Rapidly changing Beirut's spirit is resilient
Of the 1,200 historical buildings that Lebanon's Ministry of Culture placed on a protection list in 1995, only 400 are still standing. This has become one of the most oft-quoted factoids in an increasingly pitched battle between Beirut's heritage activists and real-estate developers. Steeped in 5,000 years of history, the city has gone through numerous cycles of devastation and regeneration, destroyed by earthquake, fire and war, only to bounce back again and again with admirable resilience.
Right now, despite continual political crises, Beirut is on the upswing. The economy is buoyant, tourists are everywhere and the number of new hotels, restaurants and boutiques is astounding. Growth comes at a price, however, and one reason to get to Beirut fast is that its urban fabric is changing so rapidly - pulling down some venerable institutions in the undertow of skyrocketing rents - that the city may not look the same as the last time you saw it. That said, the pace of change is so constant in Beirut that it has become paradoxically routine. Governments form and fall, parliaments go to work and get paralysed, street skirmishes and full-blown wars erupt almost as quickly as they are then wiped from memory. No matter what happens, the inimitable style, charm and attitude of the city and its tenacious residents will never falter.
A comfortable bed
The new vertigo-inducing Four Seasons Hotel (www.fourseasons.com/beirut; 00 961 1 761 000) is ultra-modern and ultra-chic, looking out over the Mediterranean from a central location in downtown Beirut that faces the new marina to the left and the site of a future park to the right. The 230 rooms and suites range from elegant to opulent. A standard double costs from US$412 (Dh1,513) per night, including taxes.
Find your feet
Adjusting to Beirut's rhythm requires nothing more than a stroll down Hamra Street, a cosmopolitan causeway that runs through one of the liveliest areas in the city. Hamra is commercial, residential, creative, hectic and relaxing at once. Its also one of the most mixed neighbourhoods, which means you will immediately feel right at home. At the end of Hamra Street, head down to the sea and loop back along the coast towards the downtown district. From there strike into Gemmayzeh and beyond that Mar Mikhael, an up-and-coming area full of cafes, boutiques, artists' studios, car mechanics and an old man who sells nothing but bananas from his hole-in-the-wall shop (painted yellow, of course).
Book a table
Located on the ground floor of a restored rose-coloured building that stands at a rakish angle to the main drag through Mar Mikhael, Chez Sophie (www.chezsophie-lb.com; 00 961 1 566 991) offers nearly avant-garde and definitively haute cuisine, blending contemporary French and Italian influences. Specialties of the house include foie gras, scallops and sea bass. Main courses cost from $45 (Dh165). Reservations are a must because the place is new and completely booked on most nights.
Meet the locals
The jewel in Mar Mikhael's crown is Tawlet Souk al-Tayeb (or tasty market), a year-old restaurant at the end of the neighbourhood. Established by the founders of Beirut's first farmers' market, Tawlet Souk al-Tayeb (www.tawlet.com; 00 961 1 448 129), or table of the tasty market, is striking in its simplicity. Each day, a different chef from a different region in Lebanon prepares lunch in an open kitchen and serves a buffet-style spread of dishes, all of them delightful variations on the staples of Lebanese cuisine. At $25 (Dh92) a head, it's expensive for what it is - home cooking you can enjoy in any household that still adheres to a raucous lunch ritual - but worth it because you're supporting local farmers and keeping old culinary traditions alive. Tawlet Souk al-Tayeb is one of very few establishments in Beirut with a community- (as opposed to law-) enforced non-smoking policy. The restaurant, always packed with a who's who on the local scene, also features rotating photography exhibitions and occasional cooking lessons.
Late last year, three new boutiques opened in the old port district. A rather seedy alley would have seemed a most unfashionable destination for the fashion designer Rabih Kayrouz's first adventure in ready-to-wear retail (www.maisonrabihkayrouz.com), or for the furniture designer Karen Chekerdjian, also opening her first stand-alone boutique (www.karenchekerdjian.com), or for the latest outpost of IF, which opened its first shop in Beirut in 1971 (there are now four in the Lebanese capital and a fifth in Dubai), dressing Beirutis in designs by the likes of Yohji Yamamoto, Dries Van Noten, Maison Martin Margiela, Rick Owens, Comme des Garçons and Junya Wantanabe. The three teamed up to renovate a grand old building that turned out to be an architectural gem, and have now lit the first spark of regeneration in the area, situated as it is on the edge of downtown.
What to avoid
Traffic. Beirut's interpretation of public transport is an improvised constellation of shared taxis and an unpredictable bus system, so private taxis are your best bet. Because the city is small, one can cover its east-west axis on foot in half the time it takes a car to inch along the same distance during heavy commuting hours.
No one goes to the National Museum (www.beirutnationalmuseum.com; 00 961 1 426 703), it's true. Whether they've never left their city or spent most of their lives abroad, Beirutis tend to overlook or ignore this beautiful building on Damascus Street, a national treasure itself with a wonderful collection of antiquities inside. All the more reason to go - bring your hosts and newfound friends with you. The sarcophagi on the first floor are particularly impressive, depicting the tale of Achilles among other notable Greco-Roman legends.
Updated: February 18, 2011 04:00 AM