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 first-time visitors but, once seduced, you’ll be left craving the city’s warm-hearted hospitality, history, hummus and hedonism. A former Phoenician port, the city juts out into the eastern end of the Mediterranean – a spectacular location for a sensational destination.
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 20th 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 tensions continue to simmer, over the past 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 restaurants and bars have seen the city come alive, and a steady stream of tourists has been welcomed with open arms.
Now, given recent political events in the region, it’s with a typically Lebanese sense of pride that Beirut is enjoying the limelight as one of the region’s most relatively stable destinations. No longer a well-kept secret, Beirut could be the ultimate alternative city break, boasting its unique combination of Middle Eastern and Mediterranean spirit.
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 20th-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 drivers blast out Arabic oldies and zig-zag their death-defying way through Beirut’s kamikaze traffic.
At sunset, join the fishermen and joggers 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 relaxing at a seaside café.
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 mezze. Abdel Wahab (51 Abdel Wahab El Inglizi Street, Monot; +961 1 200550) and 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. 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.
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. 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.
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, Gemmayze; +961 1 562 509) which has hostel-like rooms and a language school.
Need to know
Several airlines fly direct to Beirut Rafic Hariri International Airport, though prices vary by season – some airlines offer good seasonal deals. Try Flydubai and Emirates from Dubai Airport, or Air Arabia from Sharjah. Prices start at Dhs899 for a return ticket, including tax.
www.flydubai.com, www.emirates.com, www.airarabia.com.
Dubai to Beirut
Flight time: Three to four hours.
Time difference: Two hours behind the UAE.
Dhs1 = 408 Lebanese pounds.