This week’s guest blog is by Cathy Winston, (www.mummytravels.com) a freelance journalist and travel writer who tweets as @cathywinston.
For most people, Beirut still equals war-zone. The nightly images from the 80s of a bombed-out, bullet-riddled city are hard to shake, even years after the civil war ended. But the Lebanese capital, once known as the Paris of the East, is busy reinventing itself again.
With new bars, restaurants and shops opening every day, make sure you also fit in these top five.
A cross between cabaret and a club, Music Hall is set in a converted cinema in Downtown’s Starco Centre. With half the seats torn out to make space for tables, you’ll see everyone from octogenarians to their teenage grandchildren dancing in the aisles to live music and DJs playing everything from local hits to jazz.
It gets packed soon after the music starts around 11pm, but that does mean you’re almost guaranteed to get chatting as people cram themselves into each and every corner. There’s a minimum spend of around £35, so make a night of it. Just watch out for the lemon Tabasco vodka shots…
Stroll along the Corniche
There’s nowhere better for a spot of people-watching than the Corniche, the promenade along the Mediterranean. From families to designer-clad ladies who lunch with their pocket-sized dogs, the whole of Beirut seems to pass by at some point.
Stop for a coffee and a nargileh en route to the natural rock arches at Pigeon Rocks, where you can watch the waves crashing against the cliff.
The best way to discover the string of civilisations who’ve ruled Lebanon over the years is exploring Beirut’s National Museum, with collections from prehistoric settlements to the more recent Arab dynasties, along with votive statues from the temples at Byblos, Egyptian-style statues, Greek-influenced mosaics and marble artefacts from the Phoenician and Roman Empires.
And its home on Rue Damas, the former Green Line which split the city between factions during the civil war, gives you a taste of recent history as well as a look back across the centuries. Every hour there’s an absorbing video showing the heavy damage the building sustained, along with how the treasures inside were kept safe during the fighting.
Take a walk
Beirut’s crane-filled horizon is testament to the frantic rebuilding going on – but you don’t need to wander far before the occasional bullet-ridden house or road-side tank reminds you what the city has endured.
Put on your walking shoes and take in everything from the statues in Martyrs’ Square to the Mohammed al-Amin mosque, designed to look like Istanbul’s Blue Mosque, plus St George’s cathedral, the shell of the Holiday Inn, the old Jewish Quarter and the city’s Roman remains.
Eat, eat and eat some more
From hummus to falafel and local speciality kibbeh, made with lamb and pine nuts, you won’t go hungry. Don’t bother heading out for dinner much before 9pm unless you want the restaurant to yourself, but when you do go there’s choice galore.
Sit down to a cold beer and bargain Lebanese feast at Le Chef in Gemmayze, or grab a schwarma off the street in Hamra – every Beiruti seems to have an opinion on where the best ones are. Or for something more upmarket try Casablanca, in a converted villa on the Corniche, while MYU in Gemmayze gets a younger crowd for drinks and dinner.
For more of Cathy’s work, check out her post on Madagascar. Thanks Cathy!