Beirut City Guide

In ancient Roman mythology, Janus was a two-faced god, as he looked to the future and the past; Beirut, I found, is not much different. The capital of Lebanon is a melting pot of old and new, traditional and modern, ancient and hip, as if the city could not let go of its heritage, all the while striving to be at the forefront of trendiness. It’s a difficult balance to maintain, but one that the metropolis seems to handle with great ease.

Much like wealthy Lebanese women, Beirut had to undergo a facelift after the Civil War. When walking around the city, you can spot old buildings marked by the blast of battle bullets. Keep on walking and you’ll see entirely remodelled monuments without a wrinkle on their façade, and even some built from scratch. But the architects don’t fool anyone; it’s easy to distinguish the newer buildings from the older ones (just like it’s easy to spot a woman who underwent a little nip and tuck).

Nonetheless, this artificial façade in no way mirrors the heart and soul of Beirut and its inhabitants. Au contraire, even though the people had to endure changes, they preserved their legendary generosity and hospitality. Ask anyone for directions and they’ll be more than happy to help you pave your way around their city. When invited to a ‘casual’ dinner of intimate friends, don’t be surprised if you find yourself surrounded by 50 people and a myriad of meticulously well-presented mezzes. Let the outlandish intonations of Arabic words soothe your curious ears.

Even though Arabic remains the principal language in Lebanon, other languages have inserted themselves into the culture. When the country was colonised by the French, it was not only flooded by invaders, but also by their language, which until recently, was predominant. Nowadays however, English has taken over. As Beirut gradually turned into an international hotspot, it’s only natural that the globalizing forces would convert the city into an English-speaking one where you can pay in US Dollars almost anywhere… Goodbye French colony, hello international territory!

Territory seems to be an appropriate word for the city, as it is packed with military guards and checkpoints. Then again, when you hear the muezzin call to prayer (adhan) from one of the mosques’ minarets, you forget all about the serpentine politics, and you remember Beirut’s religious roots and the cohabitation between Muslims and Christians. So the duality of the city is exemplified in many ways: by its architecture, society, currency, language and religion.

Beirut City Guide

HOTSPOTS

A great hotel to stay in is Le Patio which is located in the heart of downtown Beirut’s business district. It’s a charming little boutique hotel with a rooftop pool that offers a panoramic view of the city.

If you want to explore the treasures of ancient civilisations, head to the National Museum where you can contemplate artefacts, jewellery, sarcophagi, sculptures and mosaics. After the visit, head to the museum shop! You’ll find sublime earrings and necklaces that are inspired by original Phoenician pieces. Gold, turquoise, lapis lazuli, I’m sure you’ll find something to your taste! A great place to then have lunch is Abdel Wahad, located in Achrafieh, one of the oldest and most charming districts of East Beirut. This restaurant has a bit of a European vibe to it and the food is heavenly.

 

BYBLOS: THE ETERNAL GEM

If you feel like taking a break from the busy buzz of the city, head up North to explore the charming little city of Byblos. This Mediterranean port is believed by many to be the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world. Its 7,000-year-old history and ruins makes it a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The long-term preservation of the city gives it a picturesque allure, transporting you back to other times where Egyptian seafarers bought cedar, Alexander the Great established Hellenistic rule, and Crusaders invaded the port… If the city wasn’t supported by such a colossal history, you could almost imagine yourself being in a Disneyland attraction.

When walking around, get lost in the Phoenician and Roman ruins that pave the city, visit the Medieval Church of St. John, and discover momentous fossils in the Byblos Fossil Museum. If you get tired of the overwhelming scenic display, head towards the entrance of the archaeological site where you’ll find a souk selling local souvenirs (some more authentic than others!) Sit at one of the many colourful cafés and watch the overzealous tourists run around amidst the amused locals. For dinner, walk down to the port and take a seat at the renowned PEPE’S Fishing Club, a restaurant that has greeted international personalities such as Frank Sinatra, Brigitte Bardot and Jacques Cousteau – all have paid a visit to this legendary spot. A tribute to these emblematic figures lies on the “wall of fame” at Pepe’s, where a multitude of photos are mounted to show-off the stars that have shined and dined there.

A great time to go to Byblos is in June and July, as there is the Byblos International Festival, where musicians from all over the world come and play on an open-air stage amongst the ruins.

Beirut City Guide

BACK TO BEIRUT

Evidently, there is a lot do to in Beirut and its surrounding areas. You’d think that the Lebanese could never grow tired of this unique place. Nonetheless, the political scene being what it is, you never know when things might turn around. That’s why the wealthier Lebanese always have a plan B. They can pack up in 24 hours, get their finances straightened out, and head to Paris or London, where a relative will be sure to greet them with open arms.

When heading back to the airport, I found myself with an unusual taxi driver. He told me that he spoke seven languages fluently, had visited every country in the world, and had dated the stunning Catherine Deneuve back in the days. That’s the beauty of Beirut, it’s a dream you want to believe in.

Beirut City Guide

 

View Comments

Leave a Reply

City Guides

You know how you have that one incredible friend who knows their city inside out? Yeah, that’s us. We take the world’s most dynamic destinations, hand-pick the best parts and give them to you in one place. This is the kind of guide that you don’t need to run by a local. Eat your heart out, shop ‘til you drop, drink like a fish, dance your socks off, sleep – then repeat.

Bundles

Have you ever been called a dreamer? Is your life one of introspection and romance? We re-examine travel destinations in Myths & Legends, The Spirit Issue, The Good Life and Celebration in the new Dreams Bundle, our ode to the dreamer.

Download Suitcase App
Learn More