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Beirut is not exactly a popular destination for Americans — there’s a travel warning and it’s in the Middle East (but not the flashy part like Dubai) so it’s relatively unknown by the average US traveler. And at the moment, it’s in the midst of a serious refugee crisis. But, as I recently discovered firsthand, everyone who doesn’t visit this vibrant city is seriously missing out.
Lebanon is a small country along the Mediterranean with a population of around five million, currently housing at least one million Syrian refugees. There’s a war just over the border. The country has enjoyed relative peace since the 15-year-long civil war ended in 1990, though tensions run high with nearby Israel — you can’t even enter Lebanon with an Israeli stamp in your passport, for instance. Red flags aside, it’s a half-Christian, half-Muslim destination with incredibly rich history, mouthwatering food, sophisticated design, chic nightlife and breathtaking seascapes and mountains. Beirut definitely lives up to its nickname, the “Paris of the Middle East.” Plus, the locals are friendly — for the most part, they speak French, Arabic and English — and you can expect to be called “habibi” constantly (it means ‘my dear’). Here are 10 reasons to leave your comfort zone behind and pay this gorgeous Mediterranean destination a visit.
1. You’ll Learn More History Here Than You Ever Did in School
History buffs will have a field day in Beirut, and even those who don’t know the French Mandate from a french fry will find its storied past too fascinating to ignore. The Beirut Heritage Trail is a prime example of this — go back in time with a walk along a marked mile-and-a-half-long path and see Byzantine mosaics, Roman baths, mosques, ancient underground streets, cathedrals and ruins from the Canaanite and Ottoman eras. Spend a couple of hours at the Beirut National Museum, exploring its vast archeological collection. The architecture is beautiful, even the buildings still sporting decades-old bullet holes that are still in the process of being repaired.
2. The Hotels Are World-Class
Want to explore a new city from digs that could easily be in the middle of Paris? Stay at Le Gray, a luxurious 87-room boutique hotel in the heart of the city’s historic downtown — it’s also a member of The Leading Hotels of the World. It’s plush and pristine, with Instagrammable decor and impeccable service. From the rooftop, you can see the picturesque Blue Mosque — not to be confused with Turkey’s — and a cathedral built atop the remains of seven others from throughout the millennia. Don’t miss a dip in the infinity pool, with views of the deep azure sea, and a bite at Indigo. The heritage trail and a number of chic shops are also nearby. Another well-designed boutique hotel is the intimate O Monot, where decor includes giant crystals and the rooms have a sleek, slightly futuristic aesthetic.
3. It’s a Mecca for Foodies
Go on a diet before your trip, and plan to do it again when you get back — the food scene in Beirut is incredible, albeit expensive. I used my Chase Sapphire Preferred card everywhere so I could earn 2x points on each of the memorable meals I savored — technically, US currency is also accepted here. Typical Lebanese dishes like hummus, fattoush, za’atar salad and falafel are even better here than at your favorite restaurant back at home, especially at Abdel Wahab, one of my favorites from this trip. As Beirut’s an international city, virtually every other cuisine is available as well. For a fantastic Armenian feast, head to Mayrig. For the best French food outside the City of Light, go try La Petit Maison. For excellent fruits of the sea, visit the counter of Meat the Fish. To get a taste of Mexico with a see-and-be-seen vibe, check out Pacifico.
4. It’s Close to One of the Oldest Continuously Inhabited Cities in the World
Byblos has been inhabited for some 7,000 years. The Phoenicians put it on the map, and the Romans had their rule, too — columns are sprinkled around the quaint seaside town to the north of Beirut. It’s also home to a castle built by the Crusaders in the 12th century, old incense-drenched souks (markets) and a harbor where concerts are held in the summertime. The must-visit spot here is Chez Pepe, which in the booming ’60s hosted stars like Brigitte Bardot and Marlon Brando.
5. Beaches. Period.
While public beaches are a bit iffy for tourists, there are many beach clubs and resorts that mix the gorgeousness of the cerulean-colored sea with soft sand and pretty, cosmopolitan people — no burqinis here! Eddé Sands in Byblos is one of them, with daybeds, a restaurant, spa and multiple pools — another club, Lazy B, is located just south of the city. Madame Bleu, right in Beirut, offers the best poolside food.
6. Beirut’s Nightlife Scene Is Huge
Not only does the city really come to life in the summertime, but its rooftops do, too. The ultra-exclusive Skybar (where you can watch the sun rise behind the mountains and reflect on the sea), White (with amazing R&B nights) and Iris (go for sunset drinks and live music) are the top scenes. Otherwise, for street-level fun, the newish bar Black provides plenty of visual stimulation with its multitude of screens and neon signs. Mar Mikhael Street and Gemmayze have Brooklyn-esque bar scenes. Grand Factory is the place to dance the night away, and when it gets really late (or early), B 018 (B Dix-Huit in French) is the most unique spot to wrap things up. Designed to look like a former nuclear-missile silo-slash-giant coffin, complete with open-air roof, the club is legendary. Non-drinkers can enjoy Beirut’s huge nargila (hookah) cafe scene.
7. There Is Amazing Wine, at Pretty Great Prices
Lebanon is one of the oldest wine-producing sites in the world. Grapes have been turned into delicious nectar in the region for thousands of years, and it’s an especially booming industry as of late. The Beqaa Valley is the most known region. You can drink Lebanese wine (including Provencal-style rosé) at most restaurants, or head to the picturesque grounds of Ixsir, located just outside Betroun, for a tasting and tour — for a real treat, go on the weekend when its restaurant, Nicolas Audi à la Maison d’Ixsir, puts on a comprehensive and gloriously traditional Lebanese lunch buffet. You’ve never seen anything like it.
8. Shop ‘Til You Drop
All the major luxury designers have outposts here, including native son Elie Saab, but the best shopping is for things you can’t get at home. An intricate handcrafted, usually hand-beaded (by female prisoners), purse or clutch from Sarah’s Bag is perhaps the most iconic takeaway from the region. Or a kaftan. Or many of the other gorgeous home-decor items made by local designers like Nada Debs (whose preferred media are acrylic and mother of pearl) and sold at Orient 499, where you could spend hours ogling the goods.
9. There’s an Emphasis on Wellness
Beirutis are embarrassed about their city’s trash problem, which perhaps led to their heightened awareness when it comes to personal wellness. Yoga studios are all over the city, making it easy to counteract your night of drinking with an early-evening vinyasa flow — I liked Tracy’s classes at Mandala. Restaurants like Eat Sunshine are also evidence of the healthy lifestyle many have adopted. There, you can get organic acai bowls and avocado toast that look like they’re straight out of Los Angeles.
10. The Mountains Are Right There
Also as in LA, one can be at the beach and in the snow in the same day. Day trips are the thing to do, especially since it’s such a small country. Not too far from Beirut, the Chouf mountains are the perfect place for day hikes, gorgeous views and exploring nature. It’s also home to a lovely vegan restaurant called Coara that grows its own fruits and veggies. In the winter, Faraya is the resort town with fresh powdery slopes for skiing and snowboarding. Meanwhile, it may be 70 degrees down in the city. Although it’s not a mountain, it’s also worth checking out the stunning Jeita Grotto, full of stalagmites and stalactites. Beirut really does have it all.
What are some of your favorite things to do in Beirut? Tell us about them, below.
Featured image courtesy of the author.
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