Legend has it that Beirut was rebuilt from the ashes seven times, making it an urban phoenix. Lebanon’s capital city has had a troubled past, but the present invites exploration. When the late Anthony Bourdain visited Beirut in 2006, it was love at first landing, as he discovered a city that defied expectation and logic, a city that he later said made “no damn sense at all—in the best possible way.”
In the years since, Beirut has experienced a renaissance, increasingly catching the gaze of travellers fascinated by the multicultural identities that weave a narrative of the city’s conflicts and character. Follow streets—often known only by their landmarks—to seaside strolls or into the kinetic nightlife scene. Along the way, refuel with savoury shawarma or with man’oushe (flatbread) topped with za’atar herbs. And the magnetic aura that captured Bourdain’s heart extends beyond the city, too. If this place could talk, it would almost certainly say, “Yalla, habibi”—or “Come on, my love.”
—Alexandra E. Petri
Diverse cultures and all-night clubbing create a rich flavour stew
Small dishes, or mezes, make the meal in Lebanon. Claim a seat on the terrace at Abd El Wahab, located on the street it’s named after, and start off with a classic choice like fatteh, a yogurt-chickpea cousin of hummus. Then move on to skewers of tender chicken marinated in lemon juice and garlic. Make reservations at hot spot Em Sherif, for its fixed-price menus of mezes such as tabbouleh, hindbeh (chicory), and kibbeh nayyeh (raw meat with bulgur and spices), plus Lebanese wines and shisha. For casual, round-the-clock dining, Al Falamanki should top your list.
Post-WWI French rule left a culinary legacy surfacing in bistros like Couqley, with two locations serving foie gras, escargot, and duck confit. Beirut’s location on the Mediterranean also influences local appetites. At surf-and-turf purveyor Meat the Fish, the menu changes daily to offer dishes such as oysters on the half shell, black cod, and smoked halibut, plus grass-fed Australian beef. Babel Bay has been known to convert seafood sceptics into serious fans with its waterside setting and meze menu that features garlic squid, pickled tuna, and shrimp topped with eggplant fatteh.
A sizable Armenian population adds to the flavour mash-up of Beirut’s food scene. At Mayrig, which means “mother” in Armenian, the meals do indeed taste home cooked. Start with lentil salad before sampling kebabs topped with yogurt or wild cherries. The specialties at Al Mayass include quail eggs with Armenian pastrami. For a true Armenian feast, head to the Bourj Hammoud district, northeast of the city centre. Among the authentic spots here: Resto Foul, with its iche (Armenian tabbouleh), mante (dumplings), and eggplant cooked with garlic, onions, and tomato.
If you join in the city’s late-night revelry, you will need to refuel with some tasty snacks. Stay up and grab an early morning knafe, a cheese pastry soaked in syrup, from Douaihy. For an afternoon pick-me-up, try chicken shawarma from Barbar. Also known for its shawarma is Restaurant Joseph. One bite of the jibneh msakar (cheese-stuffed pie) at Bechara Brothers, and you’ll be ready to permanently relocate to Beirut. Prime orders at Zaatar W Zeit include the halloumi-bacon wrap and lahem bi ajjin (meat pie) in an after-hours scene that rivals the top clubs.
On the Mediterranean, history comes with retail therapy and relaxation
Tour the campus of the American University of Beirut, whose accomplished alums include architect Zaha Hadid. Then head to Martyrs’ Square, a symbol of division during the civil war that’s since become a popular gathering place. A good time to see the nearby Mohammad al-Amin Mosque? At night when its blue domes are dramatically lit. Venture beyond Beirut to explore the ruins at Byblos, one of the world’s oldest cities, and the Cedars of God, a forest of Lebanon cedars, the national emblem.
Take a cue from the residents and squeeze in some quality beach time. The once exclusive Sporting Club is an institution that’s been around since the 1950s and is now open to visitors. Relax by the poolside, catch a game of backgammon, or dine on seafood specialities. At the beloved Pierre and Friends beachside bar, sunny days turn into starry nights spent boogieing beside the Mediterranean. Just south of Beirut, the adults-only Iris Beach Club beckons with multiple bars and canopied daybeds.
Among the locally made wares at Orient 499, shoppers find copper bowls, hand-blown glass, and embroidered babouches (slippers). Big brands, from Armani to Zara, line shelves in the 200 stores of Beirut Souks, a downtown mall with cafés and a kids’ science centre. In Mar Mikhael, galleries and bookstores, like one from indie publisher Plan BEY, have turned a former industrial area into an artists’ district. Strike gold in Bourj Hammoud, a top spot for generations of jewellers and their ateliers.
Beirut loves a party, especially outdoors. Pair your champagne with a show at Music Hall Waterfront, where an open-air stage hosts rock, reggae, and Arabic tunes. Clubbers are returning to hot spot Discotek, reopened after a racy video caused a shutdown earlier this year. The good times at the Grand Factory start with the elevator ride up to the rooftop club. For a cool underground scene, get down at B018, whose bunker-style design recalls the war years when the site housed refugees.
Set in a 1930s mansion, Hotel Albergo has hosted such A-listers as Madeleine Albright and Lebanese fashion designer Elie Saab in its 33 suites seductively decorated with Ottoman copper and crystal chandeliers, oriental rugs, and Damascus wood. The roof terrace, perfumed by jasmine and orange blossoms, makes a serene setting for breakfast with views over the minaret-studded panorama, and a luxe spa debuts later this year (albergobeirut.com). In the city’s hip Badaro neighbourhood, youthful energy animates The Smallville Hotel, where rooms feature mood lighting, a black-and-white colour scheme with pops of colour, floor-to-ceiling windows, and showpieces by local artists. Don’t miss a dip in the rooftop pool, open year-round and overlooking the Hippodrome, or an escape to the Secret Garden for music and movies (thesmallville.com). The blue waters of the Mediterranean lap the private beach at Kempinski Summerland Hotel & Resort. Perched at the end of Beirut’s Corniche, the plush property offers 153 rooms and suites, many with balconies above terraced gardens or the sea. Adults indulge in the spa, cigar lounge, and poolside bars, while the younger set frolics in the kids’ area and zooms down waterslides (kempinski.com).
The Hakawati by Rabih Alameddine
When a young man travels from L.A. to Beirut to stand vigil with relatives around his father’s deathbed, humorous and heart-breaking tales emerge— hence the book’s name, Arabic for “storyteller.”
Beirut Blues: A Novel by Hanan Al-Shaykh
During the Lebanese civil war, main character Asmahan writes a series of 10 long letters in which she grapples with the hardships of living in a conflict zone and whether to leave the city she adores.
The Broken Wings by Khalil Gibran
A poetic love story by the celebrated Lebanese-American writer, this novel set in turn-of-the-20th-century Beirut is laced with cultural and philosophical commentary on society at that time.