Beirut, Lebanon City Guide

Photos by Chrissy Culver

Today’s Beirut City Guide comes from artist Chrissy Culver. Although currently based in Atlanta, Beirut is a second home to Chrissy, and she visits and explores frequently. Today she shares the beauty and flair that this seaside city has to offer. Thanks, Chrissy, for this wonderful guide! — Stephanie

Read the full guide after the jump . . .

Beirut is the type of city that has been through so much and has had so many things written about it that attempts at adequately describing its magnetism and appeal fall short. Imagine a diverse city full of passionate people, delicious food and myriad outlets for hedonism set in the breathtakingly beautiful scenery that is Lebanon’s coast and mountains. Not quite able to banish the specter of a 15-year-long civil war that ravaged the country from 1975–1990, its conflict-weary citizens are desperately trying to shed the war image without erasing the old Beirut. It is a city caught in a perpetual balancing act — juggling multiple religions and ethnicities, the old and the new, the tragic past with the hopeful future, the pessimism of the old and the creative energy of the youth. Even the places and street names are referred to interchangeably in multiple languages, and you’ll probably be greeted in the characteristic Lebanese mix of Arabic, French and English. If you give her a chance, you’ll discover a talented and thriving creative community, a sophisticated level of design in stores and restaurants and some of the world’s best nightlife, and you’ll eat some of the best food on the planet. I love every bit of this place, crazy drivers and all.

View all of the listings below on this Google Map: Beirut City Guide

ACHRAFIEH/SASSINE

Achrafieh is one of the oldest historically Christian neighborhoods in east Beirut, and it has a distinct French flavor. Tall buildings line the narrow, winding streets that house a multitude of shops, restaurants, and cafés. The luxury residential towers are wrapped in large balconies filled with city gardens tumbling down the railings, often overlooking one of many old churches like the St. Nicholas Cathedral, built in 1876. There are some historic buildings that survived the bombing during the civil war, including the grand Sursock Palace and Gardens, which was built in 1860 as a private home for the Sursock family and is now a modern art museum. The Sursocks were one of several landowning clans who ruled the area for centuries, and these elegant mansions line Rue Sursock; the landmark Palais de Bustros is one such residence that today houses government offices. In the middle of busy commercial hub Sodeco Square stands the Barakat building (also called the “Yellow House” because of the ochre-colored sandstone used in its original construction), one of the rare relics to survive the demolition crews after the war left it half-destroyed; it was designed in 1924 by Lebanese architect Youssef Aftimus, who created many of Beirut’s well-known landmarks. Happily, thanks to the efforts of local preservation activists, this structure is now being reimagined as an urban art and cultural center called Beit Beirut, slated to open in 2013.

STAY
Le Gabriel is a swank hotel in the heart of Achrafieh with views of the Mediterranean. Fittingly owned and operated by the luxury French hotel chain Sofitel, the high-end blend of European-Lebanese is a perfect fit for this Francophile neighborhood.

SHOP
ABC Mall (the letters are pronounced in French: ah-bey-cey) is a mall you may find yourself visiting often, even if you don’t have the gulf-sized wallet actually needed to shop at many of the high-end stores (most of which are European imports). It’s a beautiful mall with large areas that open to the outdoors, so the entrance kind of blends into the busy streets of Achrafieh. Have a Turkish coffee in the chic Casper & Gambini’s, and ogle the ridiculously expensive and amazing smelling candles at La Durée while you sample the best Parisian macaroon in Beirut!

Awan Tea (awan is Arabic for the right moment) is a loose tea shop carrying blends from all over the world, including some specialty Lebanese blends. Try the Wild Babounej, an organic wild chamomile blend grown in the Chouf Mountains. Awan also carries specialty teaware and accessories.

Maus-Haus is a home furniture and design boutique founded in 2003 by husband-and-wife team Ana Corbero, a painter and sculptor from Barcelona, and Nabil Gholam, an architect and urban planner and Beirut native. They put their international gallery-worthy talent into producing creative, functional furniture, most of which can be shipped to the US for very reasonable prices.

EAT
Leila is a quirky Lebanese restaurant inside ABC Mall. Besides having killer mezza, I fell in love with the colorful vintage-retro design aesthetic, including a towering, off-kilter bookshelf wall adorned with old photos and the adorable embroidered napkins. The cloth napkins were so cute, in fact, that I took one home. (I asked permission!)

For arguably the best falafel in Beirut, I love Falafel Freiha across from ABC Mall. It’s a hole-in-the-wall place where you’ll usually find a crowd of businessmen sitting outside on plastic chairs or standing on the sidewalk eating. Don’t expect any tzaziki sauce here; this falafel sandwich is made properly with pickled vegetables and drizzled with tahini. Furn El Hayek Street, Achrafieh, Sassine; tel +961 1 321 608

Drive by Leil Nhar at 4 am, and you will probably see a crowd of young Lebanese eating a post-club meal after a night of revelry. Their snack of choice? A man’ooshe: flatbread topped with zaatar (an olive oil, dried thyme, sesame seed, and spice mixture) and prepared on the saj, a large dome-shaped griddle. Top it with mint, tomatoes, and olives for an even heartier meal. This restaurant is whimsically decorated in bright colors and has both tables and armchairs to lounge in while Tom & Jerry plays on the TV in the background. My favorite part is the illustrated menu and matching artwork that adorns the walls.

MONOT/GEMMAYZE

Monot Street and Gemmayze are technically in Achrafieh, but since they contain a large portion of Beirut’s clubs, lounges, pubs, cafés, and restaurants, they are often referred to as if they were separate neighborhoods. These areas both contain the beautiful historic buildings and French influence of the rest of Achrafieh. Once the dominant nightlife scene in Beirut, Monot is a very narrow, winding street that makes driving a headache; although if you take a cab, you can be dropped off and navigate fairly easily on foot. While Monot is still very much synonymous with the urge to party, it has given ground to neighboring Gemmayze, which has risen in popularity due to the laid-back bohemian feel that is a little quieter than its heyday counterpart. (Gemmayze has few to no clubs.) This charming area is definitely worth a visit day or night, and Gemmayze is a fairly short walk to the Downtown city center.

STAY
One of the loveliest accommodations in Beirut, Hotel Albergo is a wonderful boutique hotel that quietly welcomes guests with a wrought-iron arch surrounded by lush landscaping. I love this place because while the entire hotel is decorated to honor the distinct mix of cultures across history that makes up Lebanon, each room is themed with a different aspect of this blend. The rooftop pool doesn’t hurt, either.

For the tourist on a tight budget, one of the best values in Beirut is Saifi Urban Gardens, an artsy hostel with plenty of meeting spaces to encourage mingling. The rooftop of Saifi turns into the Coop d’Etat bar at night, and during the day there’s Café Em Nazih for breakfast, dinner, and a variety of special events during the week. This place books up fast, and it’s hidden away, so be sure to consult the handy illustrated map for directions on the website.

SHOP
Au Gant Rouge will make you want to host a fancy dinner party so you can take advantage of all their beautiful serving pieces (also an ideal spot to find hostess and wedding gifts). I especially love their selection of Raynaud coffee cups and saucers. Don’t be surprised if you’re offered a coffee or chocolate if you stop in for a visit.

L’Artisanat Libanais is one of the best souvenir shops in Beirut for handmade gifts such as slippers, backgammon sets, ceramics, wooden boxes, and evil-eye charms. Sales support Lebanese craftsmen in need. Rue Montee Accawi, Gemmayze, Achrafieh; tel +961 1 580 618

EAT
Whenever I’m in Beirut, I always make a stop at one of my favorite restaurants: Le Relais de Venise-L’Entrecôte. This Paris restaurant is simplicity defined — there is no dinner menu; everyone gets a meal of salad, steak and pommes frites slathered in that delicious green sauce. There is a dessert menu, and their profiteroles and Baba au Rhum cake are not to be missed. Abdel Wahab al Inglizi Street, Monot, Achrafieh; tel +961 1 332 087

Yasmina is a hip Indian-French fusion restaurant that feels like stepping into the living quarters of a maharaja’s teenage daughter, decorated in plush turquoise and gold. The cuisine is a unique interpretation of traditional Indian flavors.

For a taste of traditional Lebanese village food, visit Al Falamanki, a combination restaurant and boutique agro-grocer that offers goods made in local Lebanese villages. There’s a huge outdoor seating area with plush chairs and tables, good for challenging your friends to a game of cards or backgammon.

NIGHTLIFE
Theatre Monnot is the performing arts centre of Université Saint-Joseph, featuring performances from students and traveling artists. Open almost year-round, they feature a variety of acts — plays, musicals, stand-up comedy, and dance. Tickets are sold at the venue. Yessouiyeh Street, Monot, Achrafieh; tel +961 1 202 422

Every time I’ve been to Myu, the place is always packed. The bar is in a giant tunnel-shaped space, with an adjoining dining room serving French fusion cuisine that is equally industrial chic. Myu gets livelier at night with their in-house DJ, so it’s a great spot to get in the mood before hitting the town. Ask for the “Tabboule Shot.” Rue St. Antoine, Gemmayze, Achrafieh; tel +961 3 334 476

The quirky nightspot The Angry Monkey has one of the coolest bars I’ve ever seen — it’s got a giant wall with shelves made of wine crates and old wood filled with bottles and vintage tchotchkes. The place gets a little rowdy, so don’t be surprised if they (literally) set the bar on fire.

KARANTINA/NAHR

Located along the Beirut River (nahr is Arabic for river) in northeast Beirut, Karantina is sandwiched between Gemmayze and the Armenian neighborhood of Bourj Hammoud. Like Beirut itself, the Karantina/Nahr area is a story of rebirth. This low-income industrial neighborhood saw some of the worst fighting early in the war in the 1970s but is now the up-and-coming art spot in Beirut, thanks to the youthful energy of the Lebanese art community. The large, derelict warehouses and factories are being converted into funky urban galleries, bars, and cafés. This is the place to go if you’re looking for emerging Lebanese artists.

STAY
The closest hotel to Karantina is the Port View Hotel, a very affordable inn that’s great for those looking for a cheap room that’s close to everything (it’s in close proximity to Gemmayze and Downtown.) A basic continental breakfast is included in their room rates, which is a nice touch, but you’ll find better fare close by for cheap if you want a more traditional breakfast.

GALLERIES
The night I visited the Art Lounge with friends, I was surprised to walk through a gallery as we made our way to the bar in the back, where a band was playing. The place turned into a dance party as a DJ took over, and I ran into the lead singer of famed Lebanese rock band Mashrou’ Leila. That’s just a typical night at the Art Lounge, a converted factory that now houses a gallery/lounge, bar, concert space, bookstore, and art store.

smogallery is a clean, open space dedicated to contemporary design and fine art, including furniture, painting, sculpture, lighting, and installations. They feature works by both local and international artists.

The Running Horse is a contemporary gallery focusing on emerging Middle Eastern fine artists. I love that they also have a Running Kids art class program to foster artistic talent in children.

The Sfeir-Semler Gallery acts as a bridge between its two locations in Hamburg, Germany, and Beirut, allowing for an exchange of art ideas between the Middle East and Europe. In addition to focusing on artists working in the Arab world, they often partner with other art institutions to curate large exhibition programs.

EAT
Al Mandaloun is a French fusion/sushi bar restaurant inside a fantastic old theatre renovated to resemble a train station. This place can also fall under the “nightlife” category because after dinner the stage hosts a variety of dance-encouraging musical performances for a unique night on the town.

NIGHTLIFE
Consistently ranked as one of the top nightclubs in the world, Beirut’s legendary B 018 (pronounced bee-oh-eighteen) doesn’t look like much from the outside. A lone door in the middle of a large parking lot leads down a flight of stairs to a mock bomb shelter with tables and chairs styled like coffins; at some point during the night, the roof retracts to reveal Beirut’s starry sky.

HAMRA

Hamra Street is often considered the intellectual and business hub of Beirut, thanks to its secular history and proximity to many of Beirut’s most important universities, including the American University of Beirut (AUB). Historically, the abundance of cafés and theatres made Hamra a gathering spot for many Arab thinkers, writers, and artists and was Beirut’s trendiest neighborhood in Lebanon’s 1960–1970s heyday. The “authentic” appeal of Hamra, in addition to the number of hotels, bars, Western chains like Starbucks, and shops, make the area very appealing to tourists year-round; in turn, recent renovations have led to a resurgence in the nightlife scene among locals. Each autumn brings a large crowd to the popular Hamra Street Festival to enjoy the local performers, artists, food, and drink.

STAY
Casa D’Or has clean, affordable rooms in a great location, close to AUB and Hamra’s shopping districts. There’s an onsite restaurant and bar, and their taxi will take you to and from the airport for around $30 USD.

SHOP
House on Mars is Hamra’s version of a headshop complete with a tattoo studio and piercing parlour. They specialize in Arabic calligraphy, so if you’ve ever wanted to get that ethnic tattoo, here’s the place. You can also pick up a variety of body jewelry, clothing, and oddities in the boutique part of the store. Abdel Aziz Street, Hamra; tel +961 1 749 746

EAT
Brisk is an adorable little quick-order café that serves up healthy sandwiches, salads, vegetarian/vegan items, and traditional Lebanese fare. They are an eco-friendly operation and make their tasty meals from scratch — it’s a win-win. Hamra Main Street, Hamra; tel +961 1 345 677

The most popular breakfast spot in Hamra would arguably be artisan bakery Bread Republic, which serves an all-day breakfast and lunch menu featuring international dishes and desserts in a charming outdoor café setting. Even better, many of their ingredients are locally sourced, and they host weekly farmers’ markets for local produce. Nehme Yafet Street, Hamra; tel +961 1 739 040

CULTURE & NIGHTLIFE
For a taste of Lebanese cabaret, check out the weekend show at Metro al Madina. It’s a two-part venue that includes a sandwich shop/bar and theatre, both styled with a quirky, vintage-futuristic Parisian subway station vibe. While many of the musical acts are performed in Arabic, there’s still enough entertainment for non-speakers to enjoy the show. Saroulla Bldg, -2, Hamra Street, Hamra; tel +961 1 753 021

Meaning the photographer’s home in Arabic, Dar al Mussawir is a photography collective that seeks to bring together the Lebanese photographer community to share ideas, show work, and develop their skills. The Dar hosts weekly photo workshops and has multi-use spaces including a darkroom, photo printing station, gallery, and resource library.

What is the Zico House? A better question would be, what isn’t the Zico House? Founded over 10 years ago as a residency and studio space for artists to gather and collaborate, now it also has an event space, a bar, and a cultural development program and serves as meeting space for, among others, an environmental NGO and the only openly gay rights organization in the Arab world.

De Prague is a café/pub/restaurant that caters to the late-night college student and young professional crowd by cultivating a cozy, laid-back environment with dim lighting, good music, and plush couches. Subtitled movies play at night on a projection screen in the background while you have a bite to eat or enjoy a drink. Makdissi Street, Hamra; tel +961 1 744 864

RAS BEIRUT/AIN MREISSE

Meaning the tip of Beirut, Ras Beirut is the westernmost part of the city that juts out into the Mediterranean Sea. Starting in the 1930s, luxury hotels started to spring up—such as the famous St. George Hotel—that stretched down the boardwalk, and the area became a playground for the jetsetters that flocked to Beirut in the 1960s and ’70s. Postcards from this golden age show glamorous couples strolling the Avenue des Français boardwalk. During the civil war, the resort area turned into a battleground and sustained heavy damage that has now been almost entirely repaired; if you look closely you can still see a few shell-shocked buildings tucked among the once-again dominant hotel landscape. Today, Ras Beirut/Ain Mreisse is once again known for having a high concentration of luxury hotels and is arguably the most diverse neighborhood in Beirut, thanks to the international student population that resides close by.

STAY
If you want a taste of golden age Beirut, The Riviera Hotel is one of the survivors that flourished in the 1960s and still does today. In addition to the sea-view rooms, the Riviera has probably the coolest hotel pool ever — a massive boardwalk winds around the main pool and family pool, connecting them to the sea and the sunbathing deck. You can even rent a bungalow complete with your own private Jacuzzi. Waiters scurry among the guests delivering drinks and food from the bar, while a DJ plays in the background. The good news is, you don’t have to be a hotel guest to join the party — the hotel offers day-access passes to the pool area.

EAT
The Sporting Club Restaurant is the type of place that makes Lebanese expats homesick. One of the rare institutions from the pre-war heyday that’s still in successful operation and hasn’t been extensively renovated, Sporting Club has a sort of rundown luxury and nostalgia that keeps loyal patrons coming back. While the club itself is private, anyone can dine in the seafood restaurant and enjoy the beautiful sunset view over an Almaza. Near Al-Manara Stadium, Raouche; tel +961 1 742 481

CULTURE
The American University of Beirut (AUB) is one of the oldest and most-respected higher education institutions in Lebanon. Established in 1866, this urban college has a beautiful 61-acre campus overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. The AUB Archaeological Museum is definitely worth a visit; one of the oldest in the Middle East, it has a fantastic collection of findings from Lebanon’s ancient civilizations dating back to the pre-Stone Age.

The Corniche Beirut is a nearly 5 kilometer stretch of boardwalk that begins at St. George Bay and ends at the intersection of Avenue Général de Gaulle and Avenue Rafic Hariri. This palm tree-lined seaside promenade is popular with joggers, rollerbladers, and families out for a stroll enjoying beautiful views of the Mediterranean.

The two huge rock formations at Raouché, known as Pigeons’ Rock, jut out of the sea next to the Corniche. Some of the world’s oldest archaeological remains have been found around these rocks, now currently on display in AUB’s Archaeological Museum. There are plenty of cafés with a view of Pigeons’ Rock — try timing your visit with the sunset or sunrise for a great photo op.

DOWNTOWN

The shiny new heart of Beirut (also referred to as the Beirut Central District (BCD) or Centre Ville) was destroyed during the war and lay festering for years as a sort of no-man’s land until it was rebuilt largely by one company, Solidere, in an ambitious reconstruction plan. Many of the buildings left standing have been caught in a demolish-or-renovate battle, resulting in a mix of old and new, and Eastern and Western architecture styles. In an example of this, a very new mosque — the majestic blue-domed Mohammad Al-Amin Mosque, finished in 2007 — is adjacent to a very old cathedral, the St. George Orthodox Cathedral, whose first location is thought to have been built in the 4th century. (Both are open to visitors; the Cathedral also has an underground museum that literally reveals its layers of history found in archeological digs.) While some have complained that the new tourist-targeted luxury areas are starting to resemble Dubai more than old Lebanon, an organic downtown culture is also developing as more local interests move into the neighborhood.

STAY
If you’re looking for luxury, sophistication, and top-notch design, it just does not get any better than Le Gray. Conceived by British luxury hotelier Gordon Campbell Gray, the fabulous interior is the result of a Gray and Mary Fox Linton collaboration, while the sleek exterior was designed by Australian architect Kevin Dash. Even if you don’t stay as a guest, stop in for a coffee at the Gordon Café to gawk at some of the 500 pieces of art from around the world hand-selected as part of the hotel décor, or swing by at night to enjoy a cocktail in one of the rooftop lounges with stunning views of the city.

SHOP
If you’ve got designer tastes, you’ll adore wandering around the Beirut Souks. One of the rare pedestrian-friendly areas of Beirut, it’s a large open complex of high-end shops and cafés. What elevates the Souks from mere mall status is the interesting architecture interspersed with large modern-art sculptures and ancient ruins; I love how the Souks sort of meld into the surrounding streets with no obvious start or end.

Discover Lebanon’s up-and-coming fashion designers at the Starch boutique in Saifi Village. The boutique is run by the Starch Foundation, founded by Lebanese designers Rabih Kayrouz and Tala Hajjar, which features a yearly rotating collection from four to six fledgling designers who receive help marketing, branding, and advertising their designs.

EAT
Zaitunay Bay is the latest addition to the restaurant/nightlife scene in downtown Beirut. It’s a collection of open-air restaurants, cafés, bars, and shops along a gorgeous teak promenade overlooking a marina (with some of the largest luxury yachts I’ve ever seen in person) that was built on rehabilitated land. I had a lovely time strolling along the boardwalk at night, stopping to have a drink in the ample outside seating areas of each restaurant; the people-watching was fantastic as the air carried over bits of conversations in a dozen different languages.

CULTURE & NIGHTLIFE
A brilliant piece of architecture, the Beirut Exhibition Center recently unveiled its new space, designed by New York-based Lebanese architects Makram El-Kadi and Ziad Jamaleddine, which features a rippled skin of corrugated anodized mirror aluminum to reflect the surrounding downtown back on itself. The BEC is a non-profit space that seeks to promote contemporary art in Lebanon and features some of the most unique exhibits I’ve seen.

MyBar is a Euro-American bar that was built via crowd-sourced funds, an unusual concept in Lebanon. The interior is a Philippe Starck-like mix of contemporary and playfulness designed by Samir Hakim that caters to the beautiful, hip jet-setters that frequent this night spot in the evenings.

If you go out only one night while in Beirut, this should be the place to go. The legendary Music Hall is a guaranteed good time, period. A stylish, chic theatre that hosts a cabaret-style show with a live DJ and rotating live musical acts spanning everything from Latin to jazz to ’80s pop and traditional Arabic, halfway through the night people are dancing on the tabletops. A reservation is highly recommended ahead of time, as this place can be hard to get into; most of the club is table service, and the bar area gets quite crowded. Starco Centre, Omar Daouk Street, Downtown; tel +961 3 807 555

NOTABLE BEIRUTIS

  • Nadine Labaki, director of Caramel and Where Do We Go Now?
  • Alternative rock band Mashrou’ Leila, fronted by Hamed Sinno
  • Fashion designers Elie Saab and Reem Acra
Ann

I recognize the placemats of Al Diwan – another restaurant with wonderful food!

Annelise

Oh my – I just moved to Beirut two weeks ago! So lovely to see my newly adopted city here. It is an incredible adventure. Thanks for the extra tips on what to see and do!

Karen E.

J’aime beaucoup! My husband I are invited to a wedding in Beirut next month. Sadly, we can’t make it. If we were going, I’d be clutching this guide!

Sian

I’ve always wanted to visit Beirut – this may push me into actually booking a plane ticket! Thanks.

Nada & Emile

Best of the best. Bravo Chrissy. Exhaustive by going into the details. Even Nada and me are missing some places that we know nothing about. We Love you.

Zeina

Don’t forget some really good sandwiches at both Mano and Bedo in Bourj Hammond! I try not to go to malls, like ABC or the Beirut Souks or the really built up luxury areas like Zaituney Bay. Theres so much off the beaten track not mentioned here. Radio Beirut, EM Chill, Tawlet, Beirut Art Center, Plan Bey, Abou Nabil’s, Onno…

Dervla

Excellent guide. I visited in Oct 2010. Can’t wait to go back.

tayef farrar

I lived in Beirut between 1998/2006 – some of my favorite places to eat were:

– Walimat Wardeh (traditional, home cooked style Lebanese cuisine) in Hamra
– An Dente in the Hotel Albergo in Monot – set in a restored, traditional architecture building with meticulous decorative motifs
– Asia, delish Asian Fusion cuisine on an Ashrafieh rooftop overlooking the city

Make sure to get in on the nightlife too – BO18 is a must.

It’s a great city with pretty awesome ppl.

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