Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Lebanon - The Paris of the Middle East

When Kunal and I first decided to go to Lebanon, we heard a few times things like – its war torn – Gaddafi land, why the middle east … Ah well, to put things in perspective, Lebanon has been peaceful with more than a decade now. It’s a free nation- and although on a daily basis they deal with Syrian refugees – as a tourist in Beirut you will barely see anything – Beirut is like the Paris of the 90’s ! I would also not compare the two, but its like the not so glamorous cousin of Dubai. You will not see many people in Hijabs – which is the mindset one has when you say the Middle East – that’s because its majority population believes in Christianity.

Lebanon is one of the smallest countries in the middle east. So you can easily see a lot of it in just one week. Before the trip, I was worried if we would be able to see the country in just one week. But needless to say, I had nothing to worry about. We saw everything at a very leisurely pace and left us enough time an afternoon nap and a evening of drinking and dancing. Our journey started in the capital Beirut. As it is so small and short distances, we chose to base ourselves in Beirut for our trip except for 2 nights in the mountains in Faraya . We took day trips from here. Beirut is famous for its nightlife and restaurants. And Kunal and I spent our evenings hanging out and enjoying the atmosphere. We highly recommend to stay in The Four Seasons - In Zaitunay Bay - which is really close to Downtown Beirut and also shopping malls. Also in the evening - right opposite the hotel is the Corniche with all its little shops and Restaurants that come to life. You can also see some really expensive Yachts parked in all their beauty in the Bay.

We began our exploration in downtown Beirut , the historical and geographical core. This was also the frontline of the Lebanese civil war and suffering and of most devastation of all Beirut. It underwent a thorough resroration plan in the 90’s.

Then we headed to the national museum of Beirut, its impressive.

 Magnificently displayed collection of archaeological artifacts offers a great over view of Lebannon’s history. And the civilization that impacted this cultural crossroads. 

On the way there we stumbled upon an impressive art exhibition housed in one of Beirut's most iconic war torn buildings, Beit Beirut. The crumbling bullet market on Beit Beirut Building is a somber reminder of what happened here. And healing Lebanon aims to promote peace through art work. 
Stroll along the Corniche.
In the evening we went on a long sunset walk along the Corniche. The sea front promenade that fringes the entire North Western part of Beirut. The 4.8kms promenade is a great place for people watching as families , joggers and bikers often convene here in the evenings. There are also lots of beaches, bars here that overlook the beautiful Mediterranean Sea and the Bay Rock - La Raouche

Beyond downtown Beirut, there are plenty of lively vibrant neighborhoods in Beirut that a worth a visit. We started in Mar Mikhael , a neighborhood in Beirut which is popular with the younger crowd . Mar Mikhael is an enchanting area to enjoy a coffee, or lunch or to stroll along its authentic traditional houses with Mediterranean facets . We enjoyed our Lunch at Tavolina - I would highly recommend this Deli style Pizzeria ! 

At night , the many bars and restaurants, ranging from trendy and expensive to laid back and affordable are swamped with locals. Then our guide led us through Achrafieh, a district that shows us a different history of Beirut. It used to be a farm land owned by several powerful Beirut families. The street is home to the Surrsock House. A Museum that holds regularly Modern Art Shows and Sassine Square, one of the oldest in the city. New Buildings have sprung up in the area despite efforts of groups trying to preserve its history. Enjoy a breezy lunch at the Museum Cafe for some delicious tartines and quiches. 

In the evening, we found ourselves in Beirut Souks. Known as the  Champs Elysees of Beirut. Because of all the Historical Cafes and Theatres, it was once the intellectual center of Beirut. While that has lessened, the district still has a cosmopolitian vibe and is definitely the place to hang out for people interested in culture. The atmosphere is a liberal haven in the middle of a country torn by political difference. Today it is full of coffee shops and pubs that welcome people of all sorts and still stands as a testament to Beirut's rich cultural history. We enjoyed an evening of Jazz at Sax, Downtown - very difficult to get reservations - so make sure to hit them up while planning your trip ! 

Jeita Grotto.
At just 18 kms from Beirut Jeita Grotto and Mount Harissa make for an excellent day trip from the city. Jeitta Grotto is surprisingly impressive network of interconnected karst limestone caves spanning on overall length of nearly 9kms. Its named one of the top 14 finalist of the new 7 wonders of nature competition. Though inhabited in PreHistoric times, the lower cave was not rediscovered until 1836 by S W Thompson. It can only be visited by boat since it channels an undergrounds river that provides fresh drinking water to more than a million Lebanese. The Upper Galleries house the world’s largest know Stalactite. Unfortunately photography is not allowed inside the caves. ( File Photo for ref )

Take a Cable Car to mount Harissa. From Jeitta Grotto it is just a short ride to Mount Harissa. A Important Lebanese Pilgrimage site, our Lady of Lebanon. Its one of the most important shrines in the world honouring the virgin Mary and the shrine is highlighted by a huge 15 tonne Bronze statue of the immaculate conception. The view from the top of the statue is impressive and definitely worth the visit. You can get here from the coastal city of Jouneih by road or by a 9 mins journey by a gondola life known as to Teleferique.

Enjoy a sea side Luncheon at Chez Sami which is at Jouneih serving Mediterranean Fare. They also have the terrace which is open in the summer months only.

Baalbeck is the most spectacular archaeological site in Lebanon and definitely a must see in my opinion. The journey from Beirut to Baalbeck takes two hours each way. Baalbeck Roman Ruins is a site of great ancient temples built by the Phoenicians , Romans and other civilizations that have conquered the region. With its colossal structures, Baalbeck is one of the finest examples of imperial roman architecture that I have seen. Almost rivaling those in Rome and Athens. Some of the most impressive temples here are the ones of Bacchus, the Greek God of Wine and Jupiter. The Roman God of light, of the sky and weather. 

Get Lost in the souks of Sidon

Along the coast, two historical cities - Tyre and Sidon are beautiful ! Sidon or Sida is Lebanons 3rd largest city and is most famous for its Sea Castle.  In July 2013 – Sidon was the scene of a 2 day battle between Sunni Militants and the Lebanese army which left over 50 people dead. Although Sidon is for calm and safe to visit, be sure to keep up with the news if u decide to visit.
This coastal town was once a rich and flourishing Phoenician city with tight trade links to ancient Egypt. Today its best known for its fresh fruits, pastries and sweets which can be sampled at their awesome Souk . You cannot leave Lebanon without Tasting Abou Rami's falafels from Sidon !!! They make 100's every minute and the man behind the counter is like a robot dishing out sandwiches after sandwiches ! 

Just across the road from the souk is Sidon Castle which was built by the crusaders in the 13th century as a fortress of the holy land – another must see when in Lebanon. 

Further South, just 26 kms from the closed Palestenian Border is Tyre, Arrabic name Sur. Another ancient Phoenician city and home to one of the nations major ports. We had a nice stroll on the sea front and meandered our way through the careful residential area before finding ourselves at a historical site.

The city has a number of ancient sites, including its Roman Hippodrome, which was added to UNESCOS list of World Heritage sites in 1979. Its beaches are also some of the most popular places to go for both tourist and locals alike in summer.

Back in Beirut for a full on Lebanese experience - albeit very expensive , try 3Anbar . It also has life performances through the night and a go to with locals. If you want to shake a leg or two , wait till after mid - night and u will see a crowd like no other arrive in their Porsche and Lamborghini.

Try Laila's in Zaitunay Bay for some good Sheesha - also Em Shreiff  ( has 2 branches ) - all of which will require reservations in peak dinner time. BO18; set in what looks like an old bomb shelter, and the highlight of the night is the incredible retractable roof which gives a night-time view of the stars and city lights. They have a banging Thursday night ...

Set Your celebrations for Burgundy - i booked this one a month in advance - this 3 Michellin Star - although not Vegeterian friendly ... you will enjoy the small menu !

Cedars of God; the largest of Lebanon nature reserves, Blanketed with oak forests on its northeastern slopes and juniper and oak forests on its southeastern slopes, these Cedar forests account for a quarter of the remaining cedars in Lebanon , and some tress are estimated to be 2,000 years old. From the summit of the rugged mountains, visitors will have a panoramic view of the countryside, eastward to the Beqaa Valley and Qaraoun Lake, and westward toward the Mediterranean. We were so lucky because we reached the Cedar and it began to snow ! If you are going to the Cedar Forest in the summer  - u must hike ! 

Mzaar Kfardebian also known as Faraya Mzaar is a ski area in Lebanon and the largest ski resort in the Middle East. It is located one hour away from Beirut, the capital of Lebanon. Ski season usually stretches from early December to early April. The peaks of the Mzaar-Kfardebian mountain range vary between heights of 1,913 and 2,465 metres (6,276 and 8,087 ft). The Peak, offer challenges for the experienced skier or snowboarder. Three other peaks are well suited for beginners, and even more are adapted to skier of intermediate level. A large variety of other activities and excursions are also available. Along with traditional alpine skiing, people can practice ski-doo ( ski mobile ), night skiing and snow boarding.

We stayed at the Intercontinental Mzaar – which is the perfect ski resort for people travelling with young kids. It has a bowling alley, indoor heated pool and spa, a move theatre and a shopping mall all within the hotel itself. 
We didn't meet Gaddafi because he isn't from Lebanon just FYI. But we did meet the friendly people of Lebanon who would go out of their way to find you Pomegranate Molasses which is the key ingredient to make the Fatoosh. You will also probably look for a falafel maker only to find that Amazon will deliver it to you at the same price that you will buy it at the Souk for. Lebanon was such a small surprise package. We loved how it was laid back and yet so much to do ! Perfect for a couple who is trying to enjoy a vacation away from their baby ;) 


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