Sabratha’s beaches, lined with ancient temples, are a quiet contrast to Tulum
NEED TO KNOW
LOCATION Sabratha lies 50 miles (80 km) east of the Libyan capital, Tripoli, along the Mediterranean coast of northwestern Libya
VISITORS PER YEAR Around 60,000
DAYTIME TEMPERATURES Jan: 54°F (10°C); Apr: 66°F (19°C); Jul: 82°F (28°C); Oct 75°F (24°C)
If Sabratha were anywhere but in Libya, this pristine coastline would be overrun by resorts of the kind that spoil your view at almost every turn in Tulum, Mexico. This is Tulum as it used to be, before it was discovered by the packaged tour crowd – a sweeping coastline of white sand and waters of transparent turquoise.
All along the coast from Tripoli to Zuara, with Sabratha at its midpoint, empty roads lead down to empty beaches. There are built-up areas and even occasional half-hearted approximations of resorts, but such places are rare and overflow in summer with Libyan families, not sun-starved Europeans. Elsewhere along this often-deserted coast, you could spend an entire day on the beach and not see another living soul.
The only exception to this rule is a pretty special one.
In Sabratha itself, the Roman city of the same name dominates the Mediterranean shoreline, a forest of columns in light sandstone rising from the sandy soil where other, more famous beaches have palm trees. Temples to the full pantheon of Roman divinities, traces of the city’s Phoenician origins, and ancient Greek inscriptions litter the site within its Byzantine-era wall. Together they form an extraordinary seaside monument to the great civilizations of Mediterranean antiquity.
It was from Sabratha’s port, alongside its small beach, that ships set sail for ancient Rome, laden with olive oil destined for Roman tables and elephants earmarked for gladiatorial conquests.
Sabratha ranked among Rome’s most prosperous cities on African soil, and for all its claims of fealty to the gods, was known for its devotion to the cult of excess – in the Seaward Baths that overlook the beach and the broad sweep of coastline, fragments of mosaic and marble peer out from beneath centuries’ accumulation of sand and footprints.
On the sandy beach itself, it doesn’t take much imagination to visualize yourself surrounded by toga-clad Romans enjoying the warm, southern Mediterranean sun. Once in the water, the view is exceptional – here stand the impressive Corinthian columns of the Temple of Isis, the goddess of seafarers, on a promontory away to the east; there, the three-story fortress-like walls of Sabratha’s theater, one of the most exquisite structures in the ancient Roman empire.
As the Romans knew, swimming here is one of the great bathing experiences on earth, not least because Sabratha is how all seaside resorts once were, albeit a very long time ago.
GOING ANYWAY? Whatever you do, stay in Tulum itself. Once the day-trippers return to Cancún, find a secluded vantage point in the expansive Mayan ruins of Zamá, close to sunset – this is the moment when you’ll most understand Tulum’s charm.
Getting There and Around
The nearest international airport is at Tripoli. Although buses and shared taxis run regularly between Tripoli and Sabratha, visas for Libya are only possible as part of a guided tour in which all transportation is included.
Where to Eat
Restaurants catering to tourists across Libya serve banquet-style meals that include soup, salad, and a local main course, usually rice or couscous with meat or fish.
Mat’am Bawady (tel. +218 24 620 224) is a good option. The best place to eat in the capital is Tripoli’s fish market – you simply select your fresh seafood and have it cooked in a popular restaurant in the market area.
Where to Stay
Most travelers visit Sabratha as a day trip from Tripoli, not least because the former has few habitable hotels. A fine choice among many in Tripoli is Zumit Hotel
When to Go
May–Sep offers great swimming weather, but the heat outside the water can be oppressive.
Milder temperatures make Oct–Apr more agreeable.
Budget per Day for Two
Your visit to Sabratha, including accommodations and meals, will be included in the cost of your guided tour while in Libya