Visiting Beirut, the Paris of the Middle East

When I decided to travel to Lebanon last minute, everyone thought I had gone crazy. Unfortunately, Beirut gets a very bad press due to its stormy recent past as well as the ongoing conflicts in the neighbouring countries.

What I found is a very modern country with an incredibly interesting capital, mixing Middle Eastern and European styles. For a good reason, Beirut is known as the 'Paris of the Middle East'! If you're curious about what this city has to offer, check out this post! 


What to visit in Beirut

 

The entire city of Beirut is bordered by the Mediterranean sea, so I headed straight to the General de Gaulle Avenue that connects the Corniche to the Pigeon Rocks, one of the main symbols of Beirut.

In this part of the city, it is especially noticeable the infrastructural damage that the recent conflicts have caused to the city.

 

Buildings in Charles de Gaulle Avenue

 

It's worth remembering that the last one took place only in 2006 when Israel occupied the south of Lebanon after Hezbollah launched a rocket attack towards some northern Israeli military positions and towns, causing a 34-day military conflict where Israel bombarded the airport and main ports of Beirut.  

Trying to find my way, a local man kindly brought us to a Sporting Club so that we could enjoy the views of the city and the sea. This was just the first example of the hospitality and willingness to help of the Lebanese people that I would find during my trip. 

 

Local man fishing 

 

The Sporting Club, although very run down, gave a completely different perspective of the city that made the area especially interesting. 

 

Sporting club in Beirut

 

Just around the corner, I reached one of the most easily recognisable symbols of Beirut: the Pigeon Rocks, also known as Raouché Rocks.

The formation is composed of two rocks looking like two gigantic sentinels off the promenade. The rocks are a very popular attraction and the area was full of tourists and locals enjoying the views. 

 

Pigeon Rocks

 

My next stop would be Downtown Beirut, the historical core of the city. The distance from the rocks is quite long as it will take at least 40 minutes, but it is perfectly doable by foot.

On the way, I took the chance to visit Hamra Street. This is one of the main streets of Beirut and used to be known as the Beirut's Champs Elysées back in the 90s, mainly due to the numerous cafes, restaurants, theatres and stores that used to attract visitors from all over the world. 

The street wasn't as impressive as I expected, especially because I visited early in the morning, but the area is much livelier at night. 

 

Downtown Beirut

 

As you approach Downtown Beirut, the atmosphere of the city changes completely when compared to the seaside. Police and barricades fill all the historical core, which makes it extremely confusing to go from one place to the other without being stopped and having to find an alternative route. 

We had been warned that photography was not allowed in Downtown Beirut, but this is not completely true. To to the high security, you just need to be particularly cautious when taking a photo to make sure you're not photographing a policeman or an official building, but apart from that, it's perfectly fine to photograph all the main tourist stops. If in doubt, just ask before taking a photo. 

As we approached the Downtown, one of the buildings that caught my eye was the St. Louis Capuchin Church. Built in 1864 and following the Latin rite, it stands out with its bell tower in a pinkish colour, contrasting with the beautiful lower part made of stone.

 

St. Louis Capuchin Church

 

Beirut was conquered by the Roman Empire back in 64 BC, after the Phoenician city of Biruta was destroyed. Known as Berytus by the Romans, it became one of the most prominent cities of the Eastern Empire. 

Thanks to this rich past, right in the middle of the downtown it is still possible to admire the remains of a Roman bath, used nowadays as a performance space in some occasions.

 

Remains of the Roman bath

 

Just on top of a hill behind the Roman baths is located the Grand Serail, the headquarters of the Prime Minister of Lebanon. 

The original building dates back to the Ottoman times but has been restored quite recently to recover its original look. The entire area around the Grand Serail is heavily protected by police and barbed wire, which makes it almost impossible to get close to the building. However, it is still possible to appreciate it from the lower part of the town.

 

Grand Serail

 

Lebanon is a surprisingly diverse country where the population is divided between Muslims (both Shia and Sunni) and Christians almost equally. I was actually quite surprised at the amount of Christian buildings scattered all over the city. 

This diversity is clearly reflected in El Amir Bachir Street, where you can find the St. George Maronite Cathedral right next to the Mohammed Al-Amin Mosque

 

St. George Maronite & Mohammad Al-Amin Mosque

 

St. George Maronite Cathedral is the Archdiocese of Beirut and one of the main temples of Christianity in the city, inspired by the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome.

Mohammad Al-Amin Mosque, also known as the Blue Mosque, was finished in 2007 by Rafik Hariri, former Prime Minister of Lebanon. This Sunni mosque, designed in an Ottoman style, is one of the most impressive and beautiful buildings of the city with its four 72 meters high minarets and the blue dome rising over 42 meters.

 

Mohammad Al-Amin Mosque

 

If the exterior of the building is stunning, especially when the sun reflects on the yellow stone, the interior is absolutely breathtaking with its massive chandeliers and incredibly detailed decoration in red and blue.

 

Interior of the Mohammad Al-Amin Mosque

 

During the Lebanese Civil War, which lasted for 15 years from 1975 to 1990, the city of Beirut was divided by the Green Line, separating the mainly Muslim area in the West from the Christian area in the east. 

That demarcation line was formed by Martyrs' Square, named like this in the 30s to commemorate the martyrs killed when Lebanon was under Ottoman control.

Right in the middle is the Martyrs' Monument, installed in the 60s as a tribute to all the martyrs executed in that same place in 1916 at the orders of the Ottoman soldiers.

The statue still has numerous bullet holes from the Civil War that have been kept as a reminder. 

 

Martyrs' Square

 

One of the most charming streets in Beirut is Rue Weygand. The Souks of the Beirut are located here, making the area one of the main commercial districts of the city.

At the beginning of the street, you can also find Emir Assaf Mosque, a characteristic Ottoman mosque with a five cupola roof originally built at the end of the 17th century.

 

Rue Weygand with Emir Assaf Mosque on the left

 

After walking around the main square of Downtown Beirut without being able to get inside due to the police blocking access, I finally managed to cross the barricades after asking for permission and assuring that I was just a tourist. 

Downtown Beirut is an incredibly interesting and beautiful area, and to my surprise, pretty much deserted. The architecture brings to mind some of the main European capitals, mixing the style with a Middle Eastern touch. 

 

Downtown Beirut

 

If Downtown Beirut was located elsewhere, hordes of tourist would be walking on the streets and filling the bars and stores (most of them closed down). It's such a pity that the bad reputation of this country puts so many people off from visiting such a unique city. 

The most representative part of Downtown Beirut is Al Nejmeh Square, also known as Place de l'Étoile, a beautiful square famous for its Art Deco architecture.

Here you can also find the Clock Tower, given to Lebanon as a gift in 1930 by a Lebanese-Brazilian migrant.

 

Beirut Clock Tower

 

My final stop in Beirut was the Sursock Museum. This modern and contemporary art museum was built in what used to be the private villa of Nicolas Ibrahim Sursock, a wealthy aristocrat of Beirut of the early 20th century.

Even if you're not interested in modern art, the building is worth a quick visit as it is one of the few remaining villas of its period in Beirut. 

 

Sursock Museum


Is Beirut safe?

The quick answer is yes. Even though my stay was quite short, I didn't feel insecure at any point during my visit, and in fact, sometimes the city looked like any other European capital and definitely much more modern than many other Maghreb or Middle Eastern countries, including popular destinations such as Turkey. 

It's true that some areas of the city, mainly Downtown Beirut, are full of security and policemen, and many of the streets and governmental buildings are blocked by barricades and barbed wire, which makes you feel more aware of where you are.

Any country nowadays is under the threat of terrorism, and Lebanon wouldn't be an exception. However, taking the necessary precautions, as a western visitor I found Beirut a very normal place. The city is very surprising and incredibly underrated in terms of tourism, so I would definitely encourage to visit if you have the chance! 



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