Of course I’m not an expert here, I’ve only spent one week visiting Beirut and only seen couple of areas of the city (Gemmayze where I’ve stayed, Downtown, Hamra just to name few) but it was enough to show me how wrong I was in my expectations. Most of all Beirut (and Lebanon) turned out to be really safe! Yet another lesson I’ve learnt from my travels.
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The worst thing about visiting Beirut is crazy traffic
OK, that’s the only thing I actually expected before visiting Beirut. I was lucky as I arrived on Sunday, it was the 1st of May weekend, so the city was less hectic than usual and I could remind myself how to deal with crazy drivers in the Middle East. After spending few days in Beirut I kind of have nightmares with beeping cars! But also I quickly started playing by their rules. I was crossing the street at the red light, I was navigating easily between the driving cars, I somehow managed to cross the road. I figured that the key to success there is to look confident (and it doesn’t matter if you’re shaking inside). I even got used to the drivers not caring about the red light and stopping in the middle of the crossing (if at all). My only problem in Beirut were scooters – their drivers don’t follow any rules at all and it doesn’t matter if it’s a one way street, they will go in the wrong direction. So many times I was this close to getting hit by a scooter…
Beirut is modern
The cruel civil war in Lebanon ended only in 1990. When you google pictures from the time of the conflict you will see images similar to what Warsaw after World War 2 or Syria these days looked like. That’s why I’m not really surprised people still kind of expect to see a battlefield when visiting Beirut. But the capital of Lebanon was rebuilt very quickly and in a modern manner. The downtown and the seaside area are full of skyscrapers, some of them being a masterpiece of the modern architecture. The city seems to be still under construction, on every second street new tall buildings are being worked on. The area of downtown close to the clock tower and the parliament reminded me a little bit of the Northern Avenue in my favorite Yerevan, Armenia – all made up and modern but soulless. Then the sea promenade looked much like I imagine Tel Aviv to be: high buildings, trendy people, something going on for all the time. Beirut definitely looks much different than I’ve thought it’d be. I was expecting a city similar to Amman, a crazy Middle East capital, yet I got a modern Mediterranean metropolis.
Beirut is wealthy
I’m not saying I was expecting a poor city with crumbling houses but I definitely didn’t expect this level of wealth. The majority of the cars on the road are really good ones (and most have dark windows too), the downtown is full of fancy shops of world famous designers. The souk is where you will find most of these shops – the place is busy with people, the whole families (including African / Asian help) hang out there, spending lots and lots of money. Apparently it’s completely normal to have the help from developing countries here, even if very often there’s a dark story behind. When I arrived to Beirut I witnessed an interesting scene at the airport: a big group of African women probably from Ethiopia (as the flights was from Addis Abeba) arrived and local wealthy families were waiting for them, after the paper work was done each woman could leave with their new employers. To be honest it looked a little bit disturbing to me… Of course Beirut has poor areas too, every city has them, but overall I didn’t expect to see such a wealthy city!
Beirut is multicultural
Again, my mistake for not preparing myself properly for visiting Beirut. I was expecting a rather homogenous society, with a Muslim majority as that’s the image we mostly get in the media. And even if I knew that the civil war, to simplify, was between western (Muslim) and eastern (Christian) part of the city, even if I knew there’s a significant Armenian Diaspora living in Beirut I still didn’t make any conclusion out of it. And then I was almost jaw dropping surprised when I saw a mosque neighboring with catholic cathedral, with Armenian and Orthodox churches within the eyesight. When walking around Gemmayze or Mar Mikhael I’ve spotted numerous small shrines, showing St. Mary, Jesus and various saints. They were literally on every street. The multicultural face of Beirut can be also seen in the local food scene. Not only you can eat amazing Lebanese food (which I believe is one of the best cuisines in the world) but you have so many other delicious options to choose from. And everything is at the very high level, the best you can ask for!
Beirut is tolerant
Or at least so it seems. After all after the horrible experience of civil war that ended a little bit over 20 years ago it must be difficult to live in somehow peaceful atmosphere. Yet Beirut manages it, at least on the surface. The downtown is the epicenter of religions coexisting that paints a perfect image of tolerant Beirut. But when you look closer at the neighborhoods you can notice that they are divided by the religion, Bourj Hamoud being the Armenian one, Gemmayze – Christian and Hamra Muslim. It doesn’t take much research, just careful looking around at the buildings and people and you can figure it out. But still, despite the tragic past, caused mostly be the religious differences, these days people can live together next to each other without too much tension. And in the places like the Corniche all these cultures mingle, creating an interesting mix of people of Beirut.
Beirut is progressive
Of all the Middle East cities I’ve visited Beirut was the most progressive one, or at least that was the impression I got. It was the best seen in the outfits of people around, many of the young inhabitants of Beirut barely wore any clothes on, and that was just fine. Modest Muslims passing them by didn’t give them a reproachful looks, they were used to such a freedom. The party scene of Beirut is pretty epic as well. In the day the Armenia street – the main artery of Mar Mikhael – is a hectic yet rather sleepy place but come the evening and it turns into the major nightlife hub. It’s hard to believe this is actually the same place where nothing was going on just few hours before! Beirut nightlife is considered one of the best in the region and the party areas of the city change constantly. Previously it was Hamra, then Gemmayze. These days it’s Mar Mikhael but there’re already bets what will be next.
Beirut is chic
I’m very far from being the fashion victim and usually I don’t care about the clothes at all. But there were moments in Beirut (pretty many of them actually) when I really felt underdressed. The wealth and designer shops really have an impact on people of Beirut as the places like the souk or Corniche felt like runways. Not something you’d expect from the recently war torn country!
Beirut is cool
I found Beirut to be a cool and rather alternative place to visit. The cafe scene is thriving, the street art is booming and the vibe is too cool to describe. This is especially seen in Gemmayze and Mar Mikhael, currently the trendiest neighborhoods of Beirut. Wander around the streets of these districts, without any plan or map, and you will see what I’m talking about. Every single corner hides some wonders, whether it is a cool street art, a small shrine, a charming cafe, a small craft store or an independent art gallery. I was lucky to stay there too, in probably the coolest place in Beirut – Saifi Urban Garden. You won’t find it in websites like Booking – they’re just too great and don’t really need any advertisements and it’s still not easy to get a place to stay there. Besides accommodation they also offer school of Arabic language, a rooftop nightclub and a cafe with awesome yet affordable food, probably your best choice in Beirut. If you want to experience the coolest that Beirut has to offer this is the place to go (even if you’re staying somewhere else you need to visit Saifi Urban Gardens!).
Beirut is artistic
Not only the walls of Beirut are full of street art. The city is full of art galleries, most of them of independent and contemporary pieces. I can’t recall any other city I’ve visited that would have so many decent galleries to visit. They are spread all over the city, it’s not easy to get to some of them (though really worth it) and if you’d like to visit only the best ones you’d still need at least few days to only fully explore the local art scene.
Beirut is amazing
I guess it’s pretty obvious by now that I really enjoyed my time visiting Beirut and found it to be simply an amazing place. The city took me by surprise and I loved almost every single moment I’ve spent there. I had pretty high expectations of Beirut and I was slightly afraid the city will disappoint me but there was really nothing to worry about. Beirut was simply amazing. OK, sometimes it was overwhelming too (like the time when I didn’t manage to get to the bus stop to go for a day out of the city) but that’s how the Middle East is supposed to be.
Even if I spent a week in Beirut and walked like crazy just about everywhere I limited myself only to some parts of the city. Not because I wanted to but because it was a wise thing to do. The news and warning we get aren’t made up and Beirut as well as whole Lebanon is dealing with a lot of problems these days. But if you stick to the awesome areas of Gemmayze, Mar Mikhael, Achrafieh, Downtown, Hamra and Corniche you will be more than fine and I’m sure you will enjoy Beirut as much as I did!
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