One of the largest countries in African, Libya boasts a stunning Mediterranean coastline, gorgeous desert landscapes and no fewer than seven UNESCO World Heritage Sites. These ancient sites are a reminder that Libya’s history has always been tumultuous: before Gaddafi’s regime and the ensuing civil war, the country endured Greek, Roman and Italian rule.
But Libya has more to offer than war stories. From the mystical desert town of Ghadames to the stunning Sahara Desert, this is a land of empty beaches, ancient mountain trails and shimmering oases. It is a land where sand dunes stretch to the heavens, palm trees reflect in desert lakes and prehistoric rock carvings decorate the dramatic Akakus Mountains.
Rural Libya is characterised by neatly cultivated olive groves, fat lemons dangling from trees and remote Berber settlements. In the cities, merchants sell wares in rose-scented souks, flogging silver, spices, henna, hijabs and Tuareg scarves. The smell of spicy lentil soup and Benghazi seafood hangs deliciously in the air.
The population of Libya is mostly of Arab and Berber descent. Berbers make up about 10% of inhabitants and live in more remote areas. The rest of the population lives largely in coastal cities like Tripoli and Benghazi, although recent fighting has forced many to flee.
Libyan hospitality is legendary and its people love showing travellers around. But tourism faltered after the Arab Spring and has been paralyzed by the ensuing Civil War. At the time of writing, tourist visas were not being issued and most tour companies have closed their doors – many guides now work as fixers for war reporters instead.
It’s impossible to say how current events will pan out, but, like many travellers, we hope the doors to Libya will swing open again soon.
Things to see and do
Libya's coastline is dotted with some of the most spectacular ancient ruins in all of the Mediterranean. In most cases, the sites are well-preserved and best of all, you'll encounter very few tourists - that was the case even before the revolution.
Leptis Magna, a short drive from Tripoli, is the most magnificent of all; its cobbled streets, Severan Arch (erected in honour of Emperor Septimus Severus), marble- and granite-lined Hadrianic Baths, detailed basilica and large amphitheatre are easily worth a day of your time. Cyrene, three hours from Benghazi, spills across the hilltop; check out its ancient fertility temples, beautiful Temple of Zeus and Roman stadium.
Sabratha, between Tripoli and the Tunisia border, is also stunning. All three sites - and four more along the coast near Benghazi - closed their doors during the revolution, but you may be able to talk tour guides hanging around nearby into allowing you a visit.
Freedom Square (Green Square)
Once a symbol of Gaddafi's regime, Tripoli's main square became famous during the 2011 revolution. It was here that Gaddafi vowed to fight against the uprising; it was here, too, that thousands gathered to usher in a new era after Tripoli finally fell. These days, most of the square is used as a car park for the nearby souk, but it's worth wandering around and absorbing the square's remarkable history.
About two and a half hours from Benghazi, Qasr Libya (Castle Libya) is often overlooked by travellers. But this dusty site houses an incredible collection of Byzantine mosaics that date back centuries. Colourful and well-kept, some are humorous, others poignant; together they illustrate the rich Byzantine culture.
The mountain scenery on the border with Algeria is spectacular but, as if that wasn't enough, these rock cliffs hide some of the Sahara's finest prehistoric rock art, particularly at Wadi Metkandoush and Wadi Tashwinat.
Assai al-Hamra (Red Castle)
Tripoli's spectacular fortress houses a maze of courtyards and buildings, situated on a promontory above the city. The Jamahiriya Museum, which houses ancient artefacts, closed during the revolution, but there are plans for it to re-open.
There isn't much of a beach culture in Libya; many local people prefer to go out for picnics in the countryside instead. This means you'll sometimes have the coastline's gorgeous golden sands to yourselves. With 2,000km (1,243 miles) of Mediterranean coastline, there is plenty of choice when it comes to splendid beaches, including Neqezzah (112km east of Tripoli), Ras al-Hammamah, Sabratha and the splendid beaches from Zuara to Ras al-Jadir.
Berber villages are scattered throughout the more remote mountain area of the Jebel Nafousa, but the unusual mud-brick architecture of the Berber grain storage houses in Nalut, Kabaou and Kasr Elhaj is particularly interesting.
Several tour operators organise camel treks through the Akakus mountains or other parts of the Sahara. This is the true way to discover the quiet solitude, slowness and unique beauty of the desert.
There's nothing quite like riding in a 4WD across miles and miles of seemingly endless desert, climbing the ridges of enormous sand dunes and tumbling down them bare-footed. The best place for this kind of adventure is the amazing Great Sand Sea, about four hours drive from Benghazi.
You can sleep overnight in a desert villa in the dusty town of Al Jaghbub, then visit nearby desert lakes before swanning off into the desert. The Great Sand Sea was once an ocean; you can still see the evidence of that, in the fossilised starfish, seashells and rock formations shaped by the waves and sand. Also worth looking out for are the ancient tombs (complete with bones), sun-dried palm groves and a collection of WWII-era British cars, left to rust between the dunes.
The dunes near the Ubari lakes are seriously high and a few snowboards are available nearby to surf down them. Beware it can be dangerous.
Most travellers to Libya come back with rave reviews of Ghadames, saying it's like nowhere else on earth. The unique desert oasis town, known as the 'Pearl of the Desert', is in the western region, 800km (500 miles) southwest of Tripoli. The UNESCO-protected old town's unique architecture consists of whitewashed mud-brick walls, covered labyrinthine walkways and elaborate orchard gardens with date palms, pomegranate and orange trees and vegetables. Under the Gaddafi regime, people living in the ancient houses were offered new homes nearby, but the old buildings remain and are often frequented by the people of the town.
The incredible well-preserved ancient remains of a Roman settlement, highlights of which are the Severan Arch (erected in honour of Emperor Septimus Severus), the marble- and granite-lined Hadrianic Baths, the detailed basilica and the large amphitheatre.
Roman cities are well-preserved in Libya but nowhere can you imagine just how good the Romans had it as in Villa Sileen. Come to the house late afternoon, after visiting Leptis Magna, and feel the sea breeze on the wonderful terrace.
On the bay beneath Cyrene, the sun-dappled ruins of the port city of Apollonia are worth visiting in their own right. Crumbling roman theatres tumble down to the water and there's even the remnants of an ancient library and olive press. You can snorkel in the turquoise ocean, but you'll have to bring your own equipment and you may have to talk the guards of the nearby museum into turning a blind eye. There are shipwrecks off the coast that you may be able to explore as long as you are careful and respectful. Women may want to cover up in a t-shirt or wetsuit.
The old souks and winding lanes of the capital, Tripoli, with its traditional mosques and khans (inns/warehouses), have particular streets given to spices, gold, bridal fabrics made from a desert plant and animal skins.
Of the five ancient and powerful Greek city states in Libya Cyrene, Sussa (Apollonia) and Tolmitha (Ptolemaeis) have the most atmospheric remains. The setting of Cyrenaica is particularly impressive in the Jebel al Akhdar overlooking the sea, and its museum is spectacular.
Trekking and caves
The pretty hills, rock formations and cooler climate of the Jebel al-Akhdar (Green Mountains) or the Jebel Nafusa in the west are ideal for trekking but you will have to work out your own routes as few tour companies organise walking trips. There are caves, ancient churches, olive groves and even some prehistoric caves to explore. Haua Fteah cave is a large shallow site a few kilometres from the town of Marsa Sousa, in the Jebel al-Akhdar. Archaeologists estimate that it dates back to about 100,000 years.
Ubari sand dunes & lakes
In Ubari, majestic sand dunes run down to picturesque salt lakes that are surrounded by palm trees. Locals, not that there are many around here, come to these lakes for salt-lake bathing, where a microscopic shrimp is believed to clean the skin, and rejuvenating mighty hot sand baths in an exotic setting.