The life of the Levant
The decadent beach parties and contrasts of cosmopolitan Beirut
THE greeting ‘‘Hi! Kifak! Cava?’’ is often heard in the capital of Lebanon, where locals like to mix dialect with a dollop of English and French. This phrase, as well as ‘‘Yalla! Bye!’’, has become shorthand for Beiruti parlance and even adorns mugs and T-shirts for tourists. For Lebanon is nothing if not international: it has a migrant’s soul.
It seems everyone has been here, from the Phoenicians, who built ships from the cedars and sold indigo dye to the wealthy of Europe by crushing shells of Mediterranean murex, to the French, who controlled Lebanon after World War I until 1943. The Persians ( booted out by the Assyrians) followed the Phoenicians. The Greeks came before the Romans; the Arabs before the Mamluks, then the Crusaders, and then the Ottoman Turks. All the invaders left their mark in architecture and tradition.
Throughout history, these occupiers were joined by those suffering religious persecution — from the Christian Maronites to the Druze and the Shia — who found solace in soaring mountains and epic valleys. While everyone associates Lebanon with the civil war that ended in 1990, a journey through its cities and landscapes reveals a history that goes so much further back, and a life-affirming spirit that has so much more hope.
In Beirut, streetscapes exude layer upon layer of history and difference, modern buildings placed next to ancient churches and mosques. The city today is defined by the swan-like transformation of its downtown district. Gone are the horrific piles of rubble and gaping holes. The area has been reborn, a beautiful combination of neo-colonial architecture and gleaming skyscrapers, marinas and glistening malls.
Few locals live downtown: to experience the colour and vibrancy of the real neighbourhoods, visit Hamra and Achrafieh, where you’ll find exciting restaurants and bars, from Michelinstarred fine dining to sushi joints. Don’t expect a lack of cultural sophistication but prepare to have your socks blown off.
Wealth has returned, perhaps even more so than during Beirut’s much-lauded days as the ‘‘Paris of the Middle East’’ between World War II and the 1970s, when European playboys bobbed in luxury yachts and drank the bars dry.
Foreign investors are pouring in and hot new hotels are drawing in tourists. Partying is the raison d’etre; the Lebanese will dance and drink as if it’s their last day on earth, given half the chance. This is not a city in which to take it easy.
Best people-watching: Walking on the Corniche, Beirut’s oceanside walkway, is de rigueur. Joggers, rollerbladers, lovers, friends, families, poseurs and Gulf tourists loaded with designer clothes all mingle. Stop at any waterside cafe for a shisha, have a bitter coffee, and gaze at the ocean.
Best spruced-up area: Downtown Beirut is now a gleaming centre of Ottoman-style beauty, and designer stores and lavish apartments have j oined the Roman and Greek ruins, ancient churches and mosques. Park yourself in a cafe in Star Square, where yummy mummies drink $15 coffees while nannies mind their children.
Shop at the Beirut Souks (between Mir Majid Arslan Avenue to the north, Weygand Street to the south, Patriarch Howayek Street to the west and Allenby Street to the east), the city’s pleasant mall built using the grid plan of the souks destroyed in the war.
Best museum: The National Museumof Lebanon tells the mes- merising and many-layered story of Beirut and Lebanon through its incredible treasures. It is compact and well-organised enough not to overwhelm. More: beirutnationalmuseum.com.
Best way of getting about: Communal ‘ ‘ service taxis’’ are 1970s Mercedes that prowl the streets and drivers pump their horns at potential customers. They tend to operate on specific routes, but you can also hire them as regular taxis for a specific price. It’s about 2000 lira ($1.30) for a communal ride; a private ride starts at 8000 lira.
Best view: The InterContinental Phoenicia Beirut ( deluxe Arabian meets Mediterranean country villa) has the monopoly on views. With sweeping pano- ramas of Med and mountains, it feels like being on an ocean liner. The top-floor V Bar is a fashionable spot for cocktails, Cuban cigars, live music and revelry before an indulgent dinner at Eau de Vie, the Phoenicia’s French fine-dining restaurant. More: phoenicia-ic.com.
Best neighbourhood: Before 1975, the tourist-thronged Hamra Street in Hamra was considered the Champs-Elysees of Beirut. Badly hit during the war, it once more features boutiques, cafes, galleries, hotels and restaurants. Its residents are youthful because of its proximity to the American University of Beirut and the Lebanese American University.
Best cafe: De Prague is a lowkey hangout popular with the fashionable creatives who pile on to its colourful sofas and antique furniture. They love De Prague for its art-house film showings, decent coffee and cakes, and nights of lounge and funky music ( to 2am). Makdissi Street, Hamra.
Best walk: A group of graduates have set up WalkBeirut, an excellent service of four-hour guided English-language walks in this pedestrian-friendly city. About $US20. More: bebeirut.org.
Best beach club: Slumbering off your hangover in one of Lebanon’s many beach clubs is a national pastime. It’s best to travel a little out of the city, and there are different types of club, from the family-friendly variety to the glamorous kaftan, full make-up and heels variety. Out of town in Jbeil (also known as Byblos), Bay 183 (formerly La Voile Bleue; open 10am-1am, May to October) is about afternoon spritzers and early evening beach parties. Edde Sands is great for kids. More: eddesands.com.
Best street for partying: Beirutis are prone to changing allegiances on a seasonal basis. For now, Gemmayze is the party street. Try Torino Express Bar for late-night chats with Lebanese intellectuals. This Francophile holein-the-wall builds to a crescendo by 2am. Rue Gourand 253.
Best budget international lunch: Tiring of mezze and hummus? Cafe Sho in Achrafieh serves light Asian, international and fusion dishes. About $40 for two. 304 Monot St, Achrafieh.
Best local gallery: The Arab Image Foundation promotes photography of the Middle East and North Africa: this is a valuable social history archive and a great place to visit for its many exhibitions. Starco Centre, Omar elDaouk Street, Beirut Central Downtown. More: fai.org.lb.
Best fast (local) food: Barbar, a small bakery, opened during the civil war and now is one of the biggest fast-food joints in Lebanon. Soak up its falafels, manakich, pastries, shawarma and j uices. Piccadilly Street, Hamra.
Best music: In summer, wonderful under-the-stars music festivals unfold in ancient sites, from Phoenician Byblos and Roman Baalbek to the 19th-century Beiteddine Palace. The Baalbek International Festival is the most significant cultural event in the Middle East, its music, dance, theatre and opera pulling in hundreds of thousands since 1955. More: beiteddine. org; byblosfestival.org; baalbeck.org.lb.
Best farmers’ market: Souk elTayyeb (literally, souk of the delicious) supports small-scale farmers and organic produce. Expect incredible cakes, marzipans and nuts, fruits and vegetables, honey and preserves. Saturdays 9am2pm in Saifi Village. More: soukeltayeb.com.
Best Oriental garb: Artisans du Liban et d’Orient sells a cornucopia of Arab art, fashion, homewares and jewellery. The latest outlet is carved out of a vaulted joiner’s shop. 44 Souk AnNajjarin, Said Akl Street, Saifi Village. More: artisansduliban.com.
Best famous grave: In a giant white tent on Martyrs’ Square lies the mausoleum of Rafik Hariri, the former prime minister assassinated in 2005. He is buried along with his bodyguards next to the lavish Mohammad al-Amin Mosque, which he built.
Best day trip: Byblos lays claim to being the oldest inhabited city in the world, occupied since 5000BC, with a wonderful trove of Phoenician and Egyptian temples, Roman theatres, Crusaders’ castle and Byzantine ruins overlooking the hazy blue sea. These days it’s all fish restaurants, bikini-clad Beirutis and yachties. Order the seafood grill at Bab El-Mina. More: babelmina.com. Lydia Bell was a guest of Cox & Kings
The Corniche, Beirut’s seaside promenade, is perfect for a stroll or people-watching from one of its many cafes
Roman-Byzantine room at the National Museum of Lebanon