Lebanon’s engaging capital is a destination where history meets hedonism in the most delightful way
Words: Claire Malcolm
An intoxicating amalgamation of chaos, charm and contradiction, Beirut has plenty to entice you time and time again. Fronted by the warm waters of the Mediterranean Sea and embraced by rugged mountains, it has been a site of historic and trading interest since Roman colonial times, through to the post-Ottoman French Mandate era and its emergence from 15 years of brutal civil war strife. An acknowledged hub of intellectual and cultural advancement, a visit today exposes its many sides to curious travellers, from decrepit shell-scarred grand mansions in and around the former Green Line, to a profusion of must-see museums, and the shiny new streets of design-centric Downtown Beirut, which lures creative types with its dynamic artistic community and mesmerising after-dark scene.
WALK THIS WAY
The city’s original cultural heartland, Hamra, has been home to intellectuals and artists since the late 1950s. Meander through the gorgeous grounds of American University of Beirut and visit its archaeological museum; stroll along Hamra Street and lose yourself among the shelves of its many bookshops; or take your pick of the bustling local café scene for stimulating cultural conversation.
End of an era
Less frenetic but equally fascinating, Achrafiyeh’s neighbourhood charm lies in its back streets where former grand homes lay hidden behind high walls and overgrown creepers. In plain sight, and an architectural stunner, the 19th Sursock Palace is reserved for private events, but a peek through the gates is free. Check out an art-house movie at Metropolis Cinema to complete your cultural immersion.
Love it or loathe it, the redevelopment of the ravaged Downtown district into a chi-chi tourist-friendly locale is a major attraction. Luxury looms large amid the reimagined Beirut Souks arches, with hundreds of shops peppered with restaurants, but history lives on in the remains of the ancient Roman baths, Martyrs’ Square and the war-scarred shell of the Dome Cinema.
Head to the corniche at sunset on Sunday and join Beirut’s equivalent of Italy’s passeggiata, as the world and his wife stroll along the seafront promenade from Saint George Bay up to Pigeon Rocks
ARTISANS AND ATELIERS
A to Bey
Support homegrown talent and visit the former industrial Mar Mikhael district where the city’s artists and designers have taken up residence. Concept store and exhibition space Plan BEY is the go-to for limited edition artworks, graffiti stickers and photo prints, and its collection of vintage repro Baalbeck Festival posters are nostalgia personified.
Sarah Beydoun’s exquisite intricately beaded statement handbags grace many a celebrity arm but this social enterprise remains true to its roots with Sarah’s Bag employing more than 200 women from challenged backgrounds. Visit her store on Rue du Liban.
A repository showcasing Lebanese artisan talent from some of the most remote rural areas, L’artisan du Liban is packed with ceramics, soaps, embroidery, silverware, toys and clothing. Located midway between the busy thoroughfares of Pasteur and Gouraud, it’s a one-stop-shop for keepsakes.
Lebanon has spawned a global catwalk-gracing line-up of top couturiers including Elie Saab, Zuhair Murad and Reem Acra. Check out the boutiques and ateliers of the Mar Mikhael neighbourhood to find the next big name
Luxury labels and culture co-exist at Aïshti Foundation, part of a 35,000sqm mall-meets-art destination that includes fashion boutiques, a bookshop, restaurants, cafés and a spa. A passion project housing Lebanese fashion retail magnate Tony Salamé’s contemporary art, it has featured works by a wealth of international artists including Sol LeWitt, Willem de Rooij, Cindy Sherman, Danh Vo and Giuseppe Penone.
One of the city’s best-known contemporary cultural hubs, the two-storey, 1,500sqm non-profit Beirut Art Center displays emerging artist installations and multimedia exhibitions with a dedicated screening room, auditorium and bookshop.
Founded in 2012 and located in a charming historic building, Art on 56th, in the culture-packed Gemmayzeh district, is the place to view up-and-coming talent and a diverse selection of mediums from paint and pencil to photography, clay and digital.
Hail a super cheap service (‘servees’) shared taxi and get up close and personal with the locals by chitchatting as you whizz through
Located on the former Green Line, the French-inspired, Egyptian revival-styled National Museum of Beirut is an impressive sight. No less impressive is its fully restored halls that are home to archaeological artefacts spanning the country’s rich history. Make time to watch the short documentary that tells the story of how its curators saved the collection from destruction during the civil war.
A magnet for lovers of contemporary art, Sursock Museum is a masterpiece in its own right, with its façade a marriage of Venetian and Ottoman design accents, opulent marble interiors and stained glass windows harking back to the French Mandate era, when it was the private home of one of the city’s most prominent aristocrats.
Under the dome
A landmark in the heart of downtown, the 19th century Mohammad Al-Amin Mosque (Blue Mosque) dominates the city skyline. Reopened in 2008 after major renovation, its sand-hued walls topped with a striking blue dome take on a golden glow in the late afternoon sun. Together, with nearby Saint George Cathedral, these two buildings represent two sides of Lebanon’s religious community.
Farm to fork
It doesn’t get any fresher than at Tawlet where chefs have direct access to local produce from the Souk El Tayeb farmers’ market on their doorstep. Home-cooked flavours are its hallmark with a different cook ruling over the kitchen every lunchtime. Learn how to prepare the perfect kibbeh at one of its regular cooking classes.
The menu at Liza Beirut is every bit as delightful as the whimsical interiors of this Achrafiyeh restaurant located in an enchanting former home, where classic Lebanese dishes get a stylish makeover. A popular order is the citrus marinated chicken with smoked green wheat or lamb meatballs. Give in to the Sunday brunch, which is the perfect opportunity to try a little bit of everything.
French culinary influences permeate the local food scene, and for upmarket dining in sleek, chic surroundings head to Burgundy in Saifi Village. Classic and seasonal tasting options and chef’s market day menus deliver a memorable gourmet experience.
A city full of storytellers, swap the local bar scene for some spoken word action at the regular open mic poetry, fiction and real-life tales evenings organised by the likes of Hakaya and held at venues such as Fade In in Mar Mikhael and Cliffhangers at L’appartement Beirut
WHERE TO STAY
Le Gray, Beirut
Overlooking Martyr’s Square, Beirut’s original design hotel Le Gray remains a style leader with its modern minimalistic interiors, glass-sided swimming pool and panoramic views of the sea, city and mountains.
On a mission to provide sanctuary from the energetic city beyond, O Monot is all about the zen. Conveniently located in central Saifi, the Claude Missir designed boutique property has a cool rooftop bar and a hi-tech vibe.
Exuding character, Hotel Albergo is a nod to days gone by, from its teensy Art Deco lift to its beguiling Orientalist décor. A peaceful retreat in the heart of Achrafiyeh, the only chatter you’ll hear is that of its resident caged parakeets.
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