Things to see and do in Beirut
Dan promises that he is being impartial. “If I were to speak completely objectively...” he says. “Go on,” we say. “If I were being completely objective: any person that comes to Beirut falls in love with it.”
Dan Nader, who works with our specialist operator Explore, has operated tours of Lebanon for 25 years. He clearly loves it. “It’s not a beautiful city,” he qualifies, “It’s not very well organised but it has a charm.” It’s this charm that makes trips to Lebanon book up fast. “It’s one of our best-selling trips,” Naomi Jackson, from our travel specialist Explore, told us, “Lebanon goes like hot cakes.”
Beirut’s popularity – and its charming disorder – belies its size. The city is less than 20 square kilometres all told, in a country the size of Jamaica. Whilst Lebanon’s villages all have a local speciality, Beirut has every cuisine, all at once. It’s chaotically cosmopolitan. People in Arab and European dress pass each other on the cornice. There are bad drivers on the roads, cats on the pavement, and scars on the buildings, “There are still quite a lot of buildings in Beirut with visible bullet holes, but there’s a lot of regeneration there as well,” Simone Flynn, from our Responsible Travel offices, travelled to Beirut in November 2019, when anti-government protests still occupied the city’s main square. It wasn’t the best time to travel – as a border control guard politely told her – but, as Beirut has shown time and time again, you can visit in less than ideal circumstances, and the charm will still be there – day or night.
“Bars and restaurants are busy all through the week,” Naomi says. “The theory, if you ask them, is that they don’t know what tomorrow will bring.” This bravado makes the city feel reckless, when it’s actually very secure – as Dan is keen to point out: “A woman walking alone at 3am doesn’t have any problems. We don’t have robberies or pickpockets. When people arrive they can feel it immediately: it’s safe.” The only peril then, as Dan says, is that you might just fall in love.
Our Lebanon Holidays
National MuseumIn 1923, a landslide revealed several Phoenician tombs buried in the cliffs above the Lebanese city of Byblos. They turned out to be from the 9th century BC, and royal. One, the sarcophagus of Ahiram, was covered in an early example of the Phoenician alphabet. It’s considered one of the most important treasures in the National Museum of Beirut. The museum has a small but excellent collection of artefacts. The history of the museum itself is interesting, too. During the Lebanese war its treasures were hidden in its basement and the mosaics covered in a protected layer of concrete. A short film at the museum’s entrance tells the whole story.
It’s strange in December to see a huge Christmas tree set up outside Beirut’s largest mosque. When the Blue Mosque, which stands right in the heart of central Beirut’s commercial district, opened in 2008, several critics said it was too big for a multi faith city in such a small country. After all, it does have 65m high minarets. Its design, with its four minarets and blue-tiled dome, is often compared to Istanbul’s Hagia Sofia – a bit unfair, as Beirut’s mosque is significantly smaller and a whole lot younger. It’s properly named ‘Mohammad Al-Amin Mosque’ and is built from stone from Saudi Arabia. Inside, a colossal chandelier holds sway, as does an overriding sense of peace. The mosque sits on Martyr’s Square, which has long been an important public space for protest: over the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri in 2005, and more recently over the state of the economy and government corruption.
Green LineDuring Lebanon’s civil war, Beirut was divided. A five mile-long demarcation line separated the predominantly Christian east and the Muslim west of the city. Snipers took to tall buildings, and civilians rechannelled their everyday lives through checkpoints. By the time the war ended, this boundary had become overgrown – a ‘Green Line’ through the city. The National Museum lies on the line in the south – as does the infamous old Holiday Inn to the north. For a year after it opened in 1975, it was like any other luxury hotel, until it became a strategic stronghold during an inner-city war. The Christian Lebanese Front and the Muslim National Movement battled to occupy the hotel. Now its bullet-wrecked facade seems to have been left as some stark deliberate warning. It’s still standing because its shared owners can’t agree what to do with it.
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Take advantage of Beirut’s seafront position – the Beirutis do. Whilst Ramlet Al Bayda is not the cleanest city beach in the world, an hour here shows you the capital at its leisure. The long corniche that runs alongside the Mediterranean is a local haunt, not least because there are very few parks in the city. Men swim off the shore, dodging the lines cast by rock-straddling fishermen. Sunset is particularly busy. A walk will take you past vendors selling almonds and sweetened black coffee, and on to the view over Beirut’s free standing Pigeon Rocks, which look rugged compared to the shore-scraping high rises. Behind the rocks, the sun is setting – reminding you that dinner hour is fast approaching.
FoodThere are plenty of classy French bistros and Lebanese restaurants in Beirut, whilst Armenian cuisine is becoming increasingly hip. “It’s very close to Lebanese cuisine but the spices are different,” Dan says. “The Armenian community is very important in Lebanon – there’s a big community north of Beirut – and the cuisine has become trendy in the capital. There are four or five excellent restaurants – some are fancy, some are more popular.” There are also Armenian-Lebanese joints, which mix their menus between the two nations – but it’s definitely a Beirut thing. “In villages around Lebanon you don’t find Armenian cuisine at all, it’s in the suburbs and in Beirut only,” Dan says. Look out for manti – delicate little eyelets of pastry filled with meat, which are made by hand with extreme patience.
HamraHamra Street used to be abuzz with cafe culture – the kind of place where intellectuals met and debated. It’s not something you’ll see so much of any more on this widely commercialised street, but the rest of the area of ‘happening Hamra’ is a really great base to get a taste of the city. Once you get over the fact that it’s not especially pretty, you’ll have a blast. In Café Hamra, the bar is a blur in the shisha haze, and the staff keep a stack of backgammon sets ready for willing players.
More about Lebanon
Our Lebanon travel guide introduces you to a country that’s lain beyond the tourist route for years, and now returns with a lot of time to make up for.
While it has four distinct seasons, uniquely for a Middle Eastern country, and so can be visited all year-round, the best time to go to Lebanon is definitely spring.
Looking at a map, tiny Lebanon – roughly the size of Jamaica – has a lot of things that the rest of the Middle East doesn’t.
Lebanon is a treasure trove of archaeological ruins and historic landmarks that reflect how the country has passed from empire to empire over the centuries.
Is it safe? That’s the first thing people want to know about travelling to Lebanon. People often report back that the country feels more welcoming than their own home towns.
As tourism grows in Lebanon, responsible operators are on the ground making sure that, beyond Beirut, small mountain villages reap the benefits of new visitors.