Beirut – From Warzone to 2010s Glamourous Tourist Destination
Lebanon’s capital city Beirut has certainly had it’s share of ups and downs over the centuries. Recently, the city has once again re-emerged as a glamourous tourist hot spot after years of turmoil. Beirut spent fifteen years in civil war between 1975 and 1990, and the years following the Lebanese Civil War have been an on-again, off-again series of clashes and security concerns.
The situation in Lebanon changes like the wind, it seems, but this hasn’t deterred Beirut from pulling out all the stops in an effort to rebuild and persevere – and with impressive results given the circumstances. Despite the civil war which has conversely been raging next door in Syria, Beirut has also made progress in defiance of Hezbollah’s war against Israel; progress in the face of years of Syria’s military occupation. Beirut is ready, but are you ready for Beirut?
When considering visiting Beirut on holiday, there are several things worth noting. The city’s infrastructure has slowly but surely been brought back up to speed. Beirut is described as being a city where you’ve put Miami, Paris, and Baghdad into a giant cocktail shaker. Shiny corporate towers and modern high rises sprout from the ground over quaint villas and fancy boutiques, all against a backdrop of mortar-damaged buildings and crumbling ruins of contemporary city structures pockmarked with bullet holes. A Ferrari showroom languishes on a street that was recently nothing but a pile of rubble, upscale restaurants dot the coastline, and haute couture fashion districts and stylish cafés have claimed their territory once again.
If the traditional architecture of Beirut has caught your attention in the past, it’s important to note that none of the city’s recent construction resembles the tremendous French influence that Beirut once had; English rapidly became the second most spoken language in the city of Beirut.
There is fear that the push for such rapid restoration is eclipsing any of the architectural integrity the city once held; gone are the days of the Mediterranean style old world charm, paving the way for clean, striking, and modern looking buildings. Nevertheless, the heritage is still there – many of the Parisian and Ottoman style stone buildings have simply been restored and resurfaced giving them quite an updated feel. The result is a huge contrast between the newer structures and the well warn surroundings of the rest of Beirut.
Just north west of the downtown core of Beirut, you’ll discover this renewal in action, in the form of a reminder of the country’s roots: The Beirut Souks. This area had been completely obliterated and rebuilt from the ground up, and is now known as the “ultimate shopping experience” in the city. Here, you can find just about anything you could possible dream of finding in Lebanon – prestigious upscale shops selling shoes and handbags, lingerie, watches, jewelry and clothing for all ages, electronics and home wares. You spend an entire day browsing the Beirut Souks’ many shops offering brand name goods. The shopping here can be pricey, but it’s worth checking out.
The Beirut Souks isn’t all glitz and glamour chic retail therapy either – as the name might suggest, this area harkens back to its traditional roots with a touch of the open-air market vibe, and it offers a wide variety of dining establishments, relaxing cafés, and standbys such as Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts.
If you’re looking for something a little more on the traditional side, you can pop on over to Kababji. Boasting a variety of fresh ingredients and delicious flavours, Kababji is an authentic Lebanese restaurant priding itself on its exceptional cooking methods and traditional style food options. Kababji’s goal has been to make the distinct flavour of authentic Lebanese cooking known all over world, and they’re doing a great job in the Beirut Souks. It’s a good choice for a meal on the go while you’re spending the day out and about the shopping district and craving something a little bit different from your standard fast food.
Tel: +961 1 992 505/ +961 76 522 999
Web site: www.kababji.com
Looking for a particularly upscale dining experience? Ever the cosmopolitan capital, Beirut is the home of one of a handful of Yabani restaurants in the Middle East serving up authentic Japanese sushi in an extraordinarily serene and stylish atmosphere. The refined and elegant décor is both modern and traditionally Japanese, and the vibe of the restaurant is simplistic. There are tables in a small garden if you prefer, and the menu features over one hundred perfectly created fresh items. There’s also an impressive wine list.
Tel: +961 1 992 233 ,
Web site: www.yabanirestaurants.com
Finally, if it’s Beirut’s old French influences that truly stir the romantic in you while visiting Lebanon, consider paying a visit to La Cave de Joël Robuchon, “The Wine Library” as it is called. Opening its doors for the first time in 2010 within the Beirut Souks, La Cave de Joël Robuchon made a name for itself as a French franchised wine cellar that celebrates French chef and restauranteur Joël Robuchon’s philosophies and offers curious consumers an excellent selection of wines. Presently, Beirut is the only La Cave de Joël Robuchon location abroad, with the motto “Small Wines, Big Wines, Good Wines”. The Wine Library features a selection of five hundred references from La Cave de Joël Robuchon and Paris restaurants, as well as sophisticated food pairing advice provided by experienced sommeliers for retail activities such as cellar and private occasions, events, etc. Stop by La Cave for a unique in-store “by the glass” wine tasting experience using its innovative wine dispenser. There are eight bottles of wine continually featured: four reds and four whites on a 3 week rotation period – a perfect reason to make the trip to this little slice of Paris.
Tel: +961 1 999 109
Web site: www.beirutsouks.com.lb
Before leaving the Beirut Souks, make sure you take the opportunity to see the district’s art displays. The Skyring, is Spanish artist Lluis Lleo’s connection between the two cities of Beirut and Barcelona. On one single white circle, the roadway between Beirut and Barcelona has been portrayed in a rich red colour, uniting the cities together through the mountains and valleys.
The Visitor is quite visible as you travel through Souk Ayyas Square, dominating the space around it. The iconic piece of artwork is done in a bright orange colour, and rests on large stilts. This interesting sculpture by Belgian international artists Arne Quinze “has the appearance of fragile, vulnerable people, who keep on standing and surviving in every context, despite their thin legs. (It is) proof of man’s incredible flexibility.” It is said that the artists intend for the “visitors” to the city of Beirut come into the place with an open mind and see things with new eyes.
The fascinating Spaghetti Benches, created by French-Argentinian artist Pablo Reinoso, are a few of many of Reinoso’s creations made around the world in different forms. At the courtyard of the Gold Souks in Beirut, you will be able to discover three of these works branching out and upwards towards the sky, their “limbs” intertwining out from street benches.
A series of fifteen different impressive sculptures punctuate the promenade from Bab Idriss Square to the Roman Hippodrome, created by Spanish international artist Xavier Corbero. It’s perfect for an outdoor stroll, transforming your surroundings into an open air art museum. The artist’s sculptures are all created from basalt extracted from a particular quarry found in the suburbs of Barcelona, taking three years to complete the sculpting process. The artist has stated that “Nature opens the doors of imagination and imagination opens the doors of reality.”
Modern art, modern eating establishments, modern shopping districts and modern architecture, as terrific as they may be, will no doubt leave you craving something of the old Beirut and environs. For anyone who is seeking out a local attraction steeped in history, an excursion to Baalbeck is a must-do. The ruins you will find here are located 70 miles outside of the city and offer a tremendously personal experience as the area is a generally quiet one. You can book an organized tour straight out of Beirut or hire a car and driver for a round trip deal – just remember to negotiate the price beforehand.
The site features a complex of Roman temples which are considered to be one of the most important ancient areas in the entire Middle East and best preserved Roman ruins in Lebanon. In Roman times, it was known as Heliopolis, or “City of the Sun”. Most of the ruins date from Roman times, however, the structures followed the pattern of re-building over top of the sacred and holy areas of the cultures that came before them. The oldest part of the ruins that you can find at Baalbek fit no known purpose or culture exactly, and its mystery is alluring.
In order to reach this destination you will be crossing through the verdant Beqaa valley, famous around the world for its Château Ksara and Château Kefraya wineries; it would be well worth your journey to make this valley a part of your adventure.
Zahlé, Beqaa Valley
Tel: 00 961 1 485 207
Web site: www.chateaukefraya.com
Nestled in Beqaa Valley you will discover Chateau Kefraya, boasting a fantastic vineyard which is actually only about fifty years old, however the wine produced here is award winning. Make arrangements ahead of time, and take some time out of your afternoon to enjoy tastings and a bit of a tour.
Zahlé, Beqaa Valley
Tel: 00 961 880 1662
Web site: www.ksara.com.lb
Known for wines such as the Château Ksara Réserve du Couvent, a rich Cabernet Sauvignon blend popular in North America, Chateau Ksara is one of the most important must-sees for any wine lover or history buff traveling in and around Beirut. Chateau Ksara embodies the tradition and the importance of wine making in Lebanon, as it is the oldest winery in the Middle East. Established by Jesuit monks, the vineyards here have been tended to at an altitude of approximately 1,000 metres, enjoying dry and warm days with cool nights. These ideal conditions are what allows the Beqaa Valley grapes to fully ripen while maintaining freshness. Call ahead to book a guided tour in advance, and savour the valley’s wine tasting opportunities as you learn more about the region and the wines it produces.
Just like all other holiday destinations, pay attention to local safety updates as well as travel advisories issued by your country. As Beirut is well known for being calm one day and chaotic the next, keep abreast of any safety notices if Beirut is on your travel itinerary. It’s a marvelous city that is once again welcoming the tourism it badly needs in order to regain economic strength, eager to share its culture, its art, its cuisine and its wines, its history and its natural attractions with the world.
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