A Day Out In Lebanon With Byblos, Brando and Bab el Mina

The World’s Oldest Inhabited Town

If history is your thing (even if it isn’t actually), you should take a day trip from Beirut up the coast to Byblos. It is a UNESCO World Heritage city believed to be one of the oldest continuously inhabited towns in the world (occupied first between 8800 and 7000 BC). It’s less than an hour’s drive north and it makes a nice change from the big city.

A group of us had flown in to Beirut for a long weekend, and we roped in a friend’s uncle to drive us up there for the day. Well actually he insisted, because he would charge us much less for his van. So we all piled in and headed out. (You can rent a car, or get a taxi to take you there if you don’t have a friend in town).

Byblos Souk Stores UNESCO World Heritage site Lebanon

Byblos used to be popular amongst the rich and famous back in the 1960’s and 70’s, with the likes of Marlon Brando and Frank Sinatra sailing into the little harbor for some Mediterranean fun in the sun. But that all ended when the civil war started and scared them all away. These days it’s become popular again with the younger crowd who head out to the beach clubs and restaurants on weekends.

The Souk And The Ruins

We parked at the quaint little fishing harbor and walked up the cobbled streets. We spent about an hour walking through the beautifully restored souk in the historical quarter and I was surprised to find a large stone church right next door to a blue-domed mosque. We happened to be there around prayer time, and the mosque was filled, with worshippers spilling outside into the alleyway.

Byblos Souk alleyway UNESCO World Heritage site Lebanon

We headed off to the old Phoenician, Roman and Crusader ruins, next to the souk. It’s a fairly large area, with crumbling ruins that house a very modern museum, filled with ancient artifacts. We strolled around the museum, then climbed the walls for a great view over the ruins, harbor and the coastline back towards Beirut.

Byblos historical ruins UNESCO World Heritage Site Lebanon

Fortunately, Byblos is famous for its seafood restaurants, and seeing as I love seafood, I was very happy to walk back down to the picturesque harbor, to get out of the sun and reward myself with a long lazy lunch.

Harbour Side Eating

Although Uncle, as we all called him, insisted on taking us somewhere cheaper to eat, we all decided we wanted to stay in the harbour because it was so charming. There are two main places to worth eating at. The very popular Bab el mina http://www.babelmina.com , or the older, legendary Chez Pepe right next door. We decided to go with history, and headed to Pepe’s.

Byblos UNESCO world heritage site quaint harbour Lebanon

It’s perfectly situated, built into the rocks overlooking all the yachts, and thanks to its colourful founder, has become quite the institution. The walls inside and out are covered with photographs of the founder and all his famous guests over the decades, when Lebanon had its heyday.

Chez Pepe seafood Restaurant Byblos harbour Lebanon

We spent an awesome afternoon gorging on seafood platters and drinking bottles of chilled Lebanese wine. (Yes they make wine, and some of it is pretty good). So by the time we eventually headed home, thankful for Uncle’s driving, we were all singing merrily. We arrived back in Beirut in time for sundowners.

Beirut Isn’t A War Zone It’s A Party Zone

Beirut is a fascinating city full of contradictions where Middle East meets west. You’ll find dilapidated apartment blocks sit alongside a gentrified CBD and other areas that look like they were bombed last month. It’s a place where French and Arab worlds have combined to create a unique atmosphere. There’s nothing else quite like it.

I had been trying to get to Beirut for a while, but I travel on a South African passport that isn’t always the easiest, and they were giving us a hard time about visas. So when I heard there was a ‘visa holiday’ to attract more tourists over summer, I was on the first plane and I have to say, I had an incredible time.

Beirut Lebanon city street CBD downtown

It’s a real, lived in city with all the wrinkles that show it’s had a hard life. But it’s also a city that has never given up. The Lebanese are passionate, loud, gregarious and extremely hospitable, and they have the attitude that they might not be here tomorrow, so they live life that way. Which is where all the partying comes in.

It can be a big, wild, crazy place and there still aren’t very many western tourists flying in, (because I think most still think it’s a warzone) so I thought I’d give you a guide to help you feel more comfortable, get the most out of the city, and have the best time you possibly can.

At the Airport

CAUTION: If you have a passport stamp from Israel, you won’t be allowed into the country. Even if you don’t and you’ve been there, don’t tell the guy at customs that because he won’t let you in.

Once you’re through customs, organise a hotel transfer, the traffic and quality of driving are not the best and that way you’ll also avoid being overcharged.

Where you should stay

Beirut is not like Dubai when it comes to choice, but there are a few luxurious places that will keep you in comfort, and these are the best of those.

Chain Hotels

Four Seasons – Rising high above the Beirut Marina, it has a rooftop pool with 360° views of sea, mountains and city.

Intercontinental Le Vendome – This intimate hotel is on Beirut’s Corniche, overlooking the ocean.

Independent Hotels

Albergo Under 5 minutes walk from trendy Mono Street in Beirut’s Achrafieh district.

Le Gray In the exclusive, rebuilt Beirut Central District, with 360-degree views over sea, city and mountains.

Le Patio Boutique Hotel – A five star hotel in Beirut’s business district of Solidère.

Le Gray luxury boutique hotel Beirut Lebanon

Sightseeing

There aren’t many sites in Beirut itself, (most of Lebanon’s beauty is out in the country), but there are a few things you should do to soak up the atmosphere before you start partying (and forget to stop). Walk along the Corniche, especially at sunrise or sunset and head for Zaitunay Bay.

Hamra Street

Home to the American University of Beirut, this student area is full of cafes, bars and restaurants and has a gritty, authentic feel about it.

CBD

This area has been restored to its former glory. You’ll find Beirut Souks there, a beautifully designed open-air style mall as well as the popular Uruguay Street, filled with restaurants and bars.

Sundowners, Drinks and Dinner

Firstly, know the Lebanese like to eat late and they like to eat a lot, so prepare yourself, preferably by snacking over sunset cocktails at: ]

My Waterfront at Zaitunay Bay

Right in the heart of Zaituna Bay, the stylish marina off the corniche, mywaterfront is open for brunch, lunch and dinner. It’s a sophisticated venue with a large outside terrace with great views of Beirut’s skyline and the sea.
Zaitunay Bay My Waterfront sundowners luxury yacht marina Beirut Lebanon

If you can drag yourself away from the stunning setting, try some watering holes in other suburbs:

Hamra

With it’s homey feel, Clé’s is a popular, laid-back venue to grab a snack and a cold beer and spend some time in their garden, or next to the fireplace in winter.

Gemmayzeh

This is an area that really comes alive at night. It is filled with hole-in-the-wall bars and live music venues.

Eat At: Bread (for two or three people) or Centrale (for bigger groups).

Drink At Angry Monkey, Gem (sit outside) and Alcazar are all popular, but there are plenty of other places to explore.

Live music band nightlife Gemmayze Beirut Lebanon

CBD

Uruguay Street is unique because it’s a European style pedestrian street situated right behind the Samir Kassir Square. It’s full of restaurants and bars like Cassis and Tinto Tapas Bar that offer indoor and outdoor seating that bring more life to the area.

The Rooftop Scene

Crazy traffic, noise and pollution are the curse of most cities, so the Lebanese simply rise above it and take to the rooftops to eat and party.

Bars & Restaurants

There are a few stunning rooftop venues where you can get something decent to eat and stay around for music and a party. Just be aware that you will need to book and the doormen aren’t very friendly if you don’t have a reservation.

Fly Bar

A great place for cocktails and conversation overlooking the city.

Le Capitole

Across the street from the Fly Bar, this indoor / outdoor set-up is perfect for a night out. It’s for a slightly older, sophisticated crowd (25+ only).

The Roof

Located on the Four Season hotel’s 26th floor at the rooftop pool, it claims the title of the highest lounge with wraparound views of Beirut’s downtown skyline, mountains and the Mediterranean Sea

C Lounge 

On the 6th floor of the Bay View Hotel. Knock back cocktails while taking in the view of Beirut.

The Clubs

Lebanon has the biggest, brashest super clubs in the region. But do yourself a favour and call ahead to get on the guest list by telling them you’re flying in from overseas. They are usually more accommodating that way, and you don’t want to queue for hours or be turned away at the door.

Sky Bar glamorous rooftop club Beirut Lebanon

Sky Bar

Arguably the most famous and consistently one of the most popular of all clubs in Beirut. Voted best bar in the world in 2008, Sky Bar is a posh multi-level rooftop club attracts all of Beirut’s glitterati with its breathtaking ocean and mountain views.

Look out for the curious Lebanese party trick of big spenders buying giant bottles of champagne or vodka, delivered by a train of staff with giant sparklers. It’s a wild, loud, great night out.

Pier 7

It’s famous for the unrivaled size of its dance space and their ability to lure top-notch hip-hop and pop acts like Ke$ha and Flo-Rida.

MAD

Fairly new to the scene, MAD has been described as the ‘indoor version’ of White, another staple club located on a rooftop in downtown Beirut.

White

Recently relocated to Sea Side Road overlooking the coast, this rooftop club is another institution in Beirut. The open-air restaurant lounge operates exclusively from May to October.

White luxury nightclub Beirut Lebanon

BO18

One of Beirut’s legendary clubs. Located in a part of the city that was a refugee camp during the civil war, and set in what looks like an old bomb shelter, it has an incredible retractable roof that opens up to the stars. It’s very popular as a late night spot, but be prepared because it can get very crowded and loud.

Hitting The Beach Clubs

The Lebanese love the beach. No really, they LOVE the beach. Nights are for partying and days are for recovering on the beach (often drinking more). But they don’t just wander down to any old beach and dive into the ocean. No, beach clubs are where you have to go and they range from very laid back, to pricy and pretentious. These are some of the most popular places to sun yourself.

Pierre & Friends (Batroun)

A very laid-back vibe. Its hidden entrance leads to a downstairs cave where you’ll find a wooden bar, couches, wooden decor and a popular stretch of beach.

Edde Sands (Byblos)

Edde Sands has loads of everything: beach, infinity pools, restaurants, bars, shops, private cabanas and a VIP pool, all set in tropical, well-manicured grounds. This is a place for designer bikinis, stilettos and posers.

Riviera Beach Lounge (Beirut)

Riviera is affectionately known as ‘silicone beach’ to the locals so best dress the part. If you don’t want to head out of Beirut then Riviera’s summer beach parties will keep you busy.

Riviera Beach Club Beirut Lebanon

Lazy B
(Jiyeh)

Labelled as an eco-friendly beach, this quiet, low-key getaway will make you feel like you’re on an island.

IRIS Beach Club (Damour)

This is an exclusive resort for the well-heeled and glamorous. Designer heels time again.

Iris Beach Club Beirut Lebanon

The Final Word

If your impression of Beirut isn’t forever altered after your trip, you’ve done something wrong. I guarantee you’ll head home with a happy heart (and a hangover) and when you’re brave enough to face it all again, you’ll go rushing back.

 

Some photos courtesy of Le Gray, Zaitunay Bay, hg2beirut.com, local-finds.com.