weekend away - Beirut
Written by Daisy Carrington
Beirut is one of the most ancient cities in the Middle East, but that doesn’t mean it’s stuck in the past. New restaurants and hotels are opening up at an accelerated rate, making it one of the trendiest cities around.
To say that Beirut is a city of contradictions would simplify what’s really going on in this vibrant capital. True, you could marvel at the sheer volume of construction cranes one moment, and in the next stare admiringly at some of the Roman-era ruins – such as the Cardus Maximus, remnants of a once-thriving marketplace. But these aren’t contradictions so much as layers in a metropolis that boasts a long and rich history.
The architecture, demographic make-up, and culinary landscape all hint at Beirut’s colonial past. The city has belonged to just about every major civilisation, switching from Roman rule to Arab before the Crusaders grabbed it for themselves. It was also part of the Ottoman Empire before being placed under a French mandate following World War I. In 1943, it gained its independence as well as a new, increasingly clichéd moniker: ‘The Paris of the East’. Though the city’s prosperity was broken up by a civil war in 1975 and political turmoil in 2005, it has once again regained its place as one of the region’s most exciting, and hence heavily touristy, go-to spots.
While the city is constantly rebuilding and reconstructing, it possesses a sort of old-world charm. The locals are friendly and welcoming, and a stop into a café for a late-night dinner (the restaurants are empty before 10pm) is likely to result in a lively debate about art, politics, and cinema with a group that were strangers only a few hours prior. To add to the city’s Bohemian vibe, discussions are likely to switch between Arabic, English, and French – sometimes even mid-sentence.
Of course any discussion of Beirut is incomplete without including the thriving nightlife. Bars and clubs end up in the most unlikely of places. Take for instance Centrale: considered one of Beirut’s best bars, this hotspot is set up in a large, elevated steel pipe in a renovated 1920s building. Not quirky enough? There’s always the infamous B 018, an underground club with a retractable roof (the spot was a refugee camp during the Civil War). In a city that has just about seen it all, do as the locals do and just join in the fun.
Places to Stay
As tourists continue to flock to Beirut, so too do the hotel magnates. Two very upscale hotels joined the hospitality landscape last year: The Four Seasons Hotel Beirut, and Le Gray. The highlight of The Four Seasons is its rooftop pool, which is the highest in the city and overlooks a stunning view of the Mediterranean. Le Gray, meanwhile, offers a sleek and stylish design, coupled with a 500-piece collection of contemporary art, which hotelier Campbell Gray spent four years collecting. A Kempinski and Grand Hyatt are also on the horizon.
Mad for Manakish
The manakish is to Beirut is what the croissant is to Paris. This soft, billowy flatbread comes stuffed with cheese, meat or zaatar (thyme).
Locals tend to grab this delicious snack for breakfast, and in the early hours, Barbar – easily serving up the city’s best manakish – has locals and tourists alike spilling out of its doors in a long, winding queue.