Flying from London Heathrow, the departure lounge for Beirut is filled with babbling Lebanese families, expats visiting home for a spell and huddles of wide-eyed culture seekers.
Lebanon lived up to our high expectations and so much more, think unlimited falafel sandwiches, hummus, mind blowing ruins, the Mediterranean Sea, an unbelievable history and the most friendly of locals. The marks of recent conflict are everywhere. Lebanon’s civil war lasted from 1975 until 1990 and left gaping holes in homes, buildings and the population.
Beirut is the city that was once known as the Paris of the Middle East. You can use Beirut as a base for your travels and go on various day trips from the capital. We opted for a little bit of that and a two night stay in Batroun. We didn’t head south of Beirut but with more time you could venture south, not too close to the Israeli border though. From our eight days, we’ve got some memories and tips to share.
DAY 0 / ARRIVE BEIRUT
Arrived late in the evening, straight to the Airbnb to prepare for a day trip early the next morning. Our Airbnb was in the Mar Mikhael area not far from Armenia street. Perfect spot for bars, restaurants and cafes.
DAY 1 / JEITA GROTTO, HARISSA & BYBLOS (accommodation in Beirut)
Jeita Grotto / A shortlist finalist for the top seven new natural wonders, we knew this was a must visit and fortunately our expectations were not disappointed. These limestone formations and the dimly lit caves you wander through, certainly lead to an awe inspiring experience. With no photos allowed to be taken, you’ll just have to take our word for it and be sure to visit it yourself.
Harissa / Sitting on top of the Harrisa mountain top, you’ll find ‘Our Lady of Lebanon’. Built in 1965, it’s one of Lebanon’s oldest tourist attractions. We had the luxury of being driven to the monument and then boarded the iconic Teleferique cable car and descended 650m from the Harissa mountaintop to the gorgeous coastline. The journey down from the shrine offers panoramic views of the Beirut skyline, pine covered hills and magnificent azul of the Med.
Byblos / Known for its picturesque fishing harbour, Roman remains, Crusader castle and beautiful souq, this was probably our favourite stop of our first day. Hole yourself up in one of the outdoor sea view seats at Byblos Fishing Club (Pepe’s). Dare I say it: this unassuming, simply decorated joint serves the best food in town – think the perfect blend of Lebanese staples paired with extravagant Med style seafood.
Dinner / After indulging at Pepe’s, we grabbed some hummus and pita from a local market and grazed a lil on a simple supper.
DAY 2 / BEIRUT
Breakfast at Sip / delicious, lovely coffee and even lovelier decor, think exposed terra-cotta toned walls with a dusty pink ambience. Food, simple and delicious.
Beirut is a city of layers, so a walking tour is invaluable to peeling them all back. Walking tour with Alternative Tour Beirut / The 4 hour Alternative Walking Tour is a captivating walk through Beirut’s neighbourhoods and provides historical and political context for complex subjects. In doing so, the tour explores the depth of both Beirut’s past and present. The tour stops at various alternative and authentic spots for refreshments and snacks. Everyone on the tour had different reasons for choosing this unusual holiday: whether interested in the culture, food, history or simply the thrill of visiting a Middle Eastern country that feels so different to the Western world. Probably one of the best walking tours we’ve done through all of our travels.
DAY 3 / ANJAR, BAALBEK & KSARA CHATEAU (accommodation in Beirut)
Anjar / The quaint city of Anjar is famous for its strong Armenian ties and its stunning Umayyad-era ruins that are unique in Lebanon. Set among mountains, Anjar is a perfect example of a charming retreat with a rich history. Anjar is strategically located at the crossroads of two important routes: one leading from Beirut to Damascus and the other connecting the Bekaa Valley to Homs. So we were less than 10km away from the Syrian border when we were here. The drive between Anjar and Baalbek was fairly confronting, with hundreds and hundreds of Syrian refugee’s and their temporary housing establishments.
Baalbek / mind blowing Phonecian City. Today, the ruins stand tall as an archaeological wonder with towering monuments and impressive columns. The greatest temples at the site are the Temples of Jupiter, Bacchus and Venus. If anything, you’ll be perplexed as to how rocks of this grandeur could have been carved and assembled.
Ksara Chateau Winery / Lovely tasting for a few pounds and a tour of the winery. The tour included a visit to an atmospheric Roman-era cave complex where some of the wines are cellared.
Dinner at Baron / absolutely insane food. Fine dining at such a reasonable price and with good serving sizes, we just ordered a few vego dishes to share and you couldn’t go wrong. It aims at celebrating distinctive Lebanese produce whilst bringing together the Mar Mikhael vibe of arty, creative and hipster. As a bonus, the interior is minimalist in design, nearly Scandinavian, with simple furnishings and ample lighting. At least half of the menu is vegetables and seafood, and all of it is perfect for sharing.
DAY 4 / TRIPOLI (accommodation Batroun)
Picked up from our accommodation in Beirut and driven to Tripoli for a day of exploring Lebanon’s second biggest city. We were toured around by our driver, he took us to all the sights in Tripoli and then dropped us back to our accommodation in Batroun. I would highly recommend this, especially if you’re fair and blonde and stand out like sore thumbs. Tripoli could not have more of a different vibe than Beirut and is indeed a full-on sensory experience of a different variety. Our tour route is fluid, focusing on wholesome traditional experiences. Our fave of the day would have to be Al Tawbe Mosque. Where my stereotypes were defied and my expectations exceeded. We met local men, embracing their culture, sitting, chilling, taking the world in. Here is where I really felt a sense of safety, common ground and security, sometimes a feeling that is hard to find when you are travelling through destinations where traditions and outlooks feel opposite. The Lebanese we encountered were delighted to welcome foreigners, and more hospitable than we could ever have imagined. Most were acutely conscious of their country’s reputation. Travelling to Lebanon reminded me that we too easily paint a population with one brush, and while it’s important to be aware of issues, they are not what defines a country.
DAY 5 / BATROUN (accommodation Batroun)
Batroun is the most idyllic coastal town and feels as if you’re a million miles away from the hustle and bustle of the capital. Think quaint yoga studios, seafood restaurants overlooking the med, beaches stacked with umbrellas and chairs for rent and a slow way of life. The majority of the town’s residents are Christian, and there are many historic churches to visit in the old town’s narrow cobbled streets. Our time here was filled with leisurely strolls along the coastline and the old town, naps on the balcony of our apartment and endless matches of backgammon whilst watching the sunset from our vougish Airbnb. As far as the beach goes, talking from an overindulged Australian point of view, it is somewhat underwhelming, no waves, pebbles and average looks but what it lacks in beauty it makes up for in character and culture. We stumbled upon Falafel Abou Andre, dreamy falafels, hummus, pickles and salad, $2 – insane is all I can say.
We didn’t take the offer of visiting IXSIR or Sept / as we decided to enjoy a day of relaxing instead but from all accounts they are gorgeous settings to sip on some local vino. Situated in the Batroun Mountains, and just a two hour drive from downtown Beirut and twenty or so minutes from Batroun, you could choose to perch at either of these wineries on a sunny afternoon after a morning of skiing in the mountains or swimming in the ocean, as many Beirutis boast about. To be fair, the short distances between each destination does make for very easy travel!
We thoroughly enjoyed our dinner at Bistr’eau / where we sipped on local red wine, nibbled on fresh octopus, encountered even more tabbouleh and decided that Lebanese food would be one of our fave cousines.
DAY 6 / BATROUN & BEIRUT
I flowed into my morning with a yoga class, followed by coffee and backgammon at Rays, not comparable to the Rae’s many of us Aussie’s know, but still with coastal views and a relaxed atmosphere. We then ubered back through the dense smog and traffic to find ourselves back amongst the raw energy of Beirut.
Friday night cocktails at the sexily lit Anise / dapper in black ties and waistcoats, the staff at Anise will allow you to request whatever your palette is craving. Happy “hour” runs nightly from 6pm until 9pm. Can confirm that the margaritas are quote-unquote lit.
DAY 7 / BEIRUT
Kalei Coffee Co. (Rue 54) / specialty roastery and café in an abandoned 1950s house in a backstreet in Mar Mikhael. The menu includes playful takes on popular farmhouse dishes and you can pair with coffee, Lebanese wine or even craft beer. A real backstreet bundle of bliss.
Take a walk from the shell-riddled Holiday Inn building all the way to Raouché along the Corniche, the old lighthouse and a slight detour through the American University of Beirut campus until you reach the famous Pigeon Rocks.
Dinner at a funky and neon dazzled Asian middle eastern all day bar in the heart of Beirut, Electric Bing Sutt / with modern asian middle eastern cocktails, authentic asian food, natural wine and craft coffee. This place takes you on a journey of modern Asian food meets Lebanese meets New York funk, don’t miss this one.
DAY 8 / DEPART BEIRUT
Take a White Taxi to the airport for an early departure back to London. With a departure at sunrise we pulled into the dim lights of Beirut’s airport, most travellers wearing face masks or disposable gloves. As I write this piece, I am sitting in my lockdowned garden in North London, 16th April 2020, reflecting on the time where freedom was travel, freedom was hugging and sharing meals with friends and family, freedom was experiencing another culture, freedom was talking to strangers, freedom was everywhere. Little did we know that this would be one of our final trips abroad for the foreseeable future. This ‘panny-d’ has put a grinding halt to our plans, a little halt to our ability for travel but if anything, it’s put a holt on my day to day grind and given me the space to read, be inspired and consider new destinations, flexibility plans and be grateful for the homes, loved ones and hope we have in this time.
I’ll finish this post with a little extract from a poet I’m reading at the moment, thank you Danielle Doby;
i am her.
she notices the simple things,
revealing the beauty in what surrounds her.
she nourishes her dreams by honouring each moment,
and the soft magic they inspire.
Much love and magic,