The town they can't keep down

City Slicker: Beirut - Lebanon's capital, like its taxis, can take a beating then bounce back. Sarah Barrell has some tips for new and returning visitors



Why visit?

Beirut seems a world away from the Middle East that is currently hitting the headlines. Lebanon may still be seeking a prime minister after the recent collapse of its government, but this is workaday stuff for this infamously battle-torn country. Since the Israeli bombings in 2006, the resilient capital has seen a period of peace.

Stand in the newly rebuilt downtown district and a palpable sense of confidence is evident everywhere from the gleaming rooftop pools of new hotels such as Le Gray and the Four Seasons to the pristine new Souks mega mall that has lately welcomed Bond Street franchises. It's a mind-boggling transformation for a city that didn't even have a Starbucks until a couple of years ago.

Downtown has been renamed "Solidere" after the public-private development company that removed its bullet-riddled buildings, causing some locals to bemoan Beirut's loss of heritage in the midst of this commercially minded makeover.

For now, the bombed out Holiday Inn still stands like a cenotaph to the civil war, and there are plans for certain buildings to be kept as relics (beitbeirut.org). Beirut's fleet of battered 1970s Mercedes taxis has also escaped the Solidere treatment. These glorious, bodywork-trailing beasts burn up and down the city's sparkling new streets, often against the flow of traffic, paying little heed to the recently added signs, speed limits and traffic lights – the rusty embodiment of Beirut's defiant spirit.

Beirut's traffic is, today, the craziest thing about a city in which gentle, Arab hospitality and some Côte d'Azur-style bling combine to make it both exciting and yet civilised. And spring is the best time to visit as the city's legendary outdoor clubs roll back their roofs and the beach lidos dust off their sun beds.

Along the seafront, there are plans for a vast new park and private marina. The former will be a boon to Beirut's concrete conurbation, as will the Garden of Forgiveness when it is completed. This green space will run partly along the former Green Line connecting mosques, churches and flood-lit Roman ruins. It's currently halted around Martyr's Square until a home is found for the military stationed idly there. Beirut's perennial self-confidence means everyone expects this to happen any day soon.



Don't miss ...

... the Solidere district. The immaculately renovated centre is a truly great place to stroll. Follow the streets radiating from Place de l'Etoile, taking in churches, mosques, excavated Roman baths, Parisian-style cafés and rebuilt neo-Ottoman buildings.

... the National Museum (beirut nationalmuseum.com). The highlights of this beautifully presented collection of archaeological treasures includes: perfectly preserved Roman mosaics; remarkably lifelike Bronze Age ivory ex-votos in animal forms; marble sculptures of cherubim from the 5th century BC; and a 7th-century BC terracotta funeral mask from Tyre. Don't miss the hourly introductory film showing how the museum was reborn from a tragic pile of wartime rubble.

... Walk Beirut (bebeirut.org/walk.html). Tours on foot are rare in Beirut. This one is guided by recent university graduates and covers the remaining ravages of the civil war, Roman ruins, proud new Beirut buildings, and cool cafés.

... the Beirut Art Center (beirutart center.org). A warehouse space in the industrial Jisr el-Wati district that has already become a hub for national and international contemporary art exhibitions in the two years since it opened. As well as two floors of gallery space, don't miss the bookshop stacked with home-grown writings, graphic art and music plus a "mediathèque" (digital archives) of paintings, photographs, audio clips and artists' biographies.

... Le Corniche. The closest thing Beirut has to a park. Take a sunset stroll along this seafront esplanade, buy a gritty coffee from one of the pushcart stalls and watch the people, from children playing in rock pools to the ranks of men smoking nargili (bubble pipes) over lightning-quick games of backgammon on the boardwalk.

... the Music Hall at the Starco Center, Omar Daouk Street (00 961 3 807 555), a cinema-turned-cabaret venue that is a nightlife landmark. Book a booth, order some cocktails, sit back, and enjoy a show that strives for diversity as much as glitz. Expect to see Lebanese gypsy-pop, glam rock cover bands, Egyptian belly dancing, traditional Iraqi drumming and even a full 25-piece mariachi band.

... Byblos. This seaside satellite town is Beirut's beach playground, with a pretty fishing harbour and a crusader castle alongside Roman temples and Phoenician ruins. Many of the rare artefacts found at Beirut's National Museum come from this site.



What's new

Ayyam

Some would say that this commercial gallery, with sister spaces in Syria, Dubai and Cairo, has single-handedly pushed Middle Eastern art into the big-bucks global market. Even if you're not a Saatchi or Christie's buyer, exhibits in Ayyam's two, slick Lebanon showrooms exhibit the best-selling and upcoming contemporary photographers, painters and sculptors. Details: ayyamgallery.com

Starch

This boutique, in the artisan-shop-stuffed Saifi Village district, annually selects up to seven new designers to show their collections. You'll also find jewellery and accessories – even the shop is redecorated each year by a young designer. Current collections include industrial-cum-medieval silver and leather jewellery by Margherita (Ghita) Abi-Hanna, and floaty androgynous creations from design-duo Emily Cremona. Details: starchfoundation.org



St George's Cathedral Crypt Museum

The city's eight archaeological layers, from Hellenistic to Ottoman, are cleverly displayed along an exposed wall of the underground passage into this small museum. Inside, you can see the remains of six churches that date back 2,000 years. There are sandstone tombs, 18th-century frescos salvaged from the bombed out cathedral (complete with bullet holes), a section of Roman road, and a skylight looking up into the altar of this renovated Maronite church. Details: St George's Cathedral, Place d'Etoiles.



MyBar

This see-and-be-seen cocktail and sushi bar is set above the oh-so-chic designer emporium, Plum, one of those great Beirut places that relies on you knowing exactly where it is – accessed by what looks like the elevator to a posh apartment building on the edge of the new Souqs shopping area. Details: mybar.me



Basma

"Grandma" style cooking served in a kitsch Franco-Lebanese building bordering the Gemmayzeh party district. I loved the silky-smoky Baba Ghanoush and the fluffy potato and cheese baked kibbeh. There's an outside terrace but inside wins with tiled mosaic floors, 1950s French windows, velvet banquettes and little embroidered foot stools on which the glossy female clientele place their designer bags. For all that, it's a laid-back place, with nargili smoke and relaxed service. Details: Sasadi Building, Charles Malek Avenue (00 961 1 326 327).

Compact facts

How to get there

Sarah Barrell travelled as a guest of British Midland International (flybmi.com), which offers direct flights from London Heathrow to Beirut from £437. A double room at Le Gray, Beirut (00 961 196 28 28; legray.com) costs from £235 per night.

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Sport
Dwight Gayle (left) celebrates making it 1-1 with Crystal Palace captain Mile Jedinak
premier leagueReds falter to humbling defeat
Sport
Harry Kane
premier leagueLive minute-by-minute coverage
News
video
Arts and Entertainment
Jerry Hall (Hand out press photograph provided by jackstanley@theambassadors.com)
theatre
News
peopleFormer civil rights activist who was jailed for smoking crack cocaine has died aged 78
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Kirk Cameron is begging his Facebook fans to give him positive reviews
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jason goes on a special mission for the queen
tvReview: Everyone loves a CGI Cyclops and the BBC's Saturday night charmer is getting epic
Sport
Jonny May scores for England
rugby unionEngland 28 Samoa 9: Wing scores twice to help England record their first win in six
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Advisor

    £8 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Excellent opportunities are available for par...

    Investigo: IT Auditor

    £60000 - £75000 per annum + Benefits : Investigo: A global leading travel busi...

    Recruitment Genius: Chef De Partie x 2

    £16000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This charming and contemporary ...

    Recruitment Genius: Membership Sales Advisor - OTE £20,000 Uncapped

    £15000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The fastest growing fitness cha...

    Day In a Page

    Mau Mau uprising: Kenyans still waiting for justice join class action over Britain's role in the emergency

    Kenyans still waiting for justice over Mau Mau uprising

    Thousands join class action over Britain's role in the emergency
    Isis in Iraq: The trauma of the last six months has overwhelmed the remaining Christians in the country

    The last Christians in Iraq

    After 2,000 years, a community will try anything – including pretending to convert to Islam – to avoid losing everything, says Patrick Cockburn
    Black Friday: Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

    Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

    Britain braced for Black Friday
    Bill Cosby's persona goes from America's dad to date-rape drugs

    From America's dad to date-rape drugs

    Stories of Bill Cosby's alleged sexual assaults may have circulated widely in Hollywood, but they came as a shock to fans, says Rupert Cornwell
    Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

    Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

    As fans flock to see England women's Wembley debut against Germany, the TV presenter on an exciting 'sea change'
    Oh come, all ye multi-faithful: The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?

    Oh come, all ye multi-faithful

    The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?
    Dr Charles Heatley: The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

    The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

    Dr Charles Heatley on joining the NHS volunteers' team bound for Sierra Leone
    Flogging vlogging: First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books

    Flogging vlogging

    First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
    Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show: US channels wage comedy star wars

    Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show

    US channels wage comedy star wars
    When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine? When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible

    When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine?

    When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible
    Look what's mushrooming now! Meat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector

    Look what's mushrooming now!

    Meat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector
    Neil Findlay is more a pink shrimp than a red firebrand

    More a pink shrimp than a red firebrand

    The vilification of the potential Scottish Labour leader Neil Findlay shows how one-note politics is today, says DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Tenderstem broccoli omelette; Fried eggs with Mexican-style tomato and chilli sauce; Pan-fried cavolo nero with soft-boiled egg

    Oeuf quake

    Bill Granger's cracking egg recipes
    Terry Venables: Wayne Rooney is roaring again and the world knows that England are back

    Terry Venables column

    Wayne Rooney is roaring again and the world knows that England are back
    Michael Calvin: Abject leadership is allowing football’s age-old sores to fester

    Abject leadership is allowing football’s age-old sores to fester

    Those at the top are allowing the same issues to go unchallenged, says Michael Calvin