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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
If you can drag yourself away from the stunning setting, try some watering holes in other suburbs:
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.
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.
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.
A great place for cocktails and conversation overlooking the city.
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).
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
On the 6th floor of the Bay View Hotel. Knock back cocktails while taking in the view of Beirut.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.