A walk in the centre
Completely rebuilt in the 90s, a walk around downtown Beirut, looking at the various attractions here and there, is a great way to start your tour of the city. The district develops about Nejmeh Square (or Place de l’Etoile), at the centre of which is the looming clock tower, one of the symbols of the city, whose clock is none other than a Rolex.
It is metaphorically overseen by the Parliament building and the orthodox church of St. George, while real security is provided by the soldiers stationed at all access points to the square. In the space of just a few hundred metres there are at least two other churches and three mosques, but this is exactly the kind of cultural mix evident everywhere in Beirut.
Also close by is the Gran Serail, the imposing late 19th century government building, while in the opposite direction is the magnificent Mohammad Al-Amin Mosque with its blue domes (inspired by the Blue Mosque of Istanbul) and four minarets which reach out into the sky. These dominate the horizon also in nearby Martyrs’ Square whose statue of the same name in commemoration of the martyrs executed here is riddled with bullet holes to strengthen its cathartic impact.
After you have finished your compulsory stroll around the centre with its religious monuments and places why not continue your walk in a more light-hearted environment like Corniche, Beirut’s seafront? Here there is no shortage of people and those with real endurance can circumnavigate practically the entire city, accompanied by the sound of the waves on the right, until they reach the iconic Pigeon Rocks, at the western tip of the city.
Art and culture in droves
The melting pot that is Beirut is not merely churches and mosques on every corner but an absolute abundance of artistic and cultural heritage, impossible to summarise in just a few lines.
Must-visit museums include the National Museum (with over 1300 artefacts, from prehistory to the Middle Ages and including the Phoenicians) and the Sursock Museum, dedicated to contemporary art and housed in a building that is worth the entrance fee on its own.
Another place to put on your list is Beit Beirut (literally “the house of Beirut”), a building ravaged by the civil war that was only partially restructured in order to preserve its poignant semi-destroyed state, a reminder of the destruction caused by the conflict.
However, the real charm of this city lies in the fact that its art is often outside, like in the districts of Gemmayzeh and Mar Mickhael where among retro bars and crafts stores there are staircases wonderfully decorated with vibrant colours (particularly that of St. Nicholas and the ones in Armenia Street) or where you can find yourself looking at street murals that cover the entire facade of buildings, unexpected and stunning in equal measures.
This is Beirut: wherever you go it is always able to amaze you.
Let’s go party!
Beirut’s fervent cultural scene is matched by its equally vibrant social scene.The Christian districts of Gemmayzeh, Mar Mickhael and Achrafieh are the main hubs: restaurants, pubs and late-night bars abound and are all able to offer a pleasant evening.
More noisy and chaotic, though no less interesting, is the mainly Muslim district of Hamra which has plenty to offer in the evenings, including bars and live music.
What about alcohol? Consistent with the cultural and religious diversity of the city, alcohol is not banned but its availability (and the possibility of drinking in public) naturally varies from area to area.
A varied diet
Those that like Middle Eastern flavours will adore Lebanese food whose Arab traditions are particularly evident in its wide use of lamb and nuts. But the real strength of the local culinary tradition is its wide variety of dishes, especially for vegetarians.
Typical dishes include meze, a selection of appetisers that invariably includes hummus (a chick pea purée), baba gannouj (sometimes called aubergine caviar) and falafel (spicy legume patties).Another local classic is tabbouleh, a fresh salad containing bulgur wheat, tomatoes and herbs, seasoned with oil and lemon: the perfect refreshment after a long walk on the Corniche. Somewhat more substantial is kibbeh, the national dish consisting of little patties made of lamb and bulgur wheat. For a quick meal, one good option is a manāqīsh, a kind of Lebanese pizza in which the dough is spiced and topped with meat or cheese.
Shopping Middle Eastern-style
North of downtown Beirut, towards the sea, is the city’s main souq. Decrepit old tents and stalls where you can barter with sellers that have come from afar is the stereotypical image associated with these places but this couldn’t be further from the truth in Beirut.
The souq here is a genuine Western-style shopping centre but in reality the entire area is geared to retail with open-air bars and shops (including those belonging to famous Western brands) dotted throughout this clean, elegant and clearly recently-built construction whose architecture combines Arab with European styles.
To enter Lebanon you need a passport with residual validity of at least six months and a visa. EU citizens can obtain a tourist visa directly at the Lebanese border by showing their return air ticket (if they are arriving by plane) and a passport with over six months of validity. Visas are not granted to those with a passport containing Israeli visas or stamps.
For more information contact the Lebanese Embassy or Consulate in your country.
Beirut has a typically Mediterranean climate with short and quite mild winters (with average minimum temperatures of 12°C and average maximum temperatures of 18°C) and hot summers tempered by the sea breeze but nonetheless muggy (highs of around 30°C and lows around 24°C on average).
Rain is concentrated between November and March and usually absent between June and September. As a result, for those that want to try its beaches or simply visit the city, Beirut is certainly most appealing in the late spring (April and May) and early autumn (October): in these periods the heat is not oppressive and rain is unlikely to ruin your holiday.
Due to the precarious political situation in the Middle East and Lebanon’s “uncomfortable” location there is a strong military presence in the city centre to guarantee the safety and relative calm of the locals. This being the case don’t be surprised if you are subject to extensive searches when entering religious sites and public places in general, and avoid taking photos where this is expressly prohibited.
Although romanticised with clear traces of American action films, Brad Anderson’s film Beirut (2018) seeks to shed light on the economic, political and social reality of the city before and during the civil war, and may be interesting viewing before leaving. Finally, remember that Lebanon is an absolute hive of events of all kinds: www.lebtivity.com seeks to gather them all together and may be a useful aid when planning your trip.
Caught in the crossfire of the eternal conflict between Israel and Palestine and the recent Syrian civil war, today the Lebanon faces an uncertain future. Perhaps this is why Beirut, its capital, seems to live only for the present, among its gleaming ultra-modern Western-inspired buildings and the ruins of the civil war that raged between 1975 and 1990, a fascinating and ubiquitous contrast that emerges time and time again. Located on the rocks in the middle of the eastern shore of the Mediterranean, it may no longer be the “Paris of the Middle East”, as it was known in the 1960s for its wealth and social life, but today Beirut is vibrant, multicultural, attractive and well worth discovering. Without doubt one of the most interesting destinations in the Middle East.