Beirut is like no other city in the Middle East, juxtaposing designer boutiques with grand mosques, bullet-scarred buildings with a boisterous nightlife. Though it has suffered hugely from decades of civil war, it is now one of the region’s safest places to visit.
A waterfront promenade with cafés peddling nargileh pipes and old men playing backgammon, the Corniche is Beriut’s favourite spot for a stroll. The walk culminates at Pigeon Rocks – a natural stone arch that is one of the city’s most famous landmarks. In the summer, boat tours can be taken around the rocks for a small fee.
Popular summer retreat Beit Mery is a small village in the hills with views to Beirut and the Mediterranean. It’s also home to ancient ruins – particularly impressive are the remains of small Roman temples nearby.
The National Museum of Beirut has an impressive collection of artefacts, including gilded-bronze Phoenician statues. A short film tells how staff saved its collection from destruction in the civil war (beirutnationalmuseum.com; cnr Abdallah El Yafi & Damascus; admission £2; closed Mon).
Achrafiye is a largely Christian area characterised by leafy streets, galleries, antique shops and churches. If you’re looking for something a little more lively, Rue Monot is one of Beirut’s buzziest spots for nightlife and is the focus for the local clubbing scene.
Originally a cathedral built in the 12th century by Crusaders, the Omari Mosque was converted by the Mamluks in 1291 and restored after the Lebanese Civil War. Visitors can explore its courtyard gardens but must ask to enter the prayer hall (omarimosque.com).
Eat and drink
Serving contemporary interpretations of French and Lebanese dishes in minimalist surroundings, La Tabkha in Gemmayzeh is part of a popular Beirut chain. Daily specials are chalked up on the board and the Lebanese mezze buffet is a great lunchtime option (tabkha.com; Rue Gouraud; mezzes from £1.50).
Al-Kahwa is a favourite hangout for students from the American University of Beirut. It’s also a reliable pit spot for a full English or Arabic breakfast, while the rest of the day’s sustenance includes jacket potatoes and quesadillas (00 961 1 362 232; Al-Kanater Bldg, Rue Bliss; breakfasts from £2.50).
Set in an attractive Ottoman house, Abdel Wahab el-Inglizi in Achrafiye rates highly with locals thanks to its large-scale buffets, huge array of high-quality mezze and numerous varieties of hummus on offer (ghiaholding.com; Rue Abdel Wahab el-Inglizi; mezzes from £3).
Le Chef in Gemmayzeh is admired for its atmosphere and cheerful Arab cuisine. Try the supposed aphrodisiac moolookhiye – fragrant rice with chicken, lamb and mallow. Vegetarians are also well catered for (00 961 1 445 373 Rue Gouraud; mains from £3).
If you’re craving a piece of Paris in Beirut, Relais l’Entrecote in Achrafiye is the place to go. Decked out with wood-panelled walls and Parisian-style posters, it serves unbeatable steak-frites and chocolate fondant (00 961 1 332 087; Rue Abdel Wahab el-Inglizi; set menus from £15).
L’Hote Libanais offers an alternative Lebanese hospitality, with families welcoming visitors into their homes. It’s a great way of getting to grips with the real Beirut, and similar b&b accommodation is available elsewhere in the country. Call the company in advance to discuss your requirements (hotelibanais.com; from £50).
Port View Hotel has basic-value rooms within easy reach of the bars and restaurants of Rue Gourand. Its greatest asset is the manager, who is happy to dispense advice to visitors (portviewhotel.blogspot.com; Rue Gouraud, Gemmayzeh; from £55).
An old-fashioned Hamra institution, The Mayflower Hotel was a popular hangout for journalists during the Lebanese civil war, and has spotlessly clean rooms. Its eccentric Duke of Wellington Bar is adorned with deer heads and serves Lebanese wine (mayflowerbeirut.com; Rue Neame Yafet; from £70).
A Beirut mainstay since the 1950s, The Riviera Hotel has comfortable rooms with great sea Sleep views. Its trump card is claiming one of the liveliest beach clubs in Beirut. Accessed through a tunnel under the Corniche, the club has a good fish restaurant and its own marina (rivierahotel.com.lb; Ave de Paris; from £100).
Beirut’s most prestigious hotel in the days before Lebanon’s civil war, the Intercontinental Phoenicia Hotel has once again become the haunt of the city’s monied set after being restored to its former glory. Inside are acres of marble, chandeliers and an ornate colonnaded swimming pool (phoeniciabeirut.com; Rue Fakhr ed-Dine, Minet al-Hosn; from £200).
The Lebanese Commuting Company (lccworld.com) runs bus networks alongside governmentowned OCFTC buses. Both have a ‘hail-and-ride’ system (fares around 50p). Shared service taxis (servees in Arabic) run fixed routes (fares £1 max in central Beirut).
When to go
Beirut has cool, rainy winters until February, and hot, Mediterranean summers from June. February’s Al Bustan festival has a varied programme of orchestral and chamber music in Beit Mery (albustanfestival.com) and the Beirut International Film Festival takes place in October (beirutfilmfoundation.org).
How to go
Beirut airport is five miles south of the city centre. Bmi flies from Heathrow (from £485; flybmi.com), as does Middle East Airlines (from £465; mea.com.lb). Yellow taxis go downtown (fares around £15), but it’s often cheaper to pre-arrange an airport pickup at your hotel. Buses go into town (fares around 50p) but are a long walk from the terminal.
The article 'Mini guide to Beirut, Lebanon' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet Magazine.