x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

A city of great contrasts

Four hours from Abu Dhabi Luxurious and low-key, quaint, sophisticated and stubbornly provincial, Beirut is a city of wild contradictions and criss-crossing influences.

Cafes in downtown Beirut are enjoying a renaissance.
Cafes in downtown Beirut are enjoying a renaissance.

Luxurious and low-key, quaint, sophisticated and stubbornly provincial, Beirut is a city of wild contradictions and criss-crossing influences. It balances a languid, sun-kissed Mediterranean lifestyle with the punishing pace of a hyper-capitalist city that has endured a tragically tumultuous history. Destroyed by fire, earthquake and wars too numerous to name, Beirut always recovers, and does so in style. Its resilience has become intrinsic to its appeal.

A visit to the National Museum, first completed in 1937 and beautifully renovated in 1997, offers a quick study in Lebanon's history. The artefacts on view date from the Bronze and Iron ages; the Hellenistic, Roman and Byzantine periods; and the years of Arab conquest up through the Mameluke era. Highlights include a marble sarcophagus illustrating the legend of Achilles. Political instability hasn't slowed development in Beirut, such that to wander around the city today is an endless exercise in what was and what will be. One thing that hasn't changed since the go-go days of the 1960s, however, is the Sporting Club, a concrete beach of consummate charm that juts out into the sea from Ras Beirut.

But to truly experience the here and now, head to the cafes of Hamra Street, which are enjoying a renaissance, or to the restaurants of the city centre, which are again buzzing with activity, or to the clutch of cute nightlife joints that have multiplied all the way down the main drag of Gemmayzeh and into Mar Mikhael. Drop in on Beirut's rigorously contemporary art scene along the way, or simply follow the sounds of the city's many live music venues, which range from traditional tarab to experimental jazz and the steady thump of techno.

Luxury Situated in the upscale neighbourhood that is clustered around Abdel Wahab al-Inglizi Street in Achrafieh, the Hotel Albergo offers 33 elegant, individually designed suites detailed with Bohemian crystal chandeliers, Briare porcelain, Carrare marble and antique furniture. Guests can choose from the Oriental, Mediterranean, Colonial and European rooms, or go all out for the presidential or royal suites. The Albergo's rooftop terrace - a verdant, jasmine-scented reprieve from the chaotic urban density below - boasts a casual restaurant, a swimming pool and 360-degree views of the Beirut skyline. The more formal and stately Al Dente, located on the ground floor, serves exquisite Italian cuisine and invites Michelin-starred chefs to create new tasting menus for travellers and neighbourhood diners alike. Standard suites begin at Dh1,032 per night, including tax and breakfast. (+961 1 339 797, @email:www.albergobeirut.com)

Mid-range The ultra-modern Monroe Hotel overlooks the marina in the heart of Downtown Beirut's hotel district, with the iconic Phoenicia, St Georges and Holiday Inn on one side and the new Platinum and Marina Towers on the other. More sleek and Scandinavian in style than opulent or oriental, the Monroe includes 49 rooms and suites, three restaurants, an outdoor swimming pool, a beauty salon and a spa. Standard rooms begin at Dh496 per night. (+961 1 371 122, @email:www.monroebeirut.com)

Budget A favourite among visiting artists, writers, foreign correspondents, humanitarian aid workers and travellers who value a down-to-earth stay over exuberant ostentation, the Mayflower Hotel is a long-standing local favourite, with 85 rooms. It recently celebrated its 50th anniversary, which makes it ancient by Beiruti standards, and its fabled history includes giving shelter to the writer Graham Greene, the notorious spy Kim Philby and the formula one champion Graham Hill, all of whom have suites named for them now. Situated in the middle of the cosmopolitan Hamra Street district, the Mayflower offers few frills but can't be beat for location. Single rooms begin at Dh294 per night, not including tax. (+961 340 680, @email:www.mayflowerbeirut.com)

Back in the 1960s, politicians used the spill out of late-night parliament sessions to dine with the luminaries of Lebanese arts and letters at the restaurant Al Ajami in downtown Beirut. Al Ajami opened in Souq al-Tawile in 1920, and, after the neighbourhood was levelled by years of civil war and reconstruction, decamped to Ramlet al-Baida in 1998. The new location may be sleepy compared to Al Ajami's raucous heyday, but one thing that remains the same is the food, an expansive and delectable selection of mezze, meats and sweets that carry Lebanon's long and intricate culinary history in every dish.

In Beirut, the fiercest of epicures seek out Levantine twists on the delicacies of Armenian cuisine. The restaurants Al Mayass, in Achrafieh, and Mayrig, in Gemmayzeh, are the most famous. But the most authentic is the closet-sized Varouj, tucked into an alleyway in Bourj Hammoud. Prepare for a marathon feast and make sure you try the soujouk, batrakh dressed in garlic, spiced kafta drenched in red cherries and, if you can handle it, asafeer (small roasted birds that you pop into your mouth and crunch).

For outdoor dining, head to the gardenia- and jasmine-edged garden at Centrale. The menu is refreshed every season, and the summer selections include a succulent lobster salad with coriander and ginger. The restaurant Casablanca, on the upper floor of an old Ottoman villa in Ain al-Mreisseh, is Beirut's best-kept dining secret, with a long list of loyal regulars who make reservations a requirement. The menu mixes a little of east with a little bit of west, the kitchen benefits tremendously from the owner Johnny Farah's organic farm, and the daily specials are to die for.

Middle East Airlines (MEA), Etihad, and Emirates daily to Beirut from Abu Dhabi and Dubai.