Beirut is more than just a historical site; it is an experience, a city like any other on earth. For most of history, Beirut was just a small fishing village on the Lebanese coast, overshadowed by more important ports to the north and the south, but during the French mandate period, Beirut became the symbol of an independent Lebanon. With independence in 1946, Beirut flourished and symbolized the hopes and aspirations of the Lebanese people. With a world-class casino, a fashionable downtown, and sunny beaches, Beirut was a world-class city until the civil war that broke out in 1975 left the once named "Paris of the Middle East" in rubble. Nowadays, sadly the word "Beirut" only conjures up images of ruined buildings, bombings, kidnapping, massacres, and war. However, with 14 years having past since the last bullet was fired, the face of Beirut has changed. With the war behind them, the Lebanese have worked hard to return Beirut to its former glory, and it is well on its way. The downtown area, which was completely leveled during the war, has been completely rebuilt. All over the city, buildings full of mortar and bullet holes are being replaced with five-star hotels and world-class restaurants. Today, Beirut is thriving, cosmopolitan, and fashionable. Its fans see it as a bastion of modernism and culture in the stifling atmosphere of the Middle East; its critics see it as a fake, a facade covering deeper social problems. Love it or hate, Beirut is something that has to be experienced.
Modern Beirut is divided into three main parts, West Beirut, East Beirut, and downtown.
West Beirut was the traditional Muslim side of town during the civil war and the site of some of the more infamous events of the war, such as the Holiday Inn bombing. Although numerous remnants of the war remain, such as the ruined skeleton of the Holiday Inn, West Beirut has reestablished itself as home to great shopping, the beautiful Corniche, and most famously, the American University of Beirut. The heart of West Beirut lies on Hamra Street, where you will find the majority of hotels, as well as a large number of classy shops and cafés. If you head down the hill to the north from Hamra Street, you will end up on the Beirut Corniche, a large walkway that extends along the whole north side of West Beirut. One of the best times to head down to the Corniche is in the morning; when the sun is low, the Corniche is full of exercising Beirutis, and the Mediterranean looks magical. Summer nights along the Cornihce, though, are a typically Lebanese experience. In the summer, Beirutis from all over town flock to the Corniche for evening strolls. Street vendors selling ears of corn and loving couples vie for space as trendy young men eagerly drive by in their brand-new Mercedes. All along the edge of the water you’ll find makeshift argileh cafés, where you can sit and smoke a water pipe while looking out over the sea for just over $1.
Rouché, located on the western end of West Beirut is the home of the most spectacular sight in Beirut, the Pigeon Rocks. The Pigeon Rocks are a set of large rocks protruding out of the sea below the cliffs of Rouché. Any visit to Beirut requires that you spend at least one evening at any of the numerous cafés here watching the sun slowly sink into the horizon of the sea. When accompanied with an argileh, Almaza beer, or some Kefraya wine, it is a magical sight. Then, after watching the sunset, the swank shopping area of Verdun is just a short walk away in case you are in the mood for high fashion.
Downtown (or Beirut Central Distict) symbolizes the desire of the people of Beirut to recapture the glory of their city. Located on the edge of the Green Line, the line that separated East and West Beirut, the BCD witnessed most of the destruction of the Civil War. Most of its beautiful Ottoman and French buildings were destroyed, along with many mosques and churches. Today, however, the BCD is the sight of the most ambitious rehabilitation project in Lebanon, and it has been a raging success. The lovely Place d’Étoile, with its clock tower and outdoor cafés, has been beautifully rebuilt and recalls images of numerous towns around Europe. The BCD then spirals out from the Place, with numerous pedestrian walkways full of cafés, ice cream stands, and classy stores. On Friday and Saturday nights, this is the place to be if you don’t want to indulge in the clubs of East Beirut. On weekend nights, the BCD floods with all varieties of Beirutis who come to be seen in their latest fashions and who come to chat and smoke argileh with friends. All in all, it is my favorite part of Beirut and must-see for all visitors. In addition to the shops and cafés, the BCD also has a few of Beirut’s historical sights, such as a set of Roman baths, the majestic Omari Mosque, and the Cardo Maximus. The mosque is worth a visit, but the others aren’t exactly spectacular but do serve as a nice reminder of Beirut’s past.
Crossing Martyr’s Square and the Green Line from the BCD, you arrive in East Beirut, the traditionally Christian area of town. Many visitors to Beirut skip by East Beirut because it lacks the beautiful sea views of West Beirut and the history of the BCD, but Beirut still has plenty to offer. It is the more upper-class part of Beirut and therefore has some great shopping, namely at the ABC Center. It is also host to Beirut’s best and most stylish restaurants. Here you will find everything from Lebanese food to sushi bars to Indian, all of them sure to please your taste buds, but not your wallet. East Beirut is also home to one of the hidden gems of Beirut, the Sursock Museum, a privately owned home that serves as a beautiful gallery of contemporary art. The main reason, though, that people flock to East Beirut is for Rue Monot, which boasts the highest concentration of clubs and bars in Beirut. From Thursday night to Sunday night, Rue Monot is full of hip Beirutis strolling the length of the street and lining up outside clubs. On Rue Monot there are clubs for all tastes. Crystal is a pumping nightclub with music as loud as the clothes, Leila Braun is a chill and trendy bar, and there is even an Irish pub. If you enjoy nightlife, Rue Monot is your spot.
Also worth mentioning is the National Museum. Located a bit south of the BCD, the National Museum is a beautifully organized museum that showcases artifacts from Lebanon’s diverse history. From Phoneician statue, to Roman mosaics to Ottoman Coins, the museum has an impressive collection, as well as a very interesting video that shows you how badly the museum was destroyed during the war and the lengths they went to preserve the artifacts. For example, they literally built brick walls around the large statues that could not be moved.
And that is Beirut. Visit and decide for yourself…