Beirut, the city of contrasts, where the jacaranda flowers and oleander fill the streets and gardens of old, crumbling French-style villas, where one shop window glitters with ancient Roman glass and priceless ancient art pieces and the next doorway is riddled with bullet holes, relics of the 2006 civil war.
Rising like the proverbial phoenix, Beirut is vibrant and exciting, soulful and complex yet welcoming and cosmopolitan. When you hit Beirut and the bars of Gemmayzeh, you feel the pulse of the city, and it’s racing. Stay up late – there are more drinking hot spots and clubs tucked away like precious gems across the city. Any of the coloured steps that lead from the main Gemmayzeh drag will take you to a new flight of fun, a new level of sophisticated engagement with one of the most vibrant cities you can visit.
A frisson of the past walks with you everywhere in Beirut. Along the Corniche, The Saint-George was the first beach club to open on the coast of Beirut in the 1930s, and its attached hotel played host to glamorous visitors including Brigitte Bardot, Peter O’Toole (during breaks from filming Lawrence of Arabia in Jordan) and Egypt’s King Farouk. The action has moved on now, past Madame Bleu and the beach clubs filled with fashionable Lebanese in chic swimwear and shades taking in the Mediterranean glitter and the golden sun.
From Clemenceau, with the flowers tumbling from courtyards gated with ornate French filigree, to the Zaha Hadid-designed American University building, on to the glamour of downtown: high-end shops and classy cocktails at rooftop bars of hotels such as Le Grey and the Four Seasons. The architecture is cutting edge and the message is clear – the party started here. That it stopped and started many times is still clearly visible in the bullet-scarred doorways and the bombed-out Egg cinema building, a relic of the 1960s. Nearby is the ancient Roman Forum, intact and tucked next to a shiny new mosque. In Badaro, there are museums and cafés leading to the district’s boutiques and small antiques shops. Hamra is alive with chat and lively lounges, and then Achrafieh and Gemmayzeh ramp up the party with more bars and villas glinting with enticing lights, fashion and food.
This is a sybaritic city, one that feeds the senses as much as the intellect. In Beirut, it’s impossible not to involve oneself in the history, the conversation, the bar scene, the embroidering of present with past, quite literally mending damage where cracks have been visible. It’s full of bustle and noise, but there is always a cosy lounge, or a bench under the shade of a jacaranda tree on which to sit and take in this extraordinary region.
The best hotels in Beirut
The best things to do in Beirut
Who knew that a museum devoted to rocks and fossils could be so compelling? Anyone who has come across Michael Suleiman, the debonair international owner with more than a touch of Indiana Jones in his vision for this surprising little gem, will know that rocks rock. Founded only seven years ago, but constantly in the top five listings for Beirut, the combination of state-of-the-art technology and top-quality crystals, put together by a man whose heart is clearly made of gemstones, is astounding. ‘I love to hear of death or divorce in the world of collectors,’ he deadpans, ‘and I will go into battle for the best in the world. I have the best in the world of everything here.’ He points to a splash of solid gold that looks like an angel in flight: ‘It’s natural, someone found it in a rock.’
Address: Mim Museum, Université Saint-Joseph Campus de L’innovation et du Sport, Beirut
Telephone: +961 1 421 672