My sophisticated and well-traveled Lebanese friend Dania Sakka lives in London but returns to her beloved Beirut often. Known as the Paris of the Middle East before the civil war, Beirut is in the midst of a comeback. While it still bears some of the scars from the war, several parts of the city have been beautifully rebuilt. Beirut has a long coastline, a stunning mountain backdrop and cosmopolitan flair. There’s fabulous nightlife, good restaurants and an unmatched combination of skiing by day and beaching by afternoon. Here, Dania shares some of her tips on Beirut hotels and dining. Read about her Beirut shopping and sightseeing recommendations.
WHEN TO GO
Avoid July through September when the city is overcrowded and too humid. December and January can be cold and wet and full of Lebanese migrants returning for the holidays.
Get into the mood by flying Middle East Airlines via Paris or London. Whenever I fly with British Airways or British Midlands, I am struck by how old their planes are; MEA’s fleet is brand new, the service is great and the flight attendants ply you with food and drink preparing you for the Lebanese pampering experience ahead.
While the airport taxis will take you anywhere in town, I prefer hiring a car to pick me up from the airport. I use Allo Taxi. Addresses in Beirut can be a little tricky. Drivers expect to hear where the location is (i.e. next to the old Holiday Inn) and not just the specific address, so it helps to get your hotel concierge to do the booking. It’s also a good idea to hire a car for the day while touring Beirut. Sidewalks in some areas are still in bad shape, bearing the scars of the long war and crossing the street can be hazardous as red lights are often ignored. Plus many great places are not near one another, so a car is a good idea.
WHERE TO STAY
Some new hotels have popped up in this buzzing city making Beirut even more of a must-see. Le Gray (Waygand Street; 961-1-973-111) on Martyrs Square has rooms done by Mary Fox Linton, and hotelier Gordon Campbell Gray has a very contemporary sensibility and the hotel has an amazing rooftop terrace. While some say the hotel can be a bit soulless, it does have amazing views of the Mediterranean and hills of Mount Lebanon. I also like the new Four Seasons (1418 Professor Wafic Sinno Avenue, Minet El Hosn; 961-1-761-000), However, in my opinion, the most charming place to stay is Albergo (137 Rue Abdel Wahab El Inglizi, Ashrafieh), a boutique hotel (and part of Relais & Châteaux) done up in chic Ottoman and 18th-century French style with a good Italian restaurant and a lovely rooftop bar. The property is hidden away on a dusty side street of the old quarter.
WHERE TO EAT
Beirut is all about its nightlife. But you can’t go out on an empty stomach. Dinner starts late here, very Mediterranean. Because Beirut is such a social city it’s a lot more fun to visit if you know a few people. But remember if you get invited to dinner for 9:30 p.m., no one will show up until 10 p.m. or even 10:30 p.m.
BIG NIGHT OUT
My favorite places to eat include Casablanca (961-1-369-334), which is good for both lunch and dinner. Located in a small white villa with pretty sea views, this authentic townhouse restaurant serves fresh seafood caught locally and all the produce comes from the owner’s organic farm in the mountains.
For lovers of traditional Lebanese dishes, I would recommend two restaurants: Karam in Beirut’s renovated downtown area specializes in mezze dishes (961-1-991-222), while Chez Sami (961-991-0520), about 20 kilometers north of Beirut, with breathtaking sea views is for those who prefer fish. Both offer the usual, delicious mezzes (houmus, tabuleh, cheese pies etc) to start off the meal. Order three mezze per person. No trip to Beirut is complete without trying a falafel or shawarma sandwich from a local shop. This traditional sandwich consists of either chicken or lamb, chick peas, wrapped in pita bread.
A popular French brasserie is Balthus (961-1-371-077) near downtown, which is perfect for lunch as they serve good salads, fish and continental food. And a stunning restaurant ideal for dinner also near downtown is Centrale (961-1-575-858), designed by a respected Lebanese architect Bernard Khoury. In the summer, guests can eat outside in the tree-filled garden. Centrale boasts Beirut’s largest wine cellar, and the food is a mix of Italian and French. Its rooftop bar is frequented by an elegant, young crowd.
Gruen (961-1-737 344) is fun for the family, with its Lebanese-inspired Californian-style cuisine. Expect salads, burgers, brunches on the weekend and lots of beautiful people. Pizzas have trendy toppings, like speck and artichoke or roasted potato and rocket. And the dessert menu includes thirty different homemade ice cream flavors, including an ice cream sandwiched between two giant macaroons. Gruen is situated in a surreal 1960s landmark building next to the American University in Beirut.
Nightclubs don’t get going until midnight and easily go until 4 a.m. or later. The Lebanese are renowned party animals. One of the wildest clubs is BO18, which closes at 10 a.m. Some tamer clubs include White, Sky Bar, Chandelle and the Music Hall. Sky Bar, with its amazing Mediterranean views, and open roof is only open from April to November, whereas Chandelle, opposite the Albergo hotel, is more of a winter club. And the Music Hall has a cabaret-style set-up, where different performers take to the stage before the venue turns into a nightclub, with people invariably dancing on tables. Gemmeyze Street never sleeps: this bohemian area full of narrow cobblestone streets and lovely historic buildings is also home to dozens of bars, restaurants and nightclubs near downtown.
Read about Dania’s Beirut shopping and sightseeing recommendations