I’m sure you’ve dreamt of visiting Beirut, a city full of landmarks. We are talking about the famous Phoenician city that in spite of it is recent difficult past has somehow managed to remain the most cosmopolitan city in the Middle East. And I’m also sure you’ve wondered if it’s safe. We visited recently and are happy to report that safe it is. Actually, this is my second time in Beirut. My first time was back in 2004 during my crazy Middle Eastern adventure.
Checkpoints are all over the city (and all around the country) but nobody harassed nor bothered us. We never felt threatened at all. On the contrary, the Lebanese are fantastic hosts. You are not allowed to take photos at some important places, but other than that, everything seemed quite normal. Actually, cars are the only problem, just like anywhere in the world where we have sold our souls to them. So you have the threat of pollution and you must be very careful when crossing streets.
Therefore my fellow travelers, don’t worry about a thing and visit this gem of a city!
Beirut City Center – Centre Ville refers to the area around historical Nijmeh Square. This beautiful art deco square houses four interesting buildings: the Lebanese Parliament, The Clock Tower and two Greek churches. The so-called green line that divided East and West Beirut during the war went right through this area. After the war the center was brilliantly reconstructed bringing important historical buildings back to their glory. Though it’s probably the most beautiful area in the whole of Beirut, it somehow lacks identity and feels somewhat empty. On the other hand, both old landmarks and most spectacular new venues of Beirut are here.
Beirut is an incredibly diverse city, thus its main highlights include Churches and Mosques of different denominations. You can start your own private tour directly at Nijmeh Square where you’ll encounter the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of Saint George and the Greek Catholic Cathedral of St Elias. Northwest of the Square you’ll find the Saint Louis Roman Catholic Church. South of the square you’ll find the Saint Georges Maronite Cathedral. To the south, the large Armenian Cathedral of St Elias and St Gregory the Illuminator stands a bit isolated. Finally, complete the tour walking southwest to the National Evangelical Church of Beirut and St Nishan Armenian Orthodox Church.
Most of Muslim landmarks in Beirut are also located around Nijmeh Square. There are four historical mosques. Northeast of the Square you’ll find the interesting Ottoman Emir Munzer Mosque. Pretty close by lay two: the Al Omari Mosque, originally built as a church and converted to a mosque by Mamluks and Emir Mansour Assaf Mosque another Ottoman mosque. South of the square you’ll find Beirut’s newest mosque: Mohamad al Amin Mosque. Located next to the Maronite Cathedral it is Beirut’s largest religious building. Didn’t I tell you the place is diversity central?
If you think the latter is too much, wait until you explore the rest of the city. Apparently Beirut was pretty important during the Roman Empire, thus the remains of the Roman Forum (between the Greek Churches and The Mohamad al amin Mosque) and of the Roman Bath. The bath is located in front of the Grand Serail, home of the Lebanese government. The Hamidiyi Clock-tower is there too, but taking pictures is prohibited. If you cross Waygand Street you’ll bump into the colorful City Hall and the new slick Souk of Beirut. Designed by Rafael Moneo, it may not be exactly what you expect from a souk, but impressive it is.
Restaurants and cafés in downtown Beirut
It is no secret that the Lebanese authorities invested heavily in refurbishing Beirut’s central area. In spite of all their effort it still remains somewhat abandoned (with the exception of Beirut Souks). The beautiful streets around Nijmeh Square are full of restaurants and bars, mostly visited by tourists. We chose one restaurant directly on the square so we could enjoy the views of the famous Art Deco clock tower, Greek churches and the Amir Munzer Mosque. The food was pretty standard but with superb weather we had lunch outside, enjoying fantastic views and letting our mind travel in time. In Beirut Souks we discovered a fantastic bookshop with great coffee – Librairie Antoine.
The rest of the city
One of Beirut’s main highlights and an unmissable spot on any Lebanon itinerary is undoubtedly the famous Raouche Rocks. Though the rocks look impressive, trash is everywhere (like in most of Beirut’s coast). Additionally, we had quite a hard time crossing the General De Gaulle Boulevard. No worries. Take a deep breath (well, as much as pollution permits), be extra careful and don’t let fools that don’t respect pedestrians ruin your day! A place with a completely different atmosphere is the giant American University of Beirut. It not only houses a collection of nice old buildings and fabulous gardens, but there’s a modern Zaha Hadid’s building too. Additionally, Beirut is famous for its beautiful villas, and though they are slowly disappearing, several spectacular ones remain scattered around the city. Don’t miss the Sursock Palace and the Nicolas Sursock Museum in Achrafieh.
The best neighborhoods to stay in Beirut
One of the key issues of a successful visit to Beirut is where to stay. The city is still somewhat divided (post war scars) and its neighborhoods are layered and varied. To us, a perfect neighborhood must have interesting cultural sights, great food and entertainment while at the same time being adequately connected to the rest of the city. Additionally, like anywhere in the world, it has to be safe. In the case of Beirut, this means avoiding neighborhoods outside of Central Beirut altogether. The following are our favorite 5 neighborhoods. We loved every single one of them and spend hours walking, having coffee, people watching and admiring architecture. We are sure you’ll find the perfect one for you.
Gemmayzeh and Mar Mikhäel
Cross the giant George Haddad Boulevard and walk about Gouraud Street to get to the heart of cool Gemmayzeh. It was the first gentrified neighborhood in Beirut back in the 2000s and we actually liked it a lot. Let’s be clear, in Gemmayzeh gentrification didn’t result in foreign boring low quality franchises (no Starbucks!). It’s all local here. Thus the area offers loads of great coffee shops and restaurants. People are vibrant and more than happy to chat and show you around. If you continue along the same street you’ll notice its name changes to Armenia Street. This is where Gemmayzeh officially ends and Mar Mikhaël begins.
Achrafieh and Badaro
Achrafieh, located south of Gemmayzeh and Mar Mikhael is probably the city’s most elegant neighborhood. Allow yourself to get lost and you’ll encounter some outstanding villas. We were checking out Villa Linda Sursock and to our amazement the people in charge warmly greeted us and proudly showed us around. Yes, the Lebanese are friendly and kind! From Achrafieh we walked all the way to Badaro, an interesting modern neighborhood. Its main street Badaro is home to unique architecture from the 50s. The splendid National Museum is right behind the corner. Though we were able to see the contemporary Saint Joseph University, we were not allowed to take pictures.
While all of the above-mentioned neighborhoods represent historical Christian areas, Hamra is the center of Muslim Beirut. Actually, its main street bears the same name, (Hamra), and seems to be the city’s main street. We wondered about its streets for hours, tasting delicious food at great coffee shops and restaurants and visiting fabulous old buildings. The neighborhood is densely built, being Sanayeh Park its only green space. One night we attended a drag show in Bardo, a beautiful restaurant tucked into Mexico Street. So much fun! The seaside promenade is not technically in Hamra, but close enough. We walked several times, once even all the way to downtown Beirut. People come here to practice sports all day long. Families come at sunset to enjoy their time by the sea.
Where to stay in Beirut: our choice
The vast majority of hotels, including the best ones, are located around Hamra or close to the seaside promenade. We highly recommend staying here, due to its proximity to Beirut landmarks and great tourist infrastructure. We stayed at the Radisson Blu Martinez Hotel towards Zaitunay Bay and at Santona Residence in Hamra’s center. The Radisson is a quite comfortable luxury hotel. It even has a fantastic pool and a sauna, perfect to chill after a whole day walking around the city. The Santona on the other hand, is just a block off Hamra Street. It offers great rooms with a kitchenette and a balcony and professional service.
As mentioned before, moving around Beirut is an issue. The city is literally choking with pollution and full of aggressive drivers. We found a strange correlation: the fancier the car, the stupidest the driver. Beirut still doesn’t have any public transport, thus the millions of cars on its streets. What we did was hire a taxi or better still an Uber for long distance and once there walk about freely. All of our drivers drove carefully. We even had pretty interesting conversations about alcohol, head scarves and shooting guns at weddings.
After a week enjoying Beirut these are our tips:
- Visit as many historical churches and mosques as you can
- Have coffee and lunch in Gemmayzeh and Mar Mikhäel
- Explore Hamra’s old architecture and visit the American University
- Observe the Raouche Rocks from a kiosk (next to the big restaurants)
- Walk along the coast and people watch
- Discover the cool 50s in upscale Badaro
- Search for the nicest palaces in Achrafieh
- Admire the cool architecture of Beirut’s souk
- Try Lebanese food in a traditional restaurant
- Talk to local people, they are warm and cultured
Finally, don’t complete your trip to Lebanon without at least a short stop in Baalbek or any historical city like Tripoli, Byblos, Sidon or Tyre.