Tuesday, 9 April 2019

Beirut: A Three-Day Itinerary

One of my goals for this year was to travel more within the Middle East and Beirut was a great starting point. Situated on the Mediterranean cost, Beirut feels like the perfect mix of a European and Middle Eastern city, and a great starting point for exploring more of the region that is now home.

Three nights and three days was the perfect amount of time to explore Beirut, here's my three day itinerary and map of the city.

Day 1:

8am: Wake up early at the Three O Nine Hotel in Hamra after landing in Beirut the night before. Our hotel arranged us a taxi from the airport and we checked in, grabbed a drink in the hotel's rooftop bar and called it an early night. The hotel provided a simple breakfast of coffee, tea, juices, fruit and pastries to start the day.

9.30am: Explore the grounds of the American University of Beirut (enter through the main gate on Bliss Street and provide a form of ID to the main desk), a beautiful campus bordering the Mediterranean and home to many, many cats. Some will definitely approach and want a quick cuddle before being distracted by butterflies/food/another cat.

11am: Have brunch at Urbanista on Bliss Street, a cafe/working space serving Lebanese and Western dishes with plenty of vegan options and almond milk coffees. I had a great matcha latte.

12pm: Wander through Beirut's winding streets to the promenade and Raouche Rocks, two large rock formations just off of the coast. The Starbucks here provides the best viewing gallery through its picture windows and roof terrace, and provides a (coconut milk) caffeinated pit stop.

2pm: Wander back through Hamra's shopping streets to Dar Bistro and Books for a late lunch. This cafe is tucked away just off of "Rome" before the junction with Clemenceau Clinic and has a cute colourful terrace area and an on-site book shop. The grilled avocados were delicious.

3.30pm: Walk to Downtown Beirut, the city's upscale district of chic apartment buildings, designer brands and upscale eateries.

5pm: During the summer, check out a rooftop bar at Le Patio or Iris Beirut. These weren't opened on our visit so we opted for a meandering walk along the corniche back to Hamra.

7pm: Grab a drink at one of Hamra's many bars - The Liquor Coffee Store is open 24 hours for coffee by day and cocktails by night (and has a popcorn machine). Sit in the open window and don't be surprised if a cat jumps on to your table. Shout out to the tattooed DJs doing shots of Absinthe at 7pm.

Day 2:

9am: Hire a driver for a day trip out of the city. Our hotel arranged this for us for $130 for the two of us and it meant we were able to take the day at our own pace.

10am: Just a thirty minute drive from Beirut (traffic permitting) the Jeita Grotto is a must-visit. A cable car takes you to the upper grotto which is a huge, cavernous space filled with limestone stalectites and stalecmites, a wander downhill after takes you to the lower grotto which you visit by boat. The grottos are magical, even more so due to no phones or cameras being allowed.

11.30am: Stop at the village of Harissa and board another cable car for a trip up the mountains into the clouds. Visit the Our Lady of Lebanon statue and tiny church underneath before returning to sea level - the views from the cable car are amazing but maybe one to avoid if you have a fear of heights.

1.30pm: Stop on the way for Byblos for lunch - our driver recommended us a restaurant on the coast which served up a feast of Lebanese food and enough fruit to feed a family for desert.

3pm: Arrive at Byblos and explore the narrow streets filled with cafes and gift shops, be sure to pay a visit to the fossilised fish museum!

4pm: Pay the entrance fee for the Byblos Castle and explore the ruins of the castle and surrounding settlement. The scant regard for health and safety rules means that the castle is your playground.

5pm: Return to Beirut to avoid the worst of the traffic.

7pm: Head to Falafel Karim Sahyoun for a quick bite - a falafel wrap here is only £1.50. If falafel isn't your thing, there are plenty of shwarma and crepe stalls dotted along every street in this student-friendly part of town.

8pm: Bar hopping along Cheikh Elias Gaspard Street - we settled in Ales and Tails, a three story cocktail bar with a chakra-themed cocktail menu (much synchronicity!) and which serves made-in-Beirut Three Brothers' Gin. The Crystal Healing cocktail (gin, rosemary and crystal oil) was my favourite.

Day 3:

10am: Enjoy a lazy breakfast at Cafe Younes in Hamra and/or a coffee from Kaldi Coffee bar to ease in to the morning.

11am: Wander back to Downtown Beirut, stopping by the Mohammed Al-Amin Mosque, Saint George Creek Orthodox Cathedral and the Lebanese Parliament. Grab a coffee in Nijmeh Square by the clocktower which was reinstated after the civil war.

1pm: Head to Liza Beirut via Saifi Village, a smart neighborhood dotted with galleries and independent shops. Liza is located in an old Lebanese house in the Achrafieh district, just set back from the main street and came highly recommended.

1.30pm: Enjoy a leisurely lunch in beautiful surroundings, I don't usually go for higher-end restaurants when on holiday but this one was stunning, the food delicious and service unpretentious. I'd recommend making a booking for dinner or for the Sunday brunch which are popular with locals and visitors alike.

3pm: Walk back to Hamra, grabbing a post-lunch coffee or matcha latte at Urbanista.

4.30pm: Hop in a taxi back to Beirut airport.

7.30pm: Bid farewell, and see you soon, to Beirut.

Some Tips

- the official currency is Lebanese Pounds (1000LBP is £0.50) but its best to take dollars and receive Lebanese Pounds in change.

- be careful crossing roads, the "green man" appears to be advisory only but Beirut is very walkable. Aside from our day trip and airport runs we only traveled by foot.

- for budgeting, a cocktail is around $10, a nice brunch or lunch for two around $30 and a coffee $3-4. Street food is very budget friendly (although mostly not gluten/dairy intolerant friendly) and every restaurant we visited had vegan options (in a traditional restaurant skip the mains and get a selection of cold meze and side dishes).

- don't be surprised to see armed soldiers everywhere, and checkpoints throughout the city, especially in the area around the parliament. Yes, Beirut has some history but I felt no more or less safe than on my last visit to London or Paris.

- Beirut is a really friendly city so be sure to ask for recommendations, we wouldn't have discovered a few of the places we visited without chatting to locals and bartenders.

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