Visit BeirutBeirut - A Middle Eastern Playground
Beirut is the Middle Eastern playground of the rich and richer. A well-known destination to Europeans and those in the Gulf countries, Americans have sadly missed out on this can’t miss destination. Although the political situation remains delicate, there is now an open window of opportunity to visit an extraordinary country with culture, historical significance and some of the best food and nightlife in the world.
Beirut is nothing that you would expect as a first-time visitor. Safety concerns quickly vanish as the Mediterranean comes into view and the city, nestled into the surrounding mountains, emerges. There is familiarity staying at the boldly remodeled Four Seasons, which is centrally located in the downtown area. Every room has a balcony and unlike the traditional Four Seasons, this hotel has a young feel with a contemporary décor and beautiful staff. A brand new park complex is being built in front of the hotel which will also make this location one of the prettiest in the city. However, those in the know will opt for Le Gray, a five star boutique hotel with the best rooftop pool in the city and overall working jet set scene.
Beirut is a driving city and old-school Mercedes taxis that look like they survived the civil war are abundant and recommended for your first day as you get to know the city. Begin by visiting the famed Place D’Etoile and Hariri Mosque, stopping to browse the high-end shops and specialty retailers such as Plum, which sells hard to find pieces from Alex Wang and Lanvin. The Place D’Etoile cafes are a bit of a tourist trap, but a prime vantage point to people watch. Also interesting for a brief stop are the Roman ruins next to the Parliament building, which remind you how much history there is in Beirut. The downtown area is under a complete renovation, where bombed-out buildings are juxtaposed against million dollar condos, high-end hotels and chic storefronts.
Beirut is changing daily; it’s clear that it is well on its way to regaining the deserved status as the Paris of the Middle East. Before leaving the downtown, you can have an authentic French meal at Balthus.
Alternatively, you can save your appetite for one of the cafes or restaurants in Saifi Village, a small yet very interesting neighborhood with up-and-coming designers. Here, you can buy gorgeous leather goods at Johnny Farah and clothing at Cream. Food alternatives include Le Lutecia, which has an extensive French wine list or Place des Boules Café for the best people watching and an after-lunch coffee. On the way back to the hotel stop by Mandaloun Café, a chain-let of restaurants which are the go-to place for locals to meet for coffee, drinks and fresh food.
Sunset in Beirut is best on the Corniche, which is the beachfront and will remind you of St. Tropez. You can lounge from the afternoon into the early evening at La Plage as you watch the sun go down. For evening entertainment, some of the best Lebanese food is at Abdel Wahab, with its lush upstairs terrace. Indulge in baba ganoush, fatouche with pomegranate dressing, and of course, the hookah — Lebanon’s traditional water pipe. Proper dinner hour in Beirut is from 9p.m. on, with festivities to follow at Music Hall for live entertainment, along with late night clubbing at White, and if you’re still alive, a drink at Le Capitole .
The next two days in Beirut should be spent outside of the city, where it is strongly recommended you hire a driver who is very familiar with the roads. Make arrangements directly with Avis, and if you’re lucky, you’ll get Mohammad, an ace driver who will tour you from the crack of dawn until late evening. Your first excursion outside of the city will be packed. Head first towards the Grotto, a natural cave in Jeita dating back millions of years. There is a full tourist circuit at the Grotto but wandering the upper caves should be sufficient. Your driver will also likely stop at the random Roman bridge and French castle, reminding you yet again, of Lebanon’s rich history.
After the Grotto, head up to the Souk in Tripoli, an unforgettable market of mayhem with its myriad of winding streets, where you can bear witness to meat hanging outside from hooks and raw chicken dripping onto the pavement. There is also the gold market and the famed soap markets of the Souk. This place is an experience and one not to be missed. The chaotic Tripoli street life is an experience to observe, capped off by a stop at Rafaat Hallab, the famed baklava shop which has been around since 1881. Baklava is really all you should eat in Tripoli, however, so you can save your appetite for an excursion to Byblos, known by locals as Jebel.
Byblos is the ancient fishing city on the Mediterranean with an old castle, that proves real estate is everything. Where Tripoli is shockingly raw, Byblos is a pristinely restored old city. After a lunch of fresh fish and wine at Pepe Abed, head to the local souk next to the castle, where you can get lost in the streets checking out the local goods and chochtkes, and if your appetite permits, indulge in a stop at one of the beautiful cafes along the way.
You are sure to be exhausted by day’s end, so save your energy for late night debauchery and have a low-key Italian meal on the rooftop of Hotel Albergo. On the famed El Inglizi Street in East Beirut, you will feast in one of the most romantic settings in the city. This relaxing meal will prepare you for the long haul as you go to Sky Bar, [See the Galavante feature on Sky Bar] where after this experience, any other club will pale in comparison.
On your last day in Beirut, you will be happy you hired a driver as you sleep on the way to Balbaak, which has some of the most extraordinary Roman ruins outside of, well, Rome. The road to Balbaak takes you through Chtaura, where you will stop at Marhaba, a roadside café and the best place to get the traditional mankusha with cheese, olives and cucumbers. If you’ve properly experienced Sky Bar the night before, you will order everything on the menu.
Also on the way to Balbaak, make a stop at Ksara, the oldest vineyard in Lebanon, originally started by French monks. It is surprising for those not familiar with Lebanese wines when they realize just how delicious they are. The wine will help relax you for your drive to Balbaak, which is in the heart of Hezbollah country. Driving through Hezbollah is part of the cultural experience, and will certainly leave you with stories to tell afterwards. As long as you have an experienced driver, you will not feel in the least bit compromised in safety. Someone once said that missing Balbaak is like missing the Acropolis in Greece, and they were right. Even if you’re not into Roman ruins, this place is impressive. Balbaak was the original Roman nightclub. While there has been a shift in the control of the area to Hezbollah, bands like U2 have performed at this impressive site.
If you still have time — and energy — take the aggressive route home and head over to Beiteddine, another stunning ancient site where you can wander the grand palace and its courtyards. If you are there at the right time, there is the famed Beiteddine festival. Either way, stop at the Mir Amin Palace Hotel and relax with a glass of wine while you take in the gorgeous views. On your way back to Beirut, stop for a stroll through the Cedar Forests, another signature site of Lebanon.
Dinner your last night in Beirut — if you don’t head back to Sky Bar — is best spent in the Gemmayze neighborhood. Head to Myu for a contemporary dinner with incredibly inventive, yet unfussy food and a great Galavante scene. The rest of the night can be spent bar hopping to Dragon Fly, Behind the Green Door and Cashmere, frequented by the young elite in Beirut. If it’s a Thursday, B018 is the late night after-party where you can raise the roof until you reluctantly end your trip. All the while, you will find it ironic that you feel 3 days is just not enough in Beirut.