You’ve ignored the fear mongering about the Middle East and have booked your flights to Beirut! And now you’re wondering where to stay, what to do and what to expect right?! Well here’s my experience of my three nights in this fantastic city…
I really didn’t know what to expect when I arrived, booking this long weekend was a bit of an impulsive, last minute decision. I felt a pang of fear boarding my Emirates plane from Dubai, but as we touched down in Beirut, from my window I looked around at the hills dotted with white buildings and instantly felt a wash of calm come over me. I knew I’d made the right choice in coming.
However I still didn’t really know what I was going to do over the next three days- I didn’t have a guidebook, and hadn’t done any real research. There isn’t a huge wealth of information online for travellers so I am going to give as much information as possible in this post.
My biggest tip is to either stay in an Air B&B so you can get to know Beirut from a local perspective (this is particularly a good option if you’re a couple or with friends), however for the solo traveller I recommend staying in a hostel dorm room so you will be able to meet other travellers. Yes you won’t have the best nights sleep (trust me you’ll be out partying anyway), or the nicest towels and you have to bring your own shampoo – no mini bottles of posh amenities here, but you will meet the most interesting people you have ever met. Often some of the strangest too! They will also be a great source of advice, company and thinking practically you can share taxis and transport if needed to cut costs.
I booked my accommodation online with Saifi Urban Gardens. This is a really nice place. It’s a cafe, bar and also has some dorm rooms and private rooms. It’s in a great location and it’s not expensive. Plus they have small dorm rooms- four beds in the room, and female only dorm rooms. I find girls tend to not only be cleaner (although messier as we have more stuff) and less smelly than guys, they tend not to snore or certainly not as loud as guys do. Now I was lucky and met some fab travellers in my dorm room, but I’d say the best hostel for meeting new people from my experience is Hostel Beirut. More about that in a bit..
So I arrived in the airport at around 6.30pm, got some dollars out the cash point- you can use US dollars or Lebanese pounds everywhere here- from shops to taxis to restaurants. I chose dollars as it was easier for me to convert and to be honest I hadn’t even googled the conversion rate of the Lebanese pound! Anyway, the taxi to the hostel from the airport was around 30 dollars. Did I get ripped off? I’d say so because it was only a 15 minute journey! I tried to haggle but the driver just told me to get out and they were all in cohoots with each other so I just decided to go with it.
Saifi Urban Gardens hostel is located in a fab area called Gemmayze on Gouraud street. As the taxi drove down the narrow streets, I was glued to the window gazing out at the beautiful old buildings- each is different and unique to its neighbouring building! It feels quite European in style. You can definitely see the French influence.
The area was buzzing with young Lebanese men and women getting coffees and shwarmas and smoking shisha, ahh that fruity shisha smell.. One thing I didn’t expect is how much traffic there is on the tiny narrow streets- the taxi driver had to reverse quite a few times to let other cars squeeze by. Walking can also be problematic- be confident and just go is my advice otherwise you’ll be stood waiting forever to cross the street! I assume they will avoid me..
I instantly fell in love with Beirut as soon as I arrived, my mild annoyance at the taxi driver over charging me soon dissipated with the buzz around in my new home for the next three nights.
The taxi driver didn’t know it’s exact location, and after asking around, he pulled up and told me we’d arrived. I looked around. I couldn’t see any signs at all, only some narrow steps leading into a dark abyss. “This is it”? I asked. “Yes, yes he pointed at the alleyway, handed me my suitcase and took his inflated fare.
There were three young dark haired and eyed Lebanese women also making their way down the stairs (albeit looking a hell of a lot more glamorous than I did!) I asked them if this was a hostel called Saifi Urban Gardens and they looked confused, “I think there are rooms here but we don’t know…” I walked down the stairs and on my left saw a sign ‘reception’ yes I was here! Phew. The guy behind the counter was very friendly and showed me to my ladies dorm, and out of respect didn’t enter himself just gestured at the door.
As I entered the dorm of two bunk beds feeling very excited about the days ahead, an American woman in her thirties who lived and worked in London was sat sorting some clothes out. We got chatting and I asked her what her plans were for the night. She was off to Beirut hostel to meet up with some travellers she had met. I asked if I could join. At around 9pm after I’d briefly showered and changed we set off. En route to the hostel we called in a shop and picked up some beers! This was an interesting experience coming from Dubai!! And they were pretty cheap too (compared to Dubai prices anyway) at 3000 Lebanese pounds each. Basically a few dollars or £1.50 Result! I don’t even drink lager or beer but I decided to get in the swing of it and grabbed two Coronas from the fridge! Woohoo!
So off we went to Beirut Hostel. We walked down Pasteur street, Gemmayze which leads on to Armenia street which is a famous street lined with bars and has a truly incredible atmosphere. Each bar is absolutely packed with has crowds of mainly Lebanese drinking, chatting and enjoying themselves, many sit or stand out on the street. The road is full of cars which most of the time are at a standstill. Everybody who goes to the bars in this area seems to wear a uniform of black jeans, black t-shirts and converse. Luckily I was wearing my black jeans, black top and erm new look style converse! Although we didn’t go to a bar here (not that night anyway) we walked up some stairs and a few streets which led to Hostel Beirut.
Now the atmosphere here is much more your typical hostel atmosphere than at Saifi. There were people milling around, people making food in the kitchen, people sat exchanging travel stories round a huge wooden table and others laid on the sofas or chilling on the terrace.
This is such a great hostel for meeting backpackers, and the travellers I met included some real characters, all a bit older and far more interesting than your typical backpacker in Thailand, many had visited, lived and worked in some amazing places and had some real stories to tell. One guy had just been to Iran and he was selling that place to us!! It sounds incredible!
So after chilling and chatting at about midnight, my American companion says she’s leaving but she’d be up for shisha and a drink back at our place. As I love shisha I was totally down for that, (plus I wasn’t sure I’d find my way back in the dark) so off we went.
Even if you don’t stay at Saifi, I recommend it’s cafe/bar – Cafe em Nazih. It’s packed full of locals smoking shisha, drinking, hanging out, eating the amazing food there. We got some manouche jebneh (a bread with cheese inside) and lemon and mint shisha. The shisha was so cheap compared to what I pay in the fancy hotels in Dubai. It was something like eight dollars! I’m used to paying about four times that price so it was a real bargain!! I also switched to amaretto sour cocktails- I’d managed one of the coronas but couldn’t stomach the other- beer/lager really isn’t my thing.
The people in this cafe are so friendly. That’s one thing that stands out about Beirut. Everyone is so friendly. From the old men in the shops to the men and women working behind the bars. Everybody is smiley and friendly and seem happy you’re there. Some places seem to resent foreigners but not here. The American made me laugh though, she’d been living in London a while which is very efficient, and she seemed quite a frantic type, she was getting so annoyed when for example service was slow or things didn’t come on time. I was feeling super chilled and just enjoying my break so I found it quite amusing! Plus Arab time isn’t a new concept to me having lived in Dubai. After some chatting about travel, London life and politics, yes we had to discuss Trump and yes she was appalled and disappointed in her country, we ended up going to sleep around 3am.
The next day (Friday) I woke up bright eyed and bushy tailed despite my lack of sleep, excited to explore the streets of Beirut. I didn’t have an agenda or a plan, something the travellers at Beirut Hostel seemed a bit judgey about. They were on daily missions, exploring different places outside of Beirut each day. And if I had longer I would have done some sightseeing too, but as I only had a few days I didn’t want to spend it in a bus or a taxi. I just wanted to walk around- I do enjoy a good wander! And Dubai is lacking in wandering options and a wandering climate. (However, if you do want to get out of the city the others were raving about the caves (jeitta grottos) and Baalbek temples.)
My first port of call was the Sursock gallery/museum, so off I headed up the St Nicholas steps and the museum was to a street on the left. Handy tip- download a map which you can use offline. I use ‘here we go’ app on my phone and it was very handy, particularly for when you’ve wandered so far you have no idea where you are and you need to find your hostel!
The Sursock art gallery/museum was pretty cool showcasing various Lebanese artists work. Art seems to be a big thing in Beirut and a lot of the art takes inspiration from the rich history of Lebanon, the art is maybe an escapism and also a way to share the hurt, the anger, the lessons of the wars and in particular the civil war. Many artists had also been influenced by French styles due to the strong links between France and Lebanon and some had spent time studying with famous artists in Paris. But art isn’t just present in art galleries, it’s graffitied on walls and buildings, it’s in the fashion, the music, the sculptures, it’s just there, everywhere, its etched into the city.
The Lebanese aren’t afraid to express themselves, and a lot of the art is raw, filled with emotion and passion. As we speak, women in Beirut have been hanging their wedding dresses from nooses at the beach as a protest against the loophole in the law which allows a rapist to be exonerated from his crime if he marries his victim. See article: Wedding dress rape law protest this is real art. It is art, politics, passion and anger in a powerful visual demonstration protecting women’s basic rights.
I overheard a conversation in Starbucks between two locals, and one was arguing exactly that – he was worried about the politics here, he was scared that Lebanon is going backwards and not progressing like it should be. With Christians, Sunni and Shia Muslims living side by side conflict is inevitable. The Civil War which only ended in 1990 still resounds in the city. The bullet holes in the buildings are visual memories of the war. I can’t imagine having lived through that to then see those reminders on a daily basis. With the Syria conflict just over the border to the East, and Israel- Palestine to the South, is it only a matter of time before conflict spills into Lebanon? Refugee camps are heaving with Palestinians who have been forced to leave their country. It isn’t hard to understand how some could become angry, disillusioned, resentful and even dangerous. Will Israel attack Lebanon? Is the Israel-Lebanon war about to start?There are so many variables and possibilities of war, of terrorism, of hate crimes, that until it happens as a civilian all you can do is live in the moment. And that’s what the Lebanese are so good at- they party, they enjoy life…
Some of the exhibited works in the Sursock museum:
There was an exhibition which was particularly interesting about Palestine and Syria as travel destinations in the early 1900s with postcards and extracts from travel books. To read about the peaceful beauty of these places really had an effect on me. Now the only images that come to mind when we think of Syria are those of war. The contrast between the descriptions of the peace and liberal attitudes and natural beauty and history of those places and the descriptions of the war torn cities we hear about today really made this exhibition so poignant.
After the art gallery I had a little look in the shop and cafe, which looked very nice. But I wanted to keep moving.I then walked to downtown. The first sight was the beautiful Mohammad Al-Amin Mosque. It’s blue towers really make it stand out, it’s a stunningly beautiful creation. I spent sometime appreciating the beauty before I moved on.
And down the road from the mosque is the striking Martyrs Monument- created in honour of the Martyrs executed under Ottoman rule in 1916. During the civil war it was badly damaged and you can see the bullet holes which add to the significance of the statue. The woman holding the torch represents freedom as she holds a fellow national round the waist. The two men on the ground look upwards, symbolising hope and liberty. There are many statues around Beirut, and it’s worth just taking a moment to appreciate not just the art but the message they represent, particularly in this turbulent region.
The rich history of Beirut is interwoven through the city, through the buildings, the bullet holes, the people, the atmosphere.. it has such a rich and intense history, and some of it is so recent and raw you can honestly feel it.
After admiring these structures, I made my way to Beirut Souks which is the more modern area of downtown.
Expensive shops, restaurants, cinema.. I didn’t spend too long there, I got away from Dubai because I want a change from that, but it’s a good place for a coffee and people watching. Actually I think my top ‘sight’ in Beirut is exactly that- people watching! From the police with their huge rifles, the older populations with everything they’ve been through, the young and hip, the couples in love, the fashionistas… you can easily pass the time just watching the people.
I went to a beautiful French cafe on the street called Angelina for a little refresher. I treated myself to an amazing chocolate dessert and an iced coffee. Yum. Now can you see why it was known as Paris of the Middle East…
So after that it was time to make my way back to the hostel- I had planned to go out with one of the girls from my hostel and the others from Hostel Beirut. So I got back, relaxed a little, changed and set off to Hostel Beirut to meet the others. Again we were all casually dressed and didn’t feel under dressed at all. I think the locals dress up for the bigger nightclubs but other than BO18 which was fairly casual I didn’t experience that side of the nightlife.
We first went to a bar which played Arabic music and was packed full of locals singing and dancing. It was fun for a bit, but so packed. We then left to another bar, chatted on the street for a bit (seems to be the done thing here) and then at around 2.30am five of us went to a club called BO18. I hadn’t heard of it as I hadn’t really done any research but it’s apparently very famous. It’s an underground club and only opens at 2am, the cool thing is that the roof slides open revealing the night sky above! The music however was not to my taste- it was trance/house. Not my cup of tea. But I enjoyed the night for what it was and after a pizza I was tucked up in bed at erm about 6am! Haha.
After a few hours of sleep and a lesuirely breakfast of manouche zaatar- bread with sesame seeds and herbs (Saifi let’s you have breakfast until midday!) I decided to again do some wandering around. This time I wanted to see the Mar Mikael area during the day. I spent time wandering, had a coffee and then some lunch and returned to the hostel around 5pm.
As it was my last night I didn’t intend to go out.. however when I got chatting to one of the others in the hostel- an amazing woman from Costa Rica who has travelled extensively and works from her laptop while travelling (talk about living the dream!!) we decided to get shisha and food at Cafe em Nazih.
After getting dizzy on apple shisha and copious amounts of the best hummus ever, fried cheese rolls, chips and bread, we set off down Armenia street for more action! As we approached we could see some guys in the street with some kind of fire and a lot of commotion. As we got closer it was just such a bizarre sight- basically guys were stopping their cars on the narrow streets (holding up a lot of traffic) and getting out and doing crazy things to get attention I guess. There was one who was ‘fire blowing’not sure if that’s the correct terminology or not! Others were somersaulting, break dancing .. it was crazy. They would drive up and down stopping at different points then jumping back in their cars. Police were around at times but didn’t seem to mind as long as they didn’t stop for too long. The atmosphere was electric- this place is buzzing!! Guys literally ‘cruise’ up and down checking of the local talent and blasting their music, people are swigging from bottles in the street, groups are hanging out, people are dancing in bars. I loved it. Armenia street is fantastic! It really made me feel alive!!
Here’s a short clip of the action:
After just drinking on the street and people watching for an hour or more, chatting to a few people- they were just coming up to us and asking where we were from etc, all nice apart from an arrogant Australian and a persistent Egyptian who I ended up telling to “go away I don’t like you” this didn’t put him off however “but I like you too much can I take you for a drink?” “No go away!” Eventually he got the hint and left! We made it into a bar – Radio Beirut- a small but cool place. I got my G&T and we chatted to some local guys, then we moved on to another bar, chatted to more local guys and then at about 3am it was time to go back to our hostel!
It really is a city where East meets West.
I ended up walking down the Corniche and made my way to the Hamra district, not far from the University. I then walked back to downtown, and then back to my hostel to get my suitcase. I think I’ve walked more in the last three days thanI have in two years in Dubai! I really enjoyed just exploring the areas.
I needed to leave about 4pm for my flight. I was extremely sad to leave, I did a lot in a few days and had a fab time, but of course there’s so much more to see and do, not just in Beirut but the rest of Lebanon.
I barely scratched the surface of this fascinating country so I may just have to return and scratch a little deeper, I hear the summer is fun …
Some other interesting and informative blogs about Beirut and other places in Lebanon…
Hi, I live and work in Dubai. I enjoy getting out and about and seeing what Dubai has to offer, travelling in my holidays and spare time – prepare for blog posts about this, and cooking vegetarian recipes. I am passionate about travel and animals.
A girl alone in Beirut, ignoring the fearmongering of the western media about the fascinating…