Last week, Julian and I took an extremely last-minute trip to Beirut to attend the wedding of two college friends. The bride is Jordanian and the groom Kuwaiti and they decided to host a destination wedding in the Lebanese capital of Beirut. Though we really wanted to attend the wedding, it seemed incompatible with Julian’s work schedule. It wasn’t until we spoke with another couple going that we realized we couldn’t miss this. After all, when else would we have the opportunity to attend a wedding in Beirut??
While we often take last-minute, spontaneous trips, this one has to take the cake as the most impromptu yet! We bought our tickets literally the night before, packed, and the next morning we were off. Looking back now, I can’t believe we almost didn’t go. This trip reinforced one of the central tenets of my travel philosophy– when faced with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, don’t second guess it, just go!
We stayed in Beirut for 5 days (although nearly 2 of those days were spent traveling). In between wedding celebrations, we explored the city known as “The Paris of the East” and visited its surrounding attractions. We also immersed ourselves in Lebanese culture– eating, partying, and strolling the streets of Beirut like the locals do. Far from what you often see in the media, Beirut is a city full of art, beauty, and life. As a newcomer to the city, Beirut initially seemed somewhat difficult to navigate. Luckily, I had friends to help guide me. Now I want to pass on this insider knowledge and share with you my 12 must-dos when in Beirut:
1. Walk around the bohemian neighborhood of Gemmayze
The neighborhood of Gemmayze is Beirut’s bohemian quarter and it’s full of character. Here, surrounded by Ottoman buildings, narrow alleys, and historic buildings from the French era, you’ll get a glimpse of old Beirut. You will find charming little shops, colorful staircases, traditional restaurants, and crazy street art. Don’t miss the Saint Nicolas Stairs, also known as Escalier de l’Art (seen below), where art festivals are held every year.
Side note: As you walk around Gemmayze and the rest of the city, you’ll notice that gleaming high-rises stand next to abandoned buildings with bullet holes in the walls. After the war, most of the buildings that weren’t destroyed were demolished to make way for reconstruction and urban planning. However, not all remnants of the war were wiped out and signs of its destruction endure today.
2. Visit the city’s museums
Walk up the Saint Nicolas Stairs and you will find yourself in Sursok, home to the famous Sursock Museum. Named after its patron, the Nicolas Ibrahim Sursock Museum is a modern and contemporary art museum opened featuring local and international art. This ornate, white wedding cake of a building was originally Nicolas’ private home. Upon his death, he left his mansion to the citizens of Lebanon as an art museum and in the 1960s it was the center of Beirut’s cultural life. Later, make sure to visit Beirut’s National Museum. There you will find extremely ancient artifacts including the sarcophagus of the 10th century BC king of Byblos, which displays the earliest known examples of the Phoenician alphabet. You’ll leave with a much greater understanding of the rich history of Lebanon and the many civilizations who made their home there.
3. Cool off at the Marina
If you visit Beirut in the summer like we did, you’ll need to take a break from the intense heat before too long. The Zaitunay Bay Marina is an ideal place to cool off. It’s full of cafes, restaurants, and pools where you can relax while admiring the view. It’s also pleasant after dark when the Marina Towers and Four Seasons light up the skyline. At night, tourists and locals come here to dine, smoke shisha, stroll the promenade, and enjoy the warm breeze.
4. Eat delicious Lebanese food
This one almost goes without saying but while in Beirut you must take advantage of the city’s world famous cuisine. Two of my favorites were En Sherif, tucked away in the vibrant Ashrafieh area of Monot, and Babel on the Marina. Go to En Sherif for authentic Arabic cuisine in a luxurious Oriental setting. It’s the place to see and be seen and everything is delicious. If you love seafood, you must go to Babel. Get the fried fish (eat everything except the spine), salt-encrusted sea bass, fat shrimp, and baklawa bahra, dough stuffed with calamari, octopus, and shrimp. Finish your meal with their signature ghazlieh, a super sweet dish somewhat resembling cotton candy with cream but much, much better.
5. Experience the city’s famous nightlife
You can’t go to Beirut without experiencing the city’s famous nightlife. Beirut has long been the party capital of the Middle East and in the 60s it was a top destination for international jetsetters. Today, 27 years after its bloody civil war, it’s once again become a party capital of the world. Begin your night at chic rooftop lounge Iris. Go here to watch the sunset while sipping on speciality cocktails and listening to fresh beats. Don’t forget to dress up (if you think you’re overdressed, you’re not) and be warned, even on a weeknight it’s usually packed so get there early. After dark, go to subterranean nightclub BO18, a former bomb bunker, or Trainstation – which is, you guessed it – a pre-war train station.
6. Talk to the locals
Besides visiting a museum, the best way to learn Beirut’s fascinating and tragic history is to talk to the locals. Everyone who lived through the country’s fifteen year civil war has stories about life during that period. The Lebanese I spoke to were eager to share their experiences. For an outsider, it may seem as though it was a war between Christians and Muslims (Lebanon is about 50-50 Muslim Christian) but the locals will tell you a much more nuanced tale. Today, Christians and Muslims live alongside one another in relative peace as they did for thousands of years. Talk to the locals about all the changes they have witnessed over the past few decades and you’ll gain a much deeper understanding of modern Lebanon.
7. Hire a tour guide and take a day trip outside of the city
If you have the time, I would highly recommend getting outside of the city to explore some of its surrounding marvels. I would also strongly suggest hiring a tour guide. Usually I like to get to know a country simply by experiencing it first-hand. In Lebanon, however, a guide is necessary in order to really understand and absorb what you’re seeing. Also, most historical sites and tourist attractions do not come with plaques or museums explaining their significance. We booked Francoise Hobeika, a highly experienced tour guide and historian, for a day trip to the Jeita Grottos, ancient city of Byblos, and coastal village of Harissa and we were so glad we did. She proved extremely informative, happily answered all of our questions, and made our experience so much richer.
8. Explore the Jeita Grottos
Only 11 miles north of Beirut are the Jeita Grottos, an enormous system of limestone caves which have formed over millions of years due to the dissolution of limestone. Jeita is the longest cave complex in the Middle East, spanning nearly 6 miles (9 kilometers). Climb the steep steps to the upper galleries to see the world’s largest known stalactite. Then, hop on a small boat and navigate the river at the bottom.
9. Go to ancient Byblos
After visiting the caves, head over to the ancient city of Byblos. Byblos is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world with records of people living there since 5000 BC. 7000 years ago, Byblos was a Phoenician port city and papyrus was one of its principal trade goods. The Greeks later took the name of the city as their word for book — biblos, which is where “Bible” comes from. Over the centuries, Byblos passed from the hands of one major civilization to another and its ruins give testimony to this history of uninterrupted conquest.
On your way to the ruins, walk through the Old Souk Market filled with local crafts and souvenirs. Don’t miss Memory of Time fossil museum where you can see 100 million year old fossils from the depths of the Mediterranean Sea. For a price, you can even take one home with you. Next, climb Byblos Castle and gaze out upon all that’s left of the first Phoenician villages, Bronze Age temples, Persian fortifications, Roman constructions, Byzantine churches, Medieval citadels and Ottoman palaces. A tour guide is especially necessary here in order to give context and significance to what looks like a pile of rocks to the untrained eye. Afterwards, have lunch at the Byblos Fishing Club, a Lebanese institution since the 60s when it was a destination for the decade’s jet-setting glitterati.
10. Ride a cable car to the Lady of Lebanon
Next, drive to the coastal village of Harissa to see the revered Lady of Lebanon. Situated on top of a hill 650 meters above sea level, you can either drive there or take the cable car up. If you’re not afraid of heights, the cable car is a lot more fun. Plus it provides a fantastic view of the bay of Jounieh and the city below. Erected by the French in 1904, this shrine is one of the most important shrines honoring Mary. Over the years, it has drawn millions of faithful Christians and Muslims from all over the world. The impressive Lady of Lebanon Basilica stands just behind the statue.
11. Shop in Martyrs Square
If you’re not exhausted yet, finish your day by shopping in Martyrs Square. Located in the heart of downtown, this is the shopping destination in Beirut. You’ll notice that this square, with its immense luxury shops and outdoor mall, looks brand new. That’s because it is. This historic square was completely rebuilt in 2005 with its axis open to the sea and a Parisian vibe. Today, Martyrs Square is home to all of the most high-end designers, including its own native Elie Saab. This is where the uber-rich of the Middle East come to do their shopping. Even if you don’t plan on buying anything here, the window shopping is top-notch. For me, the best part was stumbling upon a souk, or market, selling local goods in between the luxury shops. Here you can buy beach coverups, leather bags, jewelry and much more at affordable prices. I left with a pair of beautiful gold-plated statement earrings and my friend left with an adorable embroidered sunhat.
12. Spend a day at the beach
I must admit that I did not have time to do this but I really wish I had! The sea looked so inviting and those who know Beirut say it’s a must. Whether you want to relax or party on the Mediterranean, there are tons of beach clubs to choose from either within the city or outside. Spend your day relaxing at the beach, sipping on cocktails, and soaking up the sun. Afterwords, let me know how it is!!
Also, if you missed my last post on exploring the fairytale-like towns of Riquewihr and Colmar, you can read it here!