“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.