Cosmopolitan and cultured, Lebanon's capital is close enough to be ideal for a weekend escape from the UAE
Words by Jola Chudy in The Lifestyle · Apr. 4th, 2014
The first thing you notice about the centre of Beirut is just how brand new everything is. From the Parisian-style edifices in warm sandstone to the gleaming boulevards bursting with designer stores, smart cafés and polished monuments, the city oozes upwardly mobile chic. it's an elegant and reassuring introduction to a city whose reputation - perhaps a little unfairly - is still sometimes tainted by its troubles; the most recent of which rumbled ominously on the brink of civil war in 2009.
Today, the city's two million-plus inhabitants look to the future, and the opportunities that peace has brought are apparent in Beirut's bustling, cosmopolitan vibe.
Regarded as the Middle East's gateway to Europe, Beirut seethes with well-dressed inhabitants speaking French, English and Arabic (frequently switching animatedly between all three in one sentence). It's a city whose past - Roman ruins in the middle of the city and buildings pockmarked by 20th century gunfire - exists side by side with its future. And it's driven by amazing energy.
If you're diving into Beirut for a long weekend, start with a walk around the downtown area, with its smart boutiques and cafés. Next, follow the coastline along Zaitouni Bay for about an hour into Hamra, which offers a wearier face to the world, ironically because many of its buildings escaped the worst of the war and thus haven't been renovated. Local stores crowd along the pavements here.
Bear back towards the city and stop at Robert Mouawad Private Museum for a dose of history and culture. This fiendishly ornate property boasts ancient codexes (including one of the first printed Qur'ans), Phoenician pottery, jaw-droppingly large diamonds and ancient weapons. Oh, and the world's most expensive bra, as modelled by Naomi Campbell.
It may be worth returning to your hotel to take a nap as Beirutis are notorious night owls. Meeting at 11pm is normal, so eat around 9pm and go for pre-party drinks in Gemmayze, a popular nightlife area. It's crammed with quirky bars such as the faintly industrial Angry Monkey or tiny Torino Express, and boasts many impossibly small restaurants. Afterwards, head down to Music Hall, the city's notorious cabaret. Here, a procession of performers belt out Western and traditional Lebanese songs until the small hours.
Dining in Beirut tends to be a relaxed and protracted affair. We enjoyed a laid back French-style brunch of tuna niçoise and croque monsieur at Relais Foch, a bright lime-coloured café on a cobbled corner of Saad Zaghloul St in downtown. Also in this stylish neighbourhood, but offering a completely different perspective, is indigo on the Roof, a stunning rooftop restaurant that boasts views across the city - and an excellent list of Lebanese wines. Of course it's mandatory while in Beirut to find a street café, where you can sit with a pineapple shisha and dig into freshly made specialities that will be familiar to Dubai dwellers: shish tawouk served with mountains of pillowy bread, crunchy, tangy fattoush salad and bowls of olive-oil-drenched hummus.
One of the first international hoteliers to set up shop in Beirut was Gordon Campbell Gray, who fell in love with the passionate, culture-infused city despite its tumultuous past. Le Gray opened in 2009, a triumph of modern design, and it's a great place to call home while in the city: centrally located on the edge of downtown and Solidère, the property boasts an incredible attention to detail, from original art throughout, to great service - and the aforementioned rooftop restaurant and bar. And if you hanker for something a little rougher around the edges, the tatty but utterly cool bars of neighbouring Gemmayze are just an easy 10-minute walk away.