Leila Molana-Allen is a Middle East correspondent who’s lived in Beirut for the past four years. Here she shares her tips for visiting the Lebanese capital.
Vibrant, intoxicating, challenging, eclectic, unpredictable.
The Green Line that marked the front line during Lebanon’s civil war lies at the centre of the city. Walking its route give you a view of the different neighbourhoods, their varying architecture, geography and wealth; accompanied by a knowledgeable local or a guide book it’s an important crash course in Beirut’s storied history and its lasting impact on the city today.
Aaliya’s Books in East Beirut doesn’t just serve great coffee. A bookshop at the back offers an array of local and regional writers in both English and Arabic, and there’s a different event on every night, from talks on politics and literature to live jazz and dance classes. It’s a hive of activity and the best place to meet people and find out everything that’s going on in the local area; if you’re travelling alone, pull up a seat at the bar where the chatty baristas will immediately befriend you.
The Ichkhanian bakery in Zarif turns out piping hot Armenian treats, baked in their traditional stone oven. If you turn up early enough you might catch the bakers rolling out hundreds of paper-thin circles, sliding long wooden boards heaped with dough in and out of the fire through wafting clouds of spiced flour. Ask for a Lahmeh Bajin or two – preserved lamb marinated in pomegranate molasses baked onto crispy flatbread – grab a thick cardamom coffee from a street vendor, and tuck into your breakfast as you explore the wrought iron balconies and arched windows of the local area.
Loris in Gemmayze offers top-quality traditional Lebanese mezze with a local twist, all served with piping hot home-made flatbread. Try the Hummus Beiruty, spicy Kebbe Sajieh, Fattet Betenjen, and grilled Taouk with plenty of garlicky thum. It’s set in a beautifully restored traditional Beirut mansion house; ask for a table in the garden where you’ll eat surrounded by hanging lights and greenery, next to a bubbling fountain.
Lebanon has a staggering array of natural beauty, and hidden away in the mountain town of Baakline is Paradise Falls, a beautiful series of waterfalls where you can swim in thundering fresh water and have your lunch on the rocks nearby.
Aim to go in May or June, when you can expect sun every day and the weather is perfect for the beach, but a mid to high 20s centigrade temperature means it’s not too hot to go hiking in Lebanon’s beautiful mountains and humidity is at its lowest level.
While all the streets in Beirut have official names, few people use them and taxi drivers are not used to reading maps. Instead, the city’s different ‘villages’ have unofficial names and locations are described using local landmarks. Zawarib, a city map designed by young graphic artists, will give you the best explanation of how to get around using names and directions the way locals do.
A walk along the seafront corniche will take you past the leafy campus of the American University of Beirut all the way to the famous ‘Pigeon rocks’ where you can catch one of Beirut’s spectacular sunsets.
Take a graffiti tour through Central and East Beirut – the city has a thriving art culture and much of its history and politics has been portrayed by young Lebanese on its walls.
Discover Bourj Hammoud, the Armenian quarter in East Beirut which began as a refuge for the Ottoman Empire’s Christians during the First World War and is now a thriving neighbourhood filled with markets, a cultural centre and mouth-watering Armenian food.
Order a taxi to pick you up from the airport, as the local taxis waiting outside charge 3-4 times the going rate. You can order ahead of time from a company like Allo Taxi, or use Uber’s Arab sister company Careem; the airport offers 30 minutes of free wifi when you arrive. A ride into central Beirut shouldn’t cost more than 20,000 Lira (€12).
Orient 499 in Hamra is a treasure trove of Middle-Eastern crafts. Here you’ll find handmade printed kaftans, artisanal jewellery featuring traditional symbols like the evil eye and the pomegranate, and household items by local designers. Head to Zawal in Mar Mikhael for hand-printed fabrics and glassware, while its sister store next door is filled to the brim with artists’ prints of Beirut to remember your trip. A little further afield, the traditional souk in Saida, just 30 minutes from Beirut, has a spice market, local produce and a traditional handmade local soap.
Start with happy hour cocktails on the Mar Mikhael strip at Central Station bar. Barhop down the street where each bar has it’s own character and special drinks. When the street starts to shut down at 2am, it’s time to dance: B018 is a repurposed bomb shelter offering pop and disco nights with a roof that opens on warm nights; Ballroom is underground cavern filled with different rooms for techno and electro fans with visiting international DJs each week; or try one of Beirut’s famous rooftop clubs such as Skybar or Caprice for a night dancing under the stars.
Baalbek, the largest ancient Roman site outside Europe, is unmissable. Nestled in the Beqaa valley between two mountain ranges, the site offers three breath-taking Roman temples as well as Crusader ruins. In the summer, the Baalbek festival hosts concerts amidst the ruins.
Anfeh is a secluded beach town in the north which few tourists discover. Set on a seafront strip painted entirely in blue and white, a series of restaurants offer fresh sea food, music and direct access to the water; anchored chairs and surf boards floating near shore will give you a prime viewing spot for Lebanon’s spectacular sunsets.
Lebanon’s beautiful Chouf region, filled with the country’s national cedar tree, provides stunning views and great hiking trails. The mountain town of Deir el Qamar has beautiful Ottoman stone houses; stop at Beit el Jabal hotel for a home cooked lunch and local wine with a stunning view.
What’s the best way to get around the city?
Use ‘servees’ – share taxis – to get around. They drive along the main roads in every direction, and one seat will set you back just 2,000 Lebanese Lira (€1.20). As well as being kind to your pocket, it’s a great way to navigate your way around the city, pick up some basic Arabic phrases and learn more about Lebanon; every taxi driver has a story to tell and packed serves rides often lead to lively conversations with fellow passengers.
- Leila Molana-Allen