Beirut: Lebanon’s vibrant capital

“Beirut? You’re in Beirut? How long for? Stay safe…”

If you mirror my mother’s sentiments upon hearing of taking a trip to Lebanon – please, stop now. This colourful country may have had its share of pock-marked pasts, but haven’t we all? These days, Beirut is high on my list of favourite capitals – and its people are just about the kindest and most helpful I’ve met. At the risk of trolling my mother all over social media: no, Sharon. It’s not dangerous. And I will return here many, many more times.
Here’s how to spend a fun-crammed 48 hours in the capital if you’re pressed for time.

Things to do, day one:

Mohammad Al-Amin Mosque
(I hit 50 countries in Lebanon. Thus the makeshift poster)
Sure, you can’t bloody miss this thing – looming over every other building in Downtown Beirut, but you should absolutely take the time to pop inside for a look too. It’s free, and the doorman will even provide you a (slightly sweaty) abaya at the main entrance. It’s a relatively new addition to the city, being inaugurated in 2008, but that doesn’t make it any less impressive.

Interesting fact of the day: during the construction of the mosque, archaeologists uncovered a large section of the east-west main Roman street, complete with paving and columns. The ruins have been left there for visitors to appreciate. in all their glory.

American University of Beirut

Is it weird that one of the highlights of my trip was wandering around a college campus? This university will make you nostalgic for the leafy green, architecturally magnificent tertiary home you never had. The grounds are incredible, the vistas sweeping, the buildings beautiful, and there are tonnes of cats, and – actually, what more could you want? Cats.

Geymazzeh

Of all the hipster districts in Beirut, this just might be the hippest of the lost. Geymazzeh is full of brand-new eateries and bars where people spill out onto the street clutching at wine glasses and laughing loudly, and the result is a convivial neighbourhood you’ll probably come back to at least once during your stay. Dragonfly and Demo Bar were easily our favourite haunts – the former is pricey but classy (9000LL for a house wine, 7000LL for a beer), and the latter is grungy but hip (5000LL for a wine, 4000LL for a beer).

Mar Mikael

Street art, social media worthy staircases, and more bars: Mar Mikael is essentially just an extension on Geymazzeh, but that’s a damned positive as far as I’m concerned. It’s worth a jaunt, a drink, and a feed in.

Historical sites
Further to the above point about the ruins, there are other parts about the city where the city’s history is in full display. Maps are pinpointed about the place, from which you can navigate your way around the thermal baths, and other ancient streets that have been unearthed during construction.

Things to do, day two:

Raouche Rocks

This strange rock formation just off the coast is easily accessible on the main promenade around the waterfront. It’s an impressive structure, with a hole in the middle, and makes for good photo backdrops if nothing else. You can walk down along the cliffside to get a closer look, and if you’re really game you can take a boat trip out to it. Don’t worry about looking for a person to take you out there – you’ll be approached by many enterprising locals at just about every turn.

The National Museum 
This beautiful building not only houses an impressive collection of relics, but its story of restoration after the civil war is almost reason enough to visit. After the war ended, the museum was badly damaged – after being riddled with bullets and sniper fire. Luckily, the incredible curator of the museum had the forethought to encase each of the pieces in thick concrete, where it was well protected (aside from one notable mosaic, which had a corner destroyed by sniper fire). After eigh years of painstaking restoration, the museum reopened – and it’s arguably better than ever. A ticket will cost you 5000 LL – it’s worth every penny.

Tip: watch the video of the restoration that plays in the video room every 30 minutes.

Beit Beirut
Located in the old Barakat building, this amalgamation of old and new is worth 30 minutes of your time. Located on the former “green line”, the historic house was a forward control post and sniper base in the war. These days, the inside has been renovated and now houses art and photo projects – while the outside has basically been left as it was just after the guns stopped firing. It’s free to enter.

Get around the city

WALK: I cannot overstate how walkable the central district is, and even for parts that aren’t so central (the National Museum), some of the most interesting parts of the city are on the jaunt about the place. We chalked up 23km+ each day we were in Beirut, and for good reason: some of the most beautiful parts of the city are down an alley you wouldn’t have otherwise noticed. Don’t be worried about safety – aside from the slightly crazed drivers, you’ll find the Lebanese neighbourhoods incredibly genial.

MINIBUS: If you’re feeling game, jump in one of the many minibuses zipping around the streets and essentially carpooling people to each of their random destinations. It will cost you peanuts, and it’s a bit of fun if you’re trying to get somewhere your feet won’t take you. Just make sure your driver is definitely going your way, and he’ll ask you for a couple hundred, or a thousand pounds when you decide to jump out.

‘TAXI’: This needs inverted commas simply because everyone is a taxi in this city, whether their car announces it or not. Walking along the road, hearing a toot just about every time a car goes past is not uncommon, and yes – more often than not they are tooting at you. Some will say ‘taxi’ somewhere on their vehicle, some simply won’t even pretend. Regardless, enter at your own peril. Not because it’s dangerous, simply because the haggling over fees often isn’t worth the hassle.

UBER: It’s incredibly common here, and much cheaper than taxis. For example, a taxi quoted us $25USD from our hotel to the airport, and Uber cost $12. Case and point.

Where to stay in Beirut

Mayflower Hotel
If you’re on a budget, you basically cannot go wrong with this cheap and cheerful hotel in the heart of Hamra. Located just off what I can only assume is the most hipster street in the vibrant inner-city district, the Mayflower offers double rooms for about 230 AED ($63USD), which is not only a bargain, but is also helped by the fact that it is not a dingy hellhole. Your room is fairly basic – a twin bed, TV with a few channels, a desk, etc – but it’s spacious, and they even provide bathrobes. Breakfast is even included in that price (bargain alert!!), and it’s a decent spread which includes my favourite – Aakawi cheese. The staff here are excellent and the hotel management are eager to make your stay a good one. And for that price, in that area, you simply will not do any better.
(It’s even more depressing when you consider that for a whole night’s stay here, you can eat a single meal at Tawlet. But, we digress…). The hotel’s website is here.

Where to eat in Beirut

Tawlet
You’ve probably heard of this one, given its on just about every article, blog and message board about the Beirut food scene – but we felt the need to second every single one of those favourable reviews. Tawlet invites a different Lebanese woman to prepare one hell of a buffet spread every day of the week – meaning the menu changes every day.
Think fresh salads, hot mezze and a vast selection of desserts and fruit. At $33 USD a head, it’s not cheap, but there’s good reason people pay a premium to eat here. For starters, it’s all-you-can-eat, and also – it’s just that good.

Tip: try the rosewater.

More info on the concept here.

Cafe Em Nazih
I came away from Tawlet crowning it the best Lebanese I have ever had, but honestly, I had to rethink my decision less than 48 hours later after I experienced this glorious hidden gem – located less than a stone’s throw away. Cafe Em Nazih is a ‘self service’ restaurant, and before you shirk at the idea of having to ladle ounces of hummus onto your own plate at the cash register – all it means is that you head up to the counter to order, and then collect, your food.
Around 30,000 LL will get you a buffet of fresh, piping-hot and delicious plates of quintessential Lebanese cuisine. And don’t think for a moment that because it’s cheap, the portions will be small. The two of us had to roll ourselves back to our hotel after six plates. It’s also set in a beautiful, lush outdoor garden area, and hosts live music most nights. More info here.

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