That Beirut is a maelstrom of contrasts and contradictions, is experienced from the moment we check in to The Phoenica.
With 446 rooms, the grand dame of hotels in Lebanon’s capital offers disparate views of the sea-front neighbourhood it has inhabited since 1961.
On the one side is a decrepit shell of a former Holiday Inn, bombed to bits during the Civil War – a 15-year nightmare which displaced close to a million civilians between 1975-1990, wreaking devastation across the country.
On the other, the (admittedly more desirable) rooms look out onto a glossy marina harbouring a lengthy fleet of yachts. It’s an otherwise serene scene, albeit interrupted by the loud banner boldly stretched across the abandoned facade of the former St Georges Hotel.
It simply reads “STOP Solidere,’ with just the two words profoundly symbolic of the broader stand-off between local landowners and developers such as Solidiere who are seen to have compounded the inherent divide wrenched by the rampant warfare. There are pockets plagued by poverty, juxtaposed against glitzy high-rises by the bay and pseudo-historic neighbourhoods, purposefully sculpted in an image that might reignite a bygone view of Beirut as the Paris of The Middle East.
We’re particularly conscious of this nuanced socio-political context as we’re in town for a local wedding which takes us to Zgharta – a diminutive town in North Lebanon which is far, far removed from the alternate reality of Beirut’s bon vivant lifestyle.
All said though, there’s no denying the multi-layered appeal of a city where eat, explore, eat again, revel and repeat is the sequence in which the days unfold, setting a beat for the thriving nightlife that attracts many to Beirut.
There’s far too much to do and far too little time to do it all, over the course of just one weekend. We do make an attempt though. Gathered here, are the most thrilling of our discoveries and experiences, curated in a manner that I do hope helps to both inspire and guide your visit too!
The Best of Where to Eat
If the soul-stirring comfort of Lebanese food is reason alone to visit Beirut, the bar is set unimpeachably high by Liza. Billed as one of the most beautiful restaurants of the world by Conde Nast, it’s housed within a 19th century villa with thoughtful interiors effortlessly marrying the timeless grace of old-world Beirut with whimsical nods to the chaotic cityscape of present day and a contemporary reimagining of classic Lebanese cuisine. Expect an especially sumptuous selection of mezze here. Read the full review here.
While Em Sherif is another erstwhile name on Beirut bucket lists, we’d recommend its spin-off – Em Sherif Café – for a laid-back affair that’s high on carbs and comfort. It’s casual yet spectacularly-sceney too, with a steady-flow of well-heeled locals who stream in for their shwarma and sheesha fix. We do well by saving room for dessert – Arabic mastic ice cream to be more precise, coated with fine strands of angel hair. It’s a revelatory pleasure.
Situated in Zaituna Bay, Babel Bay sets a similar tone those keen to sheesh with seafood and a sunset view. It’s rather fun dawdling along the waterfront after, pausing every so often at one or the other of the bustling stalls forming a makeshift marketplace by the promenade.
For a more thoughtful epicurean experience, head to Tawlet where the home-style, farm-to-table spread champions a slow food movement spearheaded by farmers and cooks from across the country. And finally, there’s much to be learnt about the Armenian community in Lebanon within the leafy, mosaic-tiled confines of Mayrig, which majors in classic Armenian dishes from a stunning array of kebbe to manti dumplings and the like.
A Piece of Paris in Downtown Beirut
If you’re searching for a sign of harmony in modern-day Beirut, you’ll find it Downtown in Martyrs Square, which once formed the line dividing the city during the Civil War. The square is a picture of quiet peace in present-day, home to The Blue Mosque (reborn in a modern avatar), with the 19th century Saint George Cathedral situated right behind it.
Nearby, you’ll discover charming lanes lined with luxury boutiques and a contemporary reincarnation of the Beirut Souks, built by Pritzker winning architect Rafael Moneo. To level with you, it comes across more like a shiny mall than an organic market-place, but is fascinating to explore as it draws inspirations from the ancient Greek street grid, manifesting in an imposing chain of vaulted arcades and inter-linked courtyards.
If you follow the architectural trail, your meanders might lead you to surrounding blocks which showcase a globe-trotting melange of architecture, featuring the distinctive styles of prominent architects from Japanese-born Arata Isozaki (known for adeptly combining Brutalism and Metabolism) and Spanish postmodernist Ricardo Bofill, to neo-classicists such as Robert Adam and Dimitri Porphyrios.
Cool your heels after with an iced cappuccino at Angelina’s (it’s one of the only outposts of the famed Parisian café which caters to locals rather than tourists), or in one of the inviting eateries of Saifi Village, which cuts a particularly picturesque corner in the heart of the city with its cobblestoned streets and homegrown boutiques.
A Revival of The City’s Art Scene
A legacy of the aristocratic Sursock family, the eponymous Sursock Museum is a must-visit as it’s a cultural cornerstone of Beirut, sitting grandly atop a hill in Achrafieh, one of the oldest and most gentrified neighbourhoods of the city. An ornate manifestation of Venetian and Ottoman styles, the architecture is as much of a draw here as the contemporary artworks housed within!
A Party City Like None Other
You can shlep over to Gemmayzé right after by following the eminently-Instagrammable St Nicholas Stairs located right across The Sursock Museum. The historic neighbourhood is enmeshed with a colourful thrum of bars, shops and restaurants, alongside zeitgeisty caffeinated pitstops such as Sip.
As dusk sets, you’ll inevitably find yourself hunkering down the street to Mar Mikhaël – a frenzied neighbourhood brought to bohemian life by hipster coffee (Kalei Coffee Company) and craft cocktails rooted in herbs harvested and foraged from the mountains (at Anise). If the rambunctious tone is more than a tad discombobulating, you could always seek out more undisturbed boltholes in the vicinity (Internazionale is often the top pick of the bunch).
Of course, you can always hotfoot it across Beirut’s rooftop bars if you fancy giving your evening a glamorous zip. Level 26 atop Four Seasons is as sophisticated as you’d expect of the plush hotel, with unmatched views across Zaituna Bay and the city’s exuberant skyline. There’s also the rooftop terrace and sky bar at Le Gray, the terrifically-trendy boutique hotel downtown.
As for us, we soak in the city’s inherent style from Iris, located high above The New Seaside Pavilion. There’s a spirited energy fizzing through the open-air terrace thronging with a carousing crowd in sync with the DJ’ sanguine soundtrack! It’s a shame we don’t have time for a drink at SPINE – a rooftop bar set apart by the floating light installation it constellates on. Although, I suppose it leaves us with something new for the next time we visit.
An exhilarating experience in Zgharta aside (immersed in local Lebanese traditions and ceremonies), we enjoy a drive to Byblos, just outside of Beirut.
One of the oldest inhabited cities of the world, it’s a destination with many draws – from the Crusader castle ruins ripe for exploration, to a picture-postcard port speckled with unhurried seafood restaurants. On the advice of locals, we lunch at Bab El Mina languorously lolling in the simple yet bucolic setting which cocoons a natural grotto!
A spot of R&R isn’t amiss either, leading us to Beit Mery. Nestled in the mountains above Beirut, the quiet town harbours a hidden gem in a luxury spa and hammam at the Rip Van Winkle hotel, Al Bustan. It’s not uncommon for locals to drive up from Beirut over the weekend for a dip in their mosaic-tiled, hydro-therapy pool followed by one of their many coveted treatments. As they say, when in Beirut, do as the Beiruti’s do…
I have to admit. All said and done, it’s been quite an adventure from the word go and one that we no doubt would love to repeat again in the not-so-distant future!