We’re huddled in the back of a people carrier on a Saturday night in downtown Beirut. Don’t worry, despite strict Foreign Office warnings, there’s no imminent danger – other than an impending fall from social grace. Our host for the night has ducked down outside the O1NE club so that her friends in sports cars don’t catch sight of us in a mere taxi. She has a point. As we wait to enter the packed nightclub along with the city’s glitterati, a never-ending trail of Porsches, Ferraris and Mercedes line-up outside.
I’m visiting Lebanon’s capital for the first time and quickly falling for its chaotic charm. If Paris is hectic, Beirut is its younger cousin on steroids. The city is non-stop. With 3.2 cars per family of four – the highest in the world – there’a backdrop of honking motors and gridlocked traffic everywhere you go. There’s also always a celebration. The women puts Brits to shame with their stylish attire (the only place I have seen stilettos in a swimming pool) while the men greet each other with three kisses in the street in the Middle East’s most liberal outpost.
Looks are important here. As well as daytime glamour, the city has carved out a reputation for being the Middle East’s ‘mecca’ for cosmetic surgery. In the ritzier hotels and restaurants keep an eye out for faces in slings as well-heeled ladies recover from a surgical boost. But there’s plenty of natural beauty to Beirut too. Skyscrapers and luxury developments sit alongside Ottoman and colonial French buildings, while other patches of the city are being dug up as archaeologists look for Iron Age artefacts.
Beirut is currently undergoing a cultural renaissance after years of civil war. The darker parts of Lebanon’s history can be glanced at in the buildings. Opened two years before the Lebanese civil war broke out in 1975, the Beirut Holiday Inn is today a dilapidated skyscraper with bullet holes still visible. Next door lies the five-star Phoenicia – another Beirut institution that became a battlefield in the civil war and was left a burnt-out ruin. It has had a happier ending than the Holiday Inn – reopening in 2000 as the Phoenicia InterContinental Beirut after a $100 millon restoration. As in the past, it’s once again where the city’s big players congregate.
Also rising from the ashes, is a burgeoning art scene that is earning a reputation across the world. In the city’s main museums lie works inspired by the civil wars and the ongoing situation in Syria. The National Museum — just off Damascus road — exhibits 1300 artefacts, dating from prehistoric times to the medieval Mamluk period. During the civil war, the sarcophagi and statues were encased in concrete to keep them safe — and miraculously came out unharmed despite the museum standing on the frontline separating the warring factions.
In terms of new art, there’s the Beirut Art Centre which exhibits contemporary artists, Aishti Foundation, a modern and contemporary art museum in neighbouring Byblos and the Sursock Museum, supervised by renowned French architect Jean-Michel Wilmotte. Founded in 1961, the museum is housed in the former private villa of Beirut aristocrat Nicolas Ibrahim Sursock. It reopened in 2015, with four new underground floors beneath the current garden and new stain glassed windows.
No visit to Lebanon would be complete without a significant part of the day being focussed on food. At Tawlet, in Mar Mikhael, they provide an unlimited buffet of delights — each day a different cook from a different area takes over the kitchen to tell the story and the traditions of a region of Lebanon. Our visit produced goat tartare, honey cake and a zingy chicken dish that would make Nandos customers weep with jealousy. For a more high-end dining experience, head to Liza Soughayar’s stylish Beirut outpost in Achrafieh neighbourhood. She recently returned to her hometown after establishing Liza in Paris to great acclaim. The Ashrafıeh district restaurant is hung with paintings of bombed Beirut buildings by a young Lebanese artist and offers a sophisticated twist on Lebanese cuisine.
The return of Soughayar to her home city, along with the bubbling creative scene marks a new chapter for the city. Sat beside Israel and Syria, the politics of Lebanon is not simple. But if you’re keen for an adventure, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more interesting place with friendlier guides to help you explore it.