The Beirut skyline
The Beirut skyline

Beirut travel guide: 10 ways to spend the perfect weekend in Lebanon’s capital

This Middle Eastern capital has delicious food and zinging nightlife, says Cathy Adams

Cathy Adams
Tuesday 15 January 2019 14:13
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As I slide into the back seat of a taxi on Beirut’s waterfront, the driver and I find our one common language: French. How long are you staying, he asks – and what do you think of our people? (Four days; very warm and welcoming.)

And why are you here? Pour le weekend, pour faire la fete, I answer in very bad undergrad-level French. (For the weekend, to have a good time. And it was about 20 degrees warmer than wintry London, I want to add, if only I could figure out how.)

There wasn’t much more to it than that. The Independent’s brilliant foreign correspondents, plus a couple of friends who called it home for a few years, had sold me on the intoxicating nature of a Beirut city break. It was warm. It was relaxed. It had zinging nightlife. Plus, the food…

Here are 10 ways to enjoy the ultimate Beirut weekend.

Eat lahmajoun at an Armenian bakery...

Armenian pizza

The first thing I did on Saturday morning was track down an Armenian bakery in Ashrafieh – one of Beirut’s oldest districts – to find lahmajoun: basically an Armenian pizza, involving a thin layer of meat, or pomegranates, on crispy dough. This one is called Ichkhanian Bakery, but hole-in-the-wall places like this rarely have names, according to Bethany Kehdy of Taste Lebanon.

Back to that lahmajoun, the thin, crusty dough wrapped in half which makes the pomegranates wink at me enticingly. “It’s the best in the city,” says Kehdy. She’s spending Saturday morning showing me around the Beirut’s best bites. We wash it down with a cool yoghurt drink, ayran, straight out of the fridge.

... and then eat some more

On this four hour Taste Lebanon tour we snarf baklava and oozy knafeh made with Palestinian cheese; a chicken shawarma cooked over charcoal in tail fat (the white fat from a sheep’s tail) at Mediterranean-in-feel restaurant Boubouffe; and sit outside zippy Cafe Younes in the sunshine, drinking brisk cups of Arabic coffee.

We then wander through the Sodeco district and over to the neighbourhood of Mar Mitr to find the House of Zejd, a sleek boutique hawking olives (and resulting tapenade) from northern Lebanese groves. The tour finishes at a low-key ice cream shop called Hanna Mitri, run by a local family. Almond and lemon ice cream might sound like an odd combination but it tastes delicious.

Bar crawl in Gemmayze

Bar Torino is a popular local spot

If Beirut eats by day, by night it goes out to get soaked. Rue Gouraud, the main spine of neighbourhood Gemmayze, is pumping every night of the week (or at least it feels like it). Here you’ll find bars such as Torino, a small arch of a place, with a DJ at weekends and red neon writing in the window. Local Almaza beers are drunk while leaning against cars and motorbikes on the tiny bit of pavement it commands. There are proper seats outside Internazionale further down the street, immediately recognisable by its blue, white and red geometric patterns outside and vast back-of-bar booze selection. The advice I took was to look for a busy bar with some good music and you can’t go far wrong.

Another 10 minutes’ walk down the street is Mar Mikhael, which gets even more lively when the sun sets – if that’s even possible.

For a cocktail and a real knockout view, climb the stairs to Bar ThreeSixty atop swaggering boutique hotel Le Gray, right behind the Mansour Assaf mosque. The blue light this circular bar is bathed in makes it feel impossibly urban, and the views span the minarets of the Blue Mosque and downtown souks.

Visit Martyrs Square

The Blue Mosque, which dominates Martyrs Square

Downtown Beirut centres on Martyrs Square. It has some powerful history: named for the martyrs executed there under Ottoman rule, the square also formed the line that split the city during the Lebanese Civil War.

Today the square’s skyline is the best example of the relative religious harmony that exists in Lebanon. There’s the Blue Mosque, a vast modern reincarnation of a 19th century original; while right behind is the 19th century Saint George Cathedral.

Visit the Sursock Museum

Walk down St Nicholas Stairs to get to Gemmayze

The Rue Sursock that the eponymous museum sits on is flanked by gorgeous villas yawning with greenery, all belonging to Beirut’s most influential families, and well worth a wander down to gawp through the gates. The important-looking Sursock Museum, built by Lebanese aristocrat Nicolas Ibrahim Sursock, is a Beirut cultural hub, with a contemporary art museum showcasing artists from Lebanon and elsewhere. Opposite the Sursock Museum are the photographic St Nicholas Stairs, a wander down which will take you straight to the heart of Gemmayze: for a coffee at millennial pink and chrome Sip, if it’s before noon, or a beer at Torino at any other time.

Wander the souks

Beirut’s souks have none of the chaotic, hustling quality you might expect. Rather, these are modern, slickly marketed as a “premiere shopping and leisure destination”, home to lots of air con and glass rather than hagglers and dusty shops. But what they lack in atmosphere they make up for in terms of sheer shopping value: there are branches of world-class designers here, a cinema, and countless restaurants and cafes.

Explore the Saifi Urban Gardens complex

On Rue Pasteur in Gemmayze is restaurant/bar/hostel hybrid Saifi Urban Gardens. There are reasonable apartments for rent and a language school downstairs, but climb the five-storey building’s stairs to find a rooftop bar called Coop d’Etat (where nightly DJs entertain a lively crowd) and downstairs restaurant/cafe Cafe Em Nazih, which specialises in homestyle Lebanese food in a relaxed setting.

Hang out in Zaitunay Bay

Wander the Zaitunay Bay promenade

While sections of Beirut’s waterfront are still in the midst of intense development, Zaitunay Bay, a vast pedestrianised promenade that opened in 2012, has grown up to be one of Beirut’s loveliest attractions. If you can’t snag an invite to the upscale Le Yacht Club, all geometric glass angles, hang out at any of the relaxed alfresco cafes and restaurants open late into the night. It’s not far from Beirut’s MusicHall, a cabaret-style theatre.

Smoke shisha and drink tea in Place d’Etoile

At the centre of Place d’Etoile is where you’ll find Beirut’s icon: the 1930s Rolex clock gifted to the city. The radial square is flanked by Lebanese government buildings (and as a result expect a heavy army presence) and art deco architecture. If you’re staying locally, it’s a good (if overpriced) spot to enjoy a steaming glass of fresh mint tea or smoke some flavoured shisha after dinner. Also a prime people-watching spot.

Escape to Byblos for the day

Looking out to the Mediterranean in Byblos

If you’re in Beirut for a long weekend, it’s a good idea to escape for a day – and the nearest and most accessible destination is old Phoenician city Byblos, about an hour’s drive up the coast. Aside from visiting the standout Crusader castle ruins, which include the remains of successive civilisations in this Unesco World Heritage Site, there’s little else to do other than wander Byblos’ almost-too-touristy cobbled souks and have a lazy seafood lunch by the marina.

Travel essentials

Staying there

The Four Seasons Beirut is one of the city’s grande dames. A plush power lobby, all marbled floors and embroidered sofas, attracts a serious, professional Beirut crowd. The five star property is right on the waterfront, and all rooms have balconies to peer jealously at the collection of mega yachts in Beirut’s harbour. The area feels a little deserted at night, but not far is Rafic Salloum Street, which buzzes with alfresco bars and restaurants at the weekend.

Doubles from £254 room only; fourseasons.com/beirut

Green, pink and grey flash around edgy boutique Le Gray, which has a prime location right behind the Blue Mosque and down the street from the cafes and shisha bars of Place d’Etoile. Modern rooms in calm grey and green tones form around a tall glass atrium, while Le Gray’s rooftop restaurant Indigo on the Roof, all floral armchairs and pops of colour, is well worth a visit for its Mediterrean menu (sit outside in the summer). Don’t leave without having a swim in the heated rooftop pool.

Doubles from around £275 + VAT; campbellgrayhotels.com/le-gray-beirut

Getting there

British Airways flies to Beirut from London Heathrow from £242 return.

Uber is a good option for getting around and out to other cities such as Byblos, as it’s often cheaper than city cabs.

More information

A half day “Beirut Bites” food tour with Taste Lebanon costs $100pp (£80).

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