Beirut is a destination that’s been on my list for a while now. I read an article in a travel magazine years ago and it sounded like an interesting destination so it was well and truly on the list of countries to visit whilst living in the Middle East. We left Abu Dhabi on Sunday morning and returned on Wednesday evening which was perfect! First impressions when we left the airport weren’t great. Our taxi driver was a maniac on the road and we almost got into a collision with a van after being in the car for 5 minutes! I usually like to enjoy my first views of a city and take in everything around me but this time all I wanted was to arrive at the hotel in one piece!
On arrival at the hotel we checked in and our room was ready. We changed quickly, tried to shake off the crazy taxi journey and headed out to discover what Beirut had to offer. First stop on our list was Mar Mikhael, we grabbed a map from reception and set off to explore. We found the seafront and decided to stop somewhere to eat when we saw something that took our fancy.
We came upon a beautiful little harbour on the seafront with a few small yachts, what looked to us like a small beach club and a couple of different food options. We looked at the different menus and decided to eat at Boulevard Cafe. We ordered Warak Enab (vegetarian stuffed vine leaves), grilled halloumi, grilled lamb cutlets, hommos (their spelling) and falafel salad. We were so hungry we tucked right in but very quickly realised that this wasn’t of the same quality that we are used to in the UAE. The lamb cutlets were excellent but everything else was mediocre and the falafel were completely dry. A little disappointing but we didn’t let it dampen our spirits, we ordered a cold Almaza (beer) and enjoyed the view.
Fed and watered, off we went again to wander the streets and find Mar Mikhael. We walked past Le Gray Hotel which had been recommended to us by a friend and decided to go up to the roof top bar for a drink. Unfortunately the bar was closed due to Ramadan but we got to take in some beautiful views over the Blue Mosque and Roman ruins.
Beirut is a really nice city to walk around with lots to see. Parts are very raw with reminders that the country was in a civil war for 30 years and other parts are new and modern.
Here you can see the desolate remains of the Holiday Inn which opened just two years before the civil war broke out and became part of the ‘war of the hotels’ a few months into the war. The bullet and rocket holes at the top of the hotel are still visible to this day and are a stark reminder of the war that once ripped through this city.
The picture below is the remains of a building referred to by the locals as ‘the egg’. Before the civil war the egg was the first and largest cinema in Beirut. When it got damaged during the war the Lebanese government decided that the building should be left and there are different rumours and plans as to what will be done with the egg in the future. For now it is left in its current state as another reminder of this country’s war-torn past.
When we finally reached Mar Mikhael we discovered that there was a ‘car free day‘ street party on and there were people EVERYWHERE! Families, couples, friends and lots of dogs all walking along Mar Mikhael which normally isn’t pedestrianised. All the bars had live music and entertainment and the whole area was awash with life.
We walked up and down the street through the crowds of people and dogs and craft stalls and live DJ’s and bands before settling on a bar to stop at. We found one that was situated across from some live music but where we could find a seat and hear each other speak…showing our age here!
The bar was called Central Station and was voted number 26 out of 50 in the best bars in Africa and the Middle East. The decor inside was speak easy style and the bar tenders were well-practiced mixologists. I think they were a little offended when we ordered an Aperol Spritz but that became our drink of choice in Beirut. After Central Station we went to a small little restaurant and bar called The Happy Prince. We were actually heading for home but this cute little space down a side street off Mar Michael caught our eye. We propped ourselves up at the bar and asked to see the wine menu…. it was time to taste some Lebanese wine! While we contemplated whether to buy a bottle or two glasses, two girls at the bar beside us quipped ‘always a bottle!’. They were locals and gave us some great advice on things to see and do whilst in Lebanon. A trip to Byblos (Jbeil in Arabic) and a visit to Ixsir winery were a must. We had talked about doing both these things prior to arriving in Lebanon but now it was well and truly a cemented plan as we had some insider knowledge.
We got up early the next morning and organised an UBER to take us north of Beirut to Byblos and Ixsir. We stopped for lunch at a small village called Batroun before our winery tour on recommendation from the receptionist at our hotel but either our UBER brought us to the wrong place or we just ate in the wrong restaurant but this was not an experience I would repeat or recommend to anyone!
Arriving to Ixsir was a much more pleasant experience and as soon as we walked into the courtyard we realised we should have come here for lunch instead!
The vineyard is a 10 min drive inland located in the mountains of Batroun. The building itself is from the 17th century and has been tastefully restored to house the winery. We arrived 20 mins before our tour was about to start and had time to enjoy a glass of the Ixsir Rose in the beautiful gardens.
The tour started at 3.30pm and there were about 12 of us in total. We went downstairs to the ‘workings’ of the winery and were given a very brief tour around. Unfortunately this is as far as the tour went and it finished in the barrel room.
There was no wine tasting, no tour of the vines or any explanation of which grapes are grown or used for Ixsir wine. We were feeling a little shortchanged (even though the tour was free) so we went off and took ourselves on a tour of the vines instead!
It took us almost 2 hours to get here so it was a bit of a letdown, I would rather have paid money and gotten a real tour of the winery. In saying that I think that Ixsir is definitely worth a visit as its so beautiful and I would definitely go here for lunch but don’t go if you are looking for an insightful vineyard tour!
After Ixsir we headed off to discover Byblos. After a less than satisfying lunch and a somewhat disappointing winery tour Byblos had a lot of making up to do. Thankfully we were not (completely) disappointed. On arrival into Byblos we were excited to explore the city with all its history and beauty, old stone buildings, small harbour and Castle ruins.
We started our exploration of Byblos in the ‘old souk’ which is a little more modern and polished than I would like it to be considering Byblos is one of the oldest cities in the world. From the outside everything looks authentic but once inside you realise that it is the same tourist tat as everywhere else just displayed in some very pretty surroundings.
We were once again disappointed that we had already eaten lunch in Batroun as there were some really nice looking restaurants in Byblos but you live and learn and we will know for the next time if we return. Without wanting to shop for tourist tat and not being hungry we made our way back to our UBER where our driver seemed to be a little surprised we were back so early. He asked us if we had visited the castle and when we said no he shoo’ed us off to the entrance of the castle. I’m really glad he did because it was exactly what I had expected to see in Byblos. Once we got inside the grounds there were all sorts of ruins including a tomb, a railway track, ancient Greek columns and an amphitheatre. For one of the oldest cities in the world this was more of what I had expected and it was beautiful. Feeling content with our visit to the north it was time to head south and back to Beirut.
On our final day in Beirut we had a few more things that we wanted to tick off our bucket list. One was a visit to a rock formation in the sea at the Raouche area of Beirut and the other was a trip to the Phoenician Hotel.
We walked from our hotel along the Corniche (stopping for ice cream along the way) for 35 mins until we reached Raouche Rocks or Pigeon Rocks as it is sometimes referred to.
This is a very picturesque area of Beirut and so we decided to have lunch in one of the restaurants overlooking the rocks. We knew this would be a bit of a tourist trap so we looked for the restaurant with most locals in it and decided to trust this one.
Once again, maybe we are spoiled with the quality of Lebanese food available in the UAE, but this was definitely not the best fattoush salad or hummus we had ever tried and the lamb kofta is definitely better in Abu Dhabi. The view was spectacular though and the food did its job sufficiently.
From here the Phoenicia Hotel is about 40 mins by foot. The walk is nice and the temperature in Beirut at this time of year is so perfect (about 25 degrees) which is much more comfortable than the 40 degree heat of the UAE at the same time of year! From the outside the Phoenicia doesn’t look great, shadowed by the skeleton of the Holiday Inn, it could be quickly dismissed but once inside the place is a palace. Upon entering the hotel you have to pass through airport type bag and body scanners as with all hotels in Beirut but once through these you are greeted with a very elaborate stairway with escalators on either side. Passing through the lobby and the different lobby shops you can see areas of the hotel that have been modernised quite recently but it is at the back of the hotel where the real treasure is. The outdoor bar and swimming pool area is a dream.
Furnished with day beds and sun loungers all around the pool and decorated in white and purple you feel as if you’ve stepped into a movie set of a gangsters house…but in a tasteful way!
The pool is surrounded with marble columns and large planters and the mosaic tiles on the floor of the pool make up images of a Phoenician boat and Phoenician horses.
This was the perfect place to spend our last evening in Beirut and we decided that if we return we will definitely be staying at the Phoenicia. The only problem with that is I’m not sure I’d ever want to leave the poolside!