It’s been called the Paris of the Middle East, and today you’ll find Lebanon’s capital is a dynamic, buzzing metropolis that sits proudly and comfortably between the East and the West. For millennia, the city has consistently managed to reinvent itself after numerous natural and man-made disasters; few other world capitals welcome visitors like this one, and its eternal optimism and genuine hospitality make it a very special place to visit.
Beirut has survived a rough history, falling under the occupation of one empire after another for more than 5000 years. It was originally named Bêrūt, “The Wells” by the Phoenicians, referring to the underground water table that is still tapped by the local inhabitants for general use. Excavations in the downtown area have unearthed layers of Phoenician, Hellenistic, Roman, Arab and Ottoman civilizations. Located on a peninsula at the midpoint of Lebanon’s Mediterranean coast, Beirut is the country’s largest and main seaport. The first historical reference to it dates from the 14th century BC when it is mentioned in the cuneiform tablets of the Amarna letters, and the city has been inhabited continuously ever since.
The attractions in this Mediterranean metropolis are numerous, be they cultural, casual or culinary. World-class local and international restaurants sit side-by-side with jazz bars, night clubs and narghile coffee shops. The new Downtown Beirut, glistening with its high-end shopping and unique architecture, contrasts with the busy business centres and splendid seaside corniche a few minutes away. This is a city of sunshine, cultural events, beautiful people, respected tradition and absolute modernity, all rolled into one.
You can get by pretty much everywhere in English or French: this will make shopping a doddle and museum visits a pure delight. Beirut is very culturally diverse, and thus multilingual. Shop signs are in Standard Arabic, English and French, and most restaurant menus and event listings are also in English. Road signs, however, are only in Standard Arabic and French.
Most Beirutis are very sociable and love going out. If you fancy a night on the town, dressing up a bit will most certainly earn you some respect: the locals like to see that foreigners are doing what they can to fit in. Expect to be offered a drink or a cigarette. Alcohol is very cheap in the shops and supermarkets, but in the night-time venues expect prices to rise closer to European levels.
Places to visit include the Pigeon Rocks, a monumental natural arch jutting up from the Mediterranean, and the beautiful Jeita Grotto in the Valley of Nahr al-Kalb just north of the city, a compound of crystallized caves which boast the world’s longest stalactite. In Beirut itself, check out the ABC open-air mall in Ashrafieh, the nightlife of the Bohemian Gemmayzeh and Hamra neighborhoods, some glamorous shopping in Verdun, the rebuilt Downtown Beirut with its chic restaurants and shops, and the old souks of Jounieh and the Armenian quarter for a great bargain. Don’t forget to haggle!
I stayed in September 2014 in the marvellous Le Royal Beirut, over looking the Med. It’s part of the General Mediterranean Holding group owned by Iraqi-born British businessman and philanthropist Sir Nadhmi Auchi. GMH is a strong and diverse multi-national organisation with activities ranging from banking and finance, construction and real estate, to hotel and leisure, telecommunications and aviation, and its Le Royal Hotels and Resorts division also has a number of other gorgeous five-star establishments in Luxembourg, Madrid, Hammamet, Amman and Sharm-el-Sheikh.
For a load of fun in the sun, Le Royal Beirut boasts the largest water park in the Middle East!