A Walking Tour of Beirut
Written by Will Dobson
The day starts on Bliss Street for a quick breakfast on the move. In the heart of vibrant Hamra, buzzing with students, international journalists and Western tourists, the street offers a wonderful juxtaposition. On the one side sits The American University of Beirut, founded back in 1866, looking like something straight out of Southern California, with elegantly modern buildings, leafy passageways and views over the Mediterranean. Outside, chatter oscillates amongst young students to-ing and fro-ing between classes, Arabic, English and French all confusingly interspersed into the same sentences.
On the other, open shop fronts sell manaeesh, cooked on a saj and topped with za’atar, jibneh or nutella. Meanwhile, the exotic scents of flavoured tobacco, mixed with burning charcoal, coffee brewing and jasmine, redolent of spring, waft down the street. Combined with the fresh, pungent ozone fragrance from the sea, the smell of Beirut is both unique and instantly evocative.
After finishing one of these Lebanese style pizzas and a strong cup of Turkish coffee, thick, syrupy sweet, flavoured with earthy cardamom and blacker than black, we make our way through Hamra. Charmingly run down, pot holes pepper the streets and large 1950s Mercedes, used as taxis, clutter around each corner, as their drivers stand gossiping and smoking nearby, shouting for business whenever a foreigner walks past. Just before the main street stands the Mayflower, the oldest privately owned hotel in town. Full of history and remindful of by-gone eras, former guests include Graham Greene, Kim Philby and Graham Hill, while it was here that most international reporters were based during the Civil War.
Onwards, we walk along Hamra Street, filled with cafes, both local and international chains, newsagents, bookshops and fashion boutiques, ranging from those selling standard fare to ones offering altogether more garish attire. From here, we make a beeline, past the Central Bank of Lebanon, and up through the traditional quarter of Kantari. Here, like no where else in Beirut, we’re able to see the multitude of different influences which have formed the city over the years. The architecture is a bizarre and eclectic mix of Arab, Ottoman and French art noveau, ornamental columns adorn the outside of brightly coloured houses, their three large windows are intricately decorated. Elsewhere, the vast sectarian complexities are illustrated by different places of worship, all beautiful, ranging from Maronite or Armenian Orthodox churches to Sunni and Shiite mosques.
As we wander through the streets sloping towards Downtown, it’s hard too not to be reminded of the war, with bullet holes and rundown buildings as telling reminders of violence past. Yet, framing the iconic, hollow structure of the Holiday Inn, the sky behind is full of cranes, pointing to the constant renovation of this mesmerising city. No where is this better exemplified than by Zeitounay Bay, perched on the Mediterranean shoreline, the sun shimmering off the sea, next to the famous St. George Hotel. With sleek yachts moored in the marina and filled with Italian, Japanese and French restaurants, modern cafes and cool bars, this recent development represents the new Beirut, a city driving itself into the 21st Century and embracing its cosmopolitan history.
After a quick coffee break, this time an espresso, we take in the eerily quiet Place D’Etoile, fastidiously renovated, home to Parisian-style boulevards, Roman ruins, and the magnificent Mohammad Al-Amin Mosque. From here, we cut through the sombre atmosphere of Martyr’s Square, location of the 2005 Cedar Revolutions, where 2 million people joined together in protest and continue along Gemmayze Street, home to much of the city’s nightlife. Then, back uphill this time, we snake through to the residential area of Achrafieh, filled with the hustle and bustle of people going about their daily business. Here, we stop for a late lunch at Boubouffe. This plain looking restaurant, which doesn’t seem to have changed for generations, may have curt service but, in a city where there are hundreds of places to pick up a kebab, their shawarmas are very special. Using a secret family recipe of vinegar and over 20 spices, the beef is cooked on charcoal rather than the more common gas, elevating it to something truly astonishing. To wash it down, we head for a typically Levantine ice cream a few doors down, flavoured with pistachio, all gooey and sticky from the mastic which gives it its unique texture and perfectly refreshing.
As the evening draws in, and the sun starts to set, painting the mountains in the distance a greyish pink, we make our way to Mar Mikhail, a trendy neighbourhood filled with arty shops, studios and bars. Here, we breathe in the bohemian vibe, before finally sitting down for supper at Seza’s Bistro. At this quaint little Armenian restaurant, on a quiet side street, we perch in their outside patio, underneath the bougainvillea, romantically lit up by tiny fairy lights. The heavenly su boerek, salty filo pastry filled with soft, creamy cheese, is perhaps the standout morsel, while the manti is another particular favourite. These folded triangles of dough, similar to ravioli but with a crispier bite, are filled with spiced minced meat and topped with sumac and garlic yoghurt, giving a mellow sweetness.
Happy, sated and exhausted, we return to Le Gray, surely the best hotel in town, and cool down in their magnificent infinity pool, the city lights twinkling in the night sky, confident that we’ll be sleeping very soundly indeed.
Will Dobson has written for a number of publications on topics ranging from literature to gastronomy. He is also the founder and editor of Sugar Street Review, an online magazine dedicated to the culture of the Arab world.