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Back in the Swing of Things: Beirut

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18th Sep 2008


Every so often it's necessary to follow the earnest advice of friends and visit a place outside of your comfort zone. Baghdad isn't ready for you, and it's sticky in Dhaka, so may we suggest Beirut?

Quietly, they say the city is on the road to recovery following recent dramas. Beautiful weather most of year also makes Beirut an unsung spot. It may not be heaving the way it was, but trust us, you can never travel too far for a good shawarma!

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If at all possible, arrive with your Lebanese friends who are now all living in Dubai, if only just for the weekend. This will vastly improve your chances of getting the VIP bottle service at an over-priced night club later on, and since so many have decamped for the GCC, you might find Beirut more fun with them back in town.

Rafic Hariri International Airport is just 7.5km and a 10-minute drive away from Beirut’s city centre. It is unlikely you will have a problem catching a taxi as there are always drivers waiting by the side of the road, ready to take you to your hotel.

Where to Stay

There are a few beautiful hotels in the centre of Beirut; most located close to the blue waters of the Mediterranean that you can’t really go wrong by taking your chances. The key to the hotel scene is to make sure you can be seen, preferably sauntering right out the front door to an adjacent beach, extra large sunglasses on. If you want cultural old town, try a different city, Amman perhaps. Beirut is about beach proximity.

The well informed choose either The Phoenicia Intercontinental, the most luxurious hotel on the Corniche - with its great roof-top lounge and nice views or the Albergo, which has a cool roof-top pool and special rooftop terrace. A former grand residence from the 1930s, the Albergo is all about elegant cosy. Luxurious Lebanese decor refurbished in the style of Beirut's heyday with oriental and European influences also hosts a fantastic gastronomic Italian restaurant and one of Beirut's best called Al Dente, also boasting an exceptional wine cellar of French and Italian Grand Crus.

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What to Eat

Beirut is a city for the soul, especially if your soul is connected to your stomach. Where else can you sit in a beach-side jacuzzi munching a fennel-laced pita-focaccia with a bodied cedar wine? While local wine (which actually is recommended - the region specialises in Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc blends) does not taste a hint of cedar, the idea seeps into the consciousness, casting a stately aroma in the mind as you swirl the red concoction across your tongue at sunset.

For lunch, pop into Abdel Wahab, home of Beirut s best chicken shawarma and a beautiful crowd stuffing their faces ever so delicately – 100% authentic Lebanese cuisine. Lunch can be at noon, night, or late night, depending on how late you were out last night. Shawarmas anytime at 56 Abdel Wahab El Inglizi Street.

Casablanca on the Corniche is a modern space in an old villa right on the seafront, popular evenings and especially Sunday brunch. Reserve your table on Tel +961 369334 and try a lobster East-West fusion dish with organic vegetables or fresh out of the Med grilled fish. Delectable.

A club in Beirut which has achieved such legendary status is Palais by Crystal. The only possible comparison to this club might be Tramps in London or Les Caves du Roy in St. Tropez. You know the scene: lots of cheese and ladies who please. But despite all that, Palais by Crystal remains the place to shake your money-maker with rocking house and ambient groove all night long. Think Buddha Bar meets Baroque threaded with a 1920s soul, plush and moody, it is at the centre of Beirut's hippest area.

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Things to do

Beirut is definitely a city of nightlife, not cultural snobbery. That said, why not check out Beirut’s growing contemporary art scene and the hip gallery Espace SD at the centre of it all. The gallery promotes home-grown talent with an eye toward lesser known foreign artists but really shines with its weekly movie club that screens old and new Lebanese movies in a virtually private setting - since hardly anyone goes. The movies are very cool if you don t take them seriously, and the space provides a great respite from the party-hearty atmosphere across the rest of the city. If you like contemporary Chinese, Iranian or Indian art, you'll love Lebanese too. Its rife with culture and beauty interlaced with political under-(or over)-tones that grate at your very soul given the day and age.

Slightly more sophisticated and ever so fun are old theatre converted to live music venue Music Hall and the Sky Bar, the latter at the top of the Palm Beach Hotel. It is a few minutes from the centre, but everyone loves the LA-inspired bar setting, and it’s also a perfect place for sun-downers with some of the best views over the Med. There are pools and jacuzzi’s up there too, so pop by during the day and come in your new bathing suit! It’s never too early for a refreshing Caipirinha.

If you pop into town during the summer, it’s worth checking out the Byblos International Festival, in mid-July. It features the most random line-ups this side of Glastonbury, so check if your favourite band is playing first before expecting a Lebanese Woodstock. Even though some claim Beirut is the New York nightlife capital of the Middle East, reality requires a wry sense of humour to truly enjoy it, so hit the town with the mission of getting this once thriving social capital back on its feet.

Definitely take a day off to head to the hills and experience Lebanon's greatest Roman treasure: The Temples of Baalbek. Considered the most noble and possibly the largest Roman temple complex ever built Baalbek's Acropolis and the Temple of Jupiter's six remaining gigantic Corinthian columns teeter high above the surrounding valley. Baalbek is 85km into the countryside from Beirut and seriously gives Athens' smog engulfed Acropolis a run for its money. The site is flanked by the extremely well-preserved Temple of Bacchus, an amazing hexagonal forecourt, and the Propylaea, a tiered semi-circle of stone seating. There are numerous other Roman and Islamic sites to visit in and around Baalbek and its immediate neighbourhoods, like Anjar - so take water, comfortable kicks and your sense of adventure to a trip back through time.

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September, October and even November is when Lebanon celebrates its national day, meaning that these months are exceptionally good times to go. Whether you adventure up to the mountains or down toward the beaches south of the city, the soaring heat has subsided, the sun is still warm, and the nightlife keeps on going!

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