It’s unlikely you’ll find anyone fiercely prouder of their capital city than those from Lebanon. Beirut is variously described as filled with brilliant restaurants, steeped in history, packed with lively nightlife, both a city and beach destination, and also a great, short-distance place to fly to for a skiing holiday. And it really is all of those things.
Many of its buildings may still be pock-marked with reminders of the civil war, which ended in 1990, but in among them you’ll find a thriving metropolis filled with luxury designer stores, alongside a raucous, grungy bar scene packed with fun-loving Lebanese youth.
One of the oldiest cities in the world, Beirut has been inhabited for more than 5,000 years, and excavations have unearthed evidence of Phoenician, Hellenistic, Roman, Byzantine, Arab, Crusader and Ottoman remains. In the modern era, after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire following World War I, Lebanon was placed under the French Mandate. Though the country gained independence in 1943, a huge amount of French culture remains, evidenced in everything from the food and café culture to education and language – French is still widely spoken in Beirut today.
SIGHTSEEING AND CULTURE
Want to learn more about the origins of one of the oldest cities in the world? the National Museum of Beirut (www.beirutnationalmuseum.com), home to a sprawling collection ranging from prehistory to the Arab conquest, is a good place to start. Sitting on the Green line, the front line during the city’s civil war, the building suffered a great deal of damage, but has since been restored. Also offering a glimpse into the city’s past is the Roman Baths (between Banks Street and Capuchin Street), a 2,000-year-old structure situated right in the heart of the city – though don’t expect to be able to get too close. Demonstrating Lebanon’s diverse faith, both the Grand Omari Mosque (+961 1 985 100) and the Saint George’s Greek Orthodox Cathedral (+961 3 333 777) are important sites with storied histories, and key to understanding Beirut’s rich cultural heritage. For a leisurely stroll, head to the beautiful American University of Beirut (www.aubmc.org , +961 1 350 000) known as much for its lush, expansive grounds as its population of sun-seeking stray cats. In Downtown, don’t miss Souk el Tayeb, a pop-up farmers’ market that takes place every Saturday. Peruse fresh produce while devouring freshly made saj wraps filled with piping hot halloumi.
FOOD AND DINING
Foodies are in for a real treat, as Beirut might just be home to some of the restaurants in the Levant. Those travelling from Dubai may also recognise some familiar names, including French bistro Couqley (www.couqley.com, +961 1 442 678), located down “The Alleyway” within Beirut’s buzzing Gemmayze district, and Lebanese eatery Leila (www.leilarestaurant.com, + 961 1 216 890).
Make the most of Beirut’s coastal location, however, by heading to the upmarket Zaitunay Bay. Make a beeline for Babel Bay (www.babelrestaurant.com, +961 1 370 846), a Lebanese seafood restaurant where you’ll find astonishingly good food and superb service, alongside a decent range of Lebanese beverages.
For more low-key, low-cost eats that still deliver all the classic flavours of Lebanon, Café Em Nazih (+961 1
562 509) is a quaint, garden spot with superb mezze and manakish – served up alongside the occasional
bout of live music.
Indisputably the nightlife capital of the Levant – the Lebanese know how to let their hair down – and there are plenty of places to join in. From thumping house nights at major nightclubs to live acoustic jams at hole-in-the-wall bars, there is something for every imaginable taste, with much of it contained within the trendy areas of Gemmayze and Mar Mikhaël. For low-key rooftop vibes, head to Coop D’Etat (+961 71 134 173). Once you’ve woven your way up the stairs you’ll be met with a cosy wooden terrace, views of neighbouring flats and warehouses, plus a range of well-priced drinks. The wooden decking, benches and oversized parasols give the impression of a cross between a pub garden and a pop-up urban beach. Alternatively, head to the ever-popular Internazionale (+961 70 850 291) for hipster cool, Ferdinand (+961 1 355 955) for indie beats, mixed drinks and the signature, blueberry jam-topped Ferdi burger, or Bar ThreeSixty (+961 1962 888) at the seriously swish Le Gray Hotel for unrivalled views of Beirut and the glittering Mediterranean Sea.
Open-air lounge Iris previously reigned when it comes to sundowners, but the bar’s relocation has deterred some long-time regulars – still, it’s an impressive setting worth checking out.
Finally, have you even been to Beirut if you haven’t danced until dawn at one of its most famous clubs? Perhaps most legendary among them is B018 (+961 3 800 018, search on Facebook for the latest nights and gigs), a pioneer that’s been going strong for more than 20 years, though megahaunts O1NE (+961 70 939 191) and SKYBAR (+961 3 939 191) offer a swankier clubbing experience.
WHERE TO STAY
Prices can vary wildly across Beirut’s hotels, though there are a great deal of decent mid-range options available. The Monroe Hotel Beirut (www.themonroehotels.com, +961 1 371 122) is an affordable option near Zaitunay Bay.
A couple of hundred dirhams more per night will get you a room in the newer, shinier (yet equally accessible) O Monot Boutique Hotel Beirut (www.omonot.com, +961 338 777), which boasts a private swimming pool.
At the luxury end, Le Gray Beirut (www.campbellgrayhotels.com, +961 1 971 111) is among the city’s best-known, with a rooftop restaurant and lounge, a superb location in the heart of town.
If you’re looking for something more familiar, Beirut is also home to an array of Radisson, Rotana, Ramada and InterContinental properties.
Buses are affordable but often crowded, so as a tourist, you’re better of getting around by taxi. They’re easy to hail and not too pricey – providing you agree a fare before getting in (your hotel can advise on how much journeys should cost).
Numerous airlines including MEA, flydubai, Etihad and Emirates fly direct to Beirut, with prices starting at around Dhs1,000.