The Weekly Getaway: Beirut, think Paris plus the fun!
“Nothing is very constant in Beirut. [...] It is exhausting, but it is also beautiful.” Nasri Atallah’s ode to Beirut is actually very true. And it’s what makes Beirut an ideal travel destination.
In one day or even half an hour, to be honest, one can go from awe to exasperation, to excitement or disappointment. This is what I enjoy about Beirut and what makes it unique.
The first thing you notice, even when you arrive at the airport, is that the "Paris of the Middle East" is messy. But to appreciate the mess, one has to understand Lebanon’s past (and present). Throughout history, Lebanon has been the melting pot for Sunni, Shia, Druze, Maronite Catholics, Greek Orthodox and expansionist Europeans (mainly French). This coexistence didn’t come without challenges, gridlocks, and tensions. For those following current affairs, the latest resignation of Lebanese Prime Minister Hariri, blaming Iran for interfering in domestic affairs, while traveling to Saudi Arabia for business, is testament to the complexity of Lebanese politics.
Beirut has of course not been immune to the burden of the past. The civil war, which broke out in 1975, killed over 100,000 people, destroyed significant parts of the city and had an impact on the country’s psyche. The division between West and East Beirut along the Green Line can still be felt, especially when speaking to locals. That’s without accounting for the 2006 war with Israel, the tensions with Hezbollah or the influx of Syrian refugees.
But Beirut doesn’t surrender. It’s the place where people enjoy life and make sure to make the most of it. It’s also a place where in spite of all the political instability and insecurity in the Middle East, I have a strange feeling of being completely safe.
Beirut neighborhoods: East versus West side
What I also enjoy about Beirut is that one can walk to discover its thousand faces. From the narrow streets of Hamra to the fancy Beirut Souks downtown, where Chanel, Range Rovers, and Rolex make for the urban landscape, to the Hariri mosque one feels like they’ve walked through 3 different places in merely half an hour.
On the other side, in Gemmayze and Mar Mikhael, skyscrapers (some of them very ugly) coexist with decrepit old buildings. Gouraud and Armenia streets are where people come to play once the sun goes down; whether you’re into cocktail bars, small cafes, Lebanese restaurants or art galleries, you’ll find your fix.
To better understand the East-West divide make sure you walk through Monot and Achrafieh. The area East of the Green Line has been historically Christian. Wander around the narrow streets all the way to Sassine Square - if you need directions, more often than not, French would be the lingua franca.
Even further east, Bourj Hammoud the Armenian neighbourhood is totally worth visiting. A word of caution - you’ll likely get stuck in traffic getting there. Be patient, the little shops and delicious bakeries will make up for the time you spent in a “service” (the local taxis).
Beirut’s culinary scene: more than zaatar and falafel
City of fun, Beirut is like a disco ball. It shines in all directions and all its facets reflect a different part of its past. This diversity is also found in its restaurant scene. A paradise for foodies, you won’t get enough of the tabbouleh or manouche with zataar. But Beirut being a truly cosmopolitan place also means that whether you feel like good burgers, sole meuniere, or sushi, everything is on offer.
Don’t leave without trying the Lebanese wines. I really enjoy the Ksara Blanc de Blanc and Reserve du Couvent, as well as the Ixsir Altitudes Rose in the summer. The Obeidy from Chateau Saint Thomas is made with a local grape and in my opinion, is a great apero option.
Every time my plane approaches Beirut and all the lights shine on the Corniche, I’m always filled with a wave of excitement. Better fasten my seatbelt, I’m about to be engulfed in Beirut’s exhausting beauty.
Nothing is very constant in Beirut. Certainly not dreams. But despair isn’t constant either. Beirut is a city to be loved and hated a thousand times a day. Every day. It is exhausting, but it is also beautiful.
- Sursock Museum - One of the most beautiful museums I’ve been. Exhibitions change often, yet they’re always amazing. Their cafe is a great place to relax with a book.
- National Museum - To understand Lebanon’s rich history take the time to wander around the newly renovated marina. Don’t miss out on the basement - they’ve recreated an underground tomb.
- Zaituna Bay Marina - Best place for people (and yacht) watching.
- Walk along the Corniche - It’s the best place to avoid the city’s hustle and bustle.
- Dar El-Nimer Foundation - Gorgeous art foundation in Clemenceau.
- Orient 499 - Expensive but beautiful, this shop has a very eclectic collection of items for the house
- Plan BEY - From their posters to their vases made from recycled glass, this is the place to go for presents.
- Sursock Museum shop - I love their jewelry selection and always spend way too much time in there after visiting the museum.
- Johnny Farah - Beautiful leather accessories shop in Saifi village.
- Hotel Albergo - Gorgeous boutique hotel in Achrafieh. From its terrace to its rooms, this is the place to enjoy the Beiruti glam.
- Hote Libanais - Beautifully decorated BnBs scattered across the city, this is a great option if you want to feel like a local
- BEyT - Gorgeous guesthouse in the Clemenceau area. They’re garden is a hidden gem.
- Phoenicia Hotel - A Beirut classic, with a lot of history and located close to the renovated Zaituna bay marina.
- Saifi Urban Garden - For those travelling on a budget this is a great value for money hostel option.
- Onno - One of the best places for Armenian food. Love the cheese pastries, itch salad and the sour cherry kebab.
- Mayrig - Upscale Armenian restaurant in Gemmayze. Don’t miss out on their manti and their delicious rosewater pudding.
- Mezyan - A relaxed eatery in Hamra for Lebanese food.
- T-Marbouta - Don’t miss out on the vegetarian kibbeh and the fried cauliflower with tahina sauce.
- Falamanki Raouche - Amazing view of the Raouche rock and a large selection of Lebanese dishes
- Jai - If you get tired of tabbouleh, this tiny restaurant serves the best Thai green curry and ginger push I’ve ever had.
- Liza - Beautifully decorated and attracting the Achrafieh crowds this is a great people watching spot.
- Kalei - My favourite brunch spot. Read our full review here.
- Baron - Where tradition and sophistication meet. Try the dates and the roasted cauliflower. Read our full review here.
- Tawlet - Their lunch buffet is not to be missed. The food is changes and is often cooked by refugees.
- Kampai - Very good upmarket place for fresh sushi downtown.
- The Happy Prince - Burger heaven. Their salads are not bad either.
- Hanna Mitri - If you’re feeling like a rosewater or pistachio ice cream, Hanna Mitri is a Beirut institution.
- Pizzaria - One of the best pizzas I’ve had outside Italy.
- Barbar - A fast food institution (love their falafel), which has never closed even at the height of the civil war.
- Ichkanian - The place to go for a spicy lahm bajin. They have a vegetarian option too!
- Kissproof - Relaxed bar with an extensive beer selection in Badaro.
- Anise - Where all the journos, UN and NGO folks hang out.
- Iris - This rooftop offers an amazing view of the city.
- Pacifico - I really like their garden and they make one mean gin basil.
- Ferdinand - Good place for cocktails in Hamra.
- Salon - For jazz enthusiasts, Salon has a live band every Wednesday.
- Sky Bar - Beirut’s poshest club. Burned down, opened again, this club captures the essence of Beirut nightlife.
- B-018 - The spectacular underground nightclub has managed to find a way not to be claustrophobic - it’s roof opens as you’re dancing your night away.
- Music Hall - The concept is really fun. Singers come and go for 10 minute shows allowing you to enjoy over 20 different performances in one night.