Lebanon is a country that has it all – sunshine, sea, mountains, greenery and much more. Sometimes associated with conflict over the years, it is now a safe place to be and attracting tourists from all over the globe for many reasons including: wonderful food, beaches, fun things to do, architecture and culture.
Beirut, just a few miles from the airport, is a very relaxed city in the Middle East and you are able to drink and even gamble. It’s definitely not a traditional Middle Eastern country and religions live side by side. Half Christian and half Muslim, the evidence of this harmonious existence between religions is seen in the Downtown area Saint George Cathedral and Mohammad al-Amin Mosque stand side by side.
Where to stay
The Phoenicia Hotel
Beirut’s Grand Dame of hotels is one of the city’s most luxurious properties. Positioned on the corniche overlooking the Mediterranean, the hotel is in walking distance (or a short taxi ride) from anywhere in Beirut.
The Phoenicia desk is actually the first thing you see after you collect your luggage at the airport. Its well worth booking the Phoenicia car from the airport, which is only a 15 minute ride. As you enter, you are surrounded by water features, marble and chandeliers – old school luxury with modern class. There is always an interesting buzz in the hotel with many Lebanese celebrating occasions in the various private spaces.
Rooms – With 480 rooms, there is a wide choice with a select few having balconies. Being in the Intercontinental family, rooms are well appointed and very comfortable. Incidentally, this was one of the best hotel showers I have ever experienced – what power! I also had a look around the Grand Royal Suite – 600 square metres of pure luxury and even comes with a gym and a library.
A must try is the outdoor pool. This mosaic lined pool is soaked in sunshine approximately between 1045am and 3pm so be sure to arrive early to soak up Lebanese rays. Beirut has so many dining options but be sure to enjoy the outdoor seating by the pool at the Amethyste Lounge restaurant in the evening. With an international and Lebanese menu, the mezze sharing dishes give you an introduction to Lebanese food. It is also a great place to enjoy some shisha and cocktails from expert mixologists.
Breakfast – Officially the largest breakfast buffet in all of Lebanon, this feast at Mosaic restaurant is served till 11am and not to be missed as it is a gastronomic tour of breakfast in Lebanon. Expect freshly baked Lebanese morning pizza (mankoush), live cooking stations, a juice bar and much more. I would suggest asking for a Lebanese coffee to keep you energised for the day.
The Phoenicia is beyond all doubt one of the finest addresses in all of Beirut and has such a legendary reputation. To book, visit: www.phoeniciabeirut.com
Le Gray, Downtown Beirut
Opened in 2009 at one of the smartest addresses in Beirut, Le Gray is a prime example of the Lebanese determination. Located in the Downtown area, Le Gray overlooks Martyrs’ Square in Beirut’s most luxurious shopping districts with a Chanel and Rolex boutique next door.
The design element is really strong throughout with a combination of modern design and Lebanese spirit with over 400 artworks dotted around, thick luxury carpets with interior design by Mary Fox Linton in partnership with Gordon Campbell Gray. The non smoking signs I mistook for artwork were in fact non smoking signs in public areas which was refreshing in a city where smoking is allowed indoors.
Incidentally, the Campbell Gray hotel group have seven hotels in total spearheaded by British founder Gordon Campbell Gray who is involved in every aspect of the creation, design and philosophy of his hotels.
Rooms – 103 elegant rooms and suites have all been designed to make the most of the Lebanese sun and views of the Downtown area. Our 60 square metre Executive Suite was designed to feel homely and luxurious with clever touches like a fresh bean coffee machine, generous living/dining area, balcony and an oversize bath with TV.
Before you explore Beirut, head to the see through rooftop infinity pool. There is a wow factor with sweeping views of Beirut, the sea and Mount Lebanon (there was snow on the mountain in early May!)
Our highlight was dinner at Indigo on the Roof (which is also open for breakfast and lunch). This sun lit dining room and outdoor garden terrace not only offers great views but also top shelf ingredients from all over the world. At dinner, we enjoyed a lobster salad followed by the most tender fillet steak. The atmosphere at Indigo is fun on weekends where you can expect entertainment or if you prefer more privacy, visit on a Sunday evening for a romantic dinner.
To find out more and book, visit: www.campbellgrayhotels.com/le-gray-beirut
Where to eat
Lebanese food is so diverse and so delicious. It caters for vegetarians, meat lovers and those who love garlic and lemon. From breakfast to dinner, there is something for everyone. It includes an wealth of whole grains, fruits, vegetables, starches, fresh fish, poultry and seafood. Below are a list of our pick of restaurants:
Al-Sultan Brahim – The most famous seafood restaurant in Beirut. Book ahead and enjoy the freshest fish and Lebanese classics. Best of all, you choose your own fish from the counter and decide how you would like it cooked. The classic choice is the Sultan Ibrahim (local red mullet) friend and served with lemon.
Mayrig – Armenian food is really in at the moment and is where the Lebanese go when they are fed up of Lebanese food! Mayrig was founded 15 years ago in an old Lebanese house with a terrace. Dishes we loved included fried cheese dumplings and all the Armenian salads.
Liza – This is the place to go for Lebanese with a twist. This is the place to see and also be seen in. A design dream, the restaurant resembles a lavishly decorated private apartment. Luxurious without being grandiose, expect refined Lebanese dishes and daily special dishes.
Amal Bohsali – The family have been making Lebanese sweets and pastry since 1878 and are still very much a family business. Here, you can choose between baklava, sweets with fresh cream ,cakes, sweets for diabetics and much more.
Things to do in Beirut
Beirut is a relatively small city so you can explore most of the City in a couple of days. Getting around is also easy and I would recommend using Uber – fast, efficient and you know what you are paying before you begin your journey.
Souk el Tayeb – If you’re in Beirut on a Wednesday or Saturday be sure to check out the organic farmers market, both for goodies to bring home and treats to eat there. 100 small producers from all over Lebanon offer fresh, seasonal food products from fruits and vegetables to traditional crafts.
Zeytouna Bay – Located opposite The Phoenicia hotel in the Beirut Marina, this is a food, leisure, shopping and all round elegant destination and is well worth half a day exploring. Meander around The Yacht Club and enjoy a choice of 15 restaurants on offer.
Malls – There are so many malls to suit all shopping needs from designer to every day. If you think bigger is better, City Mall is the place to be with 80,000 square metres of fun and more than 120 shops.
Beirut bus tour – Launched in May 2019, you can see all of Beirut with a hop on and off bus tour. Sights include the National Museum of Beirut, Martyrs’ Square, Pigeon Rocks in Raouche and more. A walking tour of the Downtown area is also an option with a focus on architecture and history.
Lebanon is easy to explore and only an hour from Beirut, you could be visiting a vineyard, enjoying snow, fresh mountain air. We made a pilgrimage to Harissa – The Shrine of Our Lady of Lebanon. Drawing visitors of all faiths, the shrine is somewhere to be at peace, light a candle and also to enjoy the view from 650 metres above sea level.
So the Lebanese love to party and love to go out, at any opportunity. Beirut is a city that sleeps very late after long nights out. Just be aware that everything starts late in Beirut so have an afternoon nap as the sunsets, a late dinner and then hit the town. Here is our pick of what to do if you are around over a weekend:
Music Hall – This is an experience not to be missed. Imagine a theatre, club and bar all mixed into one. This is somewhere to go in a group where you can expect the best Lebanese musicians, singers and performers in a series of short live musical acts. Add to this cocktails, snacks and slick service and you can imagine the atmosphere. Booking is essential and can be made here. www.themusichall.com
Bar hopping in Mar Mikhael – Take to the streets and bar hop along this bar laden stretch. Don’t forget to stop off for some shisha along the way.
Iris rooftop – With panoramic views over the ocean along with great vistas of the Beirut skyline, this is the rooftop to people watch over a cocktail on a Friday night.
Overall, Beirut is definitely making a comeback. Just a few minutes from the airport, this is a great weekend destination if you are looking for fine hotels, things to do, luxury shopping and much more. For more information on Lebanon, visit: www.destinationlebanon.gov.lb
By Mark Captain