Lebanon’s capital city was once known as the ‘Paris of the Middle East’. Unsurprisingly, a civil armed conflict lasting some 15 years had placed some strain on the moniker. However, since the nineties Beirut has been rapidly gaining back its reputation of a fun loving population and a cultural oasis in the broader region. Much of its charm, and its location on the Mediterranean coast, it had never lost. Here are 10 of the most exciting sights and activities to pursue in Beirut.
Beirut Central District is the name given to the city’s geographic, administrative and commercial center. Perhaps more significantly, it is an area which urban landscape speaks volumes of the country’s recent history. Much of the area surrounding Nejmeh Square, and the 1930s clock tower standing in its center, is testimony to the city’s post-war reconstruction efforts overseen by Solidere, one of the grandest urban uplift projects anywhere in the world. Straying only a couple of blocks from here you reach the ruins of the Roman Baths, and for a chance to witness the scars still visible from some of the civil war’s most intense fighting, head to Martyr’s square, itself in an ongoing process of redevelopment.
Other than the famous Oxbridge, university campuses hardly make it to the top priorities on a city trip – not to with here. Founded by American missionaries in the 1860s, the American University of Beirut campus spreads across 61-acres of carefully maintained greenery on a hill overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. A stroll through its grounds takes you past many charming 19th century buildings across a landscape that has remained remarkablyintact through the civil war. The campus is home to the university’s own Archaeological Museum, a Natural History Museum and a couple art galleries.
The Robert Mouawad Private Museum was a private residence in Beirut’s Zokak el-Blat quarter until 2006 when it was converted into a museum by businessman and jeweler Robert Mouawad. This neo-gothic palace, erected in 1911 by Lebanese politician and art collector Henri Philippe Pharaoun, houses its first owner’s eclectic collection of aesthetic and historical objects of interest including Byzantine Mosaics, Roman marble sculptures, Chinese porcelain, Christian icons, manuscripts, and an impressive carpet collection – all of which is housed within rooms adorned by decorative 19th century wooden panels.
Sitting on the infamous Green line, the city’s front line during the civil war, the National Museum of Beirut suffered more damage than most. Now restored back to its full glory, it is once again home to the largest and most significant collections of archaeological artifacts in Lebanon, and of the most extensive anywhere in the Middle East. The 1,300-strong collection, housed in a building inspired by French design, ranges from prehistory up to the Roman and Byzantine period and the following Arab conquest. Highlights include intricately carved Phoenician sarcophagi belonging to the world’s most important collection.
Hamra Street, or as it known locally, Rue Hamra, is one of Beirut’s most important streets and commercial centers. From the sixties to the nineties it was home to intellectuals, journalists and artists frequenting a string of theaters and sidewalk cafes. Today it bears the marks of a shift in identity, aligned with western retail outlets, hotels and coffee shops, and also attracts large numbers of youths in its bars and clubs. A stroll through the entrance of René Moawad Garden situated on the same street makes for a quick shift in the pace of daily life on this busy street.
The word corniche knows few better referents than the one in Beirut. Encircling the city’s promontory for nearly 5 kilometres from St. George Bay to its end at Ramlet al-Bayda, this seaside promenade – first designed during the French Mandate period – gives extensive insights into the life of the city. Here’s the chance to spot Beirut’s wealthiest sitting at upscale cafés and in luxurious cars, with a backdrop of the Mediterranean sea on one side and the summits of Mount Lebanon on the other. A visit isn’t complete before reaching one of the city’s most famous landmarks, the Pigeon’s Rocks belonging to Raouché neighborhood.
From a regional perspective, Lebanon has tended to trail behind the powerhouses of Egypt and Turkey when it comes to cinematic production and the audio-visual sector. Since 2008 however, the city is now home to one of the Middle East’s most exciting cinematic venues. Situated at the heart of the old Achrafieh district, Metropolis Art Cinema invests in harmonizing cultural diversity and fostering cultural dialogue through its programmes rich in Arab and international art-house productions, auteur films and retrospectives. It also regularly plays host to a number of film festivals.
A visit to the Grand Omari Mosque takes you to the heart of Beirut’s layered history. Before being eclipsed by the Mohammad Al-Amin Mosque, Al-Omari used to be the city’s most important one. The mosque knows its origins to antiquity; the foundations were first laid for the construction of a pagan Roman temple, later to be converted into a Byzantine church, and a later still a Crusader church. Mamluk rulers eventually established the present sandstone structure in the 13th century, though recent restorations have revealed many inscriptions from each period.
Situated on Beirut’s central Parliament square, and just above the ruins of the Roman law school, Saint George’s Cathedral sits on the same site shared by previous ancient and medieval churches, each of which were reduced to ruins by subsequent earthquakes. The present structure dates to the eighteenth century, making it the oldest extant church in the city. Following its restoration, it opened its doors once more in 2003. Remains and artifacts from three previous churches excavated and discovered on site are housed in a museum beneath the cathedral.
High on the list of any art and design lover visiting the city should be the Beirut Art Center (BAC). This minimally designed art centre – housing an exhibition space, a screening and performance room, bookshop, and a mediatheque – sits on the banks of the Beirut River in an industrial area on the city’s outskirts. It has been open since 2009 and hosts many exhibitions by contemporary artists of high repute as well as working behind the scenes to support the contemporary art scene in Lebanon.