What is Beirut like?
*very big pondering pause*
How on earth can I convey my impressions of Beirut? Very difficult. It’s like a fully interactive video game, a full-on game played at high volume with the added challenge of smells to discern and the distressingly real risk of being mown over by a knackered Mercedes in mid-toot. There is an unexpectedly exhilarating feeling that anything could happen at any time and maybe for that reason I felt very much alive and alert to sights, sounds, smells and there was a strong and thrilling vibe, truly like nowhere I have ever been before. You can smell jasmine, diesel, cigarettes, bread, food cooking, spices, fruit and tobacco-infused hookah pipes and a strong post-rain smell. As for colours, picturing it now I’m not there, it’s a distinctive yellow with sea and sky blue and grey but splashes of pink, white, blue; there are vibrant colours and faded colours, sometimes like a black and white photo that’s been tinted in places. The pavements are uneven and dusty, the roads are utterly chaotic and there is always noise, mainly drivers honking their horns. There are also lots of birds singing, far more than I would have expected to hear, and the sound of call to prayer. There are coffee sellers on street corners, Syrian refugees offering to clean your shoes, drivers and pedestrians shouting, shops that spill out onto the pavement, armed soldiers and police, concrete road blocks, the odd tank, barbed wire, palm trees, both cool and basic modern buildings, shrapnel-speckled buildings, derelict buildings, lots of flowers and trees, yet very few green spaces, hilly, winding roads, friendly and helpful people, mountains in the distance, the Mediterranean and its distinctive and inviting blue, taxis constantly stopping for you, shouts of “yalla”, steps, cats, old Mercedes, “Taxi?”, graffiti, posters, mosques, churches, small shops, fruit and vegetables for sale, clapped out minibuses, no sense of the highway code, few traffic lights, pavement seating, fruit juice for sale, traffic, traffic, traffic, fruit trees, dirt, VW camper vans, power cuts … I could go on. Will I go back? Without doubt, yes. And indeed since first writing this in April 2015, I have been back (November 2016) and will go again.
(clothing predominantly with a female traveller perspective)
- Antibacterial gel (for street food moments)
- Headscarf (I never used mine though so I don’t know why I felt a need to add that)
- Cardigan or long sleeves (in case you ever feel a bit bare, not that some people seem to care what they wear in a partially Muslim country)
- Long sleeves, not low-cut tops (on the one occasion I wore a slightly lower cut top, I felt a bit self-conscious)
- Roll or reams of toilet paper or packs of tissues (a fair few public toilets don’t have paper)
- Shoes good for dirty, uneven pavements with potential to cope with torrential downpours (very changeable and unpredictable weather at times)
- Warm layers of clothing (if you go into the mountains, where the temperature drops considerably)
Beirut airport (BEY)
You will be given a landing card to fill in, including your father’s first name but otherwise the usual passport information, where you’re staying, etc.
Once you collect your baggage, your hold luggage goes through an x-ray machine (people didn’t seem to be putting smaller hand bags through).
We had a pre-booked taxi through our hotel. I would do that again, though I’m sure there are plenty of taxis waiting outside.
As a non-Lebanese passport holder, you need to fill out a small pink form, pretty much the same as your landing card, on departure. BA gave us one as soon as we checked in and there are small piles of them around the check-in desks if you aren’t handed one. If you haven’t filled it in by the time you get to passport control, you will be sent away to the back of the queue to fill it in, which was clearly very annoying for the people I saw who had queued for five minutes or so and who then had to go and queue for another five minutes once they’d filled out their departure card.
A couple of souvenir concessions (uninspiring), usual duty free shops, large food store “Goodies” with various good quality nuts, cheeses, olives, baklava and pastries. Also, straight in front of the x-ray area is a baklava shop where you can buy pastries ready-boxed or by weight. Decent-looking cafe and a few other shops. All open before we arrived at c6.15 am.
As soon as you enter the airport, all your bags go through an x-ray machine, so as soon as you do that you can’t leave the airport building again or see anyone not flying with you.
Then check in, then fill in the pink form, then passport control, then you’re in the main departure area and then, to bear in mind when you’re dawdling about going to your gate, another x-ray machine for hand luggage, for which there were queues (five minutes). They do call you to the gate quite early though as they know it takes a while to get to the gate because of the final lot of x-ray machines that a lot of people don’t expect. On my second visit, it took 40 minutes to get from the pavement outside to the pre-second-x-ray area plus another five minutes to get through the second x-ray area. On entering the airport, it doesn’t matter whether you go left or right/”east” or “west”; go for the x-ray area with the shortest queues, it all comes out in the same main departure area.
Walking and maps
I walked miles every day and only caught one taxi within Beirut. There is a lot to see by walking, though often the traffic is so slow/at a standstill that being in a taxi also allows you to see more than you might expect.
I bought a mini Zawarib Beirut road atlas for £7.99 from Stamford’s, Covent Garden. I found it indispensable, though since returning I’ve read other people saying maps are redundant in Beirut. I disagree. Of course you can easily just wander or even download a Google Map on your phone when you have internet access and then use GPS (I did that a few times) while you’re out to check where you are. The streets are not usually completely parallel or exactly perpendicular so it’s easier than you might expect to wander and find yourself back where you’ve already been. I’m a bit of a paper map lover and it was very useful for me to have the street index and all the petrol stations, car parks and pharmacies marked on the map (there are a lot of them and they make it easier to work out where you are when the roads are only written in Arabic or as the street number, which isn’t written on my map).
Places that look a long way away on the map, in my experience and using the map I had, take a lot less time to get to than you think by looking on the map.
Also bear in mind that main roads are often fast moving and challenging to cross, particularly if you’re not used to them.
There are occasionally areas you can no longer walk through, whether because of a temporary road block or for security reasons. eg I couldn’t walk up France Street due to government buildings so a helpful machine-gun-laden soldier slung his gun over his back to point me in another direction.
Taxi drivers pip at you and pull over all the time, though I never felt hassled. A shake of the head or a “no, I’m fine” gesture was enough. Unsurprisingly, it’s ludicrously easy to hail a taxi.
Agree the price beforehand. The tourist rate for the more central areas of Beirut is around $10. I wanted to go from Beirut Souks to Armenia Street in Bourj Hammoud. The driver said $10, then had to ask a local where it was. He realised it was further than the centre so said $20. I said no and made to get out, he said 20,000 LBP, I said $10 and we were off and there were no issues with $10 when he dropped me off. On my more recent visit, 10,000 LBP for short journeys and 15,000 LBP for longer journeys seemed standard.
All legitimate taxis have a “taxi” sign on the car. Some are clearly company cars, e.g. Elegance or Allo, others are often clapped out Mercedes, privately owned. There are car repair places all over the place so even the more knackered-looking taxis get along just fine. It is an experience, though sometimes a little too exhilarating, to be bouncing around on the vigorous springs of a very vintage car with no means of securing yourself in place with a seat belt. I find it a joy to appreciate being alive and unscathed at the end of such a ride.
For short distances when it’s peak time (most of the time) the odds are high it will be quicker and less stressful to walk.
Your hotel will more than likely have taxis outside. If you feel unsure about hailing a taxi, just ask your hotel reception or go into a hotel and ask for one. There are taxi-patch-politics so if a driver and car you like the look of says no to driving you, it’s nothing to do with you, rather that it’s not their patch and the regulars have priority.
Don’t be alarmed that taxi drivers often have no idea where it is you want to go. They will stop and ask all manner of people on the street, in other cars, across the road, etc, for directions, suggested alternative routes to avoid particularly heavy congestion, etc. There clearly is no Black Cab Knowledge amongst the taxi drivers, but you’ll always get where you want in the end.
I often saw knackered old mini buses with numbers on the front. There is a bus map in the front of my road map. Buses stop if you wave at them as they pass. A few stopped for me and I inadvertently stood in a few key bus pick up and drop off points. I would have used them if I knew it was the right bus, going in the right direction and if I knew where I wanted to get off, but bear in mind that most of them go to areas you probably wouldn’t want to go to and/or which are in Foreign Office no-go areas, eg Shatila.
Hamra, Nehme Yafet Street (between Jabre Doumit Street and Basra Street, opposite Napoleon Hotel)
Old school, seemingly unmodernised (except for TV with lots of channels), more character than your average chain, hotel with history
Fridge in room stocked with drinks and nuts and nibbles, decent beds and bedding, safe, sliding balcony doors that didn’t lock, very weedy hairdryer, good free WiFi, small but decent buffet breakfast, a lift that raises many health and safety concerns but never once packed up, plenty of staff around, pleasant pub attached, not as noisy as it could be for Hamra but not quiet, not ideal location if you plan to take taxis as it’s in a narrow one way system and surrounded by particularly busy Hamra roads, not the best toilet flushing system for more than one person or a big flush (took ages to fill up), friendly breakfast waiting staff, no kettle or tea/coffee making facilities (not that I expected them), taxis waiting outside except in the early hours, no bath towels for two consecutive days for no apparent reason, plenty of character, no access to the roof top so suspect no pool, daily on-the-hour (9am, 6pm and at least two other middle of the day hours – I can’t think when but always on the hour) power cuts (don’t download things on the WiFi shortly before the hour)
I would stay again happily, though not if we needed taxis as often as we did for Chris’ work.
If the Mayflower were in London, my heart would sink when I saw it as it’s so obviously out of date and unmodernised (it apparently has been modernised). The lobby is kind of 1970s, but not in a funky retro way. The reception is a dark wooden desk and it takes ages to check in and out (paperwork or some such). There is a small lounge area called “The Departure Lounge” and a pub of the kind you’d expect to find in Fawlty Towers, Duke of Wellington. The corridor to the stairs and lift is dark and there is an ancient map of Lebanon on the wall and some glass cabinets containing tired souvenirs and used DVDs for sale (I’m surprised as VHS would seem more in keeping). There is one lift for the six storey hotel. There is room for two adults with cases or four adults in too-close proximity. When the lift arrives, you open a swing door and step in and once the door has slowly swung shut, you’re off. If you don’t press your floor number vigorously enough, you will end up on the 6th floor. If you are extremely rotund, you will struggle to enter and exit the lift. The stairs to the rooftop pool end with a firmly locked door.
The corridors are dark and fairly narrow. Surprisingly, there is a key card for the door. It feels like you should have a key on a large wooden tag.
The size of the room (106, first floor) is ok. There is a fairly large TV and lots of satellite channels. There is a very small bath with shower attachment, a loo and a wash basin. It’s a decent size but very old fashioned decor. The toiletries are of colours too bright to be devoid of excessive chemicals.
The furniture and fittings are of sound quality but of a certain era. From the bathroom, you can hear people talking and watching television from their room, probably above, and magnified by the pipes, I guess. You can hear people in other rooms, though not necessarily in the neighbouring rooms. The sliding doors onto the balcony do not lock, so much so that it doesn’t take long to abandon trying because they so obviously won’t lock. There is a safe and a selection of old blankets.
“Tired” is how I would describe it in oneword on TripAdvisor for a UK hotel.
The breakfast room is in the basement and is quite dark. The waiters are largely older men but all men. They were all friendly and efficient. The breakfast buffet was the same every day with a hot selection (tinned sausages, airplane style scrambled eggs, bean stew and soft roast/fried potatoes), white selection (feta, halloumi, sort of Dairylea triangular sliced “cheese”, bland emmental-style cheese, labneh), veg selection (tomatoes, cucumbers, chopped parsley), brown selection (mini za’atr topped mannoush, mini croissants, mini pain au chocolate, occasional small cinnamon Danish pastries, occasional fat iced ring donuts (that go in seconds so get in there if you want one and you see them), processed bread, flat bread), fruit selection (fairly fresh fruit salad, bananas and oranges), dried stuff (cereals) and tanks of orange juice, pineapple juice and water. Tea and coffee is brought to you.
Apparently the hotel has been modernised recently. The furniture does seem decent, just still of an older style. The reception and restaurant staff wear formal black and white, the housekeeping staff wear hospital blue.
You can hear birds, a few cars driving past, mosque call to prayer, people on the street chatting, people in other rooms and distant noise (it’s in a relatively quiet part of Hamra, which is great for such a central hotel).
But somehow, in Beirut, it all works. It’s a charming hotel and it has history. During the civil war, journalists stayed here as it was the only hotel that remained open, I suspect “The Departure Lounge” has some significant meaning, it’s right in the centre of Hamra, the pub has character and I felt a real sense of staying somewhere of historical and social significance.
(To be completed and posted)
(To be completed and posted)
Suggested areas to stay
Hamra is a good place to stay for walking out of your hotel and having lots to do, eat and see, though stay closer to the Corniche to avoid heavy congestion along narrow streets inland if you expect to use taxis regularly. If you want a good hotel, stay in Hamra.
I would use AirBnB next time and stay in Mar Mikhael. There are some lovely apartments to rent, nice bars and restaurants and surrounding interesting districts to walk around.
If you want corporate chains, more Canary Wharf than Shoreditch (Mar Mikhael) or Soho (Hamra), stay in the Downtown area. (NB no Beirut district is like a London district, but I made these comparators in an attempt to suggest the kind of places you might know and like/dislike)
FOOD & COFFEE
Café de Prague
Hamra, Makdissi Street (between Abdel Aziz Street and Ibrahim Abdel Aal)
Food, lounge bar, films with subtitles playing in the evening, free WiFi
Lovely atmosphere especially in the evening, good food, I like to think it’s full of cool students and lecturers – the funky academics, lot of low corner chairs and tables that are a triumph of cool over comfort, fumble your way through blue velvet curtains to find the loos, wouldn’t be out of place in Shoreditch
Went twice and would definitely go again.
Almaza beer 6,500 LBP
Fetta salad 12,000 LBP (full of fresh greenery)
Calamari salad 16.000 LBP
Fresh mint lemonade 6,500 LBP (lovely drink)
Falafel 15,000 LBP (very tasty)
Mexican steak sandwich 17,500 LBP (hearty, thick chips)
Bay Rock Cafe
Raouche, General de Gaulle Avenue (opposite Pigeon Rocks/Rawcheh and Fursan Al Heykal Street)
Food, evening entertainment, views across Pigeon Rocks and the sea, large, hookah lounge
Wonderful to sit outside looking out to Pigeon Rocks, not fancy, large menu, cheaper than expected considering location, despite the view didn’t feel I wanted to stay long
Only went for coffee and “something sweet”, both of which were good, but would only go again for the view.
Turkish coffee 5,500 LBP
Qashtaliye – mouhallabiye 7,500 LBP (milky, texturally challenging but tasty with nuts, orange blossom water and lots of milky type blubbery stuff)
Hamra, Baalbek Street (around Omar Bin Abdel Aziz Street. A few other branchesaround too)
Takeaway, eat in, fast, fresh, very popular, I believe it’s open 24 hours
Dining area basic but clean but no windows and low ceiling so I’d get a takeaway in future, huge menu, freshly prepared, very generous portions, kind of place you wish you had where you live
Wanted to go back, didn’t get the chance. Without doubt I’d go again.
Fruit juice cocktail 5,250 LBP (seasonal but mine was red, fruity and utterly delicious)
Grilled kebbeh 13,000 LBP (fresh, juicy, tasty)
Mutton shawarma 16,000 LBP (enormous portion, including fresh coleslaw, tahini sauce, hummus, chips, etc. Delicious and well worth the money)
Pepsi 1,500 LBP
Hamra, Jeanne D’Arc Street (near Souraty Street, ground floor of Ghandour Centre)
Fairly large, modern ice cream parlour with crepes and waffles and drinks
Pleasant but unexciting inside (largely white), clean, smart, lovely ice cream selection.
Got a takeaway, but not before sampling a fair few flavours. Would go again but all ice cream places I saw had a good ice cream selection, though this one was good for the seating area and is very much an ice cream parlour.
Tub with pomegranate and mango ice cream 5,000 LBP (yum. Really tasty. I’d go for the pistachio next as that tasted amazing)
Hamra, Hamra Street (around Antoun Gemayel Street)
Smoking area, non-smoking area and outdoor area, large diner style restaurant/cafe/bar with big screens around
Large, some comfy chairs, object to paying for WiFi, ordered tea and got coffee, tea reluctantly changed for coffee, took ages to get bill, bill was for more expensive coffee than tea, waited ages to get the bill changed, didn’t feel comfortable there, would be cool if not so contrived, heavy on the faux distressed look
Wanted to like it but didn’t. Wouldn’t go again.
Tea 5,500 LBP (Lipton tea bag with hot water, nice mini cake on the side but disappointing tea for the price)
L’Autre Bistro, Hamra, Makhoul Street (just off Jeanne D’Arc Street)
Allegedly oldest building in Hamra, taverna feel, French menu
Lovely menu, a friendly waiter who looks like Prince, excellent food, lovely atmosphere, very small loos, quite expensive
Would go again for sure and expect to often wish this restaurant were near where I live
Almaza beer 7,700 LBP (wanted wine but it’s expensive everywhere)
Beef salad 19,800 LBP (freshly prepared salad, delicious beef)
Steak aux poivre 33,000 LBP (cooked exactly as ordered, very good)
Creme brulée 8,800 LBP (as you’d expect and very good)
Dar Bistro & Books, Hamra, alley 83 off Roma Street (between Maamari Street and Souraty Street at the end of an alley that you can see from Roma Street, but not ON Roma Street)
Coffee, food, drinks, tiny book shop, indoor seating and lovely outdoor seating area, reasonably quiet as off the road
The kind of place you want to spend lots of time, lovely menu, friendly staff, nice loos, free WiFi, laid back, unpretentious and good food
Kept wanting to go back but didn’t get a chance. We had a very early lunch off the breakfast menu but dinner and lunch menus also looked great.
Kishk on bagel 11,000 LBP (turns out I’m not a massive fan of kishk but still tasty and bagel home made and good)
Lemonade 5,500 LBP (yum)
Cappuccino 5,500 LBP (decent)
Omelet 16,500 LBP (Very tasty)
(To be updated with dinner)
Nasra, Monot Street (just off Istiklal “Elias Sarkis Blvd” Street, Sodeco Square)
Large restaurant and garden in country kitchen style with emphasis on fresh, local food
Interesting to read the stories written in the menu, memorabilia on the wall (read the menu/website to fully appreciate it), lots of hookah smoking, nice loos, stopped by for tea and a rest but huge restaurant wasn’t busy and I felt a bit uncomfortable, authentic and interesting Middle-Eastern menu
Wanted to go back for dinner but not time and also on the expensive side.
Tea with cinnamon 7,500 LBP (Lipton tea bag, hot water in small pot, cinnamon stick in glass cup. Tasted nice but disappointing that just a Lipton tea bag)
Hamra, offshoot of Abdel Aziz Street (smaller of two streets in an almost “V” off Hamra Street, pretty much opposite Starbuck’s. Abu Naim’s sign is in Arabic and only in English on glass above the door. Next to Wimpey)
Basic restaurant interior with good selection of Lebanese dishes and hookah pipes
Delicious food, free WiFi, vegetable table snacks include horseradish-tasting raw beetroot, generous portions, fresh food and freshly prepared, serves alcohol (not on the menu), not cosy but clean and simple, friendly owner keen to talk politics and food, great if you want traditional Lebanese food
Had dinner twice and would definitely go again. Indeed, on my second Beirut visit, I did go again.
Fattoush 7,000 LBP (massive portion, still warm, crisp flatbread, incredibly fresh and full of flavour)
Grilled halloumi 12,000 LBP (probably a slab of halloumi, grilled to perfection)
Chicken livers with pomegranate molasses 14,000 LBP (generous portion, soft and very tasty)
Cold mixed mezzo 30,000 LBP (seven dishes, shared between two but good for three, fresh, varied and delicious)
Raheb (grilled aubergine salad with tomatoes, spring onions) 7,000 LBP (fresh and delicious)
Lemonade 5,000 LBP (freshly squeezed lemons with mint. Lovely)
Lamb chops 24,000 LBP (four juicy, tasty chops)
Grilled kibbeh 18,000 LBP (juicy, good quality meat and lovely seasoning)
Grilled kafta 18,000 LBP (not particularly exciting, kibbeh was much nicer)
Hamra, Mahatma Gandhi Street (just below Hamra Street, opposite Hotel Plaza)
Not particularly big Italian restaurant with a few outdoor tables, realistic-sized menu
Friendly staff, very thin and crispy pizza with great toppings, wood oven, family recipes, suitably rustic for a trattoria
Chose this as a nearby restaurant, it was late for dinner and we needed fuel so had low expectations. Turned out it’s a real destination Italian restaurant. Would happily go again.
Frutti di mare pizza 28,500 LBP (thin, crispy base with not overloaded but generous toppings with plenty of fresh seafood and rich tomato sauce. Excellent)
Gorgonzola pizza 22,000 LBP (gorgonzola with roasted pumpkin, a first. Very nice but seafood one better)
Almaza beer 6,500 LBP
Tiramisu 10,000 LBP (served in a glass cup and saucer, perfect size, emphasis on creamy layer over coffee-soaked biscuit layer, family recipe, full of flavour)
Limoncello (on the house) (Not particularly lemony but lovely and almost syrupy)
Hamra, off Hamra Street (Hamra Square shopping centre, next to Starbuck’s, at top of escalators)
Basic Armenian restaurant with dingy interior and outdoor seating along walkway of scruffy shopping centre
I had great, fresh Armenian dishes, Chris announced he didn’t fancy Armenian food so ordered burger (mistake). Need to know what Armenian dishes are, limited English spoken, inside during the day was empty and dark, outside really was the walkway of a shabby shopping centre, though only two people walked past. Not the best environment during the day but Armenian food seemed authentic and good. Free WiFi
Wouldn’t go again as it wasn’t quite as cheap as the surroundings suggested, though it wasn’t expensive. Armenian food good, burger a nod to non-Armenian food on the menu (probably like ordering fish and chips from an Indian take away – less attention to detail and authenticity)
Tabbouleh 8,000 LBP (not quite how I imagined it. Lovely flavours, heavy on the freshly chopped herbs. Lots of it. Very nice)
Lahm beajim (a kind of folded pizza)5,000 LBP (Lovely, strong taste but not to my taste to have again)
Spinach and cheese boereg 7,000 LBP (thick not oily kind of mini pasty with juicy cheese and spinach filling)
Burger 15,000 LBP (processed burger bun, lots of coleslaw, chips. Looked fresh but not particularly appetising
Can of Pepsi 4,000 LBP
Hamra, Jabre Doumit Street
Classy French food in a beautiful restaurant in an old house, mainly indoor but an outdoor eating area too
Stylish, quite expensive, helpful and friendly staff, lovely floor tiles, feels a bit special, good environment, good not great food, cheapest bottle of wine 35,000 LBP
Would go again but not to the extent I would return to L’Autre and both are treat restaurants in the same neighbourhood.
Special: Moroccan beef tagine 26,000 LBP (dark, rich tagine of slow cooked beef with buttery couscous, nicely spiced and mildly sweet)
Squid risotto 26,000 LBP (not as good as you’d hope for a fairly posh restaurant)
Special: apple pie 12,000 LBP (generous portion, lots of cinnamon, tasty but only the thin pie base was hot, the rest was cold, which couldn’t have been solely from the ice cream)
Almaza beer 6,000 LBP
Hamra, off Hamra Street (pathway after Strand Theatre/shopping centre on Hamra Street between Jeanne D’Arc Street and Nehme Yafet Street)
Bakery, restaurant, bar with funky interior and large outdoor seating area
Lovely bread, interesting menu, friendly staff, good outdoor seating, free WiFi, nice toilet, on the cusp of being a bit too expensive, bakery has a stall at Beirut farmers’ market
Had a lunch and a dinner there, both unusual and good, would go again but not as a priority as the food is good rather than excellent and it’s quite expensive. The bread is excellent though.
Frikeh with squid and seafood 32,500 LBP (more freekah than I needed but strong flavour, plenty of squid and small bits of seafood)
Almaza draught beer 6,000 LBP
Musakhan chicken on ciabatta 15,500 LBP (expensive for a sandwich but excellent ciabatta and sumac etc seasoning on chicken. Very good)
Marinated steak baguette 16,500 LBP (Good bread and steak, but expensive)
Toulouse sausages 27,000 LBP (Excellent sausages but seemed a bit too expensive for a simple sausage dinner)
Mar Mikhael, Armenia Street (around Youness Jebeili Street)
Lebanese food in a large courtyard garden or inside a beautiful airy old building
Lovely courtyard garden, some low armchairs at high tables a bit challenging, lots of waiting staff, sometimes too quick to take perceived finished plates, much cheaper than the restaurant looks, massive menu, ok-sized portions, very tasty, excellent non-alcoholic drink selection, lovely place to spend a lazy meal, particularly lunch outdoors, though inside high ceilinged, airy and nice floor tiles and loo, free WiFi, great menu for making your way through favourite Lebanese dishes, though no falafel
Would love to go again, for the food and the setting.
Lahmeh ras asfour (hot mezze, beef with lemon and spices) 12,000 LBP (lots of small pieces of meat in a delicious dark sauce)
Raheb eggplant (grilled aubergine salad) 6,500 LBP (very nice with strong smoky flavour)
Basil lemonade 7,500 LBP (served in a large jar, lemony and basily and a bit Slush Puppie. Destination drink)
Rose water 7,500 LBP (very sweet, like liquid rose turkish delight)
Almaza beer 7,000 LBP (complete with chillled glass)
Kebab platter 15,000 LBP (very good)
Recommendations/places earmarked for a subsequent visit
Mar Mikhael, 56 Madrid Street (very, very small, usually fully booked on the day, charming small restaurant, guest chefs and food styles, pay what you think is right)
Madrid Street and along Armenia street, Mar Mikhael, lots of trendy-looking (some very pricey) restaurants and bars, a bit Islington/Shoreditch
Tawlet, Mar Mikhael, Nahr Street (at the bottom left of a short dead end street off Armenia Street, next to the former Mar Mikhael station)
Daily changing menu, check website for opening hours but possibly usually only 12-4. Menu and restaurant looked lovely (TO BE UPDATED – I have now eaten there)
Gouraud Street, Gemmayze (particularly at the end joining Pasteur Street)
Lots of interesting-looking bars and restaurants
Monot Street, Yassouieh. Relais De L’Entrecote and another restaurant opposite (can’t think if it was French or Italian); both looked smart, fairly expensive but very nice.
Casablanca, Ain Mreissse, Minet Al Hosn Street/Corniche
Lovely old building, looks old school and expensive but would hope it would be a good treat restaurant, overlooking the sea (albeit with a very busy road in front)
Hamra, Nehme Yafet Street (between Hamra Street and Baalbek Street. A few other branches too but this is roastery and main cafe)
Serious coffee hub, lunch type menu, fair bit of outdoor seating, free WiFi with passwords on a slip of paper
Big tea and coffee menu, quite studenty/MacBooky, more matching than I’d like it to be, nice features inside and outside café, pavement seats on fairly quiet road
Went to this branch twice and another branch once and would go again, particularly to this branch.
Café au lait 5,000 LBP (a little too milky)
Rakweh (Middle-Eastern coffee with cardamom) 7,000 LBP (a hearty dose of caffeine and flavour)
Cappuccino 6,000 LBP (good but a little milky) 7,000 LBP
Café Abi Nasr
Bourj Hammoud, Municipality Square, Armenia Street (in the middle of the square)
Outdoor cafe in the middle of a kind of roundabout
Great spot for people watching, either in the shade, covered or sun, very basic, good service, no toilets, no WiFi, probably no food and possibly no menu, but good place to be
Would go again for watching the world go by and good coffee
Lebanese coffee [quite cheap] (I didn’t pay and Chris can’t remember how much but said it was cheaper than other places. Good, strong coffee)
Suggested souvenirs to bring home
Gold and silver jewellery (sold by weight)
Inlaid woodwork boxes
Fabrics and textiles (some lovely weaving and hand printed fabric)
Nuts, dried fruit, spices, baklava, wine, chocolates, cheese, olives (all can be bought at the airport at pretty much the same price as in town, unusually for an airport. I bought baklava at the airport but wish I’d bought it at a shop in town as I preferred some of the baklava at the large baklava shops in Beirut)
Food and drink
La Cigale, Hamra, Nehme Yafet Street (corner with Jabre Doumit Street)
Cakes and chocolates to take away
Lots of cake and chocolate shops around so this may not be a destination cake shop but cakes delicious, staff friendly and helpful about explaining what pretty much everything is, including asking everyone in the shop what one was in English (pear with caramel), a delight for the eyes
Went three times as it was next door to our hotel and would go again if staying nearby.
Coconut and pineapple mousse mound 5,000 LBP (Beautiful and ever so creamy and yummy)
Apricot and chocolate mousse mound 5,000 LBP (I enjoyed the mousse mounds and this was lovely too)
Chocolate slice 5,000 LBP (I didn’t try this one but it was consumed with much enthusing)
(Fancy cakes 5,000 LBP
Less fancy cakes 3,000 LBP
Box of baklava 16,500 LBP)
Sam’s Beverages, Hamra, Nehme Yafet Street (around Sheikh Elias Gaspard Street, next door but one to the Coop)
Small off licence
Very friendly and helpful man (Sam?) who helped me choose some Lebanese wine, opened the cork and stuffed it back in so we could drink in our hotel without buying a bottle opener, he chose wines that were cheaper than the one I was holding and was all round lovely and the kind of wine man you’d want anywhere you shopped, particularly when poised to sample Lebanese wine for the first time ever.
Ixsir red 16,000 LBP (loved it)
Ixsir white 2014 grande reserve c16,000 LBP (yet to try)
Massaya red Silver Selection 2011 c22,000 LBP (yet to try)
Kaak (Lebanese street bread) bakery [of name unknown]
Basta Tahta, Omar Ibn Al Khattab Street (just down from a huge intersection around Independence Street and Bechara Al Khoury Street and opposite Othman Bin Affan Mosque andsort of behind Bechara Al Khoury Place and a large statue of a fairly tubby man, who I mean no disrespect to but I couldn’t read who he was)
I first spotted this bakery because the building it occupies the ground floor of is a lovely old building riddled with shrapnel holes. They make what I came to call “handbag bread”, ie the hollow round bread with a hole from which the bread can be hung. The main body of the bread can be cut and filled with, usually, za’atr and Picon (it looks like Dairylea triangles).
The bakers in this busy bakery (hot, window-less) beckoned me in, pointed things out, opened and closed the bread oven to show me how it worked and let me take photos (all without a common language). It was a lovely experience and when I went to buy a fresh baked bread, my purse was waved aside and I was given a “handbag bread”, which I chose to have filled with za’atr. Lovely people, lovely bread and one of many wonderful memories of the delightful Lebanese people.
I would be happy if even just one person read this and went to this bakery. I would go out of my way to go back. A year and a half later, I returned, had more lovely bread and was glad I went again.
(Hamra bakeries to be added)
Spices, fruit and nuts
Bourj Hammoud district, Maraash “46th” Street (from roughly 61st Street to 87th Street)
Armenian shops selling spices, sweet treats, nuts, fruit and household stuff
Bourj Hammoud district (especially around Municipality Square/49th Street)
Armenian jewellery shops, lots of unusual and interesting designs
Souk el Tayeb (Beirut farmers’ market)
Minet el Hosn (Downtown), Trablus Street (on a pedestrianised street at the back of Beirut Souks). Only Saturdays 9-2.
Mainly fresh produce from suppliers and producers all over Lebanon. Vegetables, fruit, honey, labneh, nut butter, olive oil, soap, healthy snacks, wine, herbs and lots of other produce and food ready to eat. Enough samples to fill you up. Fun, lively, busy and well worth going, ideally as early as possible as it gets significantly busier nearer lunch time.
(TO ADD Sunday flea market)
Antique and “antique”
Bachoura district, around Ahmad Abbara “Bachoura” Street, Ahmed Tabbara Street and Abdel Kader al Kharsa Street (if you walk from the other side of the main road, “Ahmad Daouk (Ahmad Mokhtar Beyhum) Street”, I strongly advise to cross around Istiklal (Independence) Street or Abdel Kade Kabbani Street as that main road is horrible to cross, with only a narrow concrete curb in the middle of the fast-moving, busy road to stop half way)
These shops are like museums and I could easily have spent quite a long time going in and out of the numerous shops around here. I went to this area as I read it was a flea market. I would say they are more shops than flea market and are open c9-5, though I’m not sure what days all or some will be closed. On Sundays, it’s not worth going as 95% of the shops were closed.
There are small perfume shops with bottles and bottles of scents all around main shopping areas (there are also perfume shops selling pre-boxed, more conventional perfumes). The shops are worth going in to for the loveliness of the concept and the bottles, all neatly labelled in Arabic. They can mix up replicas of well known perfume brands as well as choosing your own preferred scent. I was lucky to go into a perfume shop in Zahle with our Lebanese driver who negotiated in Arabic. You choose the scent, the bottle and are then given the price. I chose a cheap bottle (it leaked a bit so bear that in mind if you plan to pack it in your suitcase) and wanted jasmine. One jasmine was horrid, the other was lovely. The lovely one was really mild smelling. He gave me a bowl of ground coffee to smell and then smell the perfume again, and sure enough the jasmine smell was enhanced and the aroma developed over the hours I wore it. My special Lebanese price was 10,000 LBP (it would have been 12,000 LBP otherwise). But bear in mind Beirut is more expensive, though not massively.
Chain stores/shopping centres
Beirut Souks is no longer an area of markets. Brace yourself for disappointment if that’s what you expected. It is a fairly new, modern shopping centre with mid to high end shops, largely under cover. Around the neighbouring streets are a lot of designer shops. If you want familiar chain stores and designer shops, it’s a very pleasant area.
ABC malls are around Beirut too, they are more mid range and you usually have to go through a security check and have your bags x-rayed.
ABC Mall, Sassine/Achrafieh (TO ADD)
Hamra Street is as close as I can think of to Oxford Street (mixture of familiar chain shops and restaurants and small independent shops).
THINGS TO DO
NB Beirut changes a lot so the older the book, the less accurate it will be.
Before I went to Beirut, I read large chunks of a lovely guide book “Beirut. A Guide to the City” by Carole Corm (Darya Press). I wrote out a list of places I wanted to go and their addresses. I failed to find a lot of the shops and Beirut changes frequently so some places were no longer there. I also didn’t get a sense from that book how expensive some places would be. We went to Le Gray Hotel’s café, Gordon’s Café. As soon as I saw that a cappuccino was 10,000 LBP (that’s more than £5, which I later realised was reflective of the Downtown area), we left. Other places were similarly expensive and I wouldn’t pay that much in London, particularly in a city that can do excellent coffee for a lot less (Lebanese coffee, which I really like, for example, is cheaper than espresso).
I like the book, but in a way it benefitted me more for how it was written, information about Beirut in general and the good introduction I feel it gave me before I arrived, rather than for the practical information. The maps are not particularly helpful and addresses were a bit too vague. I took it with me but never once used it there. It’s good for pre-trip reading.
In Beirut, I bought a book called “Beyroutes. A Guide to Beirut” with various contributors (Archis). It is quite out of date (c2009) but makes for a fascinating cover to cover read and I would have enjoyed reading it before I went there. It’s an arty kind of guide book and portrays a very good sense of Beirut from the perspectives of the many different kinds of writers, photographers and illustrators. I paid $24 for it.
There are so many cafes, restaurants and shops around Beirut, a long listings guide book seems superfluous and unfair to the myriad other places that don’t make the list or which open up after the book has been written.
My best advice would be to read a book about Beirut, especially Beyroutes, and read blogs or other information about the city over listings-style information. I would also recommend getting a mini road map like the Zawarib one and familiarising yourself with districts and where you might want to go.
I didn’t go to any museums or pay to go into anything. I largely just walked and loved almost every minute of it (except a few hairy main road crossings and frustration at trying to find two particular shops I’d read about but never found, based on the very limited and vague “directions”).
I couldn’t think how best to present suggested areas, places, buildings, etc to see so I’m going to pick a few routes I walked and try to note down buildings or places of interest so you can work out if that kind of area appeals to you too.
On paper, I think I had a good idea of what to expect from Beirut. But even knowing, for example, that the traffic is horrendous, there are civil war scars all over the place, there is a lot of construction work going on and it’s busy and noisy, that alone cannot prepare you for the reality of Beirut. I have never been anywhere like it, seen and experienced so many new things or returned from a trip somewhere and felt so anxious to return. I can now fully understand why some people say it’s an addictive city. There is something about it that affects you and makes you feel like you need more. There is a sense of truce being fragile, where something awful could happen at any moment, but just in case that’s about to happen let’s all live life to the full and throw as many challenges at people as possible, from merely crossing a distressingly chaotic and fast moving road to preparing food so delicious it must surely be your last meal. Pick a street, any street in Beirut, and walk down it. There, you will have experienced more than you would think possible for such an otherwise mundane and ordinary thing to do. And maybe that’s why it’s so exciting, fascinating and utterly full of life and the potential for adventure.
For Green Line, interesting mix of buildings, fancy restaurants, lovely bakery: Sodeco/Independence Square to Sassine Square
For quiet back streets, grand villas, old buildings, loads of places to eat and drink along Gouraud Street: Sassine Square to Sursock Street, Lebanon Street and Gouraud Street
For trees, sea views, interesting architecture, seaside promenade: through AUB campus from Bliss Street to Corniche
For joggers, walkers, fishers, palm trees, interesting buildings, sea views, rock formations, sandy beaches and restaurants with views: south along Corniche, past Riviera Hotel (where Terry Waite stayed before he was taken hostage) and down to Pigeon Rocks and the Sham Building and on a further 15 minutes or so on foot to the c3km of sandy beach
For luxury yachts, new boardwalk, perspective on new Downtown area, traffic-free, nice place to sit and have a picnic: Beirut Marina for Downtown view, a quiet(ish) place to sit down and to see the Holiday Inn shell, luxury Phoenicia Hotel and the super modern Marina Tower and Four Seasons Hotel. Enter via a security outpost that makes it look like you won’t be able to pass (you’ll be told in no uncertain terms if you can’t go anywhere). That entrance is off the Corniche, next to St George’s Hotel, currently a bit like the entrance to a building site, and very close to the Hariri eternal torch (in the middle of the busy road in front of a heavily scaffolded tower block). I distinguish the Marina from Zaitunay Bay but that’s probably not accurate as I think that whole new marina area is Zaitunay Bay, but it’s the marina that I enjoyed a relatively quiet sit-down. Don’t miss out on a chance to sit down in a calm area as they are few and far between.
For jewellery shops, hustle and bustle, spice/fruit/nut shops, buzzing and everyday feel, different to other areas of Beirut as it’s an Armenian communitiy principally, Armenian war memorial at Amanos Square: Municipality Square, Armenia Street (Bourj Hammoud) down streets along Marash “46th” Street, back to Municipality Square and along Mar Youssef (St Joseph) Street to Amanos Square/Istikal.
For contrast between Armenian district of Bourj Hammoud and, by crossing the Beirut River, the trendy Shoreditch kind of eating and drinking area of Mar Mikhael: Municipality Square, Armenia Street, along Armenia Street over the river and to Madrid Street, Mar Mikhael.
Roads or buildings of interest
(TO ADD, where to get a good view)
Lovely old building covered in shrapnel wounds: May Ziade Street (just off the corner with Michel Chiha Street)
The Egg/Dome Theatre/that derelict building with half an oval chunk of concrete on top, Mar Mansour Street/Bechara Al Khoury Street, Bachoura/Downtown (behind “the big mosque”)
I love this building. It was built in 1965, designed by Joseph Phillippe Karem, as a 1000-seat cinema atop Beirut’s first shopping centre.
It is a fascinatingly futuristic-looking shell of an old cinema (oval on top, rendering it hard to imagine as a cinema, though aptly referred to as “The Egg”). It’s worth taking a closer look at it but beware the ground on the exposed side of the building as some basic metal sheets actually cover holes that drop down a good few metres. On my second visit, The Egg is now surrounded by hoardings and there are tower blocks being built all around it. Very disappointing.
For a slice of Roman history within a garden area: Roman baths on Banks Street
For reconstructed, oddly quiet, no roads, empty shops, interesting demonstration of a soulless part of a soulful city in the downtown area: roads radiating off Nejmeh Place, including Roman ruins by Al Maarad Street and St George Maronite Cathedral
My favourite neighbourhoods to walk around were Hamra (old, shops, nightlife), Mar Mikhael (trendy with a gritty edge), Gemmayzeh (small and quirky bars and restaurants, interesting buildings and lots of colourful steps), Bourj Hammoud (Armenian, narrow streets with distinct artisan zones (eg shoes, jewellery, spices), atmospheric, real, not remotely touristy). Raouche is interesting (lots of wasteland, hills, interesting mix of old and new buildings and rocky coastline with Pigeon Rocks) and indeed every road in all the central districts has something of interest.
It’s full of history but you’d need to read up on it before you go there or you’ll not really appreciate it. It’s also a vast building site surrounded by expensive shops and hotels with the port, sea and mountains beyond. It is not the pretty, colourful square I’d hoped for. There are Roman and other old ruins amidst the building sites.
This was an area I’d read about and which sounded lovely, full of artisans and beautiful Phoenician buildings. The main area of interest is within Charles Bebbas Street, George Haddad Street and Gouraud Street.
The buildings are faux Phoenician, it’s soulless, there’s no buzz and it’s not remotely busy and any shops look expensive and for me it held no interest other than seeing another side of Beirut and understanding why all locals I spoke to hate the Downtown area (lots of politics -Wikipedia “Solidere”), but it’s basically built for wealthy locals and foreigners.
Corporate, new, exclusive. I walked a little way along but it felt deserted and I didn’t feel it was for me.