27 Jun Beirut is not a war zone, this city will ruin all your prejudices
After listening to all media hype regarding the Middle East crisis, and after reading some serious advices against any unnecessary travel to Beirut I couldn’t help but thinking “do we really need to go there?” The city is located only 75 kilometers from the Syrian border and thus somehow even more dangerous. Sometimes I’m really fed off terrorism stories and predictions, and even more fed by different analysis trying to predict where the next bomb will explode. Luckily we didn’t allow all the bad news to postpone our travel. And thanks to our endless travel enthusiasm and good search before travel we decided to keep up with our travel plan.
Day or night, in Beirut life is always going on
We arrived at Beirut Rafic Hariri International airport during the night expecting difficulties to find any transport to centrally located Hamra neighborhood. Luckily, and no matter of Ramadan everything was working normally. Even the Uber driver came only after 5 minutes of waiting costing us only 10 US Dollar to come to Hamra which is located 12 kilometres from the airport.
Before coming to Beirut I have even read that the road from the airport can easily be closed due to the uncertain situation in southern parts of Beirut where many Palestinian camps are located. When driving to the city I couldn’t help not to think how strange is that everything feels so normal and peaceful here. Not many cars, not any strange sound, not an angry person on the road. When you read all those disapproving articles you expect at least something will go wrong, but the city didn’t give any sign of negativity.
We booked the hotel in Hamra, one of the liveliest parts of Beirut. When we came at 3 am the atmosphere was very alive. People walking like it is a rush hour, loud music from the bars, everywhere you turn entertainment with no end on the horizon, shops and restaurants still opened, and nobody seemed like going home. Finally I found out that here in Hamra it is absolutely normal to work until 4 am, and start a new day at 7 am.
City of difference
After drinking our first Lebanese mint tea and smoked lebanese shisha (argileh) in the main Hamra street we went to bed thinking how interesting is to see a brand new Ferrari passing the street and only a few seconds later here goes an army hammer with soldiers. More over how fascinating is to see perfectly dressed up women wearing only small piece of dress walking beside women wearing Hijab.
Everything is mixed up here but still living side by side; not only Muslims and Christians, but also many different cultures, modern and traditional symbols, ruined and renewed buildings, poverty and wealth… As we had only three days to explore Beirut and its close neighborhood we immediately realized that we will just have to move really fast if we wanted to experience all those differences.
Beirut is the capital and largest city of Lebanon with a population of over two million. Rich history dating back to 8000 BC, luxury fashion brands, modern lifestyle, extraordinary culinary experiences, warm hospitality and Mediterranean climate are only few of the many attributes of this city. Beirut is often called a cosmopolitan hub of the Middle East.
It was destroyed and rebuilt 7 times, and today is considered as the 10th most popular shopping destination in the world. Bullet holes still cover facades all over the city, and the ancient Beirut ruins in the center act as a constant reminder of the city’s turbulent history, of Roman, Ottoman and French rule before Lebanese independence in 1943.
Place where world’s famous designers have their souk
We started our first morning in Beirut walking down 4.8 kilometers long Corniche in Beirut Central District lined with palm trees offering a magnificent view of the Mediterranean sea and the summits of Mount Lebanon to the east. This is a modern part of Beirut which reminds me of Los Angeles scenes, place where beach clubs are only for privileged ones and where exclusive hotels are still being built like they are expecting a great boom of tourism which is not obvious at all.
One of the main attractions at the Corniche is the famous Pigeon Rock situated in very upscale residential area Raouché. Beside the rock and beautiful sea and sunset scene there are not many interesting things to be seen here. Only hundreds of street vendors and tons of people taking a stroll.
Another rather upscale part of Beirut is The Clock Tower and the Star Square which is the city’s most famous pedestrian street. If you ask for a souk or market place be sure that everybody will point to this place. And if you expect some traditional Middle East souk as we did, you will be not only disappointed but also quite amazed with the numbers of haute couture stores. This is what they call a souk.
Generally we had difficulties to explain that we want to experience something traditional. They are somehow proud of all this Western symbols. At that moment I understood the saying “Beirut – Paris of the East”. Every world’s famous designer name is here, and it is hard to believe that actually somebody is entering those stores.
But the truth is that Beirut’s expats and wealthy Lebanese love to live glamorously. Moreover it is funny to see so many beauty salons, hairdressers and bridal shops all around the city. It looks like Beirut is one of the greatest wedding destinations in the Middle East. Of course, this is not the fact, but the fact is that Lebanese women look wonderful and obviously are big fans of beauty treatments.
Islam and Christianity side by side
When exploring Beirut Central District you should stop at least for a few minutes in front of Al Ameen Mosque, one of the most astonishing mosques in the Middle East. Behind the mosque you will also see Christian church standing as it is part of the mosque.
This scene strongly presents the unity between Islam and Christianity which are two main religions in Lebanon, standing in proportion to 54% – 40.4%. Along with the Roman remains and Civil War remains in this central part of Beirut everything else is way too modern, and not as we expected.
The Lebanese Civil War and Syrian conflicts still leaving the bitter taste in Beirut
Civil war in Lebanon ended only in 1990., also the Israeli bombing of Beirut in 2006, destroyed much of the city’s infrastructure, but Beirut serves as an example of how life goes on after the war, and nowhere is this more apparent than in the architecture. But when you Google pictures from the time of the conflict you will see images similar to Syria nowadays. Maybe this is a main reason why people don’t choose Beirut for a city break.
Truth to say, I didn’t expect such a modern city with such an amazing pieces of architecture, imposing buildings and streets paved in luxury. A little bit disappointed with cityscape similar to Dubai, although with not so high buildings we tried to find some neighborhoods that still live traditionally.
At the end it is not hard to find places where people still live authentically, and where there is not any kind of beauty mask over the facades. The only problem is that those kinds of places are highly recommended not to go to as they have a history of car bombings, armed clashes on the street, and kidnapping. Also Lebanon has acted as a safe haven for many refugees in its history and nowadays nearly a third of its population are refugees from Syria and Palestine.
On November 12, 2015, twin suicide bombing happened in the area of the Bourj el-Barajneh neighborhood in Beirut’s southern suburbs killed 43 people and wounded 239 others. On January 21, 2017, Lebanese security forces prevent an attempted suicide attack at a busy café on Hamra Street.
So for the time being Beirut is pretty safe as long as you stay in the main areas away from Palestinian and Syrian camps and of Hezbollah in southern suburbs. Still this is the security situation familiar to all major European cities nowadays. And the only truth is that there are not any rules here. As always, you have to live believing that you will not be at the wrong place at the wrong time.
From traditional Armenian Bourj Hammoud to artistic and modern Mar Mikhael and Gemmayzeh
We didn’t go to the southern neighborhoods of Beirut although if you ask locals it is not an issue to go there. Still we’ve visited traditional Armenian neighborhood Bourj Hammoud founded by refugees of the Armenian Genocide in 1915. This part is famous for its shops and markets selling everything from fruits and spices to gold jewelry, perfumes and imitation of world known brands products.
Bourj Hammoud is home to over 150,000 residents, most of them Armenian, and is a positive example of integration, where refugees, originally living in shacks on the bank of the river, have literally built themselves up from the ground, erecting houses and essentially creating their own city within Beirut. Here, Armenian language, culture, food and traditions are preserved, contributing to the multiculturalism Beirut is known for.
Mar Mikhael and Gemmayzeh, are the most artistic and the most European parts of Beirut. With graffiti, galleries and numerous bars and clubs, they remain the number one place for a night out but also a place to take a day stroll. Colorful streets give you a lot of opportunities for photographing and enjoying a much laid back atmosphere.
Heavy traffic but easy to move around the city
Traffic is heavy and crossing the street is a great adventure but this is a well known characteristic of all Middle East countries. Public transport is nonexistent, well, there are bus running across the city but they are always full and difficult to catch. You can rely only on taxis which you will pay approximately 5 US Dollar for one kilometer of driving.
Beirut is quite an expensive city and the prices are similar to major European cities. Besides walking Uber is the most convenient way of moving around the city. There is a nothing called peak hour here. It’s always like that. Every single day, more than two million vehicles enter and exit Beirut.
People speak a mixture of Arabic, French and English, and it is not a problem to find out everything you want to know. For example we agreed for a day driver in one Hamra’s restaurant very easily. Second day of our trip he took us to the closest cities and attractions: Jeita Grotto, Byblos, Jounieh and Harissa with many stops as we wished along the way. This day driving costed us one hundred US Dollar.
Magnificent Lebanese food
For me Lebanese cuisine is one of the tastiest in the world. Like elsewhere in the Middle East you have to try a Mezze – a small samples of every dish like Manakish, Warak Enab, Hummus, Fattoush, Tabbouleh, Baba Ghanouj, Falafel, Shawarma to name a few.
Some of the most famous Lebenese culinary delights are:
Kibbeh – Lebanon’s National Dish which consists of a dough made of meat, bulgur (cracked wheat), onions and mint leaves, formed into football shaped croquettes, and filled with more meat, onions, pine nuts and Middle Eastern spices. They are then deep fried to perfection so they are crisp on the outside and soft inside!
Kafta– happy little lamb, beef or chicken meatball, filled with onion, parsley, breadcrumbs and spices.
Kanafeh – sugary cheese pastry smothered in orange blossom syrup.
Hummus – blend of chickpea, garlic and tahini.
Manakish – Bread topped with thyme, sesame seeds, sumac and olive oil, this ‘Lebanese Pizza’ is a popular breakfast food but can be enjoyed all day.
Tabbouleh – Parsley, mint, tomatoes and a bunch of other yummy stuff come together making perfect salad with any meal.
Sfeeha – Meat pies are always a good thing and in Lebanon they have their own version with an optimal meat to pie ratio.
Day trip from Beirut
When in Beirut take time at least for a day trip to closest attractions as Jeitta Grotto, Harissa and Byblos. Jeitta Grotto is a system of two separate, but interconnected, karstic limestone caves spanning an overall length of nearly 9 kilometers. Though no pictures are allowed, the grotto is simply breathtaking and missing it while in Lebanon would be just wrong. It was one of top 14 finalists in the New 7 Wonders of Nature competition. And although you might think that in our area you have amazing caves, this one is really something different and special. The great underground city which also has a wonderful nature zone all around it. You would never think that something such amazing exists under this serene canyon only 18 kilometers from Beirut.
Byblos is a wonderful old town promoting itself as a symbol of the first Phoenician city. It is also known as the oldest continuously living city in the world. But Byblos has a lot more history than that, having hosted the Egyptians, Assyrians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Crusaders, Mamluks and Ottomans and more over the past 7,000 years. If you’re a landscape enthusiast and want to film great cityscapes then you will love Harissa’s cable car drive. A cable-car will take you all the way to the top where you will enjoy an astonishing view on Beirut, the ocean and the surroundings.
You can also visit Damascus in Syria if you like
The driver even wanted to take us to Damascus in Syria, like he said „It is only 115 kilometers away from Beirut, and although it usually takes two hours to the city, due to many check point on the way nowadays you can expect four hours drive from Beirut. He added that people there live normally, and that Lebanese often go there to buy cheap food and clothes, even go there for entertainment.
For us it was hard to imagine visiting Damascus after all we heard in the news, but more worried that the stamp in the passport would cause us unwanted problems back in Europe. Unfortunately we didn’t have time to explore the whole Lebanon although distances are not too demanding. Distance from northeast to southwest points is 217 kilometers, and it takes only 56 kilometers from northwest to southeast. Lebanon has about 225 kilometers of coastline, and is bordering Syria in length of 454 kilometers while Israel in length of 79 kilometers.
Don’t let fear gives you a direction of your travel; wrong time and wrong place could also happen in your hometown
I must say that now after visiting Beirut and seeing all the security engaged against hatred and suspicious minds, I definitely feel much more danger of terrorism in any capital of Europe. Maybe it will sound strange but walking in the major parts of Beirut feels like walking with your own security forces.
Although nobody accompanies you directly there are always some military personnel watching after situation. From schools and universities entrances, to governmental buildings, banks, hospitals to road checkpoints… Some statistics show that in Lebanon there is one doctor on every ten people, and when it comes to security it feels like it is one security person on every tourist in the city. Luckily nowadays there are not many tourists here, and that’s why the city is even more fascinating and great to explore.
Photo credits: magic4.club