Just ahead of our long weekend trip to Lebanon, whenever we mentioned our travel plans to anyone, it was met with a bewildered “Why are you going to Lebanon?” from several people. Sadly, this little Levantine nation has had much of the sheen from its heyday as the ‘Paris of the Middle East’ diminished with years of strife and unrest – or so it would seem – and doesn’t really feature as a popular tourist destination (unless it’s for Lebanese expats heading home).
It’s the sort of place where you have to make a little effort to find its beauty, amidst the ever-present traces of war, relentless overdevelopment, and the (now infamous) literal trash. But when you do scratch the surface, you find it all – a rich culture, delicious food, stunning natural beauty, an innately stylish people, and buzzing nightlife.
For Dubai (and GCC residents) like us, it really is the perfect weekend getaway, but even those further afield should attempt to discover this land which wears its scars with a resilient insouciance, and its people who make it their mission to live each day to its fullest. You’ll be glad you did! (And contrary to what many might think, is quite safe for tourists, as long as you stay away from trouble spots.)
Here’s our curated guide to making the most of Beirut on a whirlwind weekend trip:
A morning at Mar Mikhael> Beirut is known as a city of neighbourhoods, and there are several in the city that have, over the last couple of decades, been gentrified to become trendy hotspots. Mar Mikhael, a former industrial area in which auto garages, hardware shops and warehouses rub shoulders with – and in many cases, have been replaced by – upscale boutiques, galleries, restaurants, and bars, is undeniably one of the hottest. Wander around this eclectic district to stumble upon cool finds such as Plan Bey (a gallery and niche publishing workshop); and Zawal (an exhibition space). Both are located in the arterial Armenia Street, which is also home to numerous bars and pubs – there’s one literally every couple of hundred metres! – giving the area an infectiously lively vibe after dark.
Lunch at Tawlet> Make your way from your Mar Mikhael wanderings to this community restaurant to enjoy some of the most authentic, home-style Lebanese food you’ll ever find. What started out as a farmers’ market has evolved into a farmers’ kitchen where ladies from different regions of Lebanon cook up a feast each day, which is served buffet-style for guests in a cosy, rustic-chic setting. The chalkboard menu changes weekly, but what you’re always guaranteed are delicious flavours and regional dishes you don’t usually find in restaurant fare – all made with local produce, naturally. The best bit? Souq al Tayeb, which runs Tawlet, is a social enterprise, that has grown to have outposts all over Lebanon now – so you know you’re also doing your bit for the community.
Flâneur at Zaitounay Bay> Work off your lunch feast with a stroll along this waterfront promenade at Beirut Marina. Flanked by luxury yachts bobbing in the near distance, and the splendours of downtown Beirut, this upscale destination is where the well-heeled of Beirut enjoy their down-time, from stylish teenagers to families frolicking in the grass.
It’s the perfect place for relaxing with a coffee or a drink at one of the many restaurants and cafes, while people-watching!
Party at Hamra> The nightlife in Beirut is legendary, and Hamra is one of the most established party destinations in town (other neighbourhoods such as Gemmayze, Mar Mikhael, and the up-and-coming Badaro are also buzzing, but this one’s an oldie but a goodie). A cultural and intellectual hub by day, at night this area comes to life with quirky bars and pulsing nightclubs, with the music and crowds spilling out on to the street, and the party continuing into the wee hours, most nights of the week. Just choose a place that catches your fancy, to start your night – they all have similar music and vibes (venues in Beirut also open and shut with alarming frequency!) – and then work your way through a few, it’s the ideal place for pub crawling.
Brunch at the Four Seasons> Recover from the previous night with the perfect morning-after meal at this downtown luxury hotel overlooking the waterfront, which proudly lays claim to having ‘Beirut’s best breakfast’. It feels like a rightful claim – with a lavish spread of breakfast classics and Lebanese specialties, there’s everything from an array of fresh fruits, cereal, and cheeses, to cooked-to-order eggs any style (their shakshouka is divine), plus a delicious selection of Arabic dips and breads served on a tiered tray. Truly a breakfast of champions!
Window shop at Beirut Souks> Or, actually shop too, if your budget allows for all the designer labels you’ll find here. Formerly known simply as Downtown – which, as you can imagine, could get quite confusing; although it is located in what is technically downtown – this luxury outdoor lifestyle destination has been built in a traditional style, and is home to boutiques of all the top Lebanese designers, as well as global brands. Dotted with outdoor art and installations, and with many of its historic elements including 16th century ruins and Ottoman-era excavations carefully preserved, it’s a vibrant place to soak in that quintessentially Beirut vibe where the old and the new effortlessly coexist.
Take in some art at Sursock Museum> (Sorry for leaving the culture-vulture-ing for so late into the trip, but you’ll soon see why!). Housed in the storied former home of Nicolas Sursock, one of the most venerated members of Lebanon’s aristocracy and a long recognised patron of the arts, this museum reopened after extensive refurbishment late last year. Since then, it has been at the forefront of a re-energised art movement in Beirut that is championing local artists while providing a platform for art education, experimentation, and restoration. With its beautiful turn-of-the-century architecture, the rich history captured within its walls, and varied programme of events and exhibitions, the museum is a living embodiment both of Lebanese resilience, as well as the country’s cultural legacy.
The museum, located in the bohemian Gemmayze district, is free to enter and open until 6pm (it’s not massive, so can be covered within a couple of hours).
Dine at Enab
Make your way through the charming, hilly laneways of Gemmayze, past crumbling classical French-style building, and dazzling street art – you could be tempted into the many galleries and boutiques around here too – back into Mar Mikhael for a traditional Lebanese meal. Enab is frequently rated one of the best restaurants for local food by insiders, and it’s easy to see why – the residential-style restaurant, spread across different rooms of an actual former home, features Instagram-friendly shabby chic décor, and fresh, delicious food to match. The leafy outdoor courtyard is the place to be, for alfresco dining and shisha, but the place is usually always packed. Get your fix of all your favourite Levantine classics on your last night in town, with your Beirut weekend coming full circle.
And if you have the time and energy, then party the night away – you are in Mar Mikhael after all! If you do, the thumping Bar 35; minimalist Floyd the Dog; and Workshop, which exudes an underground feel, are all worth checking out.
Beyond Beirut> If you have an extra day on hand, head outside the city for a day-trip – there are plenty of options within easy driving distance, from the historic fishing village charms of Byblos, and Batroun, to the alpine beauty of the Cedars, and the mystical appeal of the underground Jeita Grotto.
Would you like more insights into any of these countryside destinations in Lebanon? Just ask in the comments, or on social media, and we’ll be happy to provide lots more insight and info.