The capital of Lebanon is known as “Paris of the Middle East” and for capturing the hearts of visitors from around the world. Due to recent political developments many travellers avoid Beirut nowadays but let me tell you, it is completely safe (or as safe as a big city in Europe would be). With its beautiful charm, cool restaurants, thriving bars and gorgeous backstreets, it is the perfect get-away for a long weekend.
So we booked the flights from Cairo, boarded the plane a few days later and all of the sudden landed in Beirut. After some negotiations at the airport, we stepped into our taxi and went straight to our Airbnb in Gemmayze, Beirut’s trendy district. Once we reached the city center I immediately knew that our time in Beirut would be amazing. It was also that drive that we decided to stay in Beirut for all three days (instead of visiting places outside of town for one day) and explore every angle on foot.
So, safe some money on taxis and the hassle of finding the right bus and instead put on some comfy shoes and walk your way around the capital. Beirut is pedestrian-friendly for Middle Eastern standards and you’ll always be able to find some kind of sidewalk wherever your are. Getting hungry on the way? I also have that covered for you. Below is a quick guide to walking and eating your way through Beirut.
A WALK THROUGH CULTURE AND FOOD OF BEIRUT
This Beirut guide covers our 3 day itinerary. There is a lot to explore in Beirut but it’s not a city with many sights. Instead, Beirut is more about taking in the atmosphere, watching Lebanese people go about their business, eating till you’re rolling and marvelling at its rustic yet beautiful architecture.
Most major hotel chains are located in downtown and close to the Corniche. However if you want to experience the young and hip Beirut I recommend to stay in a small hotel or Airbnb in Gemmayze. Skip the hotel’s breakfast, opt for one of the many cute cafes and bistro and mingle with expats and locals alike.
Rue Gouraud, Gemmayze’s main residential and commercial street, is a great starting point. From here you can wander either towards the East or West or just left and right, aka up and down the hills and get a good overview of this bohemian district. Leave the map in your bag and just keep your eyes open for the many historical buildings from the French era. While making your way through narrow streets and climbing steep stairs, don’t forget to stop by one of the quaint coffee shops or have a relaxing breakfast at Urbanista. Urbanista is a favorite among young Lebanese and their broad range of breakfast items, cakes and coffees are exactly what you are looking for when craving a good morning meal. The interior is stylish, the staff is super friendly and the atmosphere is relaxing.
For drinks at night (or even during the day), check out the chill rooftop hangout Coop d’Etat that serves good mojitos and cold beer. It’s a mixture between hip bar and pub garden and offers a relaxing view of Beirut’s port. To experience a more cozy vibe with a charming bar tender, visit the Spoon bar located on Rue Gouraud and a perfect spot for people watching.
There is a reason why Beirut is also called the “Hipster capital of the Middle East” and it’s Mar Mikhail (or Saint Michael in English). Located east of Gemmayze, this is Beirut’s latest revitalised districts and my absolute favorite neighborhood in Beirut. If you were to be looking for the place with the highest density of outdoor patios, fashionable bars, stylish restaurants, design shops, art galleries and… hipsters, this would be it.
Mar Mikhail is worth some exploration during the day. It’s a hub for art and creativity and so are its colourful steps that were created with the mission of making Beirut a brighter place and are even featured among the nine most creative staircases around the world by Vogue magazine. Laid-back during daylight, at night Mar Mikhail becomes really alive and the place-to-be for all party-goers or those looking for a drink or two. During our stay in Beirut we kept on coming back to Mar Mikhail and thus tried out quite a few restaurants.
Our first night brought us to Tavolina, an Italian restaurant known for its amazing pizza. Italian food is hard to come by in Cairo, so we were literally craving some Mediterranean carbohydrates and did not get disappointed.
The next night we more or less accidentally stumbled into Mótto because it was the only place that was still serving food at 10.30 pm. This small and cozy restaurant serves foods of the world with a changing menu every week or so and in the end you pay what you think is fair. The food was beyond delicious and to some extend even quite creative. That evening they served a beetroot pistachio soup and I can’t stop thinking about it.
For lunch the following day we went to Divvy, a chic restaurant that is all about sharing. The international menu offers everything but not too much – with around 2-3 dishes in each food category: veggies, sandwiches, chicken, seafood, meat, salads, desserts and drink. The food is served like Spanish tapas aka for sharing and is really tasty. The puffy asparagus tart comes with a fresh green salad on a stone platter and the Buffalo Chicken Tortilla are presented in a small basket. A great lunch spot to give your feet a rest and sooth your empty stomach.
Now that you are energised from your lunch break make your way west towards Saifi Village. This nowadays upscale residential neighbourhood was completely destroyed during the Lebanese war and later rebuilt by a private company. Today you find French colonial buildings, town houses, cobblestone streets and small shops. The new urbanist style might not be as charming as Gemmayze’s historical art deco buildings but with its art galleries, antique stores and artisan shops there is still a lot of Beirut to discover here.
I simply loved walking around and enjoyed the quietness of this place. I especially liked that the streets and sidewalks are relatively large and every house has a different color.
At the heart of Beirut, the downtown district might not be as touristy as other areas but it’s still worth a visit when you are in the mood to spurge on shopping. The main attraction of Downtown, as sad as it sounds, is a shopping mall called Beirut Souks. Before coming to Beirut I didn’t do much research as I like to surprised by my travel destination. So when I heard about this big thing called Beirut Souks I expected a typical vibrant and busy local market with lots of souvenir and food offers. But Beirut Souks is everything but traditional. It’s a major commercial mall with over 200 shops and department stores. I really liked that it is kind of an outdoor mall, so you can still enjoy the breezy air and sunshine. A definite highlight is the farmer’s market Souk el Tayeb which takes place every Saturday from 9 am to 2 pm at the Beirut Souk. There is a stand (the one with a very long queue) that sells freshly baked flatbread with Zatar and other toppings. Absolutely delicious and totally worth the wait.
Other than the shopping mall, the Downtown district is marked by the beautiful blue Mohammad Al-Amin Mosque and has two marinas. Within a short walking distance of the Beirut Souks, the West Marina is a great place to stroll down the promenade, take a coffee break or have dinner with a view of the many impressive yachts. If you stay in Downtown until sunset, make sure to visit Iris, a rooftop bar overlooking Beirut. Their cocktails are to dye for and the view at dawn is breathtaking.
Hamra, University and the Corniche
If in Beirut, do as the Lebanese – and walk down the palm-treed Corniche (seaside promenade) which is 4.8 km long and a popular destination for everyone seeking a beautiful view of the Mediterranean and the summit of Mount Lebanon. Half way through you pass by the American University of Beirut. The main entrance for visitors is at Bliss Street, a little walk up the hill but the lush greenery and many cats make up for this little work-out. Yes, you heard me right. The American University of Beirut is a heaven for well fed and cuddly cats. If you are not into cats, don’t worry, the nicely sculptured gardens and quiet sitting areas offer a side of Beirut that appeals to anyone. We also heard that the museum is nice but since we visited on a holiday it was closed. The university itself is situated two streets away from the Hamra shopping district. Again, as we visited this area of Beirut during a holiday, most shops were closed. However we had an enjoyable lunch at the Lebanese restaurant Kahwet Leila which comforts its customers with a quirky design but traditional Lebanese food. Meals include staples like falafel, hummus, grilled meat and pesto halloumi. If you are new to Middle Eastern Cuisine, Kahwet Leila will serve you all the flavours and yumminess of Lebanese food.
I’ve fallen in love with Beirut und so will you. It’s a city with amazing food, lovely people from all kinds of backgrounds, stunning rooftop bars, a frenetic nightlife and most importantly, a place where cropped tops and hijabs appear to coexist peacefully.
Or as Anthony Bourdain says: ” EVERYONE should visit.”