credit: Russell Higham
Considering they’ve spent most of the last forty years being shot and bombed senseless in a series of civil and regional wars, the residents of Beirut are remarkably upbeat. It seems that, at any time of day, there’s a happy hour going on somewhere, and everyone is always smiling and up for a party. The snipers and tanks are gone from the streets now, replaced by a battalion of cool bars, upmarket restaurants, funky shops and designer boutiques. The Lebanese capital on the mediterranean coast which used to be known as “the Paris of the Middle East” has reinvented itself as a mecca of hedonism and conspicuous consumption. Move over Dubai, Beirut is back! It’s cooler than the brash desert emirate (both in style and temperature) and, being a relatively short flight from London, makes the ideal destination for a long weekend with a difference.
To get a sense of its brutal past, start by exploring what used to be the beating heart of town – Hamra. Raise your gaze above the cute vintage clothing stores, ethnic jewellery workshops and honey-dripped baklava bakeries to notice the bullet-scarred walls and shell-blasted roofs that act as a jarring reminder of the sectarianism and regional geo-politics which once made life here so nightmarish. For contrast, take a short stroll down to the ever peaceful, well ordered and tropically lush gardens of the American University. Unlike most Middle Eastern cities, Beirut is compact and eminently walkable. Until you know your way around, you’ll probably still end up taking one of the swarm of taxis that ply their trade by beeping constantly as they slow down to pass you. Expect to pay a minimum of $10 (LL15,000 in local currency but everywhere takes dollars) for a cab, regardless of distance, or use Uber.
Nowadays, Ashrafieh is the place to spend a pleasant afternoon mooching around aimlessly. Grab the best falafel and tahini wrap you’ve ever tasted at Falafel Freiha. It’s definitely not fancy but you’ll feel like a local standing in line with earthy taxi drivers who eat their lunches standing outside with colleagues at bonnet-top picnics. Afterwards, spend a few hours getting lost among the quirky furniture shops, art galleries, nostalgic cinemas and pop-up exhibitions that make up this buzzy neighbourhood.
Dusk passes in the blink of an eye in this part of the world so make you’re perched, cocktail in hand, at the bar on the 31st floor of the Hilton Habtoor Grand which offers spectacularly far-reaching views of Beirut at sunset. It’s connected by a futuristic, neon-lit tubular walkway to its sister hotel, the luxury (but surprisingly reasonably priced) Hilton Metropolitan Palace, near to the site of the former Green Line that used to divide the city’s warring factions into their Eastern & Western strongholds.
There are as many different types of food in Lebanon as there are religions all vying for your devotions. New restaurants spring up weekly and the list of what’s hot and what’s not changes with dizzying regularity. The current fad is for barbecue and southern soul food – lots of pulled pork, brisket and smoked meats. Best of these newcomers is Ferdinand (Hamra) which has a laid back, speakeasy vibe. If you’re after something more traditional, head to Abdel Wahab (Monot) to order a selection of classic Arabic mezze with hummus followed by the chicken in yoghurt. For a taste of the Lebanese highlife, head to Le Gray – Beirut’s ultra-hip designer hotel in the newly regenerated central district, close to upscale shopping centre Beirut Souks. Make your way past the fashionistas lolling gracefully in the art gallery-like lobby and take the lift to the rooftop restaurant ‘Indigo’ for its signature Tajima Wagyu beef and a glimpse of the church spires and mosque minarets that clash below in Martyr’s Square. If your budget will stretch, a room at this stylishly refined landmark hotel will put you at the heart of the shiny new Beirut, enjoying Chanel and Rolex for neighbours as well as drawing respectful admiration from anyone asking where you’re staying (an important quality to the image-conscious Lebanese).
After dinner, head to Mar Mikhael with its overflowing bars and raucous street scene. There’s plenty of choice for the party crowd here but, as a sample, try the retro themed Internazionale, popular with the creative set, and Radio Beirut which belts out cheesy Western and Arabic hits to weekenders throwing shapes on its tiny dance floor. Drinks are overpriced (even by London standards) but measures are generous and you’ll soon be having so much fun you’ll forget how bad the post-Brexit exchange rate is anyway. Try the locals’ shot of choice – “Dou Dou” – vodka with lemon juice, olive and spicy chilli.
If your fun antennae are still twitching at this point, grab a cab to The Grand Factory – a dark, cavernous nightclub grinding out dirty deep house on its state-of-the-art sound system and stunning laser graphics. It’s incongruously perched on top of a decaying, brutalist tower block that looks as though it might have been used as the launch-site for Hezbollah’s rockets during the war. To get to it, after paying your $33 entrance fee (includes one drink), be prepared to be herded into a huge, sweaty industrial elevator manned by a gurning lift operator who will gladly pose for saucer-eyed selfies with a chemically-induced twinkle in his eye. It may not tick all the health and safety boxes but you’re going to struggle to find a better “I once went to this amazing club…” story to tell your friends.
For a more conventional touristic experience, you could always spend a day visiting the many museums and art galleries that Beirut has to offer. Highlights include the eclectically curated Robert Mouawad Private Museum and the Sursock which features over 800 pieces of Lebanese and international modern art. The Beirut Art Centre is also worth an hour of your time; based on the banks of the city’s main river, it’s a ‘not-for-profit’ that aims to make local contemporary art accessible to all.
If you’ve time, negotiate a day rate with a taxi driver and explore outside the frenetic capital. Byblos offers a peaceful escape; the upmarket resort is known for its spas, harbour-side fish restaurants and lively open-air bars. The Bekaa Valley, meanwhile, lies around 19 miles from Beirut and is home to the ancient ruins of Baalbek which host a huge music and cultural festival each July and August. Featuring Middle Eastern and international acts from all genres, this year’s highlights include Mika and 80s electronica legend, Jean Michel Jarre.
The chaotic mix of hummus, house music and happy party people makes Beirut an offbeat and exotic alternative to the usual choice of European city breaks. Forget its dark past and embrace this safe and welcoming city’s vibrant present as the nightlife capital of the Middle East.