Best things to do in Beirut
A Beirut cliché, but essential nonetheless, a stroll along the Corniche at sunset affords a glimpse of the city in all its glory. This seaside promenade is the place to get a real glimpse of Beirut life, from fishermen standing solid in the face of lashing waves to crews of jagal (wealthy posers) peacocking in Lamborghinis and coffee sellers rapping their cups like castanets. Keep following the path to the Raouché neighbourhood and you’ll meet the famous Pigeons’ Rocks, sentinels of the Beirut coastline. Alternatively, grab a bicycle at Beirut by Bike and let the fresh sea air matt your hair as you glide along the Corniche on two wheels.
Think Lebanon. Think food. Think mezze. When in Beirut, you’ve got to gorge. If you’re lucky enough to know a Lebanese mum, you’ll know that feasting in this country is mandatory. Those sans mère libanaise will be pleased to learn that Beirut is awash with fine restaurants serving cuisines tailor-made to expand the waistband. New restaurants pop up seemingly every week, but there are some unmissable classics: Dar Bistro & Books, Enab, Tawlet and Mótto, Lebanon’s first restaurant where you can pay what you think is fair. And while you’re at it, don’t forget to visit Souk el Tayeb, a weekly open-air farmers’ market.
The best way to take in Beirut’s rich history is on a casual stroll through its streets. You can either do this by yourself or take part in a guided tour, such as Beirut Old City Walk – an expedient way to approach the city with local eyes and uncover the stories lurking in its walls and down its alleys (it’s also worth keeping an eye on Walk Beirut’s excellent tours, on hold at the time of writing). If you choose to go it alone, be sure to take in the Roman Baths, Martyrs' Square and the former Holiday Inn Hotel – the infamous epicentre of the Civil War’s ‘Battle of the Hotels’. The city’s compact dimensions ensure that you should be able to cover it all in a day.
In Western cultural consciousness, the name ‘Beirut’ tends to evoke either war or parties. ‘Why not do both in one space?’ replies Beirut, and here we have it: B018, the legendary club in Karantina. The area’s name stems from the quarantine that stood here in the days of the French protectorate; it later became the site of a camp for thousands of Palestinian, Kurdish, and South Lebanese refugees, who were all massacred or expelled by a Phalangist militia in 1976. Today, and not without controversy, it is home to this sprawling underground club. DJ sets run into the early hours of the morning, when dawn signals the time to draw back the roof and reveal the stars and city lights. It’s explosive.
Awesome, mesmerising, monumental: the Roman temple at Baalbek (which the Greeks called Heliopolis, or ‘City of the Sun’) was one of the most celebrated sanctuaries of the ancient world, and remains the poster child of the Lebanese tourism board. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the ruins are a sight to behold: for sheer grandeur, nothing in the country beats the vista of the Imperial Roman columns soaring over the skyline of the Bekaa Valley. In the summer, the Baalbeck International Festival brings the monuments to life with an array of plays and concerts.
Rising from the ashes of the Civil War, the reconstructed Beirut Souks in Downtown is the epitome of Lebanese post-war development. Hermès, Louboutin and Vuitton are but a few of the names that line the hallowed halls of Beirut’s 5,000 year-old trading centre. But if you’re strapped for cash and up for the thrill of a flea market, look no further than Souk Al Ahad (Sundays). Selling everything from pirate DVDs to antiques and exotic pets (think Abu from Aladdin, but less friendly), the chaotic market is not for the faint-hearted, but it is the place to visit for authentic souk attitudes. A more mellow time can be had at the Monot Street Book Market (first Saturday of every month) or Depot-Vente, Mar Mikhael’s vintage emporium.
Forget the ancient Roman Cardo Maximus – Armenia Street and Gouraud Street, the thoroughfares of Mar Mikhael and Gemmayzeh, are the beating hearts of youthful Beirut. With their graffiti, galleries and a gamut of bars and clubs, they form the unmistakeable core of the Beirut hipster scene. Check out happy hour at Chaplin, or just hang around on the pavement on a Saturday with a $1.50 bottle of Almaza, absorbing the sounds of teenage rebellion issuing out from Abbey Road. Oh, and don’t forget to take a peek at the faded grandeur of the traditional houses adjoining the St Nicholas Stairs, which doubles as an open-air gallery in summer.
Wander around the pristine grounds of the famed American University of Beirut and you’ll start to get a sense of what the city was like before the Civil War. Grab a coffee with condensed milk from a vendor on Bliss Street and stroll into the grounds as the famous AUB cats stalk by nonchalantly. An airy 19th-century charm pervades the campus, which was built in the 1860s by zealous American missionaries. The staff did its best to keep its courses running through the war, and the university emerged from the conflict remarkably intact. It has a great Archaeological Museum and art galleries that host a variety of exhibitions and events.
Recently selected as the Arab Tourism Capital for 2016, the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Byblos (known locally as Jbeil) is a gem. Although it sells itself on its status as the first Phoenician city, Byblos has a lot more history to it than that, having hosted Egyptians, Assyrians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Crusaders, Mamluks and Ottomans and more over the past 7,000 years. Medieval ramparts and authentic souks wind down through cobbled streets lined with bougainvillea to a tiny fishing harbour. Amble around the Crusader citadel and adjacent archaeological site, stroll through the Souks, have a bite to eat in Feniqia or Adonis, and watch the sun set over the sea that carried Phoenician merchants all those millennia ago. If you’re around in summer, don’t miss the Byblos International Festival, which has been headlined by the likes of Massive Attack and B.B. King.
Embedded in the remote, scenic, strategically important hills of Mleeta, the surreal Tourist Landmark of the Resistance is an in situ, open-air museum of war. Once dubbed ‘Hezbollah’s Disneyland’, the museum, which is run by the political party-cum-militia and recognises its various conflicts, is laid out with military precision. The corpse of a Merkava tank, twisted and impotent, is the highlight of the exhibition, which is perhaps better described as a cornucopia of war spoils. The museum is a vital visit for anyone who wants to get a full perspective on the region’s geopolitics. In the words of its website, it is ‘the story of a rising mountain and the determination of strong men’.
An icon of idiosyncrasy, the Robert Mouawad Private Museum is worth a visit for the architecture alone. Set in the imposing neo-Gothic former residence of the late Lebanese politician Henri Pharaoun, the museum is an ode to the eclectic, its bonkers collection of art and ephemera reflecting the curious tastes and copious wealth of its founder, the jeweller Robert Mouawad. Ceramics, furniture, carpets and antiquities are displayed alongside each other with little regard for theme or consistency. The collection ranges from the sacred to the profane, sometimes in the same room: you’ll find everything here, from the first Qu’ran printed in Germany to an $11 million ‘Fantasy Bra’ worn by Victoria’s Secret’s very own Heidi Klum. Deliriously fun.
Beirut has a thriving art scene, and nowhere is this truer than in cinema. Okay, so you’ve got the blockbusters hitting the silver screen in Downtown’s Cinemacity – but there’s much more to be seen in this one-time ‘Paris of the Middle East’. Pop-up film screenings can be found all across the city, but the best place to start is the Metropolis Art Cinema in Achrafieh. For Godard, cinema was something between art and life, and that’s what Lebanon’s only independent art house feels like, with its wealth of esoteric retrospectives and carefully curated film festivals. Don’t miss their outdoor movie showings in the summer, which are sometimes hosted at The Gärten.
This is where Beirut's old epithet, 'the Paris of the Middle East', falls down. In the French capital beach resorts are as rare as a vegetarian meal, but in Beirut they are the life and soul (and sexy bod) of the party scene. The city's coastline is being increasingly monopolised by these snazzy pool/bar/club hybrids; while some may resent having to cough up the elevated entrance fee to access the Med, there's no doubt that, come summer, they're the place to go. Big-name DJs flock to the likes of The Sporting Club, while others – such as the historic Saint-George Yacht Club & Marina – cater to wealthy expats and the Beirut glitterati. The city likes to sell itself on the promise of skiing in the morning and sunbathing in the afternoon. Skip the slopes, we say.
Nestled in the heart of the Bekaa Valley, Château Ksara is a haven of calm, light years away from the bustle of Beirut. The Château is Lebanon’s biggest and oldest winery, proudly continuing the tradition of wine production established here by the Phoenicians. The views are remarkable and the site itself is fascinating, featuring an ancient Roman cave network stretching for two kilometres underground, where 90,000 bottles of their finest wines lie entombed. Guided tours run daily, and there’s a restaurant, shop and museum. And don’t forget to try their arak!
Like much of Lebanon, the National Museum, one of the best of its kind in the Middle East, has a complex history. Situated on the Green Line, which demarcated sides in the Civil War, it was the witness and victim of much conflict, and for locals its name was synonymous with violence. Now the well-curated rooms, once lit by flickering bursts of gunfire, are illuminated by low-level mood lighting and the glint of gold coins. Shaded sarcophagi shelter intricate Roman imperial carvings and bronze Phoenician statues stand sentinel-like in the galleries, while mosaics, ceramics and coins testify to Lebanon’s rich and varied history. If you visit Byblos or Tyre, make sure to leave the museum till last: there’s nothing like having a mental canvas on which to place its disparate exhibits.
Bourj Hammoud’s heart beats at a different pace to the rest of Beirut’s. A product of war in Armenia, during which refugees from Anatolia settled down here, it’s an area defined by its diasporic identity, and you’d be forgiven for thinking you’d stumbled into a lost corner of the Caucasus. Walk around and get of a sense of its distinct atmosphere: experience the senses, sounds and sights of another culture. Get a taste for pastirma (cured beef) at Basterma Mano, then move on to Onno for an induction into Armenian-Lebanese cuisine. If you have time, seek out Darsko on Maraash Street, a tiny record shop run by DJ (and co-founder of the Beirut Groove Collective) Ernesto Chahoud, which has an impressive stock of obscure vinyls.
Beiteddine is an Ottoman-era palace rising out of the tree-clad mountains of the Chouf. Courtyards, fountains and a world-class collection of Byzantine mosaics adorn this fairytale palace perched on a valley overlooking Deir el Qamar. The views are breathtaking, and the peace and calm are almost tangible. And you can be certain that the architecture is one of a kind: the Emir Bashir Chehab II, who commissioned the building, made sure of that when he cut off the architects’ hands upon its completion. During summer it plays host to one of the highlights of Lebanon’s cultural calendar, the Beiteddine Art Festival, which showcases both world-famous and local Lebanese artists.
Simultaneously petrifying and exhilarating, the nine-minute ride on the Téléphérique cable car from the Bay of Jounieh to the Our Lady of Lebanon shrine in Harissa is well worth taking, especially at sunset. As you inch up the spectacular tree-lined valley, the panoramic view of Jounieh Bay just gets better and better – just wait until you reach the shrine, 650m above sea level, where the Virgin Mary stretches out her arms in welcome. The base of the statue houses a tiny chapel, and the reward for climbing the spiral staircase inside is an even more dazzling view of the surrounding scenery. For those wanting a bit more action, it’s possible to paraglide over the Bay of Jounieh.
For a startling insight into antiquity, head downtown to the Al-Omari Mosque. A microcosm of Lebanese history, the mosque sits on a site formerly occupied by a Crusader church, which in turn began life as a Byzantine church that was itself built on the foundations of a Roman temple to Jupiter. In 1291 the Mamluks kicked out the Crusaders and established the elegant sandstone mosque that we see today. But its history lives on in this warm, intimate sanctuary: Mamluk, Ottoman and Greek inscriptions, along with its cross-shaped plan and Byzantine architectural features, betray Beirut’s multifaceted past.
If you’re into your art – as Beirutis generally are – then your first port of call should be the Beirut Art Center, a not-for-profit venue dedicated to contemporary local and international art. It’s a public space that aims to make art accessible to all, and to this end it hosts exhibitions in a variety of media, including sculpture, painting, photography and architecture. It also has a screening and performance room and regularly organises lectures, concerts and workshops. It’s not to be missed if you want to see some of the best art that Lebanon has to offer.