Although Libya has become best known for its part in the Arab Spring and the revolution that swept across the country from east to west, climaxing with the death of Moammar Gaddafi, there is much more to this beautiful land than suppression and conflict. One of the largest countries on the African continent, Libya has a stunning Mediterranean coastline, desert landscapes and ancient sites - and they all have their own stories to tell. History has admittedly given the country a rough ride; it has lived through Greek and Roman rule and suffered through Italian colonialism and Gaddafi's regime.
But if you think it's only the war stories that will take your breath away, think again. Better yet, head to the mystical desert town of Ghadames, charter a camel across the Sahara or stop for a picnic in the shadow of Leptis Magna. There are stunning ancient cities, beautifully-preserved, and not a tourist in sight. There are atmospheric souks to wander through, scented with rose and sandalwood. There are sand dunes that stretch to the heavens, palm-fringed desert lakes, collections of colourful Byzantine mosaics and dramatic Akakus mountains with prehistoric rock carvings. There are prehistoric caves, empty beaches, age-old mountain passes, hilly hikes and city souks selling everything from silver jewellery and Tuareg desert scarves to artisanal perfume, football shirts, local spices, henna and hijabs. There are olive groves, fat lemons hanging from trees, bowls of spicy lentil soup and fresh Benghazi seafood.
Libyans used to love showing travellers around - a good thing, given Gaddafi's rule which banned independent travel and meant only escorted tours were possible. But since the revolution, tourism has faltered and the industry has yet to recover. At the time of writing, tourist visas were not being issued by embassies except in rare cases. Travellers who can provide a letter of invitation from friends or organizations inside Libya may be able to get around the rules by purchasing a business visa, which does allow for independent travel. Tour companies - once obligatory for travellers to Libya - closed their doors during the revolution, and many guides started to work as fixers for international journalists instead. Expect the tourism industry to pick up again, as the country stabilizes and international confidence is restored.
Most Libyans are warm and friendly; in their eyes hospitality is viewed as a duty and a pleasure. Most of the population is a mix of Arab or Berber descent. Berbers, including Tuaregs, live in the more remote areas and form about 10% of the population, while most of the rest lives in the cities on the coast, such as Tripoli and Benghazi. Options for public transport are limited in Libya, since most Libyans travel by private car. Until the revolution, tourists travelled by coach and bus tours. Gaddafi invested a lot in infrastructure, so expect fast roads and drivers who love to play loud music as they career down the highways; under Gaddafi, there was officially no speed limit in Libya. ATMs are available in Tripoli, Benghazi and most large towns. Libya is one hour ahead of Greenwich Mean Time (GMT), in the same time zone as Egypt and Italy.