GUEST WRITER: With 24 hours to party in Beirut, Sara Oldham took some local advice on where to eat, drink and dance in the charismatic Lebanese capital.
Sara Oldham is a London-based freelance journalist, specialising in food, travel and lifestyle features. She could not live without books, sunshine or prawn dumplings. A good day should contain all three…
By Sara Oldham
The scars of past conflicts remain in Beirut, shelled buildings a visual reminder of the wars that have taken their toll. Today trouble simmers on the border between Lebanon and Syria, across which thousands of Syrian refugees have flooded. But although the region remains volatile, for now, the Lebanese capital remains unaffected – and Beirut’s younger population sees this as a very good reason to party.
Central Beirut stands on the sea. Along its shoreline, teenage boys and elderly women compete to hawk speed boat rides, while couples stroll hand in hand. The city combines new hotels and sleek boutiques with works in progress – there are plenty of towering cranes and construction sites. Roads are so wide you have to sprint to reach the other side, as they seethe with sleek BMWs, dented Citroens and honking old Mercedes taxis.
I stayed in Ashrafieh, a quiet, affluent area in the east of the city, where cute shops, restaurants and beautiful mansions fill the narrow streets. Our home for the weekend was the four-bedroom Hayete Guesthouse – housed in an art deco-style building, it is light and full of character, with whitewashed walls and splashes of colour from textiles, paintings and vintage furniture.
Breakfast was served by Hayete’s local owners Robert and Carina, who were eager to share the best of Beirut with their guests.
Through them, I discovered that Beirut is considered the most liberal city in the Middle East, which has helped it to build a reputation as a great place to let your hair down. Part Muslim, part Christian, the rules are more relaxed than in other countries in the region. Armed with Robert and Carina’s expert tips, I lined up the ultimate hedonist’s weekend.
10am: A breakfast of champions
When a day of drinking looms, a Lebanese breakfast is perfect to line the stomach. Mornings in Hayete begin with a plentiful spread of breads, pastries, salad and boiled eggs, washed down with tea and coffee and freshly-squeezed orange juice. My highlight was zaatar – flatbread with wild thyme, sesame and olive oil – slathered in tangy yoghurt. And knefé pastries, which Robert ran out to buy so we could eat them hot. Made from sesame dough stuffed with melted cheese, and topped with sugar, honey and rose-water syrup, they were an indulgent and sticky treat. Robert and Carina recommend buying these from oriental sweet shop Al Rashidi in Sodeco.
They buy bread and pastry from Bread Republic, a small, modern bakery in Ashrafieh where businessmen quietly sip coffee, and women in traditional scarves natter in Arabic and French. If you’re staying more centrally, the bakery also has a shop in Hamra. Don’t be surprised to see croissants on the menu. France temporarily had a mandate in Lebanon between 1918 and 1946 and the morning croissant is typical of a general fondness for all things French.
12pm: Pouts and partying by the pool
Beirut is well known in the Middle East for it’s all-day pool parties. To join in, you’ll need to line your pockets with cash. The hotels charge double what you’ll pay in some local bars, but for one day we thought it was worth it. Jump in a cab to the Corniche, the wide boulevard that curves along the Mediterranean Sea. Head to The Riviera Hotel, follow a passage beneath the Corniche, and emerge at the beachside pool bar. You can’t access the beach itself, but a sea of sun loungers shine white under a cloudless sky, surrounding a large swimming pool jutting above sea.
Now you’re ready to dip your toe into a world of Middle Eastern bling. Waft the twenty-dollar entry fee into the hands of an assistant, follow him to your sun lounger and tell him your drink of choice (we drank a bottle of Lebanese rose, for an ostentatious 50 USD). Then pout, readjust your bikini and lie back for the best people-watching in the world. Identical noses, all impeccably straight, swollen lips, pairs of beach balls restrained by string bikinis and impossibly inflated male bodies, mingle, swim and dance in the pool, as a DJ ramps up the volume on an uplifting house soundtrack.
These are the rich and young of Beirut and visitors from across the Middle East who come to enjoy the liberal attitudes here. It’s reality television waiting to happen. TOWIB (The Only Way is Beirut), as we affectionately called it.
5pm: A sobering stroll
On our way back to freshen up for the evening, we took a stroll north along the Corniche to see the sparkling new exterior of the five-star Phoenecia Hotel, revamped in 2011 for its 50th anniversary.
It’s a far cry from the 1970s, when it was destroyed during the civil war. Behind it, the Holiday Inn – also once a popular target for rocket launchers – is still an empty shell. We continued north from here through Downtown, where immaculate yellow stone buildings are filled with opulent gourmet restaurants and luxury fashion boutiques.
I looked up on our stroll to see a boy and girl embracing on a poster for Burberry. Behind their bare, entwined limbs, a huge ornate mosque shone in the evening sun.
9pm: A trip to Gemmayze
This area next to Ashrafieh is one of the oldest in the city and one of the best-looking, with its French-built art deco architecture. Its bars and restaurants are full of locals in their 20s and 30s and it’s a great place to start the night. We ate at Le Chef, a small bistro. It’s a little rough around the edges with formica tables, strip lighting and plastic flowers, but serves the best- priced meze in Beirut. Le Chef serves a mix of Lebanese and French food. We had globe artichoke dipped into vinaigrette. Fatteh (yoghurt with chickpeas and fried flatbread), spinach pastries, chicken cassoulet and wine for less than 15 USD a head.
Next, we stopped at Saifi Urban Gardens, a hostel with a busy taverna-style bar, where an Egyptian birthday was in full swing. We drank the local beer and tried to avoid looking ridiculous as we were pulled on to the dance floor for Egyptian folk dancing.
Finally, we headed to Behind the Green Door, where we settled into plush velvet booths to an R&B soundtrack.
2am: Clubbing under the stars
To top off the night we head to B018 nightclub, which boasts a strong line-up of international DJs who come to play as day breaks. In the industrial district of Quarantine, it’s the city’s newest club and is famous for a retractable roof over the dancefloor that lets its revellers watch the sunrise. The taxi will drop you off in a car park and in the middle you’ll see what looks like a landing strip. Closer inspection will reveal a crypt-like hollow where hundreds of local 20- and 30-somethings dance.
As we made our way past gruff bouncers downstairs into the club (entry between 20-50 USD), we walked into a crowd of local men. We could count the women on one hand – two Western students, and three locals with short trendy haircuts. Here, the fashion isn’t for diamond rocks and plastic bodies.
As the night went on, the more mashed-up dancers were only interested in the music. Meanwhile, on the edge of the dancefloor, predatory blokes sized up which woman to pounce on. I was called beautiful, told my boyfriend was very lucky, and declined offers of drinks, dances and rides home as I bounced from one chat up line to the next. For one night only, I felt like the most attractive woman who ever lived…
Before you visit Beirut, check on the latest travel advice from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.