Due to its past conflict, Lebanon is still feared by many as being unsafe, so a lot of travellers would not consider the country as a holiday destination. This means it has retained a strong sense of authenticity and creates a spectacular atmosphere for those who do choose to venture there.
If you’re looking for the real East-meets-West so talked about in the Middle East, you need look no further than Beirut.
Fast-paced, fashion-conscious and overwhelmingly friendly, it’s not a relaxing city to spend time in – it’s too crowded, polluted and chaotic for that – but its energy, soul, diversity and intoxicating atmosphere make it a vital, addictive city. A couple of excellent museums are the key sights, but exploring the character of the different districts, strolling the waterfront and diving into the city’s wonderful restaurant and nightlife scene are major attractions.
As Lebanon is so small, and day trips easy, some travellers base themselves here for their entire visit all over the country.
It may be a cliché but cool, cosmopolitan, Beirut is indeed a city of contrasts. Possessed of some of the friendliest locals on the planet, it was also the scene of one of the Middle East’s deadliest conflicts. While you’ll find beautifully restored colonial relics and old mosques delicate-looking minarets Downtown, venture towards what was once the Green Line and you’ll find buildings still peppered with bullet holes and missing chunks of masonry.
Walk or bike along Beirut’s famous Corniche seafront which looks like Miami Beach with Aleppo as a backdrop and witness the leisurely flow of life by the Mediterranean; if you head south towards the Raouche neighbourhood, you will eventually come to one of Beirut’s most iconic natural sites: the Pigeon Rocks, limestone formations jutting out of the sea. PRO TIP: Come at sundown for shisha with a view.
While sections of Beirut’s waterfront are still in the midst of intense development, Zaitunay Bay, a vast pedestrianised promenade that opened in 2012, has grown up to be one of Beirut’s loveliest attractions. If you can’t snag an invite to the upscale Le Yacht Club, all geometric glass angles, hang out at any of the relaxed alfresco cafes and restaurants open late into the night. It’s not far from Beirut’s MusicHall, a fun and very entertaining cabaret-style theatre.
The Four Seasons Beirut is one of the city’s grande dames. A plush power lobby, all marbled floors and embroidered sofas, attracts a serious, professional Beirut crowd. The five star property is right on the waterfront, and all rooms have balconies to peer jealously at the collection of mega yachts in Beirut’s harbour. The area feels a little deserted at night, but not far is Rafic Salloum Street, which buzzes with alfresco bars and restaurants at the weekend.
Beirut’s souks have none of the chaotic, hustling quality you might expect. Rather, these are modern, slickly marketed as a “premiere shopping and leisure destination”, home to lots of air con and glass rather than hagglers and dusty shops. But what they lack in atmosphere they make up for in terms of sheer shopping value: there are branches of world-class designers here, a cinema, and countless restaurants and cafes.
Everyone I have talked to who has visited Beirut has quickly fallen in love with it. The largely progressive city is nothing like its middle eastern neighbours.
Beirut is a unique place where you can find a nightclub next to a mosque, a bombed-out building next to a Chanel boutique, a place where Christianity and Islam sit together side by side and share a bowl of hummus.
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