A weekend guide to... Beirut Lively once more, greeting its visitors with something that is new, remnants of the old and reminders of times past.
Resilient city, reborn again
Beirut may not have the same concentration of construction cranes as Dubai, but its skyline is punctuated by the sign of constant urban renewal and revival. Every time you visit the city you will encounter something new (restaurants, shops, luxury towers), just as you will mourn for something lost (the old downtown district, the souqs, the cafe culture of Hamra Street that has given way to so many Starbucks and Costas). Beirut has endured a long and tumultuous history. Through its architecture and its ruins (both natural and man-made), one can easily read the striated layers of the Roman, Ottoman, French-mandate, independence, civil war and reconstruction eras. What makes the city unique is its enduring energy, irrepressible vitality and cultural resilience. Beirut has always been a crucible of eastern and western influences, notably open and tolerant to fresh or even radical ideas, so it represents a lively and sometimes contradictory mix of trends, tastes and traditions. The Mediterranean lifestyle - sun, sea, marathon meals based on a deliciously healthy cuisine, hyperactive sociability and the vibrancy of the street - seeps into everything in Beirut. Summer is the high tourist season, when Lebanese living abroad return to the homeland in droves. Winter is quieter, but it offers the unforgettable spectacle of storms churning over an indigo-coloured sea. A city of 1.5 million people with churches and mosques, glitzy high-rises and low turn-off-the century villas, wide freeways and old neighbourhoods built like intricate little mazes, Beirut is a city that, however paradoxical, cultivates warmth and intimacy at every turn.
No visit to Beirut is complete without excursions to see the Pigeon Rocks off the coast of Raouché, the luscious green campus of the American University of Beirut and the permanent collection of artefacts on view at the National Museum. Strolls down Hamra Street, through the city centre and into Gemmayzeh are also required. For those with a penchant for the visual arts, drop by the Agial Art Gallery (which is showing work by Jocelyn Saab and Tamara al Samerraei in November and December), Galerie Sfeir-Semler (Beirut's first truly blue-chip gallery for international contemporary art, currently exhibiting the work of Walid Raad), Aida Cherfan Fine Art or Galerie Janine Rubeiz. Keep an eye out for the new Beirut Art Center, which is scheduled to open in December courtesy of the curator Sandra Dagher and the artist Lamia Joreige. Shop for high quality, locally made fashions and home furnishings at Orient 499 (across from the old Holiday Inn), L'Artisan du Liban (on the coast in Ain al Mreisseh) and Les Balcon des Createurs (on Gouraud Street). Check out local designers such as Milia M and Johnny Farah in Saifi Village, consider a new theatre production at Masrah al Madina on Hamra Street or catch one of the weekly classical music concerts by the Lebanese National Symphony Orchestra, which performs regularly at the Université Saint-Joseph.
Budget: The just-opened Ramada Downtown is ideally located, as the name would suggest, in the middle of the downtown district. Not as flashy as the Phoenecia, nor as elegantly minimalist as the Monroe, the Ramada is nonetheless an easy, stylish and extremely practical choice. With rooms starting at just US$135 (Dh500) per night, it is also a bargain, especially considering its proximity to the city centre and the marina. There are 99 rooms, a restaurant, a lounge and functional amenities throughout. Ramada Downtown, Chateaubriand Street, Minet al Hosn, 00961 1 990 299; @email:www.ramada.com Mid-range: The Riviera is one of Beirut's most recognisable landmarks, a formidable structure located across the street from the sun- sea-swept Corniche, with a resort jutting into the Mediterranean itself. The hotel's 120 rooms and suites were thoroughly renovated in 2001, and in the summer of 2008, the Riviera's new management unveiled a comprehensive overhaul of the beach, which is accessible from the hotel by an underground passageway. Now, what was a rather retro-glam experience has become cool and contemporary, replete with three swimming pools, an island and diving facilities. During the winter season, rooms range from US$147 (Dh540) to $218 (Dh801), depending on the view, while suites go for $381 (Dh1,399) to $762 (Dh2,799) per night. Riviera Hotel and Resort, Avenue de Paris, Corniche al Manara, 00961 1 373 210; @email:www.rivierahotel.com.lb Luxury: The Intercontinental Phoenicia is the luxury anchor in Beirut's exclusive hotel district, which is located on the western edge of the city centre overlooking the marina. With 500 rooms, a slew of restaurants, high-end boutiques and an exclusive yacht club, the Phoenicia is a see-and-be-seen endeavour. The spa and the gym are also outfitted with commendable elegance. Rooms start at $253 (Dh929) and suites start at $545 (Dh2,002). InterContinental Phoenicia, Minet al Hosn,00961 1 369 100, @email:www.phoenicia-ic.com
Breakfast Just under a year ago, the Gemmayzeh restaurant Le Rouge opened a second branch in the Hamra Street area, a move that served to kick-start the revival of a neighbourhood that was once Beirut's most cosmopolitan and eclectic (other fashionable additions to the enclave include Bread Republic, Danny's, Cafe Younis, Ta Marbouta, Graffiti and De Prague). Le Rouge Hamra is considerably bigger than its Gemmayzeh cousin, and it has a sidewalk terrace for outside dining. The menu, however, is exactly the same - simple, delectable dishes that range from salads and sandwiches to pizzas, pastas, burgers and more. But in addition to its warm and friendly approach to service, Le Rouge's best-kept secret is its hearty breakfast menu. Beat the lunch crowd and the dinner rush by settling in for some coffee and a morning meal, where you can choose among Levantine, Mediterranean, Continental and American eats. Le Rouge, Makdessi Street, Hamra, 00961 1 353 585 Lunch Gruen is a delicious, design-savvy eatery located on the ground floor of the Gefinor Center in Clemenceau. Named for the Austrian architect Victor Gruen, who designed the Gefinor in the 1960s, the restaurant is only open for lunch during the week and offers a terrific brunch menu on Saturdays and Sundays. The Gruen burger "with everything" is a must, as is the Mediterranean seared-tuna salad and the surprisingly light thin-crust pizza with courgette, goat cheese and rocca. Gruen, Gefinor Center, Clemenceau, 00961 1 737 344 Dinner Beirut has plenty of exceedingly sophisticated (and chiefly French) restaurants for dinners ranging from large and boisterous to intimate and romantic. Among them are Le Talleyrand in Kantari, Balthus in Downtown and La Lutecia in Saifi Village. But for a true gastronomic treat, head into Gemmayzeh for a meal at Margherita. This newly opened pizzeria, from the jovial chef responsible for the upscale Italian restaurant Da Giovanni, hinges on fresh, high-quality ingredients in everything from the pizzas and pastas to a baked gnocchi bursting with flavour. Margherita also offers a tiramisu so perfect it rivals Rome. Margherita, Gouraud Street, Gemmayzeh, 00961 1 560 480
Etihad, Emirates, Jazeera and Air Arabia run daily flights to Beirut from their hubs in Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Sharjah.
For a primer on Lebanese history, check out Fawwaz Traboulsi's succinct and imminently readable A History of Modern Lebanon, published last year as a rejoinder to Kamal Salibi's The Modern History of Lebanon, published in 1965. Amin Maalouf's memoir Origins lends a personal touch to the same story, and Michel Fani's Une Histoire de la Photographie au Liban covers the terrain through gorgeous, historical images. firstname.lastname@example.org