Only a four hour and a half hour flight away, Beirut will seduce travelers in search of a city break with a difference.
Sure Dubai is exciting, Abu Dhabi offers an abundance of art and Muscat has a certain picturesque charm but when all is said and done, they are Middle East-lite. If you’re after somewhere that matches the Middle East of your imagination, you want Beirut – traditionally known as the ‘Paris of the Middle East’.
Lebanon and its capital have been in the international headlines for all the wrong reasons and the perception still lingers that Lebanon is a closed society, off-limits to outsiders. Happily, the years of fear and loathing are (for now at least) over and the Middle East’s most beautiful and cosmopolitan country is once again embracing tourism.
Beirut isn’t a pretty city (the scars of its recent battles are still visible from the pockmarked shell damaged buildings to the checkpoints patrolled by soldiers) and there are few ‘can’t-miss, won’t miss’ sights, but make no mistake: it is an exciting, intriguing destination unlike any Middle Eastern one you’ve been to before. The city’s skyline is dominated by domes and minarets of mosques but also by Greek Orthodox churches, cathedrals and Turkish hammams (because of Beirut’s location at the crossroads of Asia, Europe, and Africa, Lebanon has been shaped by many civilizations).
There are many museums to explore but the best is the National Museum of Beirut (www.beirutnationalmuseum.com), packed as it is with ancient treasures. Every hour, the museum screens Revival – a fascinating short documentary on how staff saved the collection from the destruction of the Civil War and subsequently restored the museum to its former glory. Other sights to tick off include the Corniche promenade (from where you can watch the sunset over Pigeon Rocks – two natural arches jutting from the Mediterranean – or ride on the giant Ferris wheel at Luna Park), the spectacular Al-Amin mosque where Rafik Hariri (Lebanon’s former Prime Minister who was assassinated in 2005), is buried and the magnificently restored Roman baths.
Once you’ve got the sightseeing out the way, return to your hotel for a power nap and then to primp and preen: Beirut’s nightlife is legendary and never starts before 10 pm. The choice of where to stay is wide and handsome but the Movenpick is without a doubt of one of the best in the region and the only five-star city center hotel with resort facilities – expect four pools, a private beach, onsite shopping arcade, tennis courts, health club, spa and so on.
When night falls, entertainment options abound – Beirut personifies la dolce vita – and it’s simply a matter of choosing your pleasure among the slew of trendy bars and live music venues (try underground bunker bar B018, Behind the Green Door, the rooftop bar at the Albergo Hotel and, in the summer, Sky Bar – regularly voted the world’s best bar) in fashionable areas such as Ashrafieh and Gemmayzeh. All are open until the wee hours of the morning: this is a city so fast and invigorating that boredom is not an option and sleep is a mere afterthought.
There’s also a thriving local gastronomic scene: food has always been a reason to head for Beirut and visiting gourmands are awed by the amazing array of restaurants, bars, and cafes competing for their mealtime affections along with vendors peddling falafel and circular bread through which locals thread their arms in order to ‘wear’ them home like giant bangles. Take advantage of Beirut’s pleasant year-round temperatures and linger at side street tables or on rooftops over mouth-watering mezze (think fattoush, kebbeh, kofta, olives and vine leaves) with the sweet smell of shisha puffed from water pipes hanging in the air.
Shopping is another popular pastime for Beirutis – it’s striking how stylish the Lebanese are especially when compared to their western counterparts – and it’s fun to window shop arm in arm around the vibrant pedestrianised downtown district known as ‘Solidere’ where boutiques are unique and independently owned. Saifi Village is another essential shopping stop. Once the site of the so-called ‘green line’ that divided Muslim west Beirut from the Christian east side during the 15-year civil war, this beautifully restored quarter is now home to chic stores stocking clothes and carpets as well as stalls selling spices, flatbreads, labneh and organic veg.
Yet Beirut isn’t everything and tempting though it might be to stay within the city, it’s worth venturing outside to see the contrast between the glitzy capital and the rest of this tiny – you can drive from the north to the south in just over three hours – but mountainous country. Taxis are readily available and an affordable way to travel – providing you agree on a price prior to beginning your journey.
Log onto the CD-Traveller website tomorrow to read more about Lebanon