Beirut, Lebanon’s capital, is known as one of the premier party spots of the Middle East — and not without reason. Thanks in part to a healthy percentage of Christian and secular members, Lebanese society is far more moderate and open to Western libations that many of its neighbors. Its location on a peninsula that juts out into the deep, blue Mediterranean doesn’t hurt its cause either.
What some of you may not know about me is that I almost never drink or party when I travel. My arrival in Lebanon was underscored by the fact that I’d spent the previous two weeks — which also happened to be the last two of the Holy Month of Ramadan — at a friend’s home in Muslim Malaysia, which meant alcohol was completely prohibited, my own personal discipline notwithstanding.
My friend Najwa, whom I traveled to Jordan the following week to see, also happened to be in Beirut when I was and invited me to meet her and some of her friends at a bar in the city’s Achrafiyeh area. Unfortunately, fatigue and my inability to speak Arabic left me unable to find the bar, in spite of the fact that I probably wouldn’t have had anything to drink had I located it.
I certainly wasn’t disappointed, having explored the city on foot for several days. Indeed, whether or not you take advantage of Beirut’s reputation as a nightlife destination, many a party are to be had in the Lebanese capital without setting foot inside a bar or club.
I was lucky: The first day I arrived in Beirut corresponded with the beginning of the Hamra Street Festival, a celebration of Lebanese culture and creativity that corresponds with the end of Ramadan. Even if you don’t plan to visit Lebanon in the middle of September, when the festival (and the end of the Holy Month) typically occurs, Hamra Street has a lot to offer.
Located just south of the American University of Beirut (A.U.B.) campus, to the west of Achrafiyeh and to the north of Manara, Hamra Street’s orientations between many of Beirut’s most famous areas gives it an eclecticism that requires a stroll up and down its complete length. The street is known as a more authentic part of Beirut due to its having survived the Lebanese Civil War andhas gained notoriety within the Middle East as a result — in other words, you can plan on having a lot of company walking with you. Hamra Street’s age relative to the rest of the Lebanese capital also means many of the buildings that stand along it are original, which creates an air of class and charm.
If you’re hungry, enjoy an authentic shawerma or falafel wrap at any of the dozens of stalls that sell them. Need a kick? Hamra Street is famous for its streetside cafés, where Lebanese intelligentsia have congregated for more than a century. At night and on the weekend — which is Friday and Saturday in Lebanon — Hamra Street is additionally replete with portable kiosks selling souvenirs, clothing and specialty food and drink.
Beirut Waterfront District
As you head north and east away from Hamra Street toward the water, it’s hard not to notice the dozens of cranes that rise into the air and the half-done highrises they’re working hard to fully complete. Part of a joint effort between the Lebanese Tourism Board and several investors to drive tourism numbers up to where they were before the Civil War, the re-development of Beirut’s urban waterfront has been scheduled for completion since 2009, but the date keeps getting pushed back.
In spite of still being very much a work in progress, the existing Beirut waterfront provides excellent views of both the sparkling, blue Mediterranean to the north and the sandy-colored city to the south. Its location around Beirut’s urban center, roughly equidistant between the eastern and western parts of the city, makes getting lost here almost impossible, so walk to your heart’s content without worry.
The walk from the waterfront back to the Hamra Streeet/A.U.B. is a pleasant — albeit uphill — affair, one that takes you up the grand General Fuad Chehab Boulevard the bisects the city. Upon reaching the top, you get a fabulous panorama of the redevelopment project, the nearby financial district (which is also under construction) and, of course, the sea. Snap a few pictures, turn around and follow signs to where you need to go.
Beyrouth Souks and Martyr’s Square
I’m not going to lie: When I first saw the sign that read “Beyrouth Souks,” I couldn’t help but mistake it for “Beyrouth Sucks.” Although I certainly wouldn’t agree with such a sentiment, it’s nonetheless a funny homophone.
The actual meaning of the word “souks” — “docks,” according to my friend Rami — is appropriate, given the Souks’ close proximity to the aforementioned Beirut marina. It should take you about 15 minutes if you walk quickly. Want to hire a taxi? Good luck. As of July 2011, no proper “taxis” exist in Beirut. You can stand along the side of the road and hail cars that pass in hopes of one being a taxi, but walking is probably just as fast.
Of course, Beyrouth Souks isn’t a dock, but a shopping area where wealthy Lebanese and tourists get merchandise from their favorite high street retailers. As you can imagine I felt a bit out of place here, although Rami was nice enough to treat me to an incredible Lebanese lunch in one of the nearby restaurants. The Souks is nonetheless a nice place for a walk, if only to see another side of a country whose visible population is mostly lower class.
Beyrouth Souks sits on the other side of ruins — ones that reputedly date back to Roman times — from the Al-Amin mosque, where slain former Lebanese prime minister Rafic Harriri is laid to rest. Also close by is Martyr’s Square, a monument that sits in front of the mosque, dedicated to the memories of rebels hanged wanting to declare Lebanese independence from the Ottomans in the wake of World War I.
Ramlet el Baida and Other Beaches
Although I was bound for a different, sandier place — namely Ramlet el Baida, Beirut’s only proper beach — I couldn’t help but gawk at the many rocky sunning spots that exists along the almost impossibly blue and clear Mediterranean as I headed south toward my destination.
Not surprisingly, I spent only a couple hours at Ramlet el Baida and set immediately to climbing over the first barrier that seemed safe on my way back. Reaching any of the rocks, which are not officially permitted for sunbathing or swimming, is a daunting task, one which requires a certain amount of agility and balance.
Bring a thick towel along and once you find a place to sun yourself, lay it out before you lay yourself out — many local residents drink on the rocks and it isn’t uncommon to find shards of broken glass there. Likewise if you choose to swim, use caution when climbing back on the rocks, whose edges are sharp and jagged — and whatever you do, don’t get in the water when seas are choppy, unless you want to end up thrown up against the knife-like boulders.