My next series of travel posts revolve around the historical country of Lebanon, starting at Beirut. Sitting on the east side of the Mediterranean sea, just above Israel and below Syria, this country not only has a coastline of beautiful waters but also a long standing timeline of conflict, history and occupations. With so much recent history, this country has not been high up on people's travel destinations. But the UK's FCO has recently declared most parts of Lebanon as relatively safe, with only the areas that border with Israel and Syria as areas to avoid all travel (obviously, check their website for the latest updates). With this in mind, more and more tourists are now more comfortable with heading over to see the more ancient and historical sites that this country was once famous for.
The land is considered one of the oldest to have been inhabited by humans and pre-historical ancient times date all the way back to 2500BC! The area has gone through Egyptian rule, Babylonian and Persian rule and even Roman rule for almost 600 years! Wikipedia displays around 19 different rulers or phases throughout its ancient history. The sites around the country are really incredible and you will no doubt understand why people have now started to explore this beautiful coastal country. This series in divided into a few blog posts starting from the beautiful Beirut! Stayed tuned for more of what the capital is all about.
Paris of the East
The best way to get a real feel of this iconic capital is to start off from the East side of Armenia street and walk into town. This walk allows you to really get a feel of what the "Paris of the Middle East" is like. It is a meander of old streets with low hanging buildings and what is really interesting is the merge of the old, war torn buildings with new concepts and designs and even modern restaurants and cafes. The best thing about rebuilding a city is when they try to keep the old history and either build on top and around (like in Sofia) or inside (like Penang & Singapore). This area is also a photographer's heaven, with all the old school buildings, creative arts, old cars and busy local life, all up for perfect photos ops.
At the start of the street there are a few really cool shops that I just have to mention. Hidden in one of the side street and a little out of the way is Kalei Coffee Co. This is a great place for an introduction to Lebanese social life, with their laid back coffee culture, at a super comfortable setting. Coffee seems to be my kind of thing and this place is very different to the more hipster cafes of Seattle or the old school cafes of Tunis. But the main reason to come here is The Carton Shop.
"A conversation around food culture and the Middle East in multidisciplinary platforms" is their main motto and it quite literally does what it says on the tin. They started with these really glossy and gorgeous magazines that looks to showcase food, culture and the Middle East, with some seriously good content. Their stores are decked with everything local, from wines to candles to their local spirit, Arak. It is a beautiful store and my favorite part is the diverse range of wines from the country's little boutique wineries!
Plan BEY is another beautiful store showcasing local artwork and designs. It is not an art gallery and does not sell originals but do sell their own editions. It is another amazing store with great prints, unique postcards and lots of really cool local products to buy. This whole area is worth spending some time wandering around. There are so many new restaurants and shops all merged together with this old and slightly worn out city. A really unique combination.
Tour the City
There are only a handful of city walking tours in the capital, with one that is probably the most popular. WalkBeirut started in April 2009 looking to tell the story of the city's recent history. It ranks among one of the best walking tours I have done, with my mind coming back to the notable tour I did at Sarajevo. This tour is on every Sunday (only!) and lasts around 4 hours and you will have to pop an email to reserve in advance! It is that popular! All the admin is worth it, as you even have to pay 20 USD per person. But trust me it is definitely something you want to pay for. It is really informative and four hours go by so quickly and you will feel like you already know the city back to front! The walk covers all kinds of interesting history, facts, politics, religions and ways of life in Beirut and Lebanon.
One of my favorite parts was seeing the Evangelical Protestant Armenian church. This is such a diverse church and it really goes to show how many different religious denominations there are here!
Walking through town also gives you a sense of the ageing buildings and the really interesting facts around land rent and why so many buildings are so run down.
What is pretty cool is seeing all the different architectural styles displayed. Some buildings have 3-4 different influences and it would be hard to distinguish them if it wasn't pointed out!
By far the coolest place was seeing the former Holiday Inn still standing where it is. Once the most lavish hotels in town with a revolving bar, the hotel was actually only open for a year. The Lebanese Civil War broke out and the green line was only a short distance away from the hotel. The property became an immediate vantage point with shooting between this building and another large one on the other side. The hotel was also used in the 1982 war and is now occupied by the army. You can still see large bullet holes and the impact the battles had on the building. You will get shouted at if you try take any photos at the front, so be warned!
The rest of the tour will take you to see the ancient Roman bath ruins and the Saint George Orthodox cathedral before finishing off at the grand Mosque and the Martyr's Square.
The square is an iconic area for Beirut. In the Lebanese civil war, it formed the demarcation line that divided the city. The name Martyrs' Square came as a commemoration of the martyrs executed during the Ottoman rule.
National Museum of Beirut
The tour itself takes you around the main areas of downtown Beirut but there are a lot more to see and slightly out of town is the National Museum of Beirut. This is the perfect spot for those interested in archaeological findings of the city, with thousands of objects dating all the way back to the antiquities and medieval ages!
Hidden in the middle of town and slightly out of the way is probably the most gorgeous looking museum I have seen in a very long time. Officially called the Nicolas Ibrahim Sursock Museum, this is probably the best modern and contemporary art museum in the city. The building itself was built in 1912 as a private villa of Mr. Sursock and has extremely unique architectural styles, with influences from Italy and Ottoman times. It is always really interesting when you get a clash of styles, really reminding me of places like Hoian and Hanoi in Vietnam. The museum houses a collection of exhibitions from a diverse range of styles, from Lebanese and international artists and a large range of art on display.
West Side of town
Any Google of Beirut and you will see the iconic pictures of the Raouche rocks or pigeon rocks. In fact, some parts of the safety video on Middle Eastern Air was filmed around the rocks. This whole area has a really relaxed vibe with a wide walkway all the way along the coast! It gives you a perfect view of the waters and those gorgeous blues. The area is more modern than the rest of town and is where the Paris reference came from. There are nice stores, restaurants and shops dotted around too.
From the rocks, you can make your way by foot and explore the little side streets, maybe pop into the famous American University of Beirut or head to Hamra street for the restaurants, bars and epic vibes!
I really struggled to find souvenior shops in town and had to ask around for one. Just around the corner from Le Commodore Hotel are two little stores that sells old pots and pans, postcards and souvenirs. Get them when you see it!
Where to eat in Berut
One of the main reasons for coming to Beirut was for the food! I have heard so many great things about restaurants here and I couldn't wait, considering how much I enjoyed the food in Tel Aviv. The ingredients just seem so much fresher and delicious in this region.
There are not many restaurants that I would go twice for and Baron is one of them. In the Mar Mikhaël area, this place is like London's Ottelenghi but at the next level. The cuisine is of Mediterranean influences but executed in an European way. The organic ingredients are locally sourced from Beirut's farmers markets, Tripoli's fishing boats and the vineyards of Bekka. I loved the merge of European and Middle Eastern flavours done perfectly and respectfully. It kind of is like Beirut in a bite!
Their menu was incredible and we tried their zucchini tagliatelle, egg plant, broccoli, graviera and octopus. They also gave us these little Jerusalem bagels, really reminding me of my trip to the Holy City! Just like Matt's BBQ in Portland, this is the one place everyone should go to when they visit this city!
I have also heard that Tawlet does a very similar take on food but with more focus on locally sourced ingredients. They have weekly farmer's markets in the middle of town too.
For more of a Lebanese vibe, head on to Al-Sultan Brahim or Fawzi Burj Al Hamam. Both of these places are top notch and offers fine Middle Eastern food. Think hummus, grilled meats, dips and sharing plates, all filled with olive oil for that med diet! If you are looking for a quick and dirty meal, then Barbar is the place to go to. Near the Hamra district, this place is the local go-to for kebabs, fried chicken and the likes. A perfect mid day snack or late night bite! For a coffee pick me up, Cafe Younes around the corner from Barbar is your spot. With beans and blends from all over the world, this is the place to really refine your coffee tastes. I even managed to get some whole beans from Yemen to take home. Their roaster is next door, so sit back and relax over a black Turkish before browsing for the perfect blend.
A good friend of mine had really great reviews for Liza. Conde Nast magazine named it one of the most beautiful restaurants in the world and stepping into the space really explains why. It was a gorgeously decorated room with so much space and comfort! It was a real shame that I went during the fasting month and it didn't open till late and was also fully booked. A place I would go back to Beirut for!
Talking about fasting, there was one spot in the whole of Beirut I was really really excited to try out. Al Soussi sits just on the edge of town and has been voted the best breakfast in the world a few years ago. With the growing popularity of breakfasts and brunches, most would think eggs benedicts and avocados. You couldn't be more wrong. This is a little side street spot with plastic chairs and tables on the pavement! It took me a while to find it and when I got there I looked into the shop and saw the famous old man and said are you open? The man looked up and said a few words in Arabic to this other guy and they started getting a table out. It turns out that they were closed because of Ramadan but the old man decided to open up and cook just for me! I was so happy!
He is famous for his eggs and awarma, which is basically an omelette with meat cooked with stored fat. Traditionally, the fat would be stored so that it can be used in winter months. A full pot can be a whole day's worth of calories! The omelet was definitely worth it, as the eggs melt in your mouth with the chunky and delicious meat. I gobbled it all up with hummus and this incredibly fresh tomato salad. Probably one of my favorite meals in Beirut and the perfect way to end my visit here!
All in All
There is definitely no better way to start of Lebanese adventure than at Beirut. There is a reason it is called Paris of the Middle East and anyone who visits will understand why. The mix of new and old along with the gorgeous coastline, deliciously fresh food and Lebanese culture will make you fall in love with this city!
Beirut is a pretty international airport and can easily be reached from around the world. I flew with Middle Eastern Area but you can easily transit via Doha with Qatar! The next part of my Lebanon series is a couple of road trips form the capital, where you can either rent a car or book a guided tour around the country. Stay tuned for more of my Lebanese adventure!
On a complete side note, I just wanted to point out one of my favourite travel hand trolleys. I was a big fan of G-RO when it came out on KickStarter and have loved it since I got it. I use it every week for work and pretty much everywhere I go! Check this link for the incredible carry-on!