What to do in the ‘Paris of the Middle East’
Lebanon, a beautiful country that’s often overlooked when planning a holiday, should be on everyone’s bucket list in 2018. You simply won’t find delicious hummus (and Lebanese mezzes), Roman ruins, fun nightlife, stunning mountains and beaches, awe-inspiring mosques and churches, all in one place anywhere else in the world!
Lebanon might not be your usual travel destination, but the authentic experience (without the tourist crowd) is exactly where its charm comes from. The country offers the perfect introduction to anyone who has never set foot in the Middle East, as it truly lives up to its nickname, ‘Paris of the Middle East.’ Lebanese people know how to live life to the fullest! They have the best parties, they eat and drink with the best local ingredients… and they’ll welcome you to join them.
Don’t want to miss out this soon-to-be trending travel destination? Check out this handy guide for tips on the best places to stay, eat, drink and visit in Lebanon to help you start planning…
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Where to Stay:
With Lebanon, I’d say put down your travel guidebook and make friends with locals to make the most of your stay. Lebanon is a small country with many points of interest, but if you want to know where the hidden gems are, you need a Lebanese friend to show you their favourite spots.
If experiencing the true Lebanese lifestyle is what you’re after, there is no better way to befriend locals than staying with them. Couchsurfing is active in Lebanon (especially in the bigger cities) and is super helpful when it comes to connecting travellers and locals (who are kind enough to offer you their couch).
Airbnb is also a popular option, with homes to suit every budget. In Lebanon, a lack of public transport system means that it’s best to pick your accommodation as close to the action as possible. In cities like Beirut, you’ll want to be within walking distance from bars, restaurants, shopping and cultural sights, so look for accommodation in central neighbourhoods near the city centre, such as Hamra, Gemmayzeh and Downtown.
Where to Eat and Drink:
Any real foodie would know that Lebanese food is one of the best in the world. But if hummus and Baklava is all you know, then there’s no better way to learn your mezzes (small dishes) in Lebanon. Here are some mouth-watering, local favourites to start with…
A cute bistro that serves Lebanese-Armenian food, here you will get the best of both worlds. Located in the heart of the trendy neighbourhood of Hamra, Onno is unpretentious, cosy and the perfect place to try authentic dishes from Lebanon and Armenia. Whether you’re looking to get a taste of Lebanese cold and hot mezzes or feast on Armenian specialties, there’s something for everyone. Must-try dishes include Soubereg (layered sheets of pastry filled with cheese), Manti (baked mini dumplings stuffed with meat), Ras Asfour Karaz with beef (sautéed cubes of beef, topped with wild cherry sauce and nuts) and Havgitov Basterma (cured beef with fried quail eggs). Need I say more?
Badaro Street, Hamra, & Borj Hammoud, Beirut
Café Em Nazih
Tucked away at the back of Pasteaur Street in Gemmayzeh, Café Em Nazih is a hidden gem that offers reasonably priced traditional Lebanese mezzes. A popular eatery among locals, this is where you will find the cool ‘Beirut vibe’ and of course, delicious Lebanese food. With a friendly ambience and outdoor garden seating, Café Em Nazih is perfect for casual dining during the day. Whether you are in the mood for a fresh Fattoush (Lebanese salad) or ready to indulge in its special Hummus Beiruty and cheese rolls, everything on the menu is worth sampling so you’ll definitely want to come back for more.
Saifi Urban Gardens, Pasteur Street, Gemmayzeh, Beirut District
Located in a heart of the trendy neighbourhood, Mar Mikhael, Enab serves up fresh, delightful Lebanese cuisine in a homely atmosphere. With colourful couches and retro Lebanese indoor décor and an alfresco dining area decorated with greenery, this restaurant is an ideal place for a relaxing dinner after a long day of exploring Beirut. The menu offers a wide array of hot and cold mezzes, with highlights including Soujouk (spicy sausage) Hot Pot, Kibbeh Akras (meat croquette) and Tabbouleh salad. Sahtan (bon appétit in Arabic)!
Geara Building, Armenia Street, Mar Mikhael, Beirut District
Hummus is everywhere in Lebanon, it’s true, but if you’re looking for the best hummus in town, Akra is the place to be. One simply can’t visit Tripoli without making a stop at Akra, the house of hummus, Foul (cooked fava beans with olive oil and chopped vegetables) and Fetteh (cooked tender chickpeas mixed with creamy yoghurt and fried nuts). Served with fresh, warm pita bread and fresh vegetables on the side, Akra’s hummus is absolutely delicious (and addictive). For just under US$3, each portion is big enough for at least two people. Though this dish is very filling, you’ll find yourself reaching for more even when you’re full (and packing more for later).
Al Koura Square (near Al koura Pharmacy), Tripoli
Hilmi’s House of Lemonade
There’s nothing quite like having a glass of refreshing, old fashioned lemonade when beaching in Batroun. Hilmi’s has been serving lemonade made from a unique recipe inherited through generations since 1888. You can’t possibly miss this house as it’s painted in bright yellow, inside and out. On the menu, you’ll find a list of flavoured lemonades to choose from, but the classic ‘Hilmi’s Lemonade’ (there’s a sugar free option) is the most popular choice. Don’t forget to check out the lemonade museum and souvenir shop inside the house if you have the time.
Fun fact: Batrounis take pride in making the best lemonade, so much so that Batroun broke the Guinness World Record of the world’s largest cup of lemonade in 2012.
Street 902, Batroun Old Town, Batroun
Handsomely lit with attractive original tiles, an abundance of dark wood and plenty of cosy sofas, Ferdinand is a stylish bar that attracts the sophisticated Beirut crowd. Far more laid-back and mature than some of its Hamra neighbours, this cosy spot is the ideal place for a lingering evening with a few drinks and a friend or two. Whether you’re in the mood for a classic cocktail with a twist, or something completely unusual and creative, its fantastic selection of cocktails is here to impress. The service is slick and the friendly staff (who take the art of cocktail making seriously) can rustle up just about any drink you ask for. Want to take a break from the Lebanese mezzes? Ferdinand happens to be one of the best burger joints in the area, and you may want to save your stomach for its signature Ferdinand Burger (with blueberry jam, yum).
Mahatma Gandhi Street, Hamra, Beirut
A cosy pub for neighbours of Hamra and beyond, Neighbors feels like a home away from home. Nestled in the heart and soul of Beirut, this is the place to be if you’re looking to chill with the local crowd. The bar may look a little small at first glance, but once you go upstairs, you will find a lovely lounge terrace with plenty of comfy sofas. The drinks are on point, the staff is super friendly and its mouth-watering ‘The Infamous Minis’ (mini beef burgers) is not to be missed.
Plaza Building, Makdessi Street, Hamra, Beirut District 1103
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What to Do:
While Beirut alone is already a fascinating city to explore, Lebanon is so much more than its famous capital city. It is possible to have your accomodation in Beirut and take day trips to other cities (Byblos for example, is only 40 minutes away), which are very diverse on their own when comes to food and drinks, landscape and architecture, so they are definitely worth visiting if a full Lebanese experience is what you’re after.
No visit to Lebanon is complete without a trip to Baalbek, a Phoenician city boasting some of the finest examples of Imperial Roman architecture. Located in the Beqaa Valley, the UNESCO World Heritage Site is about 85km northeast of Beirut and only 10km away from the Syrian border, so if you’re traveling on your own, the best way to get to Baalbek is with a reputable travel operator.
The Roman ruins are a complex of three temples (Temple of Jupiter, Venus and Bacchus) built and continuously overlaid for more than two centuries. Temple of Bacchus, which is dedicated to Bacchus, the god of wine, is often described as the most spectacular temple in the Roman world, and it’s certainly one of the best preserved. It’s fascinating to see details of the beautiful carvings on the fallen ceilings and columns and the Greek myths they try to tell. If you’re interested in visiting one of the Middle East’s major archaeological highlights (some say the ruins are more intact than the ones in Rome), add Baalbek to your itinerary and you won’t be disappointed.
Winery and Brewery Hopping
Did you know that Lebanon is one of the oldest wine-producing countries in the world? For serious wine lovers, the Beqaa Valley is a must-visit as it is home to the major wines of Lebanon. Start with a wine tour and tasting at Château Ksara, the oldest winery in Lebanon famous for producing the country’s first dry red wine. Make a stop at IXSIR to pair its wine with tasty Lebanese food with a gorgeous view over the mountains from the terrace (it makes a great photo stop too). Don’t let your wine hopping stop there and follow local recommendations to Domaine des Tourelles, Château Heritage, Châteaux Musar in the area – because, wine not?
Prefer a locally brewed craft beer? We’ve got you covered. Check out The Colonel Brewery, a microbrewery located in the heart of the beach city of Batroun. Almost a tourist attraction on its own and first of its kind in Lebanon, Colonel is a popular hangout spot for locals and travellers looking to enjoy quality craft beer with casual ambience and laid-back vibes. A beer tasting with its ‘Beer Flight’ (five beer flavors of your choice) is always a good start if you’re not sure what to get. Our favourites are the Lychee Beer, Passion Fruit and Coffee Stout.
Phoenician Wall and Our Lady of the Sea Church
While Batroun is known for its lemonade and craft beer today, it is in fact one of the oldest cities in the world and was once a Phoenician metropolis established more than three millennia ago. One of the living evidence is the Phoenician Wall, built by the Phoenicians to protect the city from tidal waves in the first century B.C. If you’re brave enough, you can even climb up the 225 meters long ancient sea wall, which gives you a stunning panoramic view of the Mediterranean Sea. Standing strong and proud along the coastline, the Phoenician Wall is a unique historical landmark that any visitor to Batroun should not miss.
Another must-visit nearby is the Our Lady of the Sea Church (Saydet El Bahr), a simple Greek Orthodox church that overlooks the Phoenician Wall from the edge of the sea. An iconic feature of the small chapel is its charming terrace with an arched belvedere framing the Mediterranean Sea views. Away from the famous cathedrals in Batroun, this church is a true hidden gem that can be easily overlooked, yet remains a precious one for those who are meant to find it.
Citadel of Raymond de Saint-Gilles
Any first time visitor to Tripoli should start their exploration of the charming old town at the Citadel of Raymond de Saint Gilles. The citadel is among the most impressive Crusader fortresses in the Middle East, rivaling those in Syria and Jordan, not only for the size and preservation, but also for its perfect location, rising above a multitude of densely-populated Tripoli neighbourhoods with views of the sea and the mountains to the east. Every level of the castle offers a different view of Tripoli and excellent photo opportunities, so be sure to save at least an hour to explore this historical site.
It’s Beirut, habibi (my darling in Arabic)! While Lebanon’s capital city is famous for its nightlife, there’s so much to do and see during the day, for art lovers, shoppers, foodies, hipsters and party-goers. Start exploring Beirut from Mar Mikhael, a trendy neighbourhood filled with hip cafés, pubs and street art. Keep walking until you reach Gemmayzeh, an artsy area with Bohemian vibes full of narrow streets, colonial buildings and art galleries (visit the Sursock Museum for contemporary art exhibitions). From there, continue to the West and you will find yourself in Beirut Central District (BCD, aka Downtown).
The iconic landmark of Downtown Beirut is formed by St. George Maronite Cathedral and Mohammad Al-Amin Mosque next to each other, which is a perfect example of the religious diversity in Lebanon. Further west from BCD is Hamra, a friendly, laid-back district that boasts one the most prestigious universities in the Middle East, the American University of Beirut, this area has a unique ‘student vibe’ during daytime and comes alive in the evening. To wrap up the day, don’t forget to take a stroll along the Corniche and make a photo stop at the Pigeon Rocks, Beirut’s most famous natural landmark.
Where to Shop:
Colourfully painted with common and funny Lebanese Arabic words, Reynaldo’s work is beautifully crafted in different forms (coasters, wooden jewellery boxes, door hangers, trays, wall art… you name it). Each and every art piece is unique, which makes them not only the perfect souvenirs for family and friends back home, but also a special gift for yourself that will remind you of memories from your Lebanon trip. You can find Reynaldo’s art at Gibran’s Lebanon located in the Old Souk of Byblos, or follow Reynaldo And Some More Ideas for upcoming exhibitions.
With the motto ‘Inspired by the world, made in Lebanon’, Alice Eddé is a lovely boutique situated at the entrance of Byblos’s Old Souk with a quality line of products for fashion, garden and home, all handmade by talented Lebanese designers, craftsmen and perfumers. This shop is heaven for those who can’t resist the scents of rose, jasmine and lavender, and once inside you can’t help finding everything attractive. From a collection of fragrances by Lebanese perfume brands, natural scented soaps from Tripoli (our favourite), stylish pouches, accessories and home décor made by local artisans, there’s something for everyone to take home with.
Located in the heart of Old Tripoli, Tara W Kheit is an NGO based handcraft atelier dedicated to empower women on a socioeconomic level through teaching them sewing, embroidering and other handcraft techniques. Tara W Kheit’s fashion collections are stylishly made with unique designs – whether you’re looking for clothing for an everyday look or a tailor-made outfit for a special occasion, its professional team is here to match your taste. Looking for something special for your loved ones? Its embroidery hoops and dreamcatchers are simply gorgeous, and you can easily request a customised one or attend one of its regular hand embroidery workshops to create your own.
Note: As always, be sure to check the Foreign Affairs website in your country for any travel advice and warnings (as you should for any country you plan to visit) before you book your flight and proceed with further planning. Happy travels!
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All images credited to Pearl Yan