If you’ve been reading my posts for a while, you already know that I am the #1 Middle-East fan. Not only because I have been living here for many months, but also because I am simply attached to this region more than to any other in the world. There’s just something about it, quite indescribable, that makes me feel at home. And if I had to choose my favorite city in the Middle-East, it would probably be Beirut. I am lucky enough to travel there quite often for my job and in my student years, I even lived in the Lebanese capital for a while. Far from what you can often read or see in the media, Beirut is a place full of art, beauty and life. It is the perfect mix between Orient and Occident, a chaotic place where paradoxes are recognized and cohabit, which gives to the capital such a unique aspect. But for a newcomer to Lebanon or to the Middle-East, I have to admit that Beirut might be a little hard to navigate, at first. Therefore I’ve compiled 15 well-known things you should try when you visit the Lebanese capital for the first time…
1. As anywhere else on Earth, it all starts with a good breakfast
I think one of my main passions in Lebanon is definitely the food. The Lebanese cuisine is one of the tastiest in the world and I could talk about it for hours. So what better way to get a first “taste” of the country than by trying some of its specialties? If you’re used to a salty breakfast, start your day with some hummus, fool (beans) or manakeesh (dough topped with thyme, cheese, or ground meat). Or, if you have a major sweet tooth like me, try knafah (cheese pastry soaked in sweet, sugar-based syrup and pistachios). But if you’re looking for something a bit less traditional, also know that most restaurants offer great breakfast options. A good example is the one below (pancakes and muesli never get old!) and the restaurant serving it happens to be located in the area I am about to take you to…
2. Remember your college years, in Hamra and AUB
Urbanista is located in Hamra, also known as the capital’s major student area. I love this neighborhood because it is always filled with people and is probably one of the liveliest places of Beirut. This is mostly explained by the presence of the American University of Beirut (AUB) at the very center of the quarter. The AUB is the number one university in Lebanon. The campus is composed of 64 buildings, 5 libraries, 3 museums and 7 dormitories. It also offers a breathtaking view of the sea so make sure you stop there when in the area! Other nice places and cafes in the neighborhood include T-marbouta (for backgammon and books enthusiasts) and Cafe Younes (one of the most famous and oldest in the city).
3. Shop ’til you drop at the Beirut Souks
After a good walk in Hamra, head to the city-center and make a shopping stop at the Beirut Souks. In Arabic, a souk describes an open-air marketplace or commercial quarter. These souks have historically been at the commercial heart of Beirut but they were considerably destroyed during the Lebanese Civil War. A few decades later, they were rebuilt according to the ancient Greek street grid that characterized the old souks and the area’s historical landmarks. Nowadays, you find more than 200 different brands there, as well as plenty of cafes where you can meet on weekends, with family or friends.
4. Walk around and be amazed in Gemmayze
My favorite neighborhood in Beirut is Gemmayze, without a doubt. The capital’s bohemian quarter is full of original shops, cute staircases, local restaurants and amazing art. And unlike the brand new version of the Beirut Souks that I just mentioned, Gemmayze will give you a good look of what the old capital had to offer. Walk in and around Gouraud Street and, surrounded by Ottoman buildings, step into old Beirut. The district is also full of narrow alleys and historic buildings from the French era, which add to the uniqueness of the place. One of Gemmayze’s landmarks is the Saint Nicolas Stairs, also known as Escalier de l’Art, where art festivals are held every year. The stairs lead to Rue Sursock further to the South. Which is where I am taking you next…
5. Discover the wonderful villas in the Sursock area
The Sursock family is a Greek Orthodox Christian family from Lebanon and one of the richest in Beirut. Having originated in Constantinople during the Byzantine Empire, the family has been recorded as living in the city since 1714. Their wealth allowed them to build and buy a lot of mansions and other buildings in the capital. Their residences and palaces were mostly located in the same area, which is why people ended up giving their name to a whole neighborhood. While you are there, make sure to stop by the Sursock Museum, which holds a great modern art and contemporary art collection. Also visit the Sursock House, a grand palace built more than 150 years ago and still a symbol of the Sursock family’s rich history.
6. Get spiritual when you reach downtown
Not far from Sursock is Achrafieh, another of Beirut’s oldest neighborhoods. It is mostly owned by several Christian Beirut families that have ruled the country and the region for centuries. Therefore, you will be able to visit some Armenian and Greek Orthodox churches in the area. You should then walk up to Sassine, which is the biggest and oldest square in Beirut. There, the Lebanese from different cultures and confessions communicate daily. When you leave Achrafieh, make a stop at the Al-Amin mosque, also referred to as the Blue Mosque. This is the biggest one in the city and tourists can visit it. Not too far is also the Omari mosque, one of Beirut’s most ancient buildings of the city, dating back to the 13th century.
7. Take a break and treat yourself to some Lebanese deliciousness
After all this walking around, you will certainly need a break. Not far from the Al-Amin mosque is one of Beirut’s institutions: Falafel Sahyoun. The little shop on Damascus Road, just outside Downtown Beirut won, by far, my “Best Falafel Ever” award in Lebanon. Sahyoun opened its doors for business in 1933 and since then, it has become a landmark in its own right. If you’re looking for a drink instead, treat yourself to a glass of Middle-Eastern Mint Lemonade (Limonana). The last option can be to make a stop at the famous bakery Ichkhanian. For almost seven decades and counting, the neighboring streets of the bakery have been blessed with the delicious smell of “lahmadjoun” and other Armenian goodness.
8. Don’t forget to enjoy the open air art gallery along the way
One thing I love the most about Beirut is, without a doubt, its street art scene. Pretty much in every neighborhood you find yourself, you’ll encounter some impressive and thought-provoking pieces to look at. One of my favorite Lebanese street-artists, sometimes called the “Lebanese Banksy,” is Yazan Halwani. And you can find more about him here. ?
9. Admire more treasures at the Mouawad Museum
Beirut being one of the most cultural places in the Middle-East, you’ll find plenty of museums to visit. But one of my favorites also happens to be one of the lesser-known ones: it is located in the Zokak el-Blat quarter and is called Mouawad Museum. There you’ll have the opportunity to admire mosaics, carpets, jewellery pieces and preserved manuscripts from the oriental and occidental cultures. Make sure to stop by the museum’s gardens before you leave the, as the scenery outside is just as breathtaking as the art pieces inside!
10. Rent a bike and ride along the Corniche by day and night
Another of my favorite spots in the city has to be the Corniche. Everybody in Beirut loves it. The seaside promenades offers amazing views on both the Mediterranean and the summits of Mount Lebanon. People like to go there to have a walk, drink some coffee, work out or just hang out, surrounded by palm trees. Since the Corniche is very long (almost 5kms), you have the option to rent a bike, if you don’t like to walk. This is a great way to go through the promenade from beginning to end!
11. People watch at Raouche
You know you’ve almost seen all of the Corniche when you finally reach Raouche. This area is known for being the place where you can admire Beirut’s most famous landmark. Off the coast, the Pigeons’ Rock or Sabah Nassar’s Rock stands in between the waves. This ensemble of two huge rocks is featured on almost every Beirut postcard. No wonder people love to take selfies in front of it! I personally love sitting there and just watching people striking their best pose in front of the rock! ?
12. Stop a minute and enjoy the sunset,wherever you find yourself
I would recommend going to Raouche for sunset, though any place seems amazing at this time of the day in Beirut. Whether you’re on the road or near the sea, the generally clear sky of the city slowly becomes pink and gives you the opportunity to admire, once again, the wonderful wonders of nature.
13. Discover the true meaning of luxury when at the Marina
As you head back to Beirut’s city center, stop by the Marina to witness the modern and luxurious side of the capital. Also known as Zaituna Bay, the area is home to a lot of high-end stores, cafes and restaurants. There are free concerts and “cultural flea markets” planned for the public there, usually held on major holidays like Christmas, Eid or Mother’s day. The esplanade also offers a view over the expensive yachts parked in the capital’s port.
14. Finish your adventure with the best food Lebanon has to offer
One thing is for sure and I don’t know how this point didn’t come before on the list: you cannot leave Beirut without a proper Lebanese feast. One of my favorite places to go to for a traditional meal is Abd Al Wahab. Located in the middle of the Monot street in Achrafieh, the restaurant brings the classic Lebanese cuisine and hospitality to the city. So, head there if you want to devour a traditional mezze or other wonderful Middle Eastern dishes, surrounded by beautiful damascene walls and ornaments, and enchanted by the smell of the narguilehs around.
15. Climb on a rooftop and wave goodbye to Beirut
And before you know it, your stay in Beirut will already be over. The Lebanese capital has much more to offer than what is listed on this post, but it will be your own mission to discover it. I will just leave you here with one last piece of advice: never miss a good view of Beirut at night. When the sun disappears, the atmosphere changes. Everything looks different and you just understand that the capital is made of hundreds of different facets… All as fascinating as they can be.
Have you been to Beirut before? What were YOUR favorite places? Let us know in the comments below!