For most Europeans, the Mediterranean is the sun-drenched shores of Italy, France, Greece and Spain. But one of its best destinations is patiently waiting to be rediscovered. Resilient in the face of conflict and disaster, Beirut retains its raw energy driven by the meeting of modernity and tradition. Although Lebanon’s capital has long suffered from instability, it was once billed as the Paris of the Middle East, and now, despite the crisis, it is putting back its glamourous robes to remind who it is.
The modern no man’s land
Huge and modern shopping malls, elite, extremely expensive housing, rise among the remains of the war in Beirut. When you head to downtown Beirut in the souks, don’t expect the hustle and bustle of Marrakech.
Partly designed by Pritzker Prize-winning Spanish architect Rafael Moneo, this shopping district opened in 2009. It replaced a sukkah destroyed during the Lebanese Civil War, which lasted from 1975 to 1990, when Beirut was at the center of the conflict. Contemporary design meets traditional architecture in the markets, bringing an avant-garde to the historic district but at the same time paying homage to its past.
The restored buildings in the center of Beirut that were heavily destroyed during the Civil War
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As you browse the boutiques of some of the most expensive and prestigious international brands, you will understand why Beirut has gained a reputation as a regional fashion hub.
Nearby, in the central area of Beirut, is the prestigious Saifi Village. It is filled with boutiques, bars, galleries and farmers markets housed in French colonial style buildings.
They were rebuilt after the civil war, during which Saifi was a village located along the “green line” – the no-man’s land that divides the city. Today, the “nests” of the snipers have been rebuilt into houses with facades in warm colors, and it seems that nothing reminds of the horror.
But the remains of the civil war are all over the city – not in museums, but in plain sight. A visit to the ruins of the Holiday Inn hotel in Beirut that was at the center of the “Battle of the Hotels” is a chilling reminder of how recent and personal this conflict is for local residents.
If you want to learn about the ancient history of the city, visit the huge National Museum of Beirut. It reveals, through numerous artifacts dating back to prehistoric times, the different eras and 15 empires under which the city lived.
From mosques to beer halls – the eclecticism that makes friends
Religion plays an important role in Beirut’s identity and there are countless beautiful churches and mosques to visit. Not to be missed is the blue-domed Ottoman-style Mohammed Al-Amin Mosque, which is flanked by 65-meter minarets and is an architecturally stunning creation.
The blue-domed Ottoman-style Mohammed Al-Amin Mosque is flanked by 65-meter minarets
Photo: iStock by Getty Images
In the immediate vicinity is the Greek Orthodox Cathedral “St. George” – the oldest functioning church in Beirut. The interior of the cathedral is where it really comes alive, with colorful frescoes and golden accents enclosed within the classical Orthodox exterior – also restored after the Civil War. Deep down in the crypt, you’ll find a wealth of architectural finds.
Just a 10-minute walk from the cathedral, another world exists. The many bars, restaurants and cafes around the bohemian Gemmayzeh quarter are bustling with life and stories are being told. You will be welcomed not just hospitably – here people seem to be eager to communicate and make new friends. Sit with them over a pint of local beer, among the narrow streets and old buildings from the French era.
Just a moment away is L’Escalier de L’Art – a 500m staircase that connects Rue Gouraud and Rue Sursock. Since 1973, a number of art exhibitions have been held on the legendary stairs.
The party center of the Middle East
You might be surprised to find that Beirut has a vibrant music scene and an amazing party culture. Nightlife in Beirut will not disappoint you. The Lebanese know how to have fun. Some of the most famous DJs in the world define the local audience as one of the best.
Venues like SKYBAR, The Ballroom Blitz and virtually all the clubbing venues within the BIEL Waterfront have earned Beirut the status of a party hub. It even ranked third on CNN’s 2019 list of the world’s best party cities. But also outside the city you can find some truly unique places for pleasant experiences.
42 km away, past the beach resorts and tall buildings in the greenery of Mount Chuf, is the Beitedin Palace. Set in orchard, terraced gardens, it is a magnificent and opulent blend of Italianate and Arabic Baroque, and it is easy to see why the Ottoman governor, Emir Bashir Chehab II, made this his residence. Completed in 1818, it has continued to play an important role in Lebanon’s political history over the years, and today hosts the famous Beiteddine Festival. The event traditionally attracts international talent from the world of opera and classical music, but has also welcomed performers such as Elton John, Mariah Carey, Phil Collins, and more.
At war for falafels
Every local will try to convince you that one of the best things about Lebanese life is the food. There will be no need for long persuasion. The coastal climate of the country allows to prepare fresh, aromatic and colorful dishes, each of which has a centuries-old history.
Must-try dishes include sfiha (flatbread made with minced meat), tabbouleh (chopped parsley salad), manakish (dough topped with thyme, cheese or minced meat), kibbeh (Lebanese croquettes) and knafeh (fresh dough dessert ), and these are just some of them.
As for places to try the best food in Beirut, locals recommend Barbar in Hamra for sandwiches and M Sahyoun on Damascus Road for falafel.
Two Sahyoun falafel joints sit next to each other – owned by two brothers who have been in a bitter and long-standing feud. Although the menus are almost identical, these two restaurants have legendary status in Beirut, with incredible falafels that still divide the locals.
Beirut really has a lot to offer. It is a city with history, culture, religion and modern appeal. But it’s his energy that really stands out. People are friendly. The pace is fast. There is always something to do. However you choose to spend your time here, your senses are sure to be in an inspiring rhythm.