Somewhere between the news about the danger of Syria, their neighbors to the north, and the threat of ISIS, Beirut has gotten a bad rap. Not many Americans dare visit, and while hesitant at first, I’m glad I did. Located on a peninsula of the Mediterranean Sea, Beirut is the capital of Lebanon, and also its largest city. Once referred to as the “Paris of the Middle East,” Beirut is recovering from a 16-year civil war (1975-1990) that destroyed much of its infrastructure and pitted Muslims against Christians. But this city is definitely on the come up.
It offers something for everyone: nature lovers, shopping, culture, and a thriving party scene. Less than a 3-hour flight from many popular European cities, it’s already on their radar. A quick nonstop flight makes Beirut an easy side trip to your next European holiday. There is no language barrier; English is spoken everywhere. And here’s a bonus for folks like us: in Arab countries, oftentimes, your American passport, can work against you. But I had no issues here. I was escorted through the airport and welcomed everywhere, even with my American accent.
Truthfully, nature and coastlines weren’t the first things that came to mind when I thought of Beirut. Yet “taken aback” doesn’t quite do my mindset justice when I began my journey. Beirut is gorgeous, and I don’t use that word gratuitously: it has mountainous terrain dropping to miles of breathtaking coastline and green, lush valleys. Drive about 11 miles north of Beirut, around one of those winding mountainous coastlines, you’ll reach the Jeita Grotto, a spectacular formation of two interconnected limestone caves. The Lower Cave is a quick ride into the dark waters of a non-descript cave, but the Upper Cave was the real adventure. It features a man made walkway carved into the stones allowing you climb up the cave into the 3 separate natural chambers, with stalactites hanging in varying degrees along the way. Keep climbing, you’ll reach the largest stalactite in the world, suspended 27.9 feet from the top portion of the cave. Lit with spotlights placed strategically throughout, with water echoing in the distance, this cave was an other-worldly experience, one not to be missed.
Pigeon Rock (Raouche Rock, as it’s known to locals) is actually two giant rocks joined together, creating a spectacular archway. This is what I’d call a “two’fer.” This natural wonder is located just off the shores of the upscale neighborhood of Raouche, famous for the cafes lining the beachfront promenade of Avenue de Paris and across from the tony boutiques and upscale hotels in the Corniche district. We enjoyed a leisurely lunch at BayRock Café where they bring in fresh fish daily from the Bay while drinking some fantastic Lebanese wine and people watching.
If shopping is your sweet spot, Beirut shopping rivals the best. The Beirut Souks are not housed in the traditional old buildings like other Middle Eastern Souks. Rather, it’s an expansive newly constructed mall with over 200 shops and a flagship department store, home to upscale retailers ranging from Armani to Zara, and a separate wing with jewelry souks. If you’re looking for a more traditional Lebanese shopping experience, head over to Hamra Street, where many of the stores are still family owned. It runs for several blocks and is flanked by three universities, including the American University of Beirut, so this is the area where you’ll find that artistic, cultural vibe. Not surprisingly, it’s also the place where the pubs and hookah joints stay open late.
If culture’s your thing, Beirut delivers, probably in a manner that you might not expect. Lebanon is perceived strictly as an Arab country, but it’s actually a part of the Holy Land. Millions of Christians travel to the Shrine of Our Lady of Lebanon, one of the most revered shrines in the world honoring the Virgin Mary. Perched high atop a hill nearly a mile above sea level, the 65 foot statute overlooks the city of Beirut with outstretched arms. In Sidon, about 11 miles south of Beirut, tucked into a corner of St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church houses the Shrine of Saints Peter and Paul, where the two Apostles are said to have secretly reunited after Jesus’ death. A short walk from this Christian shrine you’ll find the Bab Al Saray Mosque, the oldest mosque in Lebanon dating back to 1201 A.D. I found Beirut a perfect convergence of Christian culture mixing seamlessly with its Arab identity.
And then there’s Byblos. 24 miles north of Beirut, this seaside port town once frequented by Frank Sinatra has been continuously inhabited since 5000 BC, is now a dedicated UNESCO World Heritage Site. Lined with cobblestone streets and sandy beaches, and a fortified wall surrounding the old town, it has several affordable boutique hotels, perfect for a seaside holiday weekend. Visit the ancient Phoenician Temples built in 2700 BC, souvenir shop in the historic souks or stop in the world famous Chez Pepe facing the boardwalk for seafood that Byblos is famous for.
The events of the past six months have hit close to home; you don’t have to be in a “hot spot” to be the victim of a terrorist attack. Sadly, this is the world we live in, so don’t let the perception of what you think Beirut was cheat you out of the jewel that Beirut is.
Lisa Bonner is a travel writer who daylights as an Entertainment Lawyer with offices in NYC. You can find her on social media @lisabonner