Lebanon has been busy rebuilding its capital, Beirut, since peace returned to the embattled city in the early 1990s. Though the scars from years of civil war remain, life has returned to downtown Beirut. The former "Pearl of the Middle East" is once again an exquisite experience, a beguiling composition of cultures and faiths, perched on a breathtaking sweep of Mediterranean coastline. Beirut is now one of the most cosmopolitan and vibrant cities in the Middle East, and it's on the way to becoming one of the safest now that its political problems appear to have been resolved.
Beirut enjoys a spectacular setting: It doesn't so much lie on the Mediterranean as it juts out into the blue-green sea. Its shape resembles a big right triangle, bordered on one side by the foothills of Mount Lebanon and on two sides by water.
Addresses are not a simple matter in Beirut. The few street signs are usually in Arabic and French, but locals often refer to streets by names other than those posted. Maps are usually printed in Arabic or French, but in print and speech you'll often encounter Anglicized versions of street names (for example, Hamra Street instead of Sharia or Rue Hamra). Outside of downtown and a few other neighborhoods, you won't find many numbers on buildings, either. When giving directions, most locals refer to nearby landmarks or hotels or, in the case of a commercial address, to the name or owner of the building. It's less complicated than it sounds, and most taxi drivers will understand what you're looking for and where it is. It's useful if you have someone write the name of your destination in Arabic.
It does help to know the names of neighborhoods and where they are in relation to one another. Downtown, or the Beirut Central District (BCD), is at the center of the peninsula, near its northern side. Beirutis also refer to the area as Solidere, the name of the private entity created to rebuild downtown. Directly to the west of downtown is Ain el-Mreisseh, which is also the beginning of the hotel district. Stretching a bit farther west and south is Hamra, the heart of West Beirut. Ras Beirut (also known as Caracas) is at the westernmost tip of the triangle. Continuing to the south, along the coast, are Manara, Raouche and Ramlet el-Baida. Inland from Raouche is Verdun. East of downtown is Gemmayzeh, with the port to the north and Ashrafiyeh to the south. The Corniche, a wide, bustling promenade, hugs the northwestern and western coast from Ain el-Mreisseh to Raouche. In this report, the name of the neighborhood is listed after the address.
The eastern outskirts of the city, beyond the Beirut River, ride the flanks of Mount Lebanon, a series of gently sweeping peaks. Sprinkled with towns and villages, Mount Lebanon provides the concrete jungle of Beirut with a lush green backdrop by day and a glittering curtain of lights by night. Jounieh, a crowded seaside suburb, is north of Beirut.
Commerce and conquest, destruction and reconstruction have all played pivotal roles in Beirut's 5,000-year history. The city most likely began as a fortified city for the Canaanites before becoming a Phoenician port. A succession of empires and armies—Assyrians, Egyptians, Persians and Greeks—later conquered the city. The Romans then colonized Beirut (calling it Berytus) in 64 BC. They gave the city a distinctively Roman organization, building streets, temples and other public structures (such as the Roman Baths). Under Byzantine rule, Beirut continued to develop as an important cultural and commercial center, but in the sixth century a massive earthquake, followed by a tidal wave and fires, destroyed the city. An estimated 250,000 lives were lost.
The next round of conquests began when Arab Muslims captured Beirut in 635. Over the next 500 years, the city fell under the rule of various Islamic dynasties (Umayyad, Abbasid). Then, in 1110, the Crusaders invaded and assumed control of Beirut. The Mamluks supplanted the Crusaders in 1291. In 1516, Beirut became part of the Ottoman Empire. Some of the city's most famous buildings, such as the Grand Serail, were constructed during this period.
Following the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in World War I, the French took control of Beirut and made it Lebanon's capital. The extensive building program that took place under French rule gave rise to a new style—or blend of styles—generally referred to as French Mandate. In 1943, during World War II, Lebanon became an independent country, and Beirut continued to serve as its capital.
In the 1950s and 1960s, Beirut was known for sophistication and elegance, even though the bulk of its inhabitants—many of whom were Palestinian refugees who left Palestine after the creation of Israel in 1948—shared in neither its prosperity nor its optimism. Class and religious tensions came to a head in the mid-1970s, plunging the city and the country into a bloody civil war that Balkanized Beirut into separate, hostile zones, each controlled by its own militia.
In 1982, a second Israeli invasion of Lebanon, this time aimed at ousting Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat from West Beirut, escalated the violence and led to the aerial bombardment and occupation of the city. International peacekeeping troops deployed soon after were unable to reduce hostilities or mediate among the numerous factions. Bombings in 1983 of the U.S. Embassy and, later, a U.S. Marine barracks and a French paratrooper barracks left 300 soldiers dead and hastened the peacekeepers' departure.
Neighboring Syria had sent troops into Lebanon as early as 1976, and they were an important factor throughout the conflict. In October 1989, Lebanese members of parliament meeting in Saudi Arabia signed the Taif Agreement, which eventually put the conflict to rest but also virtually legitimized Syria's control over the country.
On 14 February 2005, a massive bomb exploded in Beirut's Ain el-Mreisseh neighborhood, killing Rafiq Hariri, Lebanon's popular former prime minister, and 19 others. Local and international pressure, which already had been building, coalesced into calls for Syria to withdraw its troops and intelligence agents from Lebanon. It reportedly complied with these demands by the end of April 2005, but there have been allegations that the intelligence agents are still present.
In July 2006, Hezbollah guerrillas kidnapped two Israeli soldiers, and Israel then invaded Lebanon for the third time. In the next 34 days, some 1,200 civilians were slaughtered, thousands of homes were destroyed, and Lebanon's infrastructure was devastated before Israel withdrew.
Peace returned to the country, despite Western and Israeli intervention, and Lebanon is now controlled by a 30-member ruling body, led by President Michel Aoun and his majority ruling party, the Free Patriotic Movement. Various other factions, including Hezbollah, which continues to have the wide support of the majority, make up the rest of the government; the divided cabinet often faces opposing views on foreign policy.
Atmosphere—not necessarily a long list of sights—is what Beirut delivers best. Its mix of peoples, religions and cultures gives the city a dynamic edge, and watching Beirutis go about their everyday business is an interesting form of sightseeing. One of the best places to take it all in is along the Corniche. In a city of few open green spaces, this long seaside promenade functions as a public gathering space, almost like a park. You'll see people of all ages, in all forms of dress, walking, jogging, eating and talking there. The Corniche also has wonderful views of the coast. Pigeon Rocks, a group of rock formations set in a cove in Raouche, is the most dramatic of the views and a popular backdrop for evening drinks.
The historical downtown—the neighborhood most devastated during the civil war—has been almost entirely restored. Among the notable reconstructions are Grand Serail, the Municipality Building, Parliament Building, Al-Omari Mosque, St. George's Greek Orthodox Cathedral and St. George's Maronite Cathedral. With the addition of dozens of new restaurants and cafes, a vibrant social scene has returned to the area. Beirutis go there simply to stroll or to enjoy a leisurely narghile (water pipe with flavored tobacco) while people-watching at an outdoor cafe.
The downtown development also incorporates several archaeological sites into the urban fabric. Near the Grand Serail are the remains of the Roman Baths, preserved today in a pleasant park setting. North of Martyrs Square is the ancient tell area where, among other things, remains of a Canaanite wall and gate, as well as a Crusader castle, are located. Just west of St. George's Maronite Cathedral is a group of columns that formed part of the cardo maximus, the Roman city's main north-south axis. More finds have been made in the area north of Rue Weygand (which is being developed as a shopping area called the Souks of Beirut), including the Zawiya Ibn Iraq (a Mamluk-era Quranic school and shrine), sections of the medieval city wall and moat, and Persian-Phoenician remains. Relics of Beirut's past also can be seen in local museums, most notably the National Museum of Beirut.
Between experiencing downtown and visiting museums, take time to explore Beirut's traditional neighborhoods. Gemmayzeh, just east of downtown, has a lively restaurant, cafe and art-gallery scene. Ashrafiyeh, where the handsome Sursock Museum is located, has narrow, winding streets and some beautiful old residences. Hamra, south of the American University of Beirut's beautiful campus, is a good place to soak up the city's daily life. At the end of the day, head back to the Corniche to see the sunset.
The Lebanese approach to nightlife involves eating as much as drinking, and the combination can make for late nights. From the quietest to the most decadent, your options include sipping drinks at a cafe, taking in a movie or a live show, or dancing until dawn (even on tabletops) at the multitude of clubs and bars available. Of course, you can do all three. Many nightspots don't keep precise hours, but dance clubs generally open in the early evening and stay open until sunrise. Especially on weekends, many clubs charge a (sometimes hefty) minimum consumption fee, which is paid up front.
The Rue Monot neighborhood in Ashrafiyeh continues to be nightlife central, with a dense concentration of bars, nightclubs and restaurants. Downtown and Gemmayzeh are also popular nightspots with a slightly older crowd seeking perhaps a less frenetic ambience. An establishment's popularity can rise and fall quickly as Beirut's trendy crowd moves on to the next new thing. It's best to consult local residents and publications to see what's new and happening because the scene changes regularly.
One thing that unites most Lebanese is a love of eating. Beirut is awash with restaurants, cafes and snack bars offering everything from traditional Lebanese fare to sushi and salad bars. If you're craving international cuisines, you'll find plenty of restaurants serving up French and Italian fare. Japanese, Chinese and Thai foods are increasingly popular, too. Still, the overwhelming majority of restaurants serve Lebanese food. Once you have sampled it, it's obvious why. At its best, Lebanese food is typically Mediterranean, with a few exotic extras thrown in for good measure. The average meal is high on vegetables, low on meat and big on flavor.
A meal usually starts with a selection of mezes—small portions of dips, pickles, salads and nibbles—eaten with flat, slightly sweet Arabic bread or khibbiz. Meze items can include anything from moutabbal (also called baba ghanoush) and hummus to stuffed vine leaves and stuffed meatballs (kibbeh). Salads include fresh thyme in lemon juice, tabbouleh and a pungent cheese-salad mixture called shanklish. The main course is generally grilled meat or fish, eaten with bread or spiced rice and the leftovers of the mezes. The meal is finished with platefuls of fruit followed by thick, black coffee and sweet, light pastries stuffed with dates or pistachio nuts.
Meals are generally accompanied by wine or arrack, a powerful Lebanese aniseed liquor that turns from clear to a milky white when mixed with water. Of locally grown wines, Chateau Ksara and Chateau Kefraya are the best bets. Alcohol is generally not a taboo in Lebanon, and all but the most observant Muslims drink socially.
Lunch usually begins 1-2 pm, but people will meet for a late afternoon meal until 5 or 6 pm, or relax over coffee at any point until sunset. Most restaurants require dinner reservations. Lebanese eat late (8:30 pm is an early dinner), so restaurants tend to fill up around 10 pm and stay open until the early morning. Dress codes are usually flexible, but many Beirutis dress up for even the most casual events. Trousers and a button-down shirt for men and a skirt or dress for women will suffice in most places.
Expect to pay the following for a dinner for one, excluding drinks, tax and service: $ = less than 50,000 LL; $$ = 50,000 LL-60,000 LL; $$$ = 60,001 LL-90,000 LL; $$$$ = more than 90,000 LL.
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