Paris of the East
Another country never been before, as excited as that can get for travelling onto what is it up to date, the country visited number 91! That’s a step closer to one of my desired dreams of travelling to 100 countries with the age of 35, no matter if by the first months on that age (which I know it will be impossible anyway), or if that’s by the last day before I turn 36, I will keep trying to make it a reality. In honest, the only thing that is holding me back from not doing this earlier is the huge logistic I am having in planning the holidays I have per year coupled with the bank holidays and the weekends in the best possible way to maximise the days and travel outside of Europe, since there are no more countries in the whole of Europe at the exception of Azerbaijan that I have not been.
Lebanon was for a long time now in the agenda, and considering how volatile these countries in that region can sometimes be, we thought it was about right to do it this year. You never know how the political situation or radical thoughts turn and change the fate of a country from the night to the morning, as is with the sad and unfortunate example of Syria. Lebanon nevertheless, since their civil war has been a pretty stable country, with an ongoing rising tourism, and overall rise in wealth as you can clearly see from the shiny and spotless capital city Beirut, where residential skyscrapers are the new trend, new designed neighbourhoods everywhere, and a continuous restoration of the older parts that have become 100% gentrified with great bars, cafes, pubs and incredible nightlife.
Beirut is one of the world’s oldest continuously inhabited cities where many of the greatest civilizations have gained and lost their powers for ruling over the thousands of years. From Phoenician, Hellenistic, Roman, Arab and Ottoman civilizations, to French colony and finally the Independent Republic of Lebanon after WWII. Turmoil has always been a constant threat through the centuries, and so in more recent dates as was from the 1970’s with the 15 years civil war that ripped through the country until the early 1990’s. Even since it has become once again a thriving holiday destination, centre for the arts and culture, financial and motor of the country however the unfortunate threat of terrorism is still the weakest point, as is with all the countries in this part of the world.
Lebanese people is extremely helpful and open-minded, and one actually wonder if this is really a country in the Middle East! It’s like Turkey, very European in every sense bearing their religion, but totally open-minded and respectful to other religions that are present. You can find a mosque and right across the road a Catholic church, Roman remains of pagan temples, Greek and Armenian Orthodox churches and even a Synagogue all coexisting in peace and harmony.
Beirut can either feel big or small, that depending on what you are expecting to see and visit. For sure it’s not a small city in the true meaning of the words. It’s over 2 millions inhabitants; however the historic area is not too large, where sights are generally concentrated next to each other, with the extended new districts all round it and the famous Corniche, the promenade by the port and sea. All these areas are new, and other than residential towers of great design at many, there’s not much, bearing the great walk along the Corniche. Saying this, plan accordingly to maximise your time in being able to visit some of the greatest ancient cities in the world such as the Roman Baalbeck, Anjar, Byblos or Tyre, all of which an easy day tour from Beirut. A day in the capital is well enough to enjoy all the sights in an easy pace without rush and enjoying as locals do with great coffees, nice food and perhaps some ice-creams on the go why not, remember it can get seriously hot! And because of the relatively small size of the country, having your base in the capital would be your best bet in all senses, and so the most secured.
When coming to a very important subject, food, Lebanon is your taste heaven. It is by far one of the best cuisines in the world, a mix of Mediterranean and Arab with the touch of French. It’s impossible not to think in enjoying some of the best hummus ever, falafel, tabboule or fattoush among countless other dishes in the vegetarian range; and the great grills. Other dishes you must try are Mutabbal (dip made from baked eggplants with sesame paste, lemon juice and olive oil), Muhammara which is another dip more elaborated than the previous made from red peppers, walnuts, bread crumbs, olive oil, pomegranate molasses, lemon juice, onion, garlic and spices. Baleela (chickpea salad with olive oil and lemon juice) and Mjaddara (cooked lentils and rice mixed with spices, olive oil and a topping of fried onions). As you will see most of their dishes are vegetarian, and they like to order many of these since are not too large to share, and enjoy with flat pitta bread. For a great experience, order what is called the Lebanese Mezze, this is no less than a variety of up to 30 dishes different both cold and hot! Including in the mezze are Fattouch, Tabbouleh, Baba ghanoush, Dolma, Lebaneh, Kibbe, Hummus, Pita, Grilled pita with za’atar, Taouk tablieh…
Some great places can be found in the rather gentrified district of Rmeil, specially along its main street, Rue Gouraud (try Massaad restaurant for example, highly recommended), and of course along the other main area of the city, Hamra, however this area is way more focused in catering for tourists, not locals as in Rmeil.
For more information about Beirut check Wikipedia and Wikitravel sites. Lebanon’s currency is the Lebanese Pound (LBP, LL). Please note that any price reference is true as from when this guide was created, therefore check prices in advance as with the time they change.
What to see and do in Beirut
- Beirut Central District Also known by BCD is the principal core of the city, and the financial, commercial and administrative hub of the country. This is a large area where majority of the city’s sights are, and is divided into different neighbourhoods.
-Nejmeh Square/Downtown Originally built by the French in the early 20th century in resemblance to Paris’ Place de l’Etoile, which is how it is also known in Beirut. It is the true heart of the downtown district, hence known as the Downtown.
-Abd Clock Tower Located in the centre of the main plaza.
-Parliament Building Built in 1931, one of the many beautiful buildings facing the main plaza.
-Grand Omari Mosque Until the construction of Mohammad Al-Amin this was the city’s central mosque. Originally dating from the 12th century, has survived to these days in great shape. It’s located 2 blocks north from Nejmeh Square facing the Souks.
-City Hall Right behind the Omari Mosque in a square facing also another smaller mosque, the Emir ‘Assaf.
-Saint George Greek Orthodox Cathedral Facing Nejmeh Square. The Mother Cathedral of the Orthodox community in Beirut and the oldest church of the city. Completed in 1772, was restored after the Civil War in 1995 where excavations led to the discovery of the Roman arches underneath, now part of the museum.
-Garden of Forgiveness South from the orthodox cathedral. Nowadays an open space combining Mediterranean gardens with walkways between the Roman remains for view and enjoyment without altering the original ancient fabric.
-Saint George Maronite Cathedral South of the Garden of Forgiveness. Completed in 1894 and completely inspired from the inside and outside in the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore of Rome.
-Mohammad Al-Amin Mosque Side by side with the previous Cathedral. Of quite recent construction completed in 2008 in traditional Ottoman style, with blue domes and high minarets.
-Souks At the northern edge of the Downtown/Neimeh Square. While like any Arab city the markets play an important role in the life of its people, Beirut was not exception with a large complex of Medieval souks linked each others. It was until the Civil War that all turned nasty and most of it destroyed. The reconstruction followed in part the original street-grid combining elements of the traditional architecture creating a great modern version absolutely worth it. The Southern Souq was designed by Spanish architect Rafael Moneo, while the Gold Souq by the British Kevin Dash. In the rebuilding, part of the ancient city were discovered and restored in-situ.
-Imam Ouzai Square Part of the Souks project granting access to Souk Tawileh and the Gold Souk. The clever landscaping of this area did not mind in quality of materials hence the marble, black basalt stones and the implementation within the floor of the original Roman pavement preserved in bits.
-Martyrs’ Square Aligning by the east of Nejmeh Square towards Ashrafieh. It is the largest of any square in the city, originally built by the Ottomans in the early 19th century. At its centre you can find the Martyr’s Statue, and by one of the sides the Old Opera House.
-Saifi Village Just south and east of the Martyrs’ Square on the edges of the Beirut Central District. Although completely built from the Civil War rubble, was designed in a vernacular style reminiscent of French colonial buildings with traditional Mediterranean and Lebanese ones. All over the streets you will find up-scale shops, restaurants and bars; and commonly known the Quartier des Arts.
-Sursock Museum In the district of Rmeil, directly east from the Saifi Village. This is the prime modern and contemporary art in the country, housed in an impressive 1912 villa constructed for the wealthy aristocrat Nicolas Ibrahim Sursock whose will was for the villa to be turned into a museum after his death.
-Roman Baths Garden One of the largest archaeological sites within the city, the former baths. It aligns the entire western edge of the Downtown opening to a square facing the Grand Serail.
-Grand Serail One of the most emblematic buildings in Beirut, constructed in 1853 to function as an ottoman military barracks, thereafter the headquarters of the French governor during the French Mandate; and after Lebanon’s Independence, it’s the Governmental Palace. Right at the front you can see the Hamidiye Ottoman Clock Tower which dates from 1897.
-Hamra District The next in importance after the Downtown, this one is located to the west near the end of the tip of the city by the sea. From the Grand Serail it is located towards the west, taking Rue de France that then changes its name to Michel Chiha, Rue Banque du Liban and then transforms into Hamra.
-René Moawad Garden Along the section of the street by name Rue Banque du Liban is one of the nicest squares surrounded in both historic and residential architecture, being important the National library of Lebanon and the Ministry of Interior buildings.
-Rue Verdun One of the major up-scale shopping areas in Beirut. Starts at René Moawad Garden heading towards the south.
-Hamra Street The main thoroughfare in this district, very gentrified filled with hotels, shops, restaurants, bars and a thriving life day and night. It was known until the Civil War as the Beirut’s Champs Elysees due to the high aristocrats and rich.
-AUB Museum Located in Bliss Street, few blocks north perpendicular to Hamra Street, is an archaeology and history museum, dependent from the American University of Beirut.
- The Corniche The top promenade in Beirut running parallel to the sea and aligned by some of the best hotels and apartment towers not just in the city but the country. It starts at Saint George Bay in the east, then heading towards the west in the section known as Place Rafic Hariri, then onto Avenue of Paris and General De Gaulle Avenue to terminate at Rafic Hariri Avenue passing the Piegeon Rocks.
-Pigeon Rocks Located in Al-Manara District. The westernmost section of the Corniche is also one of the most beautiful and unusual for being home to a monumental natural rock arch right by the sea. It’s one of the best places to see the sunset. If you followed a route point by point as how I am listing the sights in this guide, then from Hamra Street take Kuwait Street that changes its name for Salaheddine El Ayoubi all the way to the coast.
-Avenue de Paris From the Pigeon Rocks towards Saint George Bay along the Corniche. This section is home to major grand hotels and luxury residential towers.
-Saint George Bay Also known as Zaitunay Bay. The northeastern part of the Corniche is marked by this small yet beautiful marina flanked by some of the top hotels and apartment towers in the city, coupled with up-scale restaurants and facilities.
-Rafik Hariri Memorial Garden Next to Saint George Bay, home to the bust of former Lebanese Prime Minister, Rafik Hariri who died in car bomb attack together with 22 other victims on 14 of February 2005 is this same site.
- Badaro The bohemian neighbourhood, one of the most gentrified areas in Beirut especially after the rebuilding and restoration since the Civil War. From Martyr’s Square is south along Damascus Street.
-Beit Beirut Not far south from Martyr’s Square in Damascus Street you can find this museum and urban cultural center housed in a war-torn building semi-restored to showcase the damages of the Lebanese Civil War.
-National Museum Located at the intersection of Damascus with Abdallah El Yafi Streets. One of the must visit museums in the city for the amount of art and archaeological exhibitions. 5000 LL entrance fee.
Beirut Rafik Hariri International Airport is the main gateway into Lebanon, the only international airport in the country. It is located barely 7km south of the city centre hence really near and although there is not any public transport, there are private minivans taking passengers to Dora in northeast Beirut crossing the city for a flat rate of 1000 LL. You can ask to stop at any time and place along the way, but beware the service stops before 23.00pm in any direction, therefore in the hours in between your only option is to get a taxi (25 USD fixed price, around 38000 LL), or get an Uber for 15 USD (23000 LL).
Coming overland or moving around Lebanon is easy via buses, and of course a rental car. It is totally safe to rent one, roads are very new and in great state. Beware there is no crossing possible into Israel, and anyone having an Israeli stamp in their passports might be declined for entering Lebanon. Border crossings into Syria are open however please refrain for getting anywhere near the border due to the current war situation in that country.
Once in the city, public buses and minivans are plentiful and cover pretty much the entire Beirut and all its neighbourhoods, but it’s a bit complicated to understand. There are no set bus stops, you halt the bus and get off whenever you request, and online maps of the available routes are a bit dubious. The cost for a ride is between 500 and 1000 LL. Then if you become comfortable in the city you can aim for understanding the shared-taxis, these are called Service (pronounced the French way servees). They follow a set route hence you need to stop and ask the driver whenever you see one your desired destination. The cost for these are 2000 LL.
Never mind, walking through the important sights is possible and your best bet to enjoy the city since it’s very compact; whereas you can always rely on getting an Uber anywhere from wherever you are although this involves having some mobile network or in proximity of an open wi-fi network.
Being the largest and such a thriving capital city of the country, the selection of hotels is actually massive, and to the likes of other thriving and booming cities such as Doha, Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Kuwait or Bahrain. Construction projects are everywhere, with even taller buildings. Notably along the Corniche is the largest concentration of the great up-scale luxury hotels, however you can find these spread all over the city. From the very top ranked, prime names, to the more modest and countless apartments. Name it and you have it in Beirut. Finding a good deal is to your luck, there are a good bunch of them. As for location, try to concentrate anywhere near the Downtown. This is by all means the best place to be, near everything the city has to offer, safe and ideally located.
As usual the most reasonable point to start your search is by checking some of our preferred affiliate hotel search engine such as Hotels.com, Booking.com, Expedia, Otel.com, Agoda, Opodo, LateRooms or Ebookers. Then, if your budget is still not met, there is a good selection of properties through airb&b and the likes of course.
We stayed at the Beverly Hotel Beirut, in Ibn Sina Street. Quite a nice 4* property next door to the Zaitunay Bay (Saint George’s Bay) and the Corniche, and minutes away from the Downtown hence one of the best locations to stay, in between some of the top hotels and luxury apartments in the city. Small to medium size, at just 46 rooms, it was really nice, spacious and very comfortable rooms with every facility nicely cared for. Friendly and helpful staff at all times, and a nice full breakfast included in the rate. We could not ask for anything else and will definitely recommend to anyone falling into a similar trip as the one from our experience where we did only need the hotel to have a good rest at night. If more time and more days especially in Beirut itself, then I would recommend you to get a hotel with a pool.