Beirut travel guide
The capital of Lebanon, Beirut is a surprisingly beautiful city, home to a multi-cultural society. Sometimes, white roses sit in the bullet holes of Martyrs Square statues, a reminder to citizens and guests of the dividing lines and meeting points of the city's tumultuous past and flourishing present.
Today, Beirut is in the flings of an architectural and social renaissance, slowly re-establishing and renewing its reputation as the 'Paris of the Middle East'. Its population includes more than 10 religious groups, and the call of the Muezzin rings alongside the sounds of Indie Rock gigs in bars spilling into the streets. Hospitality is a way of life here, where compromise and curiosity, learning and growing among strong cultural legacies is all part of living in the city.
The architecture reflects its history, a blend of French colonial buildings and religious structures sprinkled between modern skyscrapers and apartment buildings. Beirut is divided into several districts, including Ashrafieh, which is the focal point of Western culture in the city; Hamra, home to an abundance of shops and restaurants; Centre Ville, the city's Central Business District and one of the oldest parts of the city; Manara and Jnah, which are home to hotels and beach clubs; and Ramlet el Baida, which features the city's only public (and sandy) beach.
Beirut has not been left untouched by the recent surge in terrorist activity. Tragically and ironically, Beirut suffered devastating twin suicide bombings the day before Paris was attacked in November 2015. While the city has weathered this storm, as it has many before it, tourists are advised to be cautious and aware of travel and consular warnings.
If Beirut is indeed the 'Paris of the East', then Hamra Street
is surely its version of the Champs Elysées. Known as the 'centre
of intellectual activity' in Lebanon during the 1970s, Pulitzer
Prize-winning journalist Borzou Daragahi described the area of
Hamra back then as 'a bastion of liberalism, [embracing] multiple
religions and political views amid sectarian conflict'.
These days, Hamra remains a wonderfully cosmopolitan, open-minded area - full of shops, pavement cafes and trendy bars, and thick with tourists and students from nearby universities. The street houses five-star establishments and budget backpackers alike and so visitors to Beirut who want to experience 'authentic Lebanon', but who also don't want to miss out on the sybaritic comforts that really make a holiday abroad, would do well to make Hamra Street their home base.
National Museum of Beirut
The National Museum of Beirut - located in Museum Street, in the
heart of the city - has a history that is almost as interesting as
that of the artefacts it houses. In 1975, during the Lebanese Civil
War, the museum stood on the demarcation line between the warring
factions and suffered extensive damage to its Egyptian
Revival-styled building - and would have had many of its treasures
destroyed had it not been for heroic pre-emptive measures
undertaken by a committed group of individuals.
These days, the museum - which spreads over three floors - is renowned for its collection of ancient Phoenician objects; as well as its beautifully-organised exhibitions of artefacts from the area, which take the visitor on a journey from prehistoric times, through the Bronze and Iron Ages, to the Hellenistic, Roman, Byzantine and medieval Malmuk Periods. Affordable and fascinating, the National Museum of Beirut is a wonderful way to spend an hour or two, soaking up the considerable antiquity of the region.
Address: Museum Street, Beirut
Encircling Beirut's promontory, the Corniche is a seaside
promenade and pedestrian walkway that constantly throngs with the
bustle of daily life. Offering perfect views of the resplendent
Mediterranean, and of towering Mount Lebanon to the east, the
Corniche is extremely popular with walkers, joggers, bikers and
A wonderful place to hang out in the sun and socialise, with push-cart vendors peddling tasty snacks and drinks, the Corniche is to Beirut what the Malecon is to Havana - nothing less than the city's beating heart. Fascinatingly, the Corniche also stands as testament to Lebanon's troubled past - with many of the palm trees lining the promenade still pock-marked with bullet-holes.
The Beirut Hippodrome (or officially, the Hippodrome Du Parc De
Beyrouth) comes highly recommended by visitors to Lebanon's capital
city. Every Sunday, mingle with Beirut's elite as they gather for
an afternoon at the horse-races; or - if you're lucky enough to be
there during Spring - make sure you attend the annual Garden Show,
which attracts crowds in excess of 25,000 every year.
The grounds of the Beirut Hippodrome - which remain the property of the city's municipality - are pristine, and are maintained by a non-profit organisation known as SPARCA (Society for the Protection and Improvement of the Arabian Horse in Lebanon). Head to the Beirut Hippodrome for a late Mezze lunch, and revel in the sight of the beautiful Arabian horses pounding their way around the track. There are also betting offices aplenty at the Hippodrome, for those who fancy a flutter.
Address: Abdallah El Yafi Street, Mathaf
One of the biggest and oldest mosques in Lebanon, the Al-Omari
Mosque in Beirut is a worthwhile tourist attraction, boasting an
interesting history. Built in 1291, the Al-Omari mosque was one of
the first buildings to be restored after the Lebanese Civil War -
showing its cultural importance to Beirut's citizens.
The Al-Omari Mosque started life as a Crusader church (the Cathedral of St John), but when the Mamluks took control of Beirut from the Crusaders they immediately began converting the cathedral into the large, impressive mosque that we see today. Visitors to the Al-Omari mosque should dress appropriately (no revealing clothing), and request permission before entering. Note that the mosque is closed to visitors during prayer times and over the whole month of Ramadan.
Address: Corner of Rue Weygand and Rue Allenby
Beirut is uncommonly blessed with its wide range of sights and activities, and is truly able to cater to any tourist's every whim. If you're a culture junkie, be sure to check out the National Museum of Beirut, which houses some important archaeological artefacts; and the Temples of Baalbek, the world's finest surviving example of Imperial Roman architecture.
If languishing on the beach is more your thing, you can do that at Ramlet el Baida (the city's sandy beach), and if you're more of an adventurous holidaymaker, you can go skiing on nearby Mount Lebanon in the winter, go snorkelling among shipwrecks and ruins in the Mediterranean Sea, or hike up to the Our Lady of Lebanon statue in Harissa.
Whether mixing with locals on the Corniche at sunset, browsing some of Beirut's cosmopolitan shops and restaurants, or exploring the incredible underground cave network of the Jeita Grotto, you're sure to be blissfully busy while on holiday in Beirut.
Undoubtedly Lebanon's premier sight, the Jeita Grotto is a
must-see tourist attraction. Located just 14 miles (about 22km)
from Beirut, the Jeita Grotto is an underground complex consisting
of two separate, but connected, limestone caves, spanning an
overall length of 5.6 miles (about 9km).
Situated in the Nahr al-Kalb river valley, the caves are accessible by boat - and house a series of limestone concretions that have for millennia been shaped into unique formations, sizes and colours. Known as 'Mother Nature's masterpiece', the Jeita Grotto also features an incredible 'upper gallery' - accessible via walkways carved into the natural rock - where you can observe the world's largest stalactite. A finalist in the New 7 Wonders of Nature competition, no holiday in Beirut would be complete without checking out these extraordinary caves.
Temples of Baalbek
A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the temple complex found at
Baalbek - a small town in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, just 53 miles
(86km) from Beirut - is regarded as the world's finest surviving
example of Imperial Roman architecture.
An ancient area, rich in history - it was known as Heliopolis ('City of the Sun') during the Hellenistic Period - the towering, intricately-carved monuments of Baalbek continue to amaze and delight visitors to the region. Even for non-history buffs, a visit to the acropolis at Baalbek is deeply fascinating - representing a confluence of exquisitely-preserved Greco-Roman architecture built over the course of two centuries.
Consisting of 24 monoliths, numerous religious structures, and the grand Temple of Jupiter (surrounded by 20-metre-tall columns), the temples of Baalbek are an essential inclusion in any Lebanese travel itinerary. Moreover, the town of Baalbek - home to only 72,000 permanent residents - is a wonderful place to stop over and rest for a few days on your Middle Eastern adventure.
Our Lady of Lebanon
Our Lady of Lebanon is a bronze statue of the Virgin Mary
(painted white for added splendour), dating back from the 19th
century, and erected on a hill overlooking the beautiful Bay of
Jounieh. A major Lebanese pilgrimage destination, the statue is
also a roundly celebrated tourist attraction.
From its vantage - 2,130 feet (650m) above sea level - an unforgettable view unfurls, particularly at sunset, when the western sky darkens over the sea. An added benefit is the Téléphérique gondola lift (cable car) system, which offers a thrilling (and affordable) ride up the pine-forested mountain to the shrine. Those looking to make a day out of their trip to see Our Lady of Lebanon can also walk up the steep hillside - it's about 5.5 miles (9km) from the town of Jounieh to Harissa at the summit. Jounieh is located just 12.5 miles (about 20km) north of Beirut, and is considered an obligatory stop for holidaymakers in Lebanon.
Address: Harissa, Lebanon
Lebanon's third-largest city, Sidon (or Saida, in Arabic) - a
city full of interesting cultural sights and fantastic shopping
opportunities - makes for a worthwhile excursion from Beirut.
Located just 27 miles (43km) south of Lebanon's capital city, Sidon
is primarily a destination for day-trippers from Beirut.
By far the main attraction of the city is its legendary stretch of covered market-places (souqs), where tourists eager to find some Lebanese souvenirs can shop to their heart's content. A bustling, atmospheric place, shopping in Sidon's Old Souq makes for a wonderful cultural experience.
Other notable sights in Sidon include the Sea Castle (a fortress built by the Crusaders in the 13th Century), the Sidon Soap Museum, and - pick of the bunch - the Temple of Eshmun, a Phoenician structure erected in honour of the god of healing, and dating back to the 7th Century BC.
Beirut Rafic Hariri International Airport
Location: The airport is situated five miles (8km) south of the city.
Time: GMT +2 (GMT +3 from the last Sunday in March to the last Sunday in October).
Contacts: Tel: +961 0 1 628 000 or 150 from inside Lebanon.
Getting to the city: Taxis are available outside the arrivals hall and can be organised through hotels or reputable companies online prior to arrival, and Uber is also available in Beirut. There are mini-buses which travel to Charles Helou Bus Station that can sometimes be found outside the departures section of the terminal building, as well as minibuses just outside of the airport grounds.
Car rental: Car rental companies located at the airport include Dealers, Budget, City Car, National, Avis, Europcar and Hertz. The car rental operators' desks can be found in the arrivals hall.
Airport Taxis: Organising taxis through reputable companies online or through hotels prior to arrival is the easiest way to get a reliable taxi. Otherwise, taxis are usually available outside the arrivals hall; be sure to agree on a price before getting into the taxi as the fare shouldn't be more than LBP 30,000 to LBP 40,000 ($20 to $25) for a trip into downtown Beirut. Uber is an increasingly afforable and reliable option.
Facilities: Airport facilities include ATMs, currency exchange services, offices, a bank, pay phones, a post office, luggage wrapping services, lost baggage complaints, business lounges, public internet access, a prayer room, first aid and emergency medical services. The Information Centre staff members are multilingual (generally speaking Arabic, French and English). There are a number of cafés and restaurants open to the public, located in the arrival zone. There are also a number of shops, including duty-free.
Parking: Parking for 2,350 cars is available at the airport. The parking area is connected to the terminal by an underground walkway. Parking rates start at LBP 8,000 for an hour, and go up to LBP 21,000 per day.
Public transport in Beirut is not very well established as most residents use their own vehicles for getting around the city. Buses operate along set routes, but schedules can be erratic. They are generally modern, comfortable, and importantly, air-conditioned. To avoid embarrassment, men should be aware that seats at the front of the bus are usually reserved for women. Taxis are a popular mode of transport and can easily be hailed off the street. They are not metered so it's best to agree on the fare before getting into the vehicle or otherwise to use reputed companies or Uber (which may work out to be the cheapest and most convenient method). Car hire is available and a viable option for travelling around Beirut. However, traffic congestion can be extreme during peak times and Lebanese roads have a very poor safety record, so travellers should consider this option carefully.
Beirut has a typically Mediterranean climate, characterised by hot, dry summers and cool, wet winters. The hottest month is August, with temperatures reaching 86°F (30°C), and the coldest months are January and February, with temperatures between around 50°F (10°C) and 63°F (17°C). The best time to visit Beirut is in spring (May) or autumn (September), when the weather is perfectly mild and there is plenty of tourist accommodation available.
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