Beirut is the wild child of the Middle East. A heady mix of chaos and contradictions, the Lebanese capital’s charms can be overwhelming for the first-time visitor but, once seduced, you’ll be left craving the city’s warm-hearted hospitality, riveting history, houmous and hedonism. A former Phoenician port, the city juts out into the eastern end of the Mediterranean – a spectacular location for a sensational city.
Many of the older generation of Beirutis still cling to the city’s 1960s heyday, when the yacht-graced coastline became a playground for the international jetset, drawn to the city’s pavement cafés, cosmopolitan culture and palpable joie de vivre. The party was cut short in 1975. The militia forced the sunbathing movie stars out and Beirut was torn in half, as one of the twentieth century’s bloodiest civil conflicts put the city in a stranglehold for the next 15 years. Since then, the road to recovery has been rocky. But while sectarian tensions continue to simmer, over the last few years a rapid regeneration has cast off the city’s war-tainted reputation. Boutique hotels, contemporary art galleries and a lifetime’s worth of bars and restaurants have seen the city come alive, and a steady stream of tourists has been welcomed with open arms.
Now, after a revolution-filled year in the Middle East, it’s with a typically Lebanese sense of mocking pride that Beirut is enjoying the limelight as one of the region’s most stable destinations. No longer a well-kept secret, Beirut could be the ultimate alternative to a Euro-city break, boasting as it does a unique combination of Middle Eastern and Mediterranean spirit.
Roughly half the size of Wales, Lebanon is a small country with a big history. Archaeology-lovers will enjoy the National Museum of Beirut’s antiquities, but Beirut’s real sights are its twentieth-century landmarks. Take advantage of the warm climate and see the city’s architecture on foot.
Tracing the path in and around the city’s former Green Line, which divided East and West Beirut during the civil war, you’ll find crumbling Ottoman mansions, bullet-scarred French Mandate-era apartments and contemporary structures standing side by side. Catch sight of the Dome, an egg-shaped husk next to the massive golden-hued Mohammed al-Amin Mosque on Martyrs’ Square, and the former sniper stronghold of the Holiday Inn while you still can; cranes dominate Beirut’s skyline, indicating the new high-rises that will soon – for better or for worse – make up most of the city’s real estate.
Despite the influx of designer stores and the occasional music festival, Downtown’s streets, rebuilt over the flattened city centre, still feel eerie, so head to the livelier neighbourhoods of Hamra and Achrafieh by jumping in a servees. These shared taxis are anecdote-worthy experiences; watch with dismay as chain-smoking drivers blast out Arabic oldies and zig-zag their death-defying way through Beirut’s kamikaze traffic.
At sunset, join the fishermen, joggers and loved-up teenagers for a stroll along the Corniche, a pedestrian boulevard that wraps itself around the coastline. The brave can hire a bike from Beirut by Bike (Graham Street, Ein El Mreyse; +961 1 365524) – but beware of the crazy local drivers – and cycle up to Pigeon Rock (a doughnut-shaped rock planted in the sea and also one of Beirut’s most picturesque spots) before puffing on a narguileh (water pipe) at a seaside café.
As most of Beirut’s museums and sightseeing spots are underwhelming compared to the rest of Lebanon’s rich layers of history, work your way down the city’s long list of art galleries. Beirut Exhibition Center (+961 1 962000 ext 2883) and Beirut Art Center are dedicated warehouse-sized spaces, while smaller, independent white cubes, such as the Running Horse, give a flavour of the region’s vibrant contemporary art scene.
Experience the other side of Beirut by spending a night in Shatila. The Children and Youth Center (CYC) runs a small guesthouse in the Palestinian refugee camp), and short stays cost roughly L£7 a night.
Eat & Drink
When Israel broke Lebanon’s Guinness World Record for the world’s largest single serving of houmous in 2010, the situation escalated into a game of gastronomic one-upmanship, a ‘houmous war’, in which the two countries exorcised their political tensions by vying to create the biggest plate of houmous known to man. The Lebanese take their food seriously – your options here are countless and the portions generous.
While you could survive a weekend on street food alone – typical delights are a manouche (a type of Lebanese pizza) fragrant with thyme and cheese or meat, and fruit cocktails spilling with sweet avocado and ashta (Lebanese cream) – no trip to Beirut is complete without surrounding yourself with piled plates of meze. Abdel Wahab (51 Abdel Wahab El Inglizi Street, Monot; +961 1 200550) and former Yasser Arafat-haunt Barometre (Blue Building, Makhoul Street, Hamra; +961 3 678998) are old favourites, while at Le Chef (Gouraud Street, Gemmayzeh; +961 1 445373), charisma and cheap prices have been keeping Beirut’s bellies full for decades.
On Saturday morning head to Souk el Tayeb (Beirut Souks, Trablos Street, Downtown; +961 1 442664), a farmers’ market devoted to Lebanon’s traditional, organic agriculture. Farmers from all over Lebanon gather to share their produce here; pick up a freshly squeezed pomegranate juice and take home jars of delicious labneh (a local strained yoghurt that has a consistency almost like cheese) and fig jam. The market’s restaurant, Tawlet (Chalhoub Building, Nahr Street, Mar Mikhael; +961 1 448129), is the best place to sample a home-cooked Lebanese lunch: every day a different cook or producer takes over the kitchen with the culinary secrets of their area.
Beirut’s sizeable Armenian community offers an opportunity to savour specialities from the region, such as kebab in cherry sauce and sparrows in pomegranate syrup. Try Al Mayass (Trabaud Street, Achrafieh; +961 1 215046) for fantastic Armenian dishes, and a moustached troubadour thrown in for free. Alternatively, jump in a servees to the ‘Little Armenia’ quarter of Bourj Hammoud for a cheap fix of basterma (highly seasoned dry cured beef) and garlicky street snacks from stalls that are often open 24 hours a day. For further culinary spots, visit www.timeoutbeirut.com.
During the summer, the capital’s pulsating beach resorts and glitzy rooftop clubs – many of which afford a sweeping panorama of the surrounding mountains and Mediterranean – have won the city the rather crass title of ‘Party capital of the Middle East’. But Beirut’s real nightlife can be found year-round at street level, by hopping between hip hole-in-the-wall bars, Hamra’s legendary leftist watering holes and even a Charlie Chaplin-themed speakeasy (Chaplins, Mar Mikhael Street, Mar Mikhael, +961 3 286 977). There’s always a new bar to try out, and a night spent on Gouraud Street in Gemmayzeh, the city’s redoubtable nightlife strip, or Makdessi Street in Hamra can feel like a wild-goose chase, but that’s just part of the fun.
Avoid the tackier establishments (they’re easy enough to spot) and start the night with a few bottles of lightweight local beer, Almaza, and a ‘dou dou’ shot – Beirut’s vodka, lemon juice, Tabasco and olive-laced speciality – at Dany’s (78th Street, Hamra; +961 3 904547), Demo (Libanon Street, off Gouraud Street, Gemmayzeh; +961 3 958504) or Torino (Rue Gouraud, Gemmayzeh) alongside Beirut’s fun-loving artsy crowd. Then see where the trail of bar snacks takes you – at weekends there’s often a party or alternative club night happening just around the corner, or try out the industrial-style bar at new concert hall the Democratic Republic of Music aka DRM (Sourati Street, Hamra, +961 1 752 202).
More classy, and pricy, cocktails can be found while enjoying the views from boutique hotel Le Gray’s (see right) BarThreeSixty, and at Centrale (Mar Maroun Street, Saifi; +961 1 575858). Or in Momo at the Souks (Beirut Jewellery Souks, Downtown; + 961 76 700407), which also does a Champagne-fuelled brunch on a Sunday.
Escape Downtown’s expensive boutiques and go instead to Mar Mikhael. Here, independent bookstores and fashion and furniture designers have started to gentrify the residential/industrial area’s former greasy garages.
Ageing mechanics, butchers and a man who only sells bananas – decades ahead of Europe’s mono-boutique trend – now share the streets with trendier shopping options, such as arts, books and culture concept store Plan Bey (Geara Building, Armenia Street, Mar Mikhael; +961 1 444110). Beirut Souks (Downtown; +961 1 973 418), an open-air shopping mall built on the site of Beirut’s traditional souk, prompted a few begrudging comments from locals when it opened in 2009, but an afternoon spent wandering through the high-street stores and newly opened big-name brands is pleasant enough. Pop in to nearby Elie Saab and Zuhair Murad, known for their red-carpet gowns and pure Lebanese glamour. On the other end of the spectrum, Starch Boutique (1051 Quartier des Arts, Saifi Village) showcases a fresh crop of young design talent every year, and is the best place to pick up one-off, contemporary clothing. Round off with a coffee-cardamom macaroon from Ladurée (+961 1 992922), a flavour created by the Parisian pastry and tea house in tribute to Beirut.
If you’re craving a more typical souk experience, travel to the coastal cities of Tripoli and Saida, known for their centuries-old soap factories and other traditional goods. For gifts, a box of sugary baklava or a bottle of knockout Lebanese wine make fine Beiruti souvenirs.
BMI and MEA both operate direct flights from Heathrow to Beirut (5 hours). Once in town, one of the best ways to get around is to hop into a servees, the informal taxis that are shared by several people at once. Negotiate a price for your journey once you get going.
The Orientalist-inspired decor and spectacular terrace at Hotel Albergo (137 Abdel Wahab El Inglizi Street; +961 1 339 797) and Le Gray’s contemporary luxury (Martyrs’ Square; +961 1 971 111) offer five-star boutique stays. More modest accommodation can be found at Saifi Urban Gardens (Pasteur Street, Gemayze; +961 1 562 509) which has hostel-like rooms, a rooftop bar and a language school.
Festivals & events
Fête de la Musique (June) offers a chance to see Beirut’s streets traffic-free and is full of diverse local acts; Vinifest (October) celebrates the products of Lebanon’s vineyards.