Exploring the two faces of Beirut
What’s On visits Beirut. Read Beirut city review, the capital of Lebanon. Discover things to do in Beirut, hotels in Beirut and best restaurants in Beirut.
Tyres screech as a car spins out of control on the seafront road. As it comes to a halt, a crowd rushes over to inspect the damage, and horns start blaring from the traffic behind. Good morning Beirut. The well-gelled man at the wheel composes himself, puts his foot to the floor and takes his bruised pride up the palm-lined Corniche.
According to a local, the driver had probably come straight from one of Beirut’s wilder nightclubs, which let you valet-park your car and collect it a few drinks later. Often that means the next morning, when birds chirp atop bullet-pocked apartment blocks.
While glamorous clubs have won Beirut fame as a kind of mini-Miami, this view is romantic at best. Yes, you’ll find glitz – the city remains a major banking centre with a rich elite to match – but this is only the sweet icing on a sometimes very bitter cake.
The northeastern Gemmayze district gives you a glimpse of the French legacy in Beirut. Following the First World War and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, Lebanon was placed under the French Mandate, and parts of Beirut – or Beyrouth as it became – began to look distinctly Parisian. Wooden shutters and wrought iron balconies remain along Gouraud Street, layered over fading Ottoman façades and dwarfed by the odd modernist monolith. The area now attracts young creative types, who tap at laptops in cafés before hitting the many cosy bars towards Mar Mikhael.
Beyond Mar Mikhael to the east of Port of Beirut is Quarantina, a onetime industrial zone now home to a thriving art community. Galleries like The Running Horse (Shukri Al Khoury Street) and Art Factum (Rehban Street) are well worth a look. After dark, the hardier party crowd flock to Quarantina for a night at B 018, a subterranean electro club with coffins for seats and a vast retractable roof. Not for the fainthearted.
Dominating the northwest bulge of Beirut is Hamra, a bastion of liberal Lebanon in the 1960s and still one of the city’s most diverse districts. Hamra Street is the main artery, a narrow street choked with traffic and pedestrians, flecked with neon and thick with fruity smoke from nargileh (hookah). Duck down a side street for the liveliest bars and some of the best falafel on the planet.
A more picturesque Beirut can be found in the Central District. Thanks to a major renovation project in the 1990s, the city’s historic core now bears some resemblance to how it looked before the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990). Caught between the mainly Muslim west and Christian east, the Central District became the notorious Green Line, a no-man’s land that saw many buildings reduced to rubble. With the support of late prime minister Rafic Hariri, the Solidere company set about returning this ancient quarter to its former glory, and the results are a welcome sign of a city on the mend. Today, the pristine streets around the art deco Abed Clocktower are dotted with café terraces – the perfect place to eat mezze and watch the world go by.
A short walk from the Abed Clocktower is the new elegant shopping precinct, Beirut Souks. Don’t panic, there are no overzealous men thrusting tourist tat in your face. A peaceful enclave in the middle of a manic city, Beirut Souks is a network of small boutiques, cafés and juice bars, laid out along breezy lanes. Alongside all the major luxury fashion brands, you’ll find fresh independent labels from around the world, so you can go home with something a little left field.
The nearby Zaitunay Bay is another example of downtown’s rebirth. Opened in 2011, the marina-facing esplanade is tucked tastefully below street level and caters for more expensive tastes with a champagne bar, yacht club and high-end shops. In December, the teak boardwalk hosts a Christmas market, complete with mulled wine and festive crafts, while the warmer months offer rich pickings for watersports fanatics.
The classic seaside stroll, however, is along the 5km Corniche, which hugs Beirut’s shoreline from Saint George Bay in the north to the soaring cliffs in the west. Check out the derelict St Georges Hotel for a snapshot of Beirut in its heyday – built in 1932, the hotel became a magnet for visiting royalty and movie legends like Peter O’Toole and Elizabeth Taylor. St Georges Hotel leads to the main expanse of the Corniche along Avenue de Paris, best seen at dawn or in the early evening as the sun sinks into the Mediterranean. You’ll share the promenade with joggers, families and fishermen, and see Beirut at its most relaxed. Don’t miss the almighty Pigeon Rocks off the west coast.
Since Lebanon won independence in 1943, the country has gone from being the Switzerland of the Middle East to a sectarian tinderbox, and Beirut today clings to a fragile peace. The nervous tension is palpable, yet glimmers of hope can be seen all around, like the weeds growing from bomb-hollowed window frames. No one can deny the city’s effervescence, which seems to repel and attract visitors in equal measure. Choose the rough Beirut or the smooth Beirut, or a little bit of both. Whatever you do, look both ways before you cross the road.
TOP FIVE RESTAURANTS
Beirut-based journalist Sulome Anderson names her best eats
Authentic, unpretentious Lebanese food. They also do weird food like frog’s legs and lamb tongue.
Armenia Str, Mar Mikhael. Tel: (+961) 1444441
The best French food in Beirut. It’s upscale without being forbidding. Their pain perdu is a slice of heaven.
Gouraud Str, Gemmayze. Tel: (+961) 70323272
This trendy bar/restaurant serves great Mediterranean-fusion food and the location – an old house in Mar Mikhael – is redecorated as a moody, modern bunker.
Ibrahim Pacha Street, Mar Mikhael. Tel: (+961) 1575675
Located in the Souk el-Tayeb farmer’s market, Tawlet serves food made with organic ingredients.
12 Rue Naher, Armenia Str. Tel: (+961) 1448129
Abd El Wahab
An affordable restaurant serving classic Lebanese dishes.
51 Abd El Wahab, El Inglizi Str, Monot. Tel: (+961) 1200550
WHERE TO STAY
Four Seasons Hotel Beirut
The purpose-built Four Seasons opened in 2010, after more than a decade in the making. The 26-storey tower cuts an impressive figure on the Corniche and the Middle Eastern leaning interiors are the work of Pierre-Yves Rochon, who brought us George V in Paris, the Hôtel des Bergues in Geneva and the renovated Savoy in London. The sea views are stunning and the chic rooftop pool bar is a destination in its own right for Beirut’s in-crowd.
1418 Professor Wafic Sinno Avenue, Minet El Hosn, Beirut, Lebanon. Tel: (+961) 1761000. fourseasons.com