentiful, and they are the cheapest option there is to move around the city.
Choose your minibus wisely. I for one like to have a driver who at least pretends that traffic laws apply to him.
Service (prounounced sare-vees)
The service is the form of public transportation that I use the most. It’s a shared taxi that costs 2,000 LL for short trips. It has no specific route. You stand on the side of the road and when a car with a red license plate approaches you (often with a honk), you say you want a service and the name of the neighborhood or street you want to go to. They will either tip their head back and move on, tell you to get in, or negotiate if the driver thinks your destination is a bit too far. He may ask you for “servic-ein” meaning 2 services, or 4,000 LL. You pay per seat, so if you have a child in your lap you only count as one passenger.
The service won’t take you door to door, but will take you to the general area where you want to go. It may or may not be the most direct route, depending on if he has or picks up other passengers on the way, but I’ve found that service drivers want to be efficient, they want to pick up and drop off the most passengers as possible without going out of their way, so it’s rare that I get taken on a huge tour of Beirut before being dropped off at my destination.
Sometimes it can be hard to tell the difference between a service and a taxi, so it’s important to agree with the driver up front that you expect a shared ride. If there is already someone in the car, you can assume it’s a service, although it doesn’t hurt to double check. Generally speaking, the nicer looking cars operate only as taxis. It’s also wise to take a look into the car before hopping in. I personally don’t get in if there is only one seat left and the car is full of men. I’m also careful if there is only the driver and one male passenger, although it’s not a hard and fast rule for me.
It’s a rare instance when you can’t find a service willing to take you where you want to go inside Beirut, so it’s usually my go-to when I need to utilize public transportation.
Taxis come in all shapes and sizes. As with the other forms of public transport, they will have a red license plate letting you know they are authorized. Some will not be marked in any other ways, others will have the name of their company and phone number written. You can order a taxi by phone or by waiting at the side of the street for one to pass. Most taxis don’t run on a meter, so make sure you agree on the price before you get into the car. The driver will take into consideration both the distance and the amount of traffic, although some companies will have set rates between certain parts of town. We generally take taxis to the airport, and it costs us about $20 from Hamra if we call and arrange it ahead of time.
Everyone will have their favorite company to recommend, and we’ve had good and bad experiences with several different companies, as well as good and bad experiences with random taxis who we’ve grabbed as they drove by. But taxis are a great way to go if you have a group of people, a lot of luggage or need to be at somewhere at a very specific time.
Uber is new and becoming more and more popular in Beirut. As in other places, you order your car using the app and pay a set fee plus the metered cost of your trip. I’ve never tried it personally, but have friends who rave about the service.
There’s always Walid. I’m not sure I’m comfortable with taking a ride with him to eternity, but at least I know he’s an option!
Personally my favorite way to get around Beirut is by walking, but I’m thankful when I get stuck in a rainstorm or need to go somewhere out of my normal radius to have so many other options for getting where I need to go. Once you get a feel for things, you really can go almost anywhere for just a few dollars!
And for a whole ‘nother post someday…