Beirut, Lebanon, has been hailed the world’s sexiest city. TNT‘s Janine Kelso checked it out…
In its 1960s glory days, Beirut was called the ‘Paris of the East’ and was a favourite with the likes of Brigitte Bardot and Frank Sinatra, who loved the city’s glamorous party vibe and exquisite cuisine. The party came to an abrupt halt with the onslaught of the civil war which lasted from 1975 to 1990, followed by the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah, the Islamic resistance movement.
Now in the midst of a serious nip ’n’ tuck, with buildings springing up at a dizzying rate, this war-scarred yet hardy city is enjoying a renaissance. That’s not to say the war hasn’t left a mark: ugly concrete buildings are pocked with bullet holes and armed soldiers stand guard on every street corner, but they’re super-friendly and happy to pose for a photograph.
Beaches and boulevards
While people-watching during an afternoon stroll along the Corniche, a waterfront, palm-lined boulevard, we’re struck by how ultra-cosmopolitan Beirut is: girls in flesh-flashing garb rub shoulders with women in full hijab, and the muezzins’ call to prayer is interspersed with the ring of church bells. Beirut is actually home to 18 religions; 12 of which are Christian and five Muslim – and seats in Government are distributed evenly between the two groups.
We stop to sunbathe for a few hours after sneaking on to a five-star hotel’s private beach, before watching the sun set over Beirut’s most iconic landmark, Pigeons’ Rock, two giant rock formations that sit just off the coast.
Souks and the City
Heading downtown later, we find the ‘Beirut souks’ still open at 11pm. They aren’t the bazaar-style shopping experience you might expect, but a mix of upscale boutiques and designer shops.
In Byblos, an hour from Beirut, we find ancient ruins and cobbled streets stuffed with charming market stalls selling pretty fish fossils and jewellery.
The Jeita Grotta
The next day, we take a trip to Jeita Grotto, a six-mile-long cave system beneath the forest-clad hills of Mount Lebanon, 20km from Beirut. We ogle the underground world of brain-like stalactites and vertigo-inducing canyons during an atmospheric stroll, followed by a boat trip on a subterranean lake. A gondola ride takes us up to Harissa, a hillside pilgrimage site, which offers knockout views of Beirut.
Later, we stroll around the wide and ordered avenues of pedestrianised Solidere in downtown Beirut, where we find a hotchpotch of floodlit ruins, elegant French buildings with colonial-style balconies and the lantern-lit 13th-century Al Omari Mosque.
We dine at local’s favourite, Al Balad, in Nejmeh Square, and polish off a mezze feast of creamy hummus and warm flatbreads, tabouleh, stuffed vine leaves and kofka. We finish with a mint-and- lemon flavoured sheesha pipe and can’t stop talking about how much we’ve fallen in love with Beirut.
The Middle East’s party capital is luring hedonists in their droves, attracted by its sizzling nightlife and hot locals (read scantily-clad girls and ripped guys).
A night out in Beirut begins at 11pm and ends around 4am. Hailed the planet’s sexiest city by those in the know, standout nightspots include The Sky Bar, which, as the name suggests, offers sweeping city views, and the legendary B-018 club which has a retractable roof that gives revellers a clear view of the star-studded sky.
WHEN TO GO: May to June, and November to December when temperatures are mild but sunny. January and February are the coldest months – temperatures drop to 10C.
GETTING THERE: Fly direct to Beirut with bmi (flybmi.com).
GETTING AROUND: By taxi, although it’s possible to explore the downtown area on foot.
VISAS: All visitors to Lebanon need a visa. Contact the Lebanese Embassy.
CURRENCY: Lebanon pounds. 1 GBP = 2342 LBP. American dollars are accepted everywhere though.
GOING OUT: A beer costs 6000 LBP.
ACCOMMODATION: Hotel rooms cost from £60 per night.
GET MORE INFO AT: downtownbeirut.com
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Visiting Beirut, Lebanon
» Janine Kelso travelled to Beirut with British Midland International (bmi) which flies daily to Beirut; however, the airline will fly twice daily from March 31, 2011. Flights are direct from London Heathrow and start from £412 return inclusive. Book online at flybmi.com.