Shaking off its troubled history, Lebanon’s capital is emerging as an exciting new design destination. With balmy temperatures that aren’t uncomfortably hot, spring and autumn are the perfect times to visit
Getaway Beirut is winning back its reputation as the Paris of the Middle East. We suggest where to stay, eat and visit
Ruled at various times by the Greeks, Romans, Ottomans and the French, Beirut is one of the oldest cities in the world – it’s been inhabited for more than 5,000 years. In recent times, its lustre has been tarnished by Lebanon’s civil war (which raged from 1975 to 1990), but now it’s regained the vibrant cultural scene it had in the 1960s, when it was known as the ‘Paris of the Middle East’ and attracted the cream of the international jet-set. Go in September and you can also check out the annual Design and Art Fairs, which are rapidly becoming favourites with the cool crowd ( beirut-art-fair.com; beirut-design-fair.com).
WHERE TO STAY
The Mar Mikhael district near Beirut’s northern waterfront, which is known for its hip bars and shops, is a great place to make your base. It’s here that you’ll find Villa Clara, a genteel old townhouse with just seven rooms, decorated with a mix of antique and modern furniture. A visit to its pink chinoiserie-wallpapered restaurant is not to be missed (from £180 per night; villaclara.fr). The nearby Zanzoun B&B (pictured overleaf), whose rooms are decorated with local art, is also a beautiful retreat (from £126 per night; hotelibanais.com). Not far away, in the Achrafieh district, is the Dar Al Achrafieh B&B, a home built in 1929 that still boasts its painted ceilings and Art Deco furnishings. The owner, Jamil, is a designer with a love of textiles and good food; over a breakfast of locally made cheeses and top-notch coffee, he’ll help you plan your tour of the city (from £180 per night; hotelibanais.com).
BREAKFAST & LUNCH
Al Soussi, tucked away down a small street in the north-western Mar Elias district, is famed for its legendary breakfasts. As well as the excellent hummus, don’t miss the fatteh (a mix of yogurt and chickpeas, with toasted bread and pine nuts) and awarma (slow-cooked spiced lamb served with eggs). For a relaxed lunch, head to Tawlet. It’s part of Souk el Tayeb, a collective that promotes local producers and serves a meze buffet that changes daily. The restaurant also runs cooking classes and a Saturday farmers’ market at the Beirut Souks (soukeltayeb.com).
WINE & DINE
Seek out Liza Beirut in Achrafieh for one of the city’s most stylish dining experiences. This restaurant – which has an outpost in Paris – is housed in a grand 19th-century building restyled by local designer Maria Ousseimi. Its stunning interior consists of Moorish-style fretwork windows, tiled walls and modern marble tables, with a sophisticated menu to match. Try the Djej Bel Frike (citrus-marinated chicken with smoked green wheat) and Haytaliye, a milk custard infused with orange blossom ( lizabeirut.com). At the nearby Hotel Albergo, you’ll get a flavour of the old city. Its Italian restaurant, Al Dente, exudes old-world elegance, with moody 1940s-inspired décor. As the name suggests, it serves great pasta dishes, and has an atmospheric cocktail bar (albergobeirut.com). In Clemenceau, to the north-west of the city, visit the 1920s-style bar-restaurant Salon Beyrouth for its striking monochrome interior. The house speciality is whisky – it sells more than 120 varieties from around the world (salonbeyrouth.com).
ART & CULTURE
The Sursock Museum in Achrafieh is Beirut’s answer to the Peggy Guggenheim Collection. In the 1950s, collector Nicolas Sursock left his turn-of-the-century mansion to the city so that it could be converted into an art museum. Recently revamped by French architect Jean-michel Wilmotte, it has an impressive range of works by 19th- and 20th-century Lebanese artists, some displayed in the original Ottoman-style rooms, others in more modern galleries (sursock.museum). For something more contemporary, visit the Aïshti Foundation, designed by Sir David Adjaye. This retail complex-cum-modern art gallery is housed in a bright red box on the waterfront and displays works by the likes of Julian Schnabel and Gerhard Richter (aishtifoundation.com).
No trip to Beirut would be complete without a visit to Nada Debs’ boutique in the Gemmayzeh district of the old town. One of Lebanon’s best-known designers, she creates everything from furniture to jewellery and has set up shop in a 1930s mansion block, which is decorated like a home (nadadebs.com). Similarly eclectic is concept store Another, housed in a sleek new building by local practice Rabih Geha Architects in the Zero 4 quarter in Naccache in the north-east of the city. Here you’ll find everything from edgy fashion to high-tech gadgets and home scents (anotherstore.com). Finally, there’s Papercupstore, a bookshop with a coffee bar in Mar Mikhael that sells unusual design books and artworks by local illustrators. Shelves are stacked high, with library-style ladders to reach the uppermost levels (papercupstore.com).
ESCAPE THE CITY
The Lebanese coastline is a treasure trove of ancient ruins, many of them Roman. The city of Tyre to the south of Beirut has some of the most impressive, among them a hippodrome (chariot arena). To the north of the capital is the city of Byblos, a UNESCO World Heritage Site with a wealth of ancient architecture and lovely beaches. Plus, a short drive away is the beautiful village of Harissa, whose hilltop Shrine of Our Lady of Lebanon – a pilgrimage site – has spectacular sea views.