If you want to travel to Damascus, you will most likely have to stop over in Beirut – and that’s a good thing. Beirut is the shining pearl of the Arabic part of the Middle East – a mostly Muslim counterpart to the vibrant and lively Tel Aviv, if you will. On my journey to Syria and back, I spent 48 hours in the beautiful capital of the tiny Lebanon, mostly just wandering through the city and capturing its singular atmosphere.
Guesthouse Beit al Tawlet Beirut
My journey begins in the friendly and intimate guesthouse Tawlet Beirut. The adjacent restaurant is famous across the Middle East for its farmer’s kitchen with a focus on local produce and specialities. Located in the vibrant Mar Mikhael neighborhood, the guesthouse was warm, welcoming and furnished beautifully in a 70ies throwback style. I can very well recommend staying over here, as food and hospitality are perfectly combined to serve any visitor a wholesome Beirut experience. At around 120 Euro a night for the most expensive room, it’s also relatively affordable.
The food at Beit Al Tawlet might be the best you’ll eat in terms of fine Middle Eastern flavors and delicate ingredients, and even if you don’t stay over at the guesthouse, it’s unacceptable not to have lunch at the restaurant during your stay. Find out more about Beit el Tawlet on their website.
The Mar Mikhael neighborhood
Unlike old European quarters, Mar Mikhael isn’t exactly a neighborhood per se. It’s comprised mostly of Armenia street, the main traffic arterie of East Beirut, where boutiques, bars and restaurants flank the sidewalks. There are a few side streets harboring secrets, but most of the shops are car garages and offices or simply residential buildings.
Beiruts Triple Arch Windows
Lebanon’s rattling history has really shaped the landscape of architecture: the unique mix of war-torn houses, renovated facades, bullet-riddled skyscrapers and abandoned palaces is mesmerizing. The oldest remaining houses of Beirut are a peculiar pastiche of Venetian, Ottoman and Islamic influences. What I loved the most where the typical triple arch window structures of the 19th century buildings. They are a direct response to the Lebanese climate and landscapes: to cool down the apartments during the blazing heat of the Mediterranean summers, the ceilings had to be high. The triple arch has a central door with a window on each side and a small balcony outside it. They are usually connected to the main family room of the house, which is oriented towards the valley of the city. This ensured excellent cross-ventilation and a comfortable environment for the unbearably hot Lebanese summers.
There are many visible remains of the horrible civil war of the Lebanon. Much like the current Syrian civil war, it was quite a complex, geopolitical affair with consequences reigning the Middle East to this day. From 1975 to 1990, the city was constantly under bombardment. You can still feel the scars, trace them with your eyes, throughout the whole of Beirut but especially downtown.
In the “battle of the hotels”, a subconflict within the 1975–77 phase of the Lebanese Civil War, the fancy downtown hotels of Beirut became the de facto frontline: those who reigned over the highest building in the city – at that point, the newly opened Holiday Inn resort – reigned over the city and won the battle. War Hotels have always played a big role in the capturing of a city, and you can learn more about them in this Al Jazeera documentary series.
The Holiday Inn is nothing but a landmark today, mostly used as military base for the Lebanese armed forces. It’s a giant reminder of the city’s brutal history, perforated and bleak, but never forgotten. I was hypnotized by the stark contrast to the rest of the skyline and couldn’t keep my camera off it.
The Beirut Corniche
The Corniche in Beirut is perfect for an afternoon stroll towards the sunset. Unfortunately, I got lost in one of the side streets exactly as my phone’s battery ran out. It got dark quickly and I didn’t feel safe walking through the adjacent Hamra neighborhood without any means of communication, so I took a cab and went back to the hotel (before making a quick stop at a Lobster Roll restaurant. I had been craving something else than Arabic food for a change).
Qasr Bechara el Khouri
This abandoned palace was recommended to me by a fellow traveler. It’s not exactly on a typical tourists’ itinerary, but I felt empowered by my camera and had to see it for myself. I don’t regret it at all: the abandoned palace (amidst a very unsuspectingly ugly neighborhood Zokak el Blat, on a hill) is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.
Zokak el-Blat was once a neighborhood for Beirut’s high society, full of palaces and villas. The 19th century mansion Qasr Bechara el Khouri (the Palace of Bechara el Khouri) is one of the rare remains of the upper middle class here. It has been abandoned for a long time. A carpenter and furniture designer resides in the palace now – he welcomed me into his workshop and let me explore the building (or what’s left of it). Nobody seems to care about this gem anymore. I don’t mind. It’s beautiful, exactly the way it is.
The Egg, or the Dome, is an unfinished cinema structure built in 1965. I am not entirely sure if this counts as brutalist – I don’t know if they ever intended to leave it looking that way. Its construction was interrupted during the Lebanese civil war, but the dome remains a landmark of Beirut (much like the Holiday Inn – the Lebanese seem to love their historical landmarks a lot).
Returning to Beirut
There was a lot more that I was lucky enough to see and explore in my 48 hours of Beirut: the farmer’s market, the Roman temples, a few museums, beautiful churches and colossal mosques. I badly, desperately want to return to experience more of the food scene, the nightlife and the outskirts of the city; the oceanside and the hillsides. I want to meet more Lebanese people (who aren’t that much different from Syrians or Europeans, but somehow there is a distinction that I can’t put my finger on exactly), I definitely want to eat more and I want to simply spend more time here. I hope to be able to do so, soon.
Getting to Beirut
I flew on Lufthansa from Berlin via Frankfurt to Beirut on a 7-day roundtrip (I went to Damascus in the meantime) for around 250 Euro. There are no direct flights to Beirut anymore since Germania went bankrupt, but you can also fly via Istanbul on Turkish Airlines or Pegasus.