Beirut’s turbulent history – the country was passed from one foreign empire to another for more than four thousand years– continued long past its eventual independence from France. Declared a republic in 1943, Lebanon prospered for three short decades before being plunged into a savage civil war in 1975. Lasting for 15 years, the war ravaged the country and for many left an indelible image of Beirut as just another tragic, war torn Middle Eastern city.
Since the civil war ended Lebanon has been rebuilding its cities, and just as vitally, its image. Despite a few periods of unrest, most notably in 2006, Beirut has largely regained its status as a regional centre for tourism, culture, fashion, media and commerce. The city’s aggressive building policy has been matched by its inhabitants’ lust for life, liberty and happiness, and accordingly Beirut has earned its present-day status of ‘Party Capital of the Arab World’.
The city’s buzzing nightlife and vibrant dining scene have garnered it a raft of awards: in 2009 the New York Times named Beirut as the top place to visit, while Lonely Planet listed it as one of the top ten liveliest cities in the world. With a population estimated at two million, swollen by an annual influx of almost five million tourists, Beirut has officially shaken off its volatile image and finally deserves its post-World War II epithet: the Paris of the Middle East.
Whilst Beirut has a number of attractions, its biggest draw is its atmosphere and many a day can be spent people watching on the Corniche, enjoying the sunset at Pigeon Rocks, or grabbing a coffee at an outdoor café at the Souk el Barghout.
For sightseeing, start in downtown at the heart of Beirut: most attractions should be within walking distance and include the city’s scenic port and marina. Enjoy archaeological treasures at the National Museum and the AUB Museum; contemporary Lebanese art at the Sursock Museum; and the city’s burgeoning arts scene at the Beirut Art Centre.
After 15 years of hardship, the Lebanese have understandably embraced the frivolities of fashion and the city is now home to many world famous designer shops – some of them home grown. Start a shopping trip in downtown Beirut, the recently renovated city centre which boasts enough designer stores to rival any global city. The streets around Hamra and Verdun feature high-end shopping malls and department stores, while refurbished townhouses house designer boutiques in Saifi Village and Mar Mikhael.
Beirutis love socialising and dining out in style: eating late and often in large groups where they will share platter upon platter of mezze starters. International cuisines – from Ashrafieh’s Japanese sushi bars to Gemmayze’s Italian bistros – are popular but Lebanese cuisine in all its varieties is prevalent.
Lebanese food is a Mediterranean-style combination of olive oil, herbs, spices and vegetables with hearty accompaniments of meat and fish. Traditional Lebanese mezze is an elaborate choice of hot and cold dishes including salads, dips, patties and pastries. Most meals are served with flatbreads, and late night revellers will often grab a manakeesh on the way home: a doughy ‘pizza’ topped with zaatar, cheese or meat. Try one, they’re delicious.
Nightlife in Beirut is legendary and not for the fainthearted: Beirutis make the effort to dress up and party hard – and you’ll be expected to join in. Most of the city’s districts feature numerous bars and clubs, but the hottest nightspots tend to be concentrated around Gemmayze and Monot Street, close to the Ashrafieh district. Beirut also hosts numerous big name DJs and bands: just ask around for the latest event information.
To see the real Lebanon it pays to venture inland. Visit the ancient cities of Byblos, Sidon and Sour, UNESCO World Heritage Sites which offer magnificent architectural remains and date back more than seven thousand years.
The most impressive site is Baalbeck, located 90km from Beirut. This former Roman city of Heliopolis features the ruins of the Great Court of Trajan (with six of its original 128 rose granite columns); the Temple of Jupiter and the Trilithon; the Temple of Bacchus; and a circular temple associated with the goddess Venus. The temples in Baalbeck are not only the largest Roman temples ever built, but among the best preserved.