Famously dubbed the Paris of the East, Beirut is a city of contradictions: It’s the city where you’ll see people on the street bearing nose jobs and flashy cars (usually paid for on finance), passing by buildings pocked with bullet holes left behind by the civil war and tangled electricity cables from the generators keeping the lights on; Where you must drive through a conservative Hezbollah-run neighbourhood from the airport to reach the city centre, only to arrive in the party capital of the Middle East.
Beirut is a city that gets under your skin. There’s something about the ‘keep-calm-carry-on’ (and while we’re at it, let’s have a cocktail) attitude of Beirutis that reminds you to enjoy life while you have it; to make the most of every day and just have fun.
If you’re visiting Lebanon or have a layover in the city, here’s our one-day-itinerary to help you get the most out of 24 hours in brilliant Beirut:
Breakfast: Start the day with coffee and manakish
Because, well… is there really any other way?
In Lebanon breakfast means manakish – the local favourite pizza style dough best enjoyed topped with local Akkawi cheese and zaatar (a Middle Eastern spice blend of thyme, cumin, sesame seeds, oregano and sumac mixed with olive oil and spread on the top). You’ll find manakish at most cafes and bakeries across the city and it shouldn’t cost you more than $2 – so great if you’re on a budget.
Take a stroll along the corniche
Once you’re fuelled with tasty zaatar doughy goodness, head down to the corniche for a stroll along the sea front. You’ll see lots of people running and working out along here in the early mornings – you may want to join them pre-breakfast so you can enjoy your tasty mankoushe (singular of manakish) guilt-free!
There are a number of cafes and bars along the corniche which make for great coffee-stops. Beirut can feel like a chaotic city, so taking a book to read while you sip your coffee by the sea is a beautiful, relaxing way to start the day.
Explore the city on foot
While you can take taxis and Ubers relatively cheaply in Beirut, traffic can be a nightmare. When you ask Lebanese friends how long it will take you to get somewhere, you generally two answers: 1) The amount of time it should take you, and 2) the actual time it will take you, “with traffic”. So don’t be afraid to don your trainers and walk – it’s the cheapest and by far the most interesting (not to mention, sometimes quickest) way to explore the city!
The walk from the Corniche through ‘Downtown’ Beirut is an interesting one. Downtown used to be the beating heart of the city, with souqs, cafes and cinemas drawing people from all over the city. Much of the downtown area was destroyed during the civil war between 1975 and 1990, and a huge reconstruction project named ‘Solidere’ has taken place in recent years to ‘restore’ it.
However, the reconstruction efforts completely changed the social fabric of the area, replacing the souqs and public spaces with designer shops and fancy restaurants. The area has become inaccessible and unaffordable for most Beirut residents, many of whom struggle to make ends meet due to the economic crisis crippling their country. Some locals say it was really built for the wealthy Gulf Arabs who frequently visit Lebanon rather than for the Lebanese people, and that the political elite who dominate the country’s business scene are the only ones benefiting from the ‘restoration’.
Downtown Beirut felt like a ghost town to me and was almost eerie to walk through – the streets were European-inspired but characterless and modern, clearly built for those seeking luxury. However it was fascinating to see, as the area epitomises the current political situation in Lebanon, symbolising the distance between a corrupt elite and the majority of the people.
When you wander up through Downtown, try and end up in Martyrs’ Square, named after the martyrs who were executed there during Ottoman Rule – you’ll see the famous monument erected in their honour. The square is probably the most famous public space in Beirut, and has recently witnessed scenes of protest during the ‘thawra’ (revolution) that began in October 2019.
From Martyrs’ Square you can visit the vast and beautiful Mohammed al-Amin Mosque and the St George Maronite Cathedral – tourists are allowed inside both. The iconic image of these two religious sites built practically alongside one another has come to symbolise the peaceful day-to-day coexistence – but also the dark recent history of sectarian violence – that has come to define modern Lebanon.
The Mohammed al-Amin Mosque and St George Maronite Cathedral, Beirut (image: myarabia.wordpress.com)
Take a cooking class and experience world-famous Lebanese cuisine
One thing that surprised me when I visited Beirut was how different and how much more varied Lebanese food was to what I’d previously experienced in ‘Lebanese’ restaurants in the UK and the Gulf. Of course, they still serve the classics that you would expect – hummus, falafel, kibbeh, vine leaves – but I was surprised at the amount of cheese and vegetables that also go into the vast array of dishes you’ll find in real Lebanese restaurants in the country.
If you want to try cooking Lebanese food for yourself, there are plenty of options for cookery classes and courses to occupy you for an afternoon, for example, Souk el-Tayeb, Tawlet, Lamina’s Kitchen… The list goes on – a quick Google or Instagram search will present an array of options for you depending on where in the city you’re planning to be and the kind of food you’re looking for.
With its combination of mediterranean and Arabic flavours, Lebanese food has become a global phenomenon – and for good reason! (image: Deliveroo)
Sundowners overlooking Pigeon Rock, Raouche
Possibly the most iconic, postcard-worthy image of Beirut is that of Pigeon Rock in Raouche, the natural rock formations off the coast on Beirut’s westernmost tip – also making it the best place in the city to watch the sunset. There are a handful of restaurants at the top of the cliff overlooking the natural landmark where you can enjoy a sundowner, shisha and/or dinner. I loved quaint café Al Falamanki, inspired by 1940s Beirut, where you can watch the sunset over a refreshing lemon and mint juice with the sweet sounds of Fairuz in the background.
Explore Beirut’s world-famous party scene
For the evening, head down to Gemmayze or Armenia Street to explore the magnificent array of bars, from hipster-heaven craft beer pubs to chic speakeasy cocktail bars where the waiters wear crisp white shirts and velvet blazers. If you’re there in the summer, seek out the rooftop bars where you’ll usually find a party raging, the guests dressed up to the nines. If you’re venturing to one of Beirut’s clubs, don’t expect to be home before sunrise…
Beirut is famous for its nightlife – from speakeasy cocktail bars to rooftop pool parties (image: Esquire ME)
Quick tips before you go:
- You can pay using dollars in most places in Beirut – but don’t expect to get change back in anything but Lebanese lira.
- Make sure you get a window seat for your flight in and out of Beirut – you don’t want to miss the epic views of the city skyline!
I hope you find this useful and that you enjoy beautiful Beirut as much as I did! Did we miss anything?! If there’s anything you loved in Beirut that you think we should add to this guide, leave us a comment and let us know.
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