Mention the city Beirut to anyone in the western world and i’m sure the general consensus will be that of fear and thoughts of a war torn city in the middle east. Thanks to civil wars in decades past and modern day Hollywood TV shows such as CSI, NCIS and the likes, Beirut is often portrayed and thought of as a city run be terrorists where people ride around on camels and streets are lined with old souk markets where merchants try to tout their merchandise to passersby.
Mention Beirut and I am certain images such as the one above are not the first ones to make it to your mind. In mid-January 2016 I found myself on a couple week vacation from work travelling throughout the middle east in Israel, Lebanon and Kuwait. I will admit, when first I planned to visit Beirut, I had these exact same thoughts and images in my head thanks to watching too many episodes of NCIS: Los Angeles. I imagined a very run down city, very war torn and one that was not very safe. However, I could not have been more wrong.
I arrived in Beirut at about 11:30pm on Saturday January 16th after nearly 22 hours on the go and a 13 hour layover in Istanbul (more on that another time)! Sleep deprived I made it through customs and out of the rather nice airport terminal to the taxi I had pre-booked (at the recommendation of my hostel). Getting from the airport to Hostel Beirut (at the time of writing, this is the only hostel in Beirut) cost $18USD and took about 20-30 minutes. It was after midnight by time I finally made it to the hostel and about 1AM when I finally crawled in to bed a looong 24 hours after I had woken the day before in Tel Aviv, Israel to make my way to Lebanon.
I spent my first few days in Lebanon exploring up and down the Mediterranean coast visiting Byblos, Tripoli, Juniyah and Tyre. My last day in Lebanon was reserved for Beirut. The city was definitely a surprise and one which definitely reiterates the lifelong message of not judging a book by its cover or blindly listening to stereotypes.
I made my way that morning from Hostel Beirut along the coast to the downtown area of Beirut which was actually a rather odd place to be. Here, the entire area was fenced off with armed guards blocking the entrance to the downtown core. As it turns out, this is in response to protests that led people to the central square weeks earlier to the doors of the government buildings. The guards were posted to keep people out of this area and prevent conflict in this area of the city. Showing the guards my passport and seeing I am from Canada allowed me access.
Downtown Beirut bears homage to the Beirut that rose after WW2 with its French and European influences and modern architecture. This truly shows a modern Beirut in all its glory and puts to rest the notions of Beirut being an old and undeveloped city. As you can see from the pictures, you would have no idea this was taken in Beirut as opposed to an French or modern European city. it was very eye opening and surprising to say the least.
Nearby the downtown square is the Mohammad Al-Amin Mosque. This grand mosque is influenced by the Turks bearing Ottoman architecture and even some Egyptian influence. The inside is something else and makes you wonder how such a place is even built to begin with.
A brief walk from the Beirut central district brings you to the Beirut Souks. For anyone who is familiar with what a souk is, in the traditional sense of the word, it is a street market where one can buy spices, food, souvenirs and a wide variety of other merchandise including clothing. It’s like a mall but with street vendors and small pup-tents for shops. Not in Beirut! Here, the term Souk has been modernized to mean 5-star shopping basically looking like a glamorous mall. Given the low income in Beirut, however, there were not a lot of people shopping here like you would normally find in other traditional middle-eastern souks.
One place you definitely have to visit in Beirut is the Zaitunay Bay! This area is abuzz with excitement and life! It’s promenade provides some great restaurants with a beautiful view over the harbor and the skyline of Beirut. Definitely an area you could relax for an afternoon or come back in the evening for some nightlife and great city light views in the dark!
One thing I was constantly told to check out when researching things to see and do in Beirut was Pigeon Rocks. While not that exciting in my books (it is just a rock in the water), the views over the Mediterranean were amazing on a warm sunny afternoon and is a great place just to chill out with a cup of coffee or a nice meal at one of the many restaurants or cafes overlooking the ocean.
The rest of my day visiting Beirut was spent in the very hipster area of Hamra street where you will find tons of restaurants, coffee shops and shopping that resembles that of a downtown in any modern city. It was great to go sit down, have some shisha and relax the evening away with some delicious Lebanese food and music. This is definitely a place to be for nightlife in Beirut.
I can’t say it enough but Beirut is definitely a modern city by anyone’s standards and is nothing like what we think of it based on portrayals we see on TV. If you have ever wanted to visit Beirut but have been held back by the idea that you think you have of it, forget it all and just go! It will surprise you like it did me and i’m certain you will love it, I know I did!