Beirut: For Better or Worse
This capital of ours is always changing. Once affectionately known as the ‘Paris of the Middle East’, the divisive city has evolved into an intriguing cocktail of western flair, ancient architectural majesty and modern-day cataclysm. Giving the impression of a vast open-air museum with no entrance fee, Beirut clings to multiple identities.
A strong example of this begins at the Port Highway. On one side, remnants of the devastating Port Explosion present a surreal snapshot of recent events. Capsized ships, a hollowed-out grain storehouse, piles of rubble and other leftovers of the tragedy remain untended, evoking raw emotions from locals and tourists alike. The mood gets slightly brighter as we look on the other side and make our way towards the neighborhoods of Gemmayze and Mar Mikhael.
This string of streets and alleyways have enjoyed a renaissance in recent years, combining the cultural remnants from the old city with a modern touch of restaurants, bars, boutiques and art galleries. Yet another layer was introduced after the nearby port events, with every misplaced stone, window or door sharing its own story. Take a break at one of the recently repaired cafés like Sip, The Slow Beirut or Kalei Coffee as you relive these unique tales through the eyes of local residents and employees. You can wrap up your tour of Mar Mikhael with a visit to the Train Station, a symbol of a long-retired railroad which ironically still receives an annual operating budget by the Lebanese government.
Moving toward the southern side of the city, take a walk along the seaside Corniche El Manara. As you approach Raouche Rock, you can embark on a boat tour under its famous arch. Whilst you’re there, it’s worth grabbing a coffee from the well-known Uncle Deek or a street vendor as you enjoy the view. If you’re feeling peckish, keep an eye out for the carts selling 3arnous (corn on the cob) and kaak (traditional street bread coated in sesame seeds, typically toasted and filled with Zaatar or Picon cheese). A perfect sunset spot where you can also satisfy your appetite for Lebanese food is the famous Falamanki Raouche Café. After this change of scenery, you can check out a more metropolitan side of the city with a nighttime walk through Zeitouna Bay. Boasting an impressive skyline of the city, the bay hosts luxurious yachts at the dock as well as a vibrant dining scene along its perimeter. Take your pick from a wide variety of restaurants and cafés and enjoy the evening.
In need of a place to crash? Explore local accommodations via AirBnB or Booking.com; many comfortable options are available, presenting an opportunity to support local businesses. Start the next day with some fool, fatteh and hummus at the famous El Soussi Restaurant.
Properly fed and caffeinated, you can drive down to the Beirut Central District for a walk across time though the historic layers of Downtown, starting off with Martyr’s Square. Consistently the beating heart of Beirut’s tumultuous past, the square has recently been the home of the October 2019 thawra.
Just up from Martyr’s Square, you cannot miss the iconic landmark universally known as ‘the Egg’. Designed by renowned architect Joseph Philippe Karam, it used to be a cinema and formed part of an unfinished two-tower complex before getting destroyed in the civil war. No more than an empty relic before the thawra, it has seen a recent rebirth as a congregation point for activists, idealists and graffiti artists alike – perhaps keep the kids home for this stop.
Across the street you’ll find the famous Mohammed Al Amin Mosque and St. Georges Church, two majestic religious buildings which depict the enduring cultural coexistence throughout the country. Not far from the mosque is a below-ground layer of recently unveiled Roman ruins which can be observed in great detail. If you’ve managed to build up an appetite, take a short walk to Saifi village, characterized by it’s colorful and picturesque Lebanese architecture. Enjoy a quick bite at Meat the Fish or a dine-in experience at Paname or a good coffee and delicious treat at The Backburner.
Wrap up your day with a wander through the streets of Hamra and Clemenceau. You might even find yourself a nice souvenir while you’re at it. Orient 499 is a must if you’re after beautiful and unique artisanal handicrafts. If you’re a bargain-seeker, check out the lively Souk el Ahad (Sunday markets) and neighboring Bourj Hammoud. Top it all off by satisfying your nighttime cravings in Hamra (Ferdinand Gastro Pub and T-Marbouta are some good options that won’t disappoint), Gemmayze, Mar Mikhael or even Badaro. Restaurants, cafes, pubs and bars to suit all tastes and budgets await.
Broummana and Beit Mery: If Views Could Kill
Time to hit the road! We’re leaving the concrete jungle behind, but we won’t get far away in this issue. Broummana is considered to be one of the best summer destinations in the country due to its weather and proximity to Beirut. Park anywhere along or near the main street and take a stroll through the old avenues, enjoying the smell of flowers along the way. You won’t get enough of the rustic stone walls intertwined with plants of all types. You might want to visit the St. Chaaya Monastery before having lunch at the legendary Mounir or Burj El Hamam. You’ll certainly fill up your phone memory with amazing shots of the spectacular mountains full of pine trees.
As night falls, Broummana’s main street fills up with locals and visitors alike, hopping between the bars and restaurants all condensed in one road. Cinco is one gem you can’t miss, known for its amazing food and good music by the pool. For the chocoholics out there, you must stop by Le Noir Atelier Du Chocolat and enjoy their insanely mouthwatering desserts. If you are in the mood for a more-upscale spot to spend the night, stay at Printania Palace, Grand Hills, Le Crillon or Al Bustan Hotel in nearby Beit Mery. Otherwise, there are some fabulous guesthouses in town.
The next morning, your next destination is one town over. Unlike its neighbor, Beit Mery throws you back to the times of old. Archaeological prehistoric sites were discovered nestled in this beautiful town. If that wasn’t enough for the history buffs, Deir el Kalaa has some remnants from previous civilizations that you can check out at any time. Notable lunch spots in the area include Al Janna Restaurant and L’Os as you leave town. Wrap up your trip with one more historical site; the Roman Aqueducts of Zubeida.
Chouf: Take a Walk on the Royal Side
The Ottoman Emirs of decades past were notorious for their lavish lifestyles, the remains of which are on full display in the gorgeous Chouf region. Deir El Qamar, the City of Emirs, is scattered with winding cobblestone passages overlooking a deep valley and an adjacent mountain. The narrow walkways are easy to get lost in, but as you admire the architectural beauty of such a landscape, we doubt you’ll mind. Take your pick from the multiple authentic breakfast stops before heading to the famous palaces.
The ‘big three’ are certainly Beiteddine Palace, Moussa Castle, and Mir Amin Palace, which also doubles up as a nice lunch spot. If you’re a fan of lakes and waterfalls (who isn’t?), visit Baakline waterfalls where you can enjoy a meal at the waterside restaurants in the valley, or head to Nabeh Merched for a traditional Lebanese lunch alongside the sparkling waterfalls. Suggested nighttime stays are Bouyouti, Beit el Qamar, Mir Amin Palace and Nomads Nature and Nurture. In fact, there are plenty of guesthouses in the region and amazing work being done there in terms of sustainable tourism management.
On the next day, drive up to Maasser el Chouf, a beautiful village on the southern side of the Barouk Cedar Forest. Stroll through one of the oldest cedar forests in the biosphere and admire trees like Arzit el 3alam and the La Martine cedar. While you’re there check out the other side of the mountain overlooking West Bekaa and Mount Hermon. In the village, visit El Blat El Atiq workshop where you can see how a young artisan is bringing old tile art back to life. Stop by St. Michael Winery for some wine tasting and eat at Alissar’s guest table, where you will find dishes from an organic family garden for lunch and dinner. Stay the night/s at Beit el Hana or Al Fundok. For further information, you can contact Chouf Biosphere Reserve.
Baskinta, Mtein and Dhour Choueir: Hiking Shoes Sold Separately
Two days should be enough for you to discover your inner mountain goat! Baskinta is famous for its hikes, and that is the name of the game at your next stop. Head up to Krikor Bakery in Baskinta and order one of each from Jeddo Krikors’ famous mana’ish. Properly fueled, you are now ready to kick off the main four-hour hike in the region, taking you through various rivers, waterfalls and natural ladders. Don’t leave town before visiting the monks in St. Michael’s church to buy some organic produce. We recommend you find a nice guesthouse or AirBnB for the nights stay, as this is another chance to support the local community.
There is also a beautiful trail on the Lebanon Mountain Trail (LMT) that connects Baskinta to Mtein, a beautiful village with a lot of history and culture. Pass by one of the lovely local wineries in Mtein, where you can enjoy a wine tasting or have lunch in their garden. Stay at Al Mtein guesthouse at an old palace for the Lamaa emirs situated in the historic town square. For further details on the LMT, guides and trails in villages all over Lebanon, we highly recommend you visit Lebanon Trail.
Another day brings (you guessed it) another hike. This time it’s Dhour Choueir, a shorter hike than yesterday, just shy of two hours in the pine tree hills. A noticeable difference in scenery, this hike features less water and more greenery. Both hikes however will fire your glutes and take the edge off your hectic routine. Continue walking through the village, passing by an incredibly old tree and the house where Titanic survivors lived. You will eventually come across Snack El Cheikha, an open-air restaurant that makes for an ideal rest stop. Your final destination for the day, however, is just a few stairs down. An actual treehouse is where you’ll end up. This outpost, known for its memorial stairs and white wall of quotes, was an inspiration for Antoine Saade himself. Enjoy the moment, you’re in a very special place.
Sari Haddad is a hospitality and tourism professional and the founder of Lebanese Wanderers, a platform that promotes rural tourism in Lebanon whilst working with local authorities on sustainable rural development. Its aim is to also show you the authentic Lebanon with all its beautiful wonders, culture and secrets, which you may not necessarily see in mainstream media.
Marie Lou is a Lebanese architect, diamond grader and jewelry designer with a passion for food, photography and adventure. Also known as @lougoes, Marie Lou has created her own digital gallery, through which she portrays her Lebanese tourism adventures with a simplistic approach. She can be found wandering through hidden gems, creating episodes of her exploitations whilst sharing her love for Lebanon.