Beirut on Foot
Yes, some of you figured it out already that Beirut is one of my favorite cities – so no summer without my big Love. Maybe you are wondering what it is exactly that I find so fascinating about this city. Well, I guess it is the contrast of a raising Phoenix-like city that still cripples with its war-torn past. Despite the still fragile political situation Beirut is trying to reinvent itself every day. Door to door with abandoned buildings you can find new hip and urban restaurants, cafes and hotels – the party life is vibrant and the delicious Lebanese cuisine is known worldwide. Beirut is breathing the air of entrepreneurialism and new design districts, futuristic shaped buildings, art galleries and local fashion stores are popping up all over. Still the infrastructure is a disaster with non-existent traffic rules, streets that are crisscrossed with a stunning net of electrical wires and no conventional addresses. But all that makes up the charm of Beirut.
I recently read in a travel guide a quote about Beirut that I think describes HER pretty good “There are few places in the Middle East where you can tuck into organic tabbouleh while army tanks rumble past. Beirut isn’t about world leading urbanism, green architecture or great public transport. Yet for all its contradictions it is a great place to live and a thrilling city to visit, with a palpable sense of freedom, a vibrant creative community and an unabashed will to live la belle vie, no matter what.” Yes and that is exactly what Beirut stands for me.
Where to stay
Already in my previous Blog post I mentioned my favorite hotel in Beirut – the Warwick Palm Beach Hotel (www.warwickhotels.com/palm-beach). Of course there are better hotels in the city, but it is still nice to stay there due to their amazing breakfast room with a view over the Corniche and the rooftop bar and pool. Location beside Zaitunay Bay is also perfect. Just make sure you are booked into a Premium Room as these rooms are on a higher floor and renovated.
View from the rooftop.......
If you are more into luxury you can book the elegant Phoenicia Hotel in the same area (www.phoeniciabeirut.com).
This time I also tried out a lovely Bed & Breakfast place The Baffa House (www.baffahouse.com) in Mar Mikhael – which I can highly recommend. It’s a real family affair and you will just feel like home. The super friendly owner Samer Ghorayeb welcomes guests in his renovated family home since 2014. Since then he got featured in various magazines and guides and he can be proud to receive so many good comments from all his guests. In total he has 4 rooms all equipped with vintage furniture and high roof ceilings. Breakfast is simply delicious, Lebanese style and all home-made. In the airy communal lounge or the beautiful balcony you can have a chat with your fellow travelers or get some insider tips on Beirut from Samer. For all the night owls of you – the Baffa House is in a quiet side street, but just off the busy Armenia Street with all its popular bars and restaurants – so no need to figure out how to get a ride back home, just a quick walk around the corner to fall into your bed.
Nice public lounge area.....
At the ground floor of Baffa House you can also find a very nice restaurant, Makan (www.facebook.com/makanbeirut) – menus are changing on a regular basis – so at the time of my visit they just had a Peruvian food week. You can sit in a lovely garden as well – a real oasis!
1. Walk around Mar Mikhael
So if you are staying around Mar Mikhael this neighborhood also has a lot to explore on a walking tour. Center of this area is Armenia Street – this street is quiet in some parts, but gets lively and busy especially at night around the Old Train Station.
In the more quiet part of Armenia Street towards the Armenian neighborhood of Burj Hammoud (which as mentioned in my earlier Blog is one of my favorite shopping destinations – especially for shoes which you get there half the price or less than in Downtown. On my recent visit I also found a cute little boutique from the local fashion designer Salpy with some unique clothing – MG Fashion, Rue Arax) – you can find a perfect place for lunch called Tawlet (it is off Armenia Road in a little side street with a dead end, 12 Naher Street). Enjoy here delicious Lebanese food in a relaxed atmosphere. The lunch-only menu is changing daily and is served buffet style, price also includes dessert, table water and yessss my favorite drink Arak – already for lunch, here we go :-) food is all prepared on site from in-house as well as various guest chefs, so depending on their nationality you can taste different regional food, also lesser known dishes are served here. The long tables invite you to mix with the other lunch-goers and have a chat with the local community – www.tawlet.com
If you take a walk around the streets of Tawlet afterwards you will find a lot of street vendors, old car workshops, stores and sure you come across some curiosities – have a look at the last section of this Blog :-) the residents of this area have mainly Armenian roots and are well-known traders.
...plus the romantic Armenian Restaurant Seza (no website – Patriarch Arida Street / +961(0)1 570711), try the famous Manti dish here (kind of dumplings in a yogurt sauce).
For some nice coffee intake, stop by the hidden Kalei Coffee Co. (www.kaleicoffee.com) – the micro-roastery ensures a high quality bean-to-cup business model and you can sip on the excellent roasts in the tranquil garden. They also do nice food and have some creative cocktails on offer. If you are interested in the coffee business and roast process, check out their workshops as well.
Basically on the other side of Armenia Street towards Gemmayzeh, around Pharaon Street you have the so called Designers District, with a number of independent stores of local designers like for example Pink Henna (www.facebook.com/PinkHenna) and various others. Have a coffee stop at the Papercup (www.papercupstore.com), where all is dedicated to printed items – browse through their interesting book and magazine section while having your cup of freshly brewed java. Also check out their event list for some interesting readings and workshops.
Modern building at the Designers District.
2. Walk around Gemmayzeh
A walk on Armenia Street towards Downtown will automatically lead you into the neighborhood of Gemmayzeh – also well-known for its vivid pub and bar nightlife. Same as in other parts of Beirut you find old shabby buildings beside futuristic designed towers. It is worth to check out some little side roads where you can find treasures like for the example the L’Atelier du Miel (www.atelierdumiel.com)– that produces its own honey and has a nice shaded terrace to rest and indulge in all that sweet treats.
Armenia Street turns at one point then into Gemmayzeh Street (or Gourad Street as it is also called) – a bit abandoned during the day, but full of life at night. You will then reach the famous Mar Nicolas Steps – they used to be a real meeting point for all the night crowd – but due to noise complaints of the residents around, most of the bars directly beside the stairs have closed down. However during the day it is still worth to climb up and on top of the stairs you will find a nice little coffee shop called Coin Perdu with really super friendly staff. (www.facebook.com/coinperdubeirut).
Once you reach the top of the stairs turn to your left into Archdiocese Orthodox Street and you will find the Sursock Museum (www.sursock.museum) on your right hand side. The museum is Beirut’s only museum of modern and contemporary art and is housed in the impressive villa of the late prominent Lebanese aristocrat Nicolas Ibrahim Sursock. Beside the permanent and temporary exhibitions you can also see some of the original rooms of the villa – like the Salon Arabe or the Nicolas Ibrahim Study. The museum also has a nice little shop plus a café/restaurant with an outside terrace.
After your visit take a walk back down the Mar Nicolas Steps and continue your way on Gemmayzeh Street. Before you reach Damascus Avenue and the Martyrs Square you will pass a complete newly built district called Saifi Village (www.saifivillage.com). This area was carefully reconstructed and is nowadays a picture-postcard pretty district for local designers and upscale art and living. It resembles an Italian village style. Enjoy excellent coffee and home-made granola at Backburner (www.thebackburner.com) or delicious meals at Meat the Fish (www.meatthefish.com).
3. Walk around Downtown
The Downtown Area I already covered in one of my previous Blog posts, so I will make it short here. We are now in the most fancy neighborhood of Beirut with stylish galleries, expansive shops and hip restaurants. Most of the buildings around here are rebuilt after the war and reflect Beirut’s previous reputation as the Paris of the Middle East – so many corners do indeed remind you of places in the French capital.
A good place to start a Downtown Walk is at the Clock Tower at Nejmeh Place.
Due to the proximity of government buildings this area is still under high security and many of the shops and restaurants in the nice looking arcades around are unfortunately empty. So it’s mainly a place now to take some nice pictures from here of the impressive Al Amine Mosque and the St. George Church.
At one corner of this area you will find the fancy Le Gray Hotel (www.campbellgrayhotels.com/le-gray-beirut) – it’s nice to have a drink here on the rooftop terrace with views over the Old City.
Afterwards you can walk over to the modern shopping area of Beirut Souks (www.beirutsouks.com.lb) – spread over different levels and streets you can enjoy here a great indoor and outdoor shopping bonanza.
Very recommended is the Farmers Market Souk El Tayeb that is taking place every Saturday morning at Beirut Souks (www.soukeltayeb.com) – it’s the perfect place to try out some local dishes and buy organic products.
From here it is just a small walk over to Zaitunay Bay the fancy new Yacht harbor of Beirut with its many restaurants like the famous fish restaurant Babel (www.babelrestaurant.com) or some more laid back places for a snack or coffee like Bartartine (great for pizzas and flatbreads) or well known brands like Paul or zataar w zeit. A full listing of all restaurants you can find on www.zaitunaybay.com/where-to-eat.
In the backdrop of the modern Zaitunay Bay you can still find reminders of the grim past of Beirut like the once famous Holiday Inn Hotel that featured a pool overlooking the Mediterranean Sea and a Revolving Restaurant. During the civil war the hotel became a place of death and destruction from where snipers killed many people – now it is one of Beirut’s many abandoned buildings with an uncertain future. Don’t take pictures from too close as the area is still a military zone.
Another abandoned iconic remain of this time is the equally famous St. George Hotel – opened in 1932 it became the place of the former jet-set and then never was reopened after the war due to a legal dispute. However the St. George Beach Club (well better to say pool club) beside is open and a famous spot in summer for a quick dip (www.stgeorges-yachtclub.com).
4. Walk around Ras Beirut
Ras Beirut is encompassing the neighborhoods of Raoucheh, Clemenceau and Hamra. Before the civil war this area was the cosmopolitan and commercial center of the city. Nowadays it’s a mix of luxury real estate developments, crumbling heritage houses, family businesses that have survived over generations and an ongoing spirit of urbanization. On this walk you can feel the diverse spirit of the city with all its rich history and wild contradictions. Maybe some corners of this walk look a bit “wild” as well, but no worries you are totally safe to walk around here.
Ask a map from the hotel – however so far all the tourist maps that I have seen are not really specific ones and missing out on small streets, but once you allocate your main targets just go with the flow and wander through the streets and get lost in the special ambiance of this city.
A nice start of the walk is a not so easy to find Armenian bakery – that makes divine flatbreads - Ichkhanian Bakery. It is in Zokak el Blat district, Hussein Beyhum Street –maybe you need to ask your way a bit around or better take a taxi direct to there (www.ichkhanianbakery.com). Same owner family is also running the Armenian Restaurant Nour (Abdel Wahab El-Inglizi, Achrafieh).
From there just walk the streets around, passing by abandoned buildings still with bullet holes and beautiful renovated French-styled houses and Mansions.
Next stop is at a small city oasis – Rene Mouwad Garden. Enjoy the tranquil atmosphere between the lush green vegetation here.
Afterwards we are heading towards the famous Hamra Street – that became again a busy commercial hub. Here you can find plenty of shops, restaurants, street art, lower classed hotels, apartments and all kind of residential buildings.
If you are up for a coffee break I would recommend to skip the modern coffee shops on Hamra Street and head to Café Younes – as this family business is roasting since 1935. Located in Neemat Yafet Street they have a bigger Café, where they also serve yummy dishes and the smaller coffee bar just beside, which includes the roastery itself (www.cafeyounes.com).
If you are around this area in the later hours stop by the unspectacular, but very popular Bar Ferdinand (www.instagram.com/ferdinand_pub).
Following Al Hamra Street now towards the seaside we hit the neighborhood of Raoucheh, which hosts one of Beirut’s most iconic sights – the picturesque Pigeon’s Rock. So once you come down from Al Hamra Street and reach the Corniche Walk turn left and walk up the seaside walk (the sea is to your right – just to make sure you walk in the right direction -lol) until you reach the rock formation in the sea.
Opposite the rocks clinched to the cliffs you have a choice of restaurants all with nice outdoor terraces overlooking the rocks and sea. My recommendation here would be the Al Falamanki with tasty Lebanese cuisine (www.alfalamanki.com) – of course no Lebanese food without a glass of Arak :-)
If you feel energized and fit enough after your meal you can walk back the whole Corniche walk until you reach again Zaitunay Bay. If you take this walk in the later afternoon hours or on a weekend the Corniche Road is supper lively with families taking a stroll, chit-chatting high-society ladies, joggers showing off their bodies, teenagers on their first date, elderly walking out their dog and crowds of young and old Beiruti men gathering for a swim or a round of fishing. Just emerge yourself in the soul of Beirut.
You will pass by Manara, the old light house and La Maison Rose, the old pink mansion during your walk.
So to come to an end here, I have to say again – I am a real lover of Beirut with all its contradictions. For sure Beirut is not for everybody, but I think it is worth to give HER a chance and I am sure a lot of you will be surprised how much the city has to offer if you approach HER without pre-judgement.
The beauty of Beirut is not only in its well rebuilt neighborhoods, fancy clubs and restaurants. The real beauty lies more in its craziness and chaos. Here are some pictures that are falling in the category: ONLY IN BEIRUT…….
Are people hanging their underwear to dry in your face on the pavement....
Are streets criss-crossed by dangerously looking wires......
Are streets filled with kirky graffiti......
Are abandoned buildings turned into innercity-farms....
Are crashed cars just left in the roads....
Are people collected in Van-Taxis that seem to fall apart any minute......
Are streets patrolled by used US police cars....
I am planning in the near future various theme trips to Lebanon – so maybe you will come with me on one of these journeys and experience the magic of Lebanon together with me. News about that will follow on my website.
Beirut je t’aime!