Lebanon

BEIRUT

Where to stay

The Golden Tulip Serenada is in Hamra district and is a comfortable hotel, part of a chain, with decent offers available on the usual booking websites. There is a rooftop pool – closed when I was there but would be a good asset in warmer weather.

The Casa D’Or is along the same lines as the Golden Tulip and is just a few streets away, in the same district of Hamra. Not quite so glitzy but it’s cheaper and breakfast is included. Very friendly and helpful staff.

Billed as the number one budget option on Trip Advisor, Saifi Urban Gardens has a decent cafe bar but I wasn’t impressed by the accommodation – very basic, not entirely clean and overpriced for what you get. Having said that, I met people who’d stayed in rooms on the ground floor (I was on an upper floor of the meandering building) who gave more favourable reports than I did. And I didn’t meet anyone who’d found a comfortable and good value budget option in Beirut. Urban’s the word: this place is literally next to a main road and above the bus station.

Where to eat and drink

You’re spoilt for choice in Beirut. I very much liked Kahwet Leila in Gemmeyaze, described as ‘authentic kitsch Lebanese’ – a laidback place to eat reasonably priced Lebanese food and smoke a hookah if you want one. Similar in style is Laziz in Hamra. Tawlet is the current talk of the town – open for a lunch only buffet, cooked by a revolving roster of chefs from around Lebanon, this is a sophisticated but casual venue offering a modern take on traditional regional Lebanese cuisine. Highly recommended. Also runs events such as cookery classes and wine tastings. Abdel Wahab is very nice and the decor is lovely though it’s a little pricey for what you get.

For upmarket places (with prices to match), try the marina (Zaitunay Bay) – I ate and drank very well at Cro Magnon. Be warned, these places are extremely popular, so book ahead if possible. If you don’t want to eat but want to people watch and look at the yachts, there are also cafes where you can just have a drink.

Plenty of international places – I had a coffee in Paul on Gouraud Street while outside soldiers in armoured tanks kept a watchful eye on pro- and anti-Assad demonstrations.

Dragonfly is a cool but laidback bar in Gemmayze. Friendly, expert bar staff and mean cocktails.

What to do

Wander the streets of the various districts – downtown, Hamra, Gemmayzeh, Achrafiye, Mar Mikhael, stroll along the Corniche. Rent a bike from Beirut by Bike and coast along the seafront to Raouche Rocks and Ramlet Al Bayda beach. Go to the National Museum for a strong collection of exhibits and a fascinating 15 minute documentary on the reconstruction of the museum after its devastation in the civil war. Nice gift shop too. Wander around the American University of Beirut campus and visit the onsite natural history museum. Join up with a group for a weekend hike or snowshoeing in the mountains, depending on the season and the weather (I snow shoed in Qanat Bakish with Blue Carrot Adventures – join their Facebook group to find out about their activities). Window shop in Beirut Souks (not the bazaar its name suggests, but a brand new designer shop studded shopping mall), drink coffee, eat delicious manoushe from street stands and peek into the many mosques (if you’re a woman don’t forget to cover your hair with a scarf).

If you’re interested in Beirut, you might like to check out my blog post, Despatches from Beirut.

BEIT MERY

A small town just outside/above Beirut. No real reason to visit unless the annual Al Bustan Festival (events staged mainly at the Al Bustan Hotel in Beit Mery) is on. I went to an amazing Paco Pena performance at the festival and stayed at the Hotel Wakim – comfortable, with very kind and helpful staff. I ate at the Restaurant Mounir in nearby Broumamma – high quality food, though the overall experience was all a bit formal for my liking. The Maronite convent Deir al Kalaa is worth a visit if you’re in the area and is perched above some vaguely interesting ruins.

TRIPOLI

Where to stay

Accommodation options are fairly limited in the old town, though I gather there are some more modern and luxurious places in the new town. I stayed at the Hotel Koura – down a tiny alley and more of a basic B&B than a hotel. Atmospheric, with thick stone walls, and a friendly communal breakfast table, but very cold and damp in the spring. Over priced. The landlord and his family are friendly but eccentric. Central location near the old town.

Where to eat

I can highly recommend Restaurant El Continental on Rue Tall just off the clock tower square for excellent Lebanese food at extremely good value prices. The fish and rice dish was so tasty I had it twice (on different days). No alcohol served. There are some great places to try sweet Lebanese pastries like baklava – try Abdul Rahman Hallab & Sons on Riad al-Solh Street. Cafe Fahim on the corner of the clocktower square is a cavernous place filled with smoke – an atmospheric place to sip tea or coffee and watch the world go by, and ideal to sample a nargileh (sheesha pipe) if you fancy one.

What to do

Get lost in the souks and visit the many mosques and madrassas of the old town. If you’re a woman, don’t forget to take a head scarf. Find the ancient soap factory of Bader Hassoun & Sons in Khan al-Saboun (note: there are also daughters, who are lovely). The soap museum in Saida is better for the history of soap making in Lebanon but this place is much cheaper if you want to buy soap. Visit the citadel for great views over the town. If you’re in town for more than a few hours you will no doubt be found by Ali, the wildly eccentric but very helpful and knowledgeable guide (he makes it his mission to seek out and catalogue the number and nationality of foreign visitors to the town). I spent half a day with him showing me round the various sights, finishing off with a beer in a back street off licence chatting to a Venezuelan expat in Spanish, so if you like the unexpected, and and want to know all the short cuts, I’d highly recommend commissioning him for a few hours.

Around Tripoli

The Qadisha Valley is spectacular, with dramatic cliffs and gorgeous and picturesque, Germanic-looking villages studded scenically around. You can get a bus up from Tripoli to Bcharre. There is a trekking route through the valley and passing some of the ancient monuments in the area (the Lebanon Mountain Trail or LMT though it’s not easy to get details about this once you’re in the area, so if you want to walk some of it, I’d advise investigating in advance and buying some maps, contacting some local guides etc – the website above is a good starting point). There are several old monasteries, chapels and hermitages in the valley, allegedly reachable on the LMT. I took a taxi from Place Mar Sera, the main square in Bcharre, to Deir Mar Antonios Qozhaya. This is a 12th century monastery, still in use, and cut into the vertical face of the Qadisha valley. As well as the monks, it houses a museum with some interesting exhibits, especially the Arab world’s first printing press.

A short uphill walk from Bcharre (back along the route that bus comes up from Bcharre, then a sharp left at the sign) is the Khalil Gibran Museum which is well worth a visit. Beautifully laid out and lit, with calming white walls, you can see Gibran’s sketches and personal memorabilia, as well as his coffin. Even if you’re not familiar with Gibran’s work such as The Prophet, I’d say go – it’s a unique place.

SIDON/SAIDA

Where to stay

I stayed at the Convent de Terre Sainte – quite hard to find, especially as most people don’t seem to know it – it’s behind Khan al-Franj, in the souk. What it lacks in comfort it makes up in atmosphere. Be warned: if it’s cold outside, it’s freezing in the convent! Very quaint, if very basic. For more creature comforts, the Al Qualaa Hotel on the seafront looks nice.

Where to eat and drink

The Resthouse Sidon on the seafront just along from the sea castle is a government restaurant in a converted Ottoman khan – the food is OK and the setting is beautiful but the main attraction is it’s the only place in town serving alcohol. I ate far better food at one of the cafes strung out along the other side of the road – no real menus, we went to one and said we wanted to eat fresh fish, and were served up a veritable banquet for next to nothing. The souk is packed with little hole in the wall places where you can have a tea or a coffee and of course there is always the ubiquitous and delicious manouche, flat bread with thyme or cheese.

What to do

Wander the souks, drift into the mosques, don’t miss the soap musuem and the Khan al-Franj (Inn of the Foreigners). Check to see if there are any cultural events in the latter: we were lucky enough to see a poetry recital accompanied  on the traditional oud by Moroccan musician Driss El Maloumi and sponsored by the Institut Francais. You can go into the old Crusader castle on the seafront and up the tower. The Debbane Palace is also interesting for a peek into the Ottoman style living of the influential Debbane family – a visit only takes about 15 mins.

TYRE

I didn’t stay here but it’s worth paying a visit for the spectacular Roman ruins of Al-Bass with the 2nd century triumphal arch and the world’s largest hippodrome, again dating from the second century AD. I can highly recommend the cafe from the booth by the taxi rank just by the port!

BAALBEK

Baalbak: Unmissable. Catch a bus from the Cola intersection and go. Check the weather conditions first: if there’s snow on the high passes, the roads may be closed. And make sure it’s a direct bus, as I’ve heard that routes via Saida, Jazzine and Machgara can run into trouble at the military checkpoints, as well as taking hours longer. The ruins are jaw-droppingly stunning. You can wander around on your own or hire a guide at the ticket office. I’d recommend Husain, who’s been guiding visitors for 40 years and knows everything.

CHATEAU MUSAR

If you have a car, it’s worth heading for the hills off the main highway between Beirut and Byblos to find this historic Lebanese wine maker. Best to book in advance for a tour and wine tasting, although we turned up announced and were shown around by the elegant Fadia. For more information on Lebanese wines, this is a good site.

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