Five of Beirut’s most stylish insiders reveal a few of their favorite things to do in the city.
Hoda Baroudi and Maria Hibri
Baroudi and Hibri are the creative team behind Bokja, a Beirut-based design studio.
Courtesy Bokja, Beirut
How long have you been in Beirut? Beirut is home.
What is your favorite aspect of living and working in Lebanon? Diversity is what makes this tiny piece of land so special. It’s unsettling and intrusive; creative juices flow and overflow. There is everything and its opposite, so you are constantly challenged. It’s a city that agitates and keeps us on our toes; there is never a dull moment.
What should every visitor be sure to do while in Lebanon? A visitor to Lebanon should strive to grasp the cultural richness found in the country, and a good way to do that is through the food. Some of the country’s major exports are its signature dishes, like hummus and tabbouleh. Each local community has its own way of concocting these delicacies. A good place to start to experience the discrepancies in flavor is Tawlet Restaurant, inviting cooks from villages all over the country to prepare their traditional recipes at their space in Mar Mikhael.
Another place not to miss is the Cornishe, the seaside promenade connecting eastern and western Beirut. While there, be sure to stop by Sporting Club, an old bastion with an outdoor pool and restaurant managed by the same family over the past half-century. It’s most popular during the summer, thanks to its nice view of the sea.
And no visit to Beirut is complete without visiting Bokja’s textile workshop in Basta, located in the midst of one of Beirut’s biggest antique districts and surrounded by dilapidated heritage buildings. Many of these buildings house astute merchants offering treasured family heirlooms from back in the day. The workshop itself has an archive of unique textiles from along the silk road and a solid team of specialized craftspeople coming from countries such as Iraq, Syria, Turkey and Kurdistan, among others.
Courtesy Bokja, Beirut
What inspired you to start your design company? The inspiration stemmed from our love of textiles, patterns, embroidery, broken things and hidden beauties. It goes back to a need to express an aesthetic that was unique and autochthonous.
Do you have any favorite restaurants in the area? Liza is the most sumptuous place to experience the Levant and a feast for the eyes and stomach. The restaurant is located in a traditional Lebanese villa in the heart of the Achrafieh district. Another great place to visit (it’s not necessarily a restaurant) is Souk el Tayeb, the weekly farmers’ market held on Saturdays, where you can try fresh Mannoush, a type of Lebanese pizza normally eaten for breakfast. And if you are looking for an all-inclusive escape from the city, there’s no better place than Beit Trad Guest House, a reimagined century-old Lebanese mansion in the mountains.
Favorite rituals? To jump-start our crazy weekdays: a warm piccolo latte from BackBurner Coffee Shop with a quick read through the FT does the trick. And on weekends, there’s nothing like a Saturday morning stroll through the secondhand market; it makes our hearts beat again and again. Even though we’ve been going there for years, it manages to feel both familiar and surprising.
Favorite shops? We love Creative Space Beirut and Second Street. The first is a free school providing top-notch fashion education to talented individuals with few resources, and the second is a sister brand producing urban fashion with a local twist.
Aline Asmar d’Amman is an architect and founder of Culture and Architecture, who spearheaded the renovation of the Hôtel de Crillon in Paris and is redesigning the famous Jules Verne restaurant located on the second floor of the Eiffel Tower.
How would you describe your association with Beirut? Beirut means origins and home to me! I look forward to several things when I land. Firstly, the comfort food at my parents’ house, being with them and sleeping in my room filled with books. It’s also about the horizon, where the blue sky connects with the sea. The Mediterranean Sea is the beginning of everything: the alphabet, knowledge, endless movement and the hope of new shores. There’s nothing I miss more when I leave Beirut than being able to refuel with this enchanting vision.
What is your favorite aspect of living and working in Lebanon? Beirut is the city of diversity and a multicultural gem; more than ever, it’s buzzing with creativity, and there’s so much to see in the arts, design, fashion, architecture, heritage sites, quiet mountains, beautiful beaches, traditional houses, fabulous art of living or late-night clubbing. Art galleries, shops, cinemas, design fairs and museums, renovated or new, pop up constantly with a genuine, fresh energy. The Lebanese mentality is forged by the idea of enjoying life urgently, as you never know what tomorrow is made of. This generates a unique drive incomparable to any other place in the world, at least in the region or the Middle East. Beirut is about strong contrasts, intense street life and ultra-refined life scenes. Here, the Oriental and Occidental mix gives everything a new potential and creates a unique aesthetic, a bold identity with multiple personalized interpretations.
What inspired you to start your company? I was born in Beirut in the context of war and adversity…but also incomparable brotherhood and family values. My personal response to chaos was reading and writing. I built a shield made of words, literature and artistic references, an invisible armor protective of the vital silence. Void and demolition forged my aesthetic for theatrical settings; I naturally turned to architecture in a country of rebirth and reconstruction. I founded Culture in Architecture in Beirut and Paris, with the deep belief in the power of beauty to elevate the soul and ‘add romance to the world,’ as Novalis says it best. We practice architecture, interiors, furniture design and artistic direction on different projects with a strong commitment to bridging cultures and their know-how with a forward-thinking approach. The Paris-Beirut bridge is my favorite one to explore, as it’s only the beginning of a great mesh of channels spread around the world with a true thrive for cross-fertilization with a fresh eye.
Liza Restaurant, Beirut
Do you have favorite restaurants in the area? One of my all-time favorite restaurants in Beirut is Liza. The Venetian palace, which is the typical architecture of a Lebanese traditional house, is amazing and hosts many fabulous memories with friends and families. Liza is the best Lebanese lifestyle ambassador; she transformed the place with a wonderful designer, Maria Ousseimi, into the most whimsical and contemporary yet timeless Lebanese interior, where the the food, tableware and moods, both night and day, are great. I also love Tawlet from Kamal Mouzawak: it’s everything traditional with a cool vibe and a humanistic approach of typical homemade food from every village. Beirut is also about clubbing, a city that never sleeps. The Skybar is the most amazing club overlooking the sea on the waterfront, and we love to remind people that it was voted one of the best clubs in the world! Capitol’s rooftop and the B018 are a must, although one is overlooking the city and the second is buried in the ground in a radical structure by Bernard Khoury, reminding visitors of the massacre that happened in this location in the ’80s. This city has the power to transform scars into a celebration of life. Then, of course, there’s Byblos port and its fabulous, most delicious seafood restaurants like Pepe and Bab el Mina. But no one should leave Beirut without a day trip further to the North to Jammal’s. It’s a piece of authentic heaven in a crystal-clear creek with a gorgeous pebble shore, exquisite food and a memorable view on the shimmering Mediterranean. You won’t want to leave. I also have to mention the incredibly renovated Beit Trad and the sparkling host and owner Sarah Trad, who certainly serves the best Lebanese meals (even though this is not a restaurant, but a guest house). It’s an excellent place to experience Lebanese hospitality in Kfour Hills within the trees: refilling, recharging and savoring the best of ‘art de vivre’ and ‘art de recevoir ’ in town.
Books being my obsession, I would never leave town without passing by Librairie Antoine and Librarie Al Bourj, run by the incredibly knowledgeable and kind Chadia Tueni. I also love Papercup in Mar Mikhael, in Achrafieh. Niche editions and beautiful conversations filled with memories make these moments very special. I have to visit my artist friends, Huda Baroudi and Maria Hibri from Bokja, pass by Rasha Nawam and Marylin Massoud’s ceramic atelier and check out the latest creations by Hala Matta, whose efforts to practice her love of ceramic sculpture led her to open her workshop for collaborations. I can’t leave Beirut without a quick dive at the Sporting Club in Manara, an institution where scarified concrete terraces clash with the waves in the most dangerously poetic vision and where the fish is great. Beyond all, there are two heartfelt visits I have to do: one to the only bureau where I worked in Beirut before leaving for Paris, at Ziad Akl in Gemmayze. Ziad Akl was more than a teacher and dean at the ALBA University where I graduated from, but also a great influence on my career. Secondly, I visit Lady Yvonne Sursock Cochrane at her villa in Sursock, facing the eponymous museum. This enchanted intact palazzo is the most elegant and refined Orientalist legacy in the entire region. This is where I reconnect at best with the true essence of Beirut’s heritage, chicness and culture, having the most delicate and improbable conversations with the grand philanthropist and erudite, Yvonne, who saved many Lebanese houses from the urban jungle post-war developments in the city.
Favorite shops or galleries?
I recommend a stop at Rabih Kayrouz, where the clean cuts and feminine details are the epitome of chic. My all-time favorite Lebanese jewelry designer is Selim Mouzannar. He’s inspired by Phoenician stories and the Oriental-made-modern. Most of the local designers are in downtown Beirut and the Rue de Liban or Monot area. Sarah’s Bag, Vanina, Bokja, Nada Debs, L’Artisan du Liban and Orient 499 are, of course, the unmissable shopping destinations if you’re looking for creations with love, craftsmanship and beauty. And don’t forget Starch, a foundation helping young Lebanese talents and offering incredible discoveries. There are so many galleries to stop at, including Alice Mogabgab, Saleh Barakat, Sfeir-Semler, Beirut Art Center and Joy Mardini Gallery, a wonderful supporter of Lebanese designers and talents, as well as the one and only Naji Asfar confidential antique shop behind Saint Nicolas’ church.
Debs is a Beirut-based designer.
Courtesy Nada Debs, Beirut
How long have you been in Beirut? My family is originally from Damascus and Lebanon, but they moved to Japan in 1917, which is where I was born and raised. I returned to Beirut in 2000, after studying at the Rhode Island School of Design and working as a furniture designer in London.
What is your favorite aspect of living and working in Lebanon? I like the weather, and I also like the fact that every day is a new day—not one day is the same as another! So I am never bored!
What should every visitor be sure to do while in Lebanon? To walk around and get lost in the side streets, as well as walk on the Corniche by the sea and watch the horizon and the sunset.
What inspired you to start your design company? I saw that local craft had been unexplored, and I wanted to add a design element to it. Much of my work is very customized, and I enjoy working closely with clients, whether or not they are designers themselves. When they are involved in the creation of the piece, they have a relationship with the piece. We want people coming into the studio to give them a sense of privacy and exclusivity and to bring them closer to the creative process.
Do you have favorite restaurants in the area? I love Casablanca for an Asian touch, Liza for Arabic, Le Petit Gris for bistrot style, Ginette for salads and Albergo rooftop to enjoy the atmosphere.
Favorite rituals? Swimming at Sporting Beach Club (sometimes even in the winter time!), a walk on the Corniche with my dog and taking a tour of the art galleries in town.
For artisanal objects, Orient 499, Liwan and L’Artisan du Liban on the seafront. For menswear, Trunk concept store. Plan Bey for local posters and postcards. For jewelry, Rosamaria and Cynthia Raffoul. And, of course, there’s the Nada Debs Boutique for contemporary Middle Eastern objects!
Courtesy Nada Debs, Beirut
Hadid is an architect, a member of the executive committee of the Baalbeck International Festival and the director of the Zaha Hadid Estate and Foundation.
Courtesy Rana Hadid, Beirut
How long have you been in Beirut?
Beirut is home, and I have been here forever. I was born here and left to study abroad, but came back because I missed it so much.
What is your favorite aspect of living and working in Lebanon? The quality of life here is unbeatable, whether it is the fact that we are surrounded by a perfect mix of family and friends, have access to the best talent (craftsmen, designers, doctors, etc.), enjoy proximity to both the sea and the snow-covered mountains and know that you can wake up to a perfectly clear blue sky in the middle of winter or summer.
What should every visitor be sure to do while in Lebanon?
Visit the temples of Baalbeck. It never fails to amaze me how these temples withstood the passage of time to remain so overwhelmingly stunning. And on your way there, stop to have a labné markouk wrap sandwich in Chtaura and a lemonade at the Palmyra Hotel.
How does Lebanon figure in your work?
It is in everything I do. It is part of me, it is the culture I was immersed in
Do you have favorite restaurants in the area?
There are too many good restaurants to list, but my favorite Lebanese restaurant is definitely Ummi. My favorite place to sit and have a fresh apple juice is the Palace Café in Manara.
Favorite rituals? Walking on the Corniche, swimming in the sea, hiking in the mountains and going to Naiiman beauty salon for any of their treatments or simply a manicure/pedicure.
Favorite shops? Again, there are too many to list, but if I had to name a few, it would have to be Artisans du Liban et d’Orient for everything they have, Nada Debs for her furniture, Sarah’s Bag for their handbags, Nada Zeineh for gorgeous costume jewelry, Karma Salman for her gorgeous rings, Le temps brodé for their wall hangings, Bokja for their chairs and scarves, Inaash Association for their hand-embroidered cushions and, last but not least, the gift shop of the National Museum.