Beirut Named Number One Place To Visit By New York Times

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March 23, 2009 By Catherine Batruni

...in the summertime, in the city...Beirut? Who woulda thunkit!

As spring breaks and summer vacations are slowly but surely creeping upon us, many of you are searching for new locations to frequent. A vacation spot that doesn’t usually come to mind—for most Americans anyway—is the Middle East. Surprisingly, the New York Times ranked Beirut in the top ten out of forty-four destinations to visit this year in their January 11th, 2009 travel issue. Beirut was the only Levantine destination to receive this acknowledgement, unless you consider Qatari resorts competition with eastern Mediterranean hot spots.

Although recognized in international news for its political insanity, a lesser-known but equally important fact about Beirut is that it boasts one of the greatest nightlife atmospheres in the world. The Lebanese and their international visitors fill the city’s restaurants, cafes, pubs, and nightclubs to overflowing, from early evening until the break of dawn. People of all ages keep the city alive and bustling every day. Whether you love to shop, eat, drink, learn, meet new people, or sightsee, there is something in Beirut for everyone.

The big shots in Israel probably understood this all too well back in 2006, when Lebanon was anticipating one of its biggest summers of tourism in years. Was it really a coincidence that a war broke out between Israel and Hezbollah on July 12th of that year, raging for three and a half weeks before the United Nations-brokered ceasefire took place? We’ll let you decide, but one of the best ways to protest the devastating physical and emotional damage inflicted across Lebanon during the “July War” is to travel there in 2009 and get to know the Lebanese—and especially the people of Beirut—first-hand. Insofar as Beirut is concerned, few vestiges of the July War remain.

Each neighborhood in Beirut has its own unique vibe and characteristics. The city is divided into nine districts: Downtown, Ashrafieh, Hamra, Manara, Rawche, Verdun, Ramlet El Baida, Jnah, and Ain El Mraiseh. The best place to begin is Downtown as it is located in the exact center of the city. It has been renovated and rebuilt since the civil war and its architecture invokes memories of old Ottoman Beirut. This area is best for those who enjoy eating long meals outdoors and people watching. Ashrafieh is the most Western part of the city, containing most of Beirut’s nightclubs and pubs with very few restaurants. If Ashrafieh is for partying and clubbing, Hamra is where yippies and intellectuals love to spend most of their time. This district features the most coffeehouses and unique shops in the city, and is also home to the Lebanese American University and the American University of Beirut. Manara is located at the tip of the Beirut peninsula and is full of life and energy every summer, while its various beach clubs are overflowing with locals and tourists.

Rawche is most renowned for its coastline restaurants and cafes and for its rock landmark Pigeon Rocks. Verdun is the most trendy and expensive area of Beirut. This is where most of the city’s hotels are located as well as many designer stores. Ramlet El Baida is a residential area. Its name means, “white sand” and is derived from the only real sandy beach in Beirut. Jnah is also a mostly residential area but does include several hotels and beach clubs. Finally, Ain El Mraiseh is positioned along the coastal Corniche and has the highest concentration of luxury hotels in Beirut as well as internationally recognized coffeehouses.

Lebanese cuisine is acknowledged as one of the most varied, healthy, and delicious cuisines in the world. It features a wide variety of vegetables, fruits, meats, cheeses, grains, and legumes. Some of the tastiest foods to try, such as ka’ek (special hollow bread with sesame seeds) and mankoushe (Lebanese pizza), can be purchased from local street vendors for a very low price.

Of course, there is more to Beirut than great food, drink, and beaches. There are six prominent museums open to the public all year round. The American University of Beirut Museum was founded in 1868 and is the third oldest museum in the Near East. It has an extensive array of relics from Lebanon and other Near Eastern countries, delineating the progress of humankind in the Near East from the Early Stone Age until the Islamic Period. The National Museum of Beirut, opened in 1942, is the primary archaeology museum in Lebanon. Approximately 1300 artifacts are on display, spanning time from the prehistoric era to the medieval Mamluk period. The museum holds an exhaustive collection of objects from Lebanon’s original inhabitants, the Phoenicians. The other four museums in Beirut are all art museums. Stop by Atelier Camille Alam to view various pieces of art by contemporary Lebanese artist Camille Alam or Matignon Gallery for Lebanese and international contemporary art. Sursock Museum also presents international and Lebanese art. The Sursock building itself is a prime example of conventional 18th century Lebanese palaces. The final museum, Emmagoss Gallery, is part of the Emmaniel Guiragossian Art School and exhibits the work of its students.

Beirut itself is a history museum. It has survived a plethora of foreign occupation and wars, dating all the way back from the ancient Roman, Assyrian, and Persian empires, to Ottomon, French, Syrian, and Israeli occupation in modern times. Beirut refuses to die; it has been destroyed and rebuilt seven times throughout history, perhaps a testimony to the strength and resilience of its people. The civil war from 1975-1990 completely destroyed and flattened Beirut, rendering it completely unrecognizable. Most of the city has since been rebuilt, though many burnt buildings peppered with bullet holes still survive and remind the Lebanese of what must never happen again. Following the assassination of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in February 2005, the largest public rally in Lebanon’s history took place, and occupying Syria withdrew its troops after a twenty-nine year military presence, another demonstration of the might and irrepressibility of Beirut’s people.

Depending on what time of year you are visiting Beirut, you can make most likely find an international festival or event to attend. If spending spring break in Beirut, drop by the Festival du Cinéma Francophone typically held between March and April for a period of two weeks. The films are in French with English and Arabic subtitles. For those visiting Beirut in summer, you must not miss the Beirut International Jazz Festival held every July. The festival lasts four days and features some of the best international and Lebanese jazz musicians. If you cannot make it to Beirut until autumn, the Beirut International Film Festival awaits you in October. This festival showcases a wide variety of films from all over the Middle East.

A trip to Beirut is not complete without a visit to its two most notable bookstores. Librairie Antoine, founded in 1933, is a large bookstore and book distributor offering Arabic and international books and magazines. It has several locations in Beirut including two in Ashrafieh, one in Hamra, and one in Verdun. The second bookstore, Librairie du Liban, was opened in 1944 as a bookseller and a distributor of Longman publications. Since this time, Librairie du Liban has entered the field of selling dictionaries to the world market. Here is a great place for you to buy an Arabic-English or French-English dictionary and learn one of the official languages of Lebanon.

Many different religions exist among the Lebanese. In fact, Lebanon has eighteen officially recognized religious groups and sects, mostly Christian and Muslim, as well as Druze and even Jewish. In Downtown Beirut, churches and mosques exist side by side and most are open to visitors every day of the year. Beirut’s few synagogues are all closed or destroyed from the days of the civil war and the resulting emigrating Jewish community. The general estimation is that approximately 100 Lebanese Jews still live in Lebanon. Sunnis and Shias make up Lebanon’s Muslim community, and Maronite, Protestant, Greek Orthodox, Greek Catholics, Roman Catholics, Syrian Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox or Gregorian, the Assyrian Church, and Nestorian Church constitute the Lebanese Christian community.

Beirut is easy to pass through on foot; all points of interest lie within short walking distances of each other. Cabs are the easiest mode of public transportation. The fares are cheap and the drivers, like all Lebanese, are fluent in English, Arabic, and French so there is no need to worry about not being able to communicate with locals. Buses are also available from Charles Helou Bus Station in Downtown Beirut. In terms of currency, both American Dollars and Lebanese Pounds are accepted everywhere. Most places even take Visa, Mastercard, and American Express cards.

The Lebanese are extremely friendly and hospitable. Ask anyone on the street for directions or suggestions and they will be happy to help you. Be sure to pick up a free pocket map of Beirut at any hotel or Virgin Megastore and prepare to enjoy a cultural, artistic, and political city unlike any other.

Written by

Catherine Batruni


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