First Timer’s Guide to Beirut & Lebanon
Lebanon is a complicated country, caught in the middle of even more complicated neighbors. Nonetheless, the people have this air of ease and casual style. They don’t shy away from their painful past, but embrace it. I haven’t felt unsafe here once. In fact, I’ve felt really welcomed and people are genuinely proud of their country and want you to see the best parts of it.
Being here has changed my perception, and I hope to debunk some negative narratives and headlines we see in the news.
But first, a few helpful tips and highlights when considering a trip to Lebanon:
Currency: They use Lebanese Pounds interchangeably with US currency. It’s a fixed 1,500 LBP to $1 USD. If you are coming from the US, you can bring currency with you and just make change to have local currency as you go. This way you can avoid additional bank or exchange fees at the airport.
Language: Naturally, the predominately spoken language is Arabic, however, the majority speak English and French in the city and tourist areas. Lots of times, if you are stuck, dust off that high school French and charades doesn’t hurt. You will be fine getting by on English, so don’t stress.
Getting Around Beirut: Taxi, or even Uber is widely used – and inexpensive. With Uber, you can regulate how much you pay vs. haggling with a taxi driver, plus enter in the exact location you need to go. Another option is “service” rides. You’ll notice that everyone is constantly honking at you. Not cause you’re a hottie (you may be) but they are offering you a lift. You have to lean down and tell the driver the general area or street you need to get to. They will either accept (group share so others may be in or join) or drive off if it’s not on their way. You can also walk a lot around Beirut in certain areas like Downtown, Hamra, or Mar Mikhael just bear in mind that the rules of the road are usually ignored and be aware.
Getting Around Lebanon: This one is more complicated. There are inexpensive local buses that go to many places, however, as a newbie, you’ll likely want to go the car route. You can hire an individual to tour you around (even Uber goes many places from Beirut) or join a group tour. I would suggest arranging through a trusted group like Living Lebanon or Nikhal – also found on Expedia – if you feel more comfortable confirming there and paying online quickly.
Tip: On Sundays, a majority of the shops and businesses are closed. Restaurants and bars are still open (some may close for mid-day and re-open at 7:30/8 pm, so check the times), but don’t plan on visiting Bourj Hammoud, shopping or certain activities that day because you’ll be disappointed. Just ask ahead any tour operator or hotel. Most won’t operate a tour on a day where the experience will not be good anyway.
Places to See: Beirut can easily serve as your home base throughout your whole stay. The country is not very large (just shy of the size of Connecticut), so you can do many of the highlights in a day. But, I say you should try to spend an overnight somewhere like a coastal town below or even in the mountain area close to the wineries if you have the time.
- Bekaa Valley & Mount Lebanon – Wine country & ski resorts when in season
- Baalbeck -Beautiful UNESCO World Heritage site to visit
- Byblos – Said to be the oldest, continuously inhabited city dating back 7,000 years
- Tripoli – Coastal town to the north with a small chain of islands
- Batroun – An hour north of Beirut, this coastal town has wineries, breweries, and a surfing scene
- Saida or Sidon – Another ancient coastal town with an old souk and sea castle
- Tyre – Also referred to as Sour, not only does this have one of Lebanon’s five UNESCO sites, it has a happening beach scene that you would think you were in Greece or south of France
- Jeita Grotto – The most impressive limestone caves I have ever seen; unfortunately, the policy is no photography, so you have to go see for yourself
- Hiking & Nature – There’s plenty of hiking places and outdoor activities; check out Baatara Waterfall and ways to book those hiking activities here
- Free Walking Tour Beirut – Every Tuesday sign up to get a nice tour of downtown and history lesson
Accommodations: Best areas to stay and be among the action – Mar Mikhael, Gemmayze, Hamra, Badaro or Downtown Beirut. There are some recognizable hotel brands like Le Gray (Leading Hotels), Radisson Blu, Four Seasons, Kempinski, Ramada and InterContinental. Non-chain options I would suggest are…
- Hostel with local entertainment, cafe (free WiFi), bar and even Arabic classes at Saifi Urban Gardens
- Hamra Urban Gardens with a rooftop pool for those hot summer days
- Villa Clara is a nice boutique hotel in the heart of Mar Mikhael – a hip neighborhood to be based
- Baffa House
- Guest houses curated by L’HOTE Libanais
- And of course, Airbnb is here
- Dar Alma – Tyre boutique hotel with seafront rooms
- Souk El Tayeb – A few b&b style “homes” around Lebanon that are worth checking out
Where to Dine & Drink in Beirut: Many restaurants and businesses are not easy to find because they don’t typically have a website or aren’t listed on Google Maps. For the Westerner that I am, I was initially miffed of where to find all the information and where to go. Zomato is their local Yelp, so download the app or visit the website. It’s a great guide to dining in Lebanon and specifically Beirut. A few favorites of mine so far…
- Baron – Amazing variety of cuisine and the best selection for vegetarians
- Enab – Local cuisine on Armenia Street with nice ambiance
- Villa Badaro – A lovely indoor and outdoor dining space with great dishes
- Mario E Mario – Delicious Italian with a rooftop terrace in season
- Ahi Poke Beirut – Delicious, fresh ingredients and build your own bowl
- Mayrig – Very good spot for mezze dishes to share and sit outside on their terrace
- Mezyan – Delicious dishes in a space that you won’t notice as the entrance is through what appears to be an office building then through that corridor
- Liza – Featured on Vogue.com and Condé Nast Traveler
- Tawlet – Local chefs from around Lebanon prepare their daily lunch buffets; they offer cooking classes so ask in advance and visit the Souk El Tayeb market on Wednesdays and Saturdays at Beirut Souks
Coffee & Drinks
- Home Sweet Home
- Kalei Coffee Co.
- Aaliya’s Books
- Ales & Tales
- The Jerry Experience
- Attic Bar
- The Next Whiskey Bar & Tota (next to each other)
- Brew – Brand new brewery, locally produced beer
- Central Station Boutique Bar
- Locale – Always has 50% off happy hour prices and indoor/outdoor seating
- Gouraud to Armenia Street – You cannot go wrong with walking up and down this street from the Mosque to Bourj Hammoud area; plenty of bars and nightlife!
- Grand Factory – A club on top of a warehouse that’s worth a visit to get a taste of the scene (about $30 US to enter with complimentary drink or bottle service if you’re a baller)
I will continue to add to this post when I have more fantastic finds and advice from my own experience and locals that I befriend 💁
Thanks for dropping by and spreading the good word about Lebanon!