Stunning ancient Greek and Roman cities, gorgeous Saharan vistas, and the cosmopolitan joys of Tripoli are sources of wonder for visitors to Libya. It is one of the most beautiful and exciting Saharan countries to visit.
The past decade has brought serious efforts on the part of Libya to rebuild relationships with the rest of the world, particularly Europe and the United States. Although some issues arose at the end of the aughts, when Libya made it increasingly difficult to obtain visas (especially for American citizens), it announced in July 2010 that it was granting travel visas to American tourists once again.
1. Leptis Magna: Made great by the emperor Septimius Severus, Leptis Magna was one of the most beautiful cities of the Roman Empire. Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it abounds in impressive ruins and monuments looking out onto the Mediterranean.
2. Rock Art Sites of Tadrart Acacus: Comprising thousands of cave paintings spanning from 12,000 B.C.E. to A.D. 100, this site demonstrates the many changes to the area over thousands of years. It is on the border of Libya and Algeria.
3. Old Town of Ghadamès: Another UNESCO World Heritage Site, this is one of the oldest pre-Saharan cities and one of the best preserved.
4. Nafusa Mountains: These mountains, in western Libya, are where most of the Berbers of Libya are located. The villages throughout the mountains are home to goats and olive, fig, and apricot trees. The mountains are cooler than the rest of Libya, and snow is not uncommon during the winter. The mountains also harbor ghorfas, or ancient grain storage structures.
5. Cyrene: An ancient Greek city that was one of the principal cities of its time, Cyrene was later Romanized and remained very important until an earthquake in A.D. 365.
6. Sabratha: Once a Phoenician trading post, these ruins look out onto the blue Mediterranean. They are another UNESCO World Heritage Site.
7. Medina: The medina lies within the old city walls of Tripoli, flanked by the Mediterranean. Chockablock with jewelry merchants, mosques, a few bathhouses, and some good restaurants, it is one of the most interesting neighborhoods in Tripoli. In a market not yet destroyed by tourism, some souks still sell handcrafted and traditional items.
8. Jamahiriya House: One of the most impressive museums in the world, in the heart of Tripoli, the Jamahiriya House is home to many significant artifacts. UNESCO played a major role in the museum’s collection, which offers a truly impressive tribute to Libyan history.
9. Tripoli Castle: A fortress has stood on this site since the seventh century A.D.; it has been home to everyone from Christian knights to Muslim pirates. Today much of the castle is devoted to the Jamahiriya museum.
10. Modern Tripoli: While the medina, with its beautiful, historic mosques, and the Tripoli castle are the major draws for tourists in Tripoli, travelers should also visit the Tripoli of the present day. Much investment is being poured into this city, which is undergoing a massive construction boom.
The Libyan climate is divided between milder Mediterranean conditions and harsh desert heat. Tripoli, jutting out into the Mediterranean, experiences less extreme temperatures, although it can get very hot and humid during the summers. The winters are mild, and the thermometer never drops below freezing. Still, the city is close to the desert, and it can be hot and dry. The best time to visit Tripoli is from November to April.
If you are planning to visit the desert, the November-to-April recommendation is even more important. The desert heat during the summer, reaching as high as 131 degrees Fahrenheit (55 degrees Celcius,) can be deadly. Night temperatures in the desert can fall to below freezing, so come prepared.
Visas: Libya has begun opening its borders more widely to outside nations. In July 2010 it announced that it would be issuing visas to Americans again, after a brief moratorium on visa granting, and the United States embassy opened a visa office in the country for the first time since 1980. One caveat: You must register with an officially sanctioned Libyan tourist company. Often the tour company will help you with the visa application, as there are only a handful of companies you are allowed to use.
Libya also requires biometric information, so all visa applicants must visit the Libyan embassy for fingerprinting. You must contact the embassy to learn what the requirements are; be prepared to provide evidence of insurance, hotel reservations, and proof of a round-trip flight. Difficulty has occurred in the past over a requirement that all travelers have an Arabic translation of their passports. That may no longer be necessary, given the new movement to allow visitors, but it is still recommended.
In sum: Contact the Libyan Embassy well before you would like to travel to the country, in order to begin the visa application process.
Transportation: If you book your trip through an agency, your tour company will organize any transportation. The primary forms of travel are automobile and motorcycle. Even if you find yourself alone with a vehicle in Libya, be aware that there are certain parts of the country to which you are not allowed to travel, such as the Tibesti region, in the southeast.
You will usually be accompanied when you are in Libya because you must be with a tour company. You should feel safe most of the time. As is appropriate for travel in any country, especially cities, be alert about your person and belongings.
On the road, be aware that Libyan drivers tend to go very fast. Always slow down at the checkpoints to prevent any negative exchanges with the armed checkpoint guards. Make sure that you are legally allowed to visit the part of the country you are trying to visit. Carry identification.
The Mo Ibrahim Foundation has created a security ratings system called the Ibrahim Index, wherein scores are based on each country’s quality of government. Before traveling to Libya or anywhere on the continent, check the index and do your research.
There is evidence that the Berbers have inhabited Libya since 8000 B.C.E. Libya has seen a considerable amount of occupation, most notably by the Greeks, the Romans, the Ottoman Empire, and the Italians. Ruins of several Greek and Roman cities still dot the Libyan coast.
Libya did not gain independence until 1951, when it obtained that status from the United Nations Trusteeship; it had been occupied by Italy until 1947. Ninety-seven percent of the population is Berber and Sunni Muslim, despite the history of occupation.
In 1969, after a military coup, Col. Muammar Abu Minyar al-Qadhafi began ruling Libya. He promoted his own combination of socialism and Islam, funded mostly by oil and gas money. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the U.N. sanctioned Qadhafi because of various terrorist activities and bombings. In the 2000s, sanctions were lifted after Libya acknowledged responsibility for the 1992 downing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. Since then Qadhafi has taken great pains to improve relations with the United Nations and the West.
1. The Saharan desert constitutes 90 percent of Libyan territory (though the percentage threatens to become higher owing to desertification) and is home to some splendid natural oases, classical ruins, and Neolithic rock art.
2. Arabic, Italian, and English are all spoken throughout the city of Tripoli, the capital of Libya.
3. Libya is home to the largest irrigation project in the world, known as the Great Manmade River, which supplies water to Tripoli residents from an aquifer below the Sahara.
4. A dusty southern wind, known as the ghibli, comes twice a year, in the fall and the spring, and lasts for a few days. Dust storms are also very common in the desert.
5. The full name of Libya is the Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya.