Despite travel advisories against it, the city of Beirut captivates visitors with its cuisine, nightlife, shops, and locals who have an innate sense of fun. Perhaps Lebanon’s greatest gift to mankind (besides the alphabet invented by the Phoenicians in Byblos) is their cuisine. In Beirut’s legendary Em Sharif restaurant, we tasted our way through a procession of over a dozen appetizers called mezze. Our Beiruti friend, the beautiful Juliana Khalaf explained what each dish was, from the zatar spiced bread, manousheh, to the rice and lentil based moudardara and our favourite, fattouch, a crunchy salad drizzled with pomegranate molasses.
The hummus, made of chick pea puree, was divine. Watching us groan, the waiter reminded us that the main course was still to come. We waived away the lamb and fish platters, but succumbed to dessert, which included mulberry sorbet, mouhalabieh, knafeh and sahlab.
The Lebanese are a mix of many races. The Phoenicians, Romans, Persians, Arabs and French have all left their mark here. “We don’t realise someone is Lebanese overseas till we hear them talk,” said Juliana. “It’s when they speak a mix of English, Arabic and French we realise they’re from here.” Advisories against travel keep people from visiting Beirut. The Hezbollah occasionally disrupt traffic on the road to the airport, and recently over three hundred thousand Syrian refugees have poured in. Crumbling buildings riddled with bullet holes especially along the former Green Line that separated Christians and Muslims are reminders of the Civil War from 1975-1990. There is tension with Israel and the general vicinity can be an easily ignitable tinderbox.
What compels you to go is the fact that it is an exciting city with a tolerant attitudes where great hotels, amazing restaurants, art galleries and inspirational design ateliers abound. It has the most vibrant nightlife in the Middle East and incredibly hospitable people. Beirut is waiting to soar again, to reclaim its former glory. The Lebanese couldn’t try harder. A strong police presence keeps the downtown and surrounding neighbourhoods safe. The system of government, known as ‘Confessionism’ sees a proportionate number of Sunni, Shia and Christian leaders at the helm. Perfectly situated between the Mediterranean and the hills, in Beirut one can ski and swim on the same day.
The views are magnificent. Downtown Beirut has a stunning array of attractive buildings clad in honey coloured limestone. Flourishes of filigree patterns adorn the houses and mosques.
Souk de Beyrouth conjures up images of Middle Eastern labyrinthine streets filled with tiny shops. Instead it is a low-rise mall with glamorous jewellery and clothing stores and cafes. Saifi Village and Darwish Haddad Street showcase a cluster of furniture shops by designers such as Bokja, Nada Debs and Karen Chekerdijian.
Plan your trip
Best Time To Go- Any time of year, especially during spring and autumn.
Stay At — Le Gray: A modern, stylish and central hotel that showcases local contemporary art. Indigo on the Roof (restaurant) and Bar 360 are popular and lively spots. Weygand Street, Martyr Square. 961 (0) 1 971 111
The Albergo: Tradition steeped in charm, a trifle tight spaced. Visit it for high tea in the evening. Achrafieh neighbourhood.
Eat At — Em Sherif: Delicious and plentiful Lebanese cuisine at Victor Hugo Street. Sodeco in Achrafieh Tawlet: Cooks from local villages showcase their skills in this chic restaurant at 12, Naher St, Beirut Sector 79
Night Life — My Bar: Destination venue of the Middle east. Internazionale: A buzzing bar on Gemmeze Street. Blue Note Cafe: In Hamra. Music Hall: Starco Centre, Omar Daouk St/ Wadi Abu Jamil Street.
Explore — The National Museum, with its 6000 years of History. Sursock Museum is reopening soon with a collection of contemporary and modern art. The Roman bath and ruins off Bank Street, in the Downtown area.