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I decided to venture into Beirut for several reasons – the city's destruction and subsequent rise and the fact that it was right at the edge of the award zone for American Airlines AAdvantage when coming from the Middle East/India zone.
There is no visa requirement for Lebanon and I was ready to give the city of Beirut (and the country itself) a shot.
Table of Contents
Lebanon is a city of contrasts. The southern part of town should be avoided, especially at night. The border zone to Syria has become increasingly dangerous with ISIS incursions.
Immigration to and from Lebanon is filled with mistrust by the agents (since there are so few tourists). I recently detailed my experiences of being treated as an 'Israeli spy' (which is a crime punishable with several years in prison in Lebanon).
The inner city including the downtown areas of Hamra and Mar Mikhael are safe during the day and night to walk around. Use taxis and stay in these areas during the dark hours and you should face no threats to your personal safety.
The drive from the airport will lead you through modern freeways, bombed-out buildings, skyscrapers and buildings with lots of bullet holes.
Lebanese people are incredibly friendly and multilingual. Most people will be fluent in English, French and Arabic.
Expect people to be much more 'Bohemian chic' than the environment would suggest. If you have been to the 'in' neighborhoods of Berlin or Paris you will have seen 'the type'. The multicultural and multi-religious mix is impressive and the people are very easygoing.
Beirut isn't cheap – expect the same level of prices as in the US, with hotels a bit cheaper, but food and drinks as expensive as anywhere in the States.
Downtown Beirut has been beautifully restored. The Beirut Souks is as pretty as it gets with shops, retail outlets, mosques and churches. It's a labyrinth of modern shops in old buildings. Very close by is the Beirut Marina, which has a lovely sunset row of coffee shops and restaurants. The Four Seasons Hotel and a number of apartment buildings line this area, which resembles Dubai more than Lebanon.
Stop by the Beirut Roman bath ruins and make your way up to Hamra when exploring the city.
Hamra is the best district to stay in. It's somewhat touristy but is jam-packed with coffee shops, bars, restaurants and other eateries. The choice is mesmerizing. The district is safe during both night and day and is located right at the top of Mount Lebanon. It's almost unfeasible from here that the country is rife with religious conflict.
Gemmayzeh and Mar Mikhael
If you think Hamra is trendy, then come to these adjacent neighborhoods instead. They put the uber-trendy Mission District in San Francisco to shame. The cluster of restaurants, bars and coffee shops would do well anywhere on the planet.
Pollution during weekdays is intense and the smog clogs the sunset views (and your lungs). Traffic rules are just loosely enforced. While most drivers aren't aggressive, some are very hostile. Make sure you double-check red lights and pedestrian paths.
Go for a trip
Just about an hour's driving north of Beirut is Byblos, one of the oldest permanent settlements in the world. The first records stem from 5,000 BC. The small city center with the souk, the ruins and a cluster of restaurants are all much worth visiting. The Edde Sands nearby are a great way to spend a warm day and hang out near the beach.
Possibly the region's only surf spot is near the Pierre & Friends bar, with a gorgeous view onto the Mediterranean Sea (which looks more like the Caribbean here).
The mountains are just 30 minutes away from the beach. Many of the areas have seen increased border incursions from Syria, so it's a good idea to double-check the current situation before driving up there.
Beirut is a fascinating city that rivals Berlin and San Francisco in many ways. It's a shame that the treacherous politics in the region can make it such a rough experience for most travelers. Let's hope there will be a day when Beirut takes its rightful place as a fantastic tourist destination again. For now, it's only for the experienced travelers.