Four Days in Hip and Historic Beirut, Lebanon
Posted February 6, 2017
Lebanon, bordering Syria to the north and east, the Mediterranean to the west, and Israel to the south, was where we spent Thanksgiving! We included a visit to Lebanon (our first time) with a return trip to Jordan, where we served in the Peace Corps. We flew from Amman to Beirut on a short 55-minute flight on Middle East Airlines, which if you have flown with them recently then you know that they have the absolute best in-flight safety video! The video does a great job of presenting the important safety information in both English and Arabic right after one another so everyone stays engaged simultaneously and they highlight the beauty and diversity of Lebanon throughout the video. The flight took us over Syria, looping north of Damascus, before descending into the coastal city of Beirut.
Lebanon and Tourism
Lebanon offers a range of activities for travelers from local wine tasting, to skiing or relaxing at the many beaches, to the exploration of Roman and Umayyad ruins, not to mention the vibrant nightlife of Beirut. For such a small country Lebanon offers something for everyone.
Tourism is big business in Lebanon and rightly so. The total contribution (direct and indirect) of travel and tourism represented 21.1% of the gross domestic product (GDP) in 2014 and is forecasted to rise. Tourism’s large contribution to the domestic economy translates into supporting 20.3% of domestic employment. When compared to other countries the relative importance of tourism to the domestic economy of Lebanon places it 32nd out of 184 economies. These are important facts to consider when considering the civil war raging in neighboring Syria and the bombings in Lebanon in 2016. It’s a positive sign to see tourism remains strong and is forecasted to grow despite the violence in neighboring Syria.
Some countries require certain passport holders to get a visa either prior to departure or on arrival. Before traveling we read that there was a visa fee to be paid on arrival, however upon arrival, we discovered they had waived the fee. I’m not sure if this is temporary, but as of November 20th, 2016 there was no visa fee for U.S. passport holders.
Where to Stay in Beirut
Beirut, the capital and largest city in Lebanon, is also one of the oldest continuously inhabited (5,000 years). Beirut is an important tourism and business center for the region, leading it to have a robust hotel and restaurant scene. With a plethora of places to stay, it’s important to identify what part of the city you want to stay in.
Coral Beirut Al Hamra Hotel
The Al Hamra neighborhood located west of downtown Beirut is home to Al Hamra Street and the well known American University of Beirut. Al Hamra is a busy street both night and day, filled with restaurants, shops, bars, and Beirut’s infamous chaotic traffic. Needless to say, we chose to stay in the Al Hamra because of all the neighborhood had to offer and its central location to the Corniche and downtown area, both important landmarks.
We stayed in the Coral Beirut Al Hamra Hotel located one block from Al Hamra Street. Its location, excellent reviews, and price point (under $60 a night) made it the perfect choice for our three-night stay. The hotel was offering a special when we booked, a free upgrade to an executive suite, which we, of course, took advantage of! While the balcony and the view were nothing to write about, the executive suite came with a large living room, kitchenette-perfect for storing drinks and making breakfast, and a spacious king size bed. The location was convenient for grocery stores, restaurants, and bars. If you are looking to save some money and hang out in your hotel room there are a few liquor stores in the neighborhood that sell a range of excellent Lebanese beers and wines.
Where to Eat and Drink in Beirut
If you go out in Beirut, you will notice that Beirutis love their cocktails! You’ll find beautifully arranged cocktail tools, homemade bitters and garnishes, and knowledgeable bartenders. Be warned though, it’s not cheap to drink in Beirut. Luckily the bar scene has a robust, happy hour, which usually starts at 5 pm. Our advice is to hit them up.
Hamra - Ales & Tales
Ales & Tales, located a block away from Al Hamra Street, is a small, beautifully decorated bar offering a great selection of cocktails, beers, and wines. The happy hour, from 5 to 8 pm, is 50% off of cocktails and single malt whiskeys but does not include beer and wine. Ales & Tales was the first bar in Beirut we visited and was the perfect start to our stay because of its cool interior and friendly bar staff. The intimate setting gave us a chance to chat with the bartender about our trip, Beirut, and his advice on what to see and do.
Well reviewed and highly rated, Ferdinand was one bar we had to see what all the fuss was about and we were not disappointed. Located close to the intersection of Al Hamra and Mahatma Gandhi Street, the softly lit, low key, urban chic bar harkens back to a bygone era. The owners have taken great care with every detail of the establishment. The bartender, an expert in mixology, could create cocktails beyond anything we’ve ever had.
We talked with the bartender about our preferences and he came up with some cocktails based on those interests. I started with his take on the Whisky Sour, which included homemade cranberry bitters and a slice of orange. The bartender though hit it out of the park with Carrie’s mezcal drink was literally on rocks with a snail shell served in a bowl. The personalized cocktails are not cheap but are worth it. We repeatedly heard from others at the bar that the burgers are the best in town. Next time!
Barbar, a famous fast food place in Beirut is known for serving some of the best shawarma in the city. It might not rank as the best shawarma I have ever had, but the popularity of Barbar can not be denied with its long lines and chaotic and bustling serving station. If shawarma is not your thing, then well you’ll be happy to know at the intersection of Baalbek and Omar bin Abdul Aziz streets there are several Barbar fast food restaurants serving fried chicken, falafel, and sweets.
Located less than a block away from Barbar is Abu Naim, a restaurant serving traditional Lebanese and some Armenian dishes. We had an early morning flight the next day, so we were in search of a good Lebanese restaurant close to the hotel for our Thanksgiving dinner!
We had staple Lebanese dishes like tabbouleh and stuffed grape leaves and more unique dishes like hummus with beef (a favorite of mine from my time living in Jordan) and sujuk (an Armenian dish of spicy ground meat). The food was good and the service friendly. If you are into raw meat, the menu has an extensive list of options.
Mar Mikhael - Vyvyan’s
At the recommendation of some Beirutis we met at Ferdinand we headed over to the neighborhood of Mar Mikhael. The neighborhood is immediately west of Gemmayzeh, another hip neighborhood where many people go to hangout and is the location of the famous Sursock Museum. Mar Mikhael has a lot of great bars and restaurants with beautiful urban chic decor that would rival bars in New York and Paris. After exploring the neighborhood for a while we walked past Vyvyan’s, a low key spot with outdoor seating and stopped in for happy hour (4,000 for an Al Maza).
Since we were having such a great time soaking in the Beirut bar scene, we went next door to Vyvyan’s to Lock Stock for another happy hour drink. Here an Al Maza was 3,000 at happy hour. There are a lot of options in Mar Mikhael including art galleries, restaurants, and cafes.
What to See and Do in Beirut
Stroll along the Corniche
The most iconic image of Beirut is its corniche. This cosmopolitan Mediterranean city was in full swing as we strolled along its corniche. As it was Lebanon’s Independence Day (November 22nd) the day we arrived the flag of Lebanon decorated the lampposts along the corniche and throughout the city. On that warm November afternoon, the corniche was alive with joggers, rollerbladers, bicyclists, fisherman, children playing soccer, and families enjoying the afternoon.
Apart from the great people watching, the corniche also provides sweeping views of the city looking north as the slopes of the Lebanon Mountains meet the sea and the sprawling city millions call home. It’s a pleasant stroll and one I highly recommend, particularly at sunset.
Walking Tour of Downtown Beirut - Mohammad Al Amin Mosque, Clock Tower, and Beirut Souk
Downtown Beirut was once the dividing line between east and west Beirut and the scene of some of the fiercest fighting during Lebanon’s 15-year civil war. As a result of major investments by the Government of Lebanon, the area has been beautifully restored. Because of the many important buildings in this part of the city including Parliament and the Grand Serail (the Office of the Prime Minister), there is a strong security presence. The centerpiece of this area is the four-faced 1930s Rolex Clock Tower in Nejmeh Square. The clock tower is close to the Parliament building and the security services have closed off much of the area to automobiles, making for a pleasant walk.
Not to be missed is the Mohammad Al Amin Mosque, also referred to as the Blue Mosque, next to Martyrs Square. Non-Muslims are allowed to enter the mosque, and if you make sure you adhere to the dress code and remove your shoes for women, you will be required to wear one of the abayas they have on offer at the door. The mosque sits on the site of a 19th-century prayer corner that was only completed in 2008. The magnificent interior of the Sunni mosque is not to be missed.
Part of the Government’s reconstruction project of the downtown area has included the Beirut Souk, a medieval souk destroyed during the civil war. The souk is now home to designer and high-end brands which are unsurprisingly popular in fashion-conscious Beirut. While high-end fashion might not be your thing, it’s still a pleasant place to stroll.
The Nicolas Ibrahim Sursock Museum is a modern and contemporary museum in the heart of Beirut with the mission to collect, preserve, and display local and international artists. The Sursock Museum has since its opening in 1961 been the center of local and national arts and is a must for anyone visiting Beirut. Besides the many galleries, the museum has a cafe in the courtyard, a perfect place to break up the day.
During our visit, we viewed several small and large collections. One focused on the annual Salon d’Automne exhibition an important fixture in the Lebanese cultural scene since 1961 that features work of painters and sculptors living in Lebanon. The collection features a range of work (1961 - 2012) from Lebanese artists covering modern artists such as Shafic Abboud and Farid Aouad, and notably the works of mid-twentieth century abstract artists such as Saloua Raouda Choucair and Farid Haddad, notable because when abstract art was originally included in the Salon d’Automne in 1964 it sparked controversy as the work was seen as a rejection of the dominant figurative style of the time. The Museum also includes a portrait gallery, which, during our visit featured a selection of portraits from the 20th century.
Lebanon has much to offer and should not be overlooked because of the conflict in neighboring Syria. The country remains safe and can make for a pleasant place to travel.
Day trip to the Beqaa Valley
Lebanon is of course so much more than Beirut. If you have the time we highly recommend you spend some time outside of the bustling capital. We opted for a guided day trip with Lebanon Tours to Anjar, Baalbek and Chateau Ksara all in the Beqaa Valley.
Are you interested in traveling to Lebanon after reading our guide? If so feel free to reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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All Photography by Albert Bond
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