Beirut is one of the most colorful cities in the Middle East. This ancient Mediterranean city was the central hub of trade and ship transport. While it was the heart of regional trade and finance with the nickname “Paris of the Middle East” until the 1970s, a tumultuous period followed. However, ancient cities are expert survivors. And Beirut has begun to bring back its past glory. Home to a colorful urban texture thanks to the various ethnic and religious groups in the city, Beirut has been busy adopting current trends for a long time. As its designers revive the nostalgic energy of the city with new cafés, stylish restaurants and museums, the city attracts more and more visitors.
My Istanbul-Beirut flight lasts 1 hour and 50 minutes. It’s 10 kilometers between the airport and the city center but the only means of transport is taxis - no metro or buses are available. After a short bargain, I pay 20 dollars for a 20-minute drive to the hotel.
Those who prioritize accommodation prefer the seaside Raouché, also home to Warwick Palm Beach Hotel, while those with an adventurous spirit go to the district of Hamra. However, Pigeon Rocks is the perfect place to meet the city. These rocks are actually a wonder of nature but have been turned into the heroes of a tragedy thanks to local tales. One such tale talks of how local lovers with different religious beliefs would leap to their death hand in hand from these rocks when they could not have their families’ blessing for marriage. Those who wish to keep their memory alive named these formations Pigeon Rocks because pigeons never leave their mates.
Hamra, the city’s shopping center, is crowded. This street was once one of the hippest locations in Beirut, a place frequented by artists and authors. It lacks its past grandeur, but I can see there are lots of boutiques, cafés and restaurants, albeit quite expensive.
Next comes the downtown, which I can describe as “Beirut in a nutshell.” Old and new, whatever you’re looking for, you can find it here with a mere few steps in between. The blue-domed Mohammed Al-Amin Mosque in the center looks wonderful with its architecture and ornaments but I set my eye on the giant chandelier inside. What makes this spectacular chandelier meaningful to me is that it’s a gift from the Republic of Turkey. Next to the mosque is Martyrs' Square. I can still see the bullet marks from the civil war on the bronze monument dedicated to the Lebanese people who lost their lives in World War I. They are intentionally left there to remind people of the painful price of war.
Don’t be surprised if you hear the call to prayer and church bells together in Beirut. It’s a symbol of the diversity of belief in a city with 18 different religious communities. Right behind Mohammed Al-Amin Mosque stands St. George, the oldest cathedral in the city, and behind that is the Roman bathhouse. So, there’s an embrace of mosque, cathedral, and bathhouse. The structures built during the 400-year-long Ottoman rule in Lebanon are still alive as if they were built just yesterday. Built as barracks by the order of Sultan Abdulmejid in 1853 and used as an administrative building under the French rule, Grand Serail currently serves as a government building. Other Ottoman buildings around Grand Serail include the parliament building and the ministries. That’s why the area is heavily guarded, and it’s prohibited to take pictures here.
Naturally, it’s a bit draining to explore the city’s historical heritage in one breath. I head towards Star Square for a coffee break. This is the heart of downtown and the best place to rest. In the square, I am again welcomed by an Ottoman-era clock tower. Built to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Abdul Hamid II's enthronement, the tower is a local landmark. I sit at a café across and sip my coffee while browsing through the photographs I’ve taken.
Beirut is a city where it’s rewarding to get excited over dinner, but I have one more historical landmark to stop by: the National Museum of Beirut, which exhibits artifacts from the prehistoric ages to the Hellenistic, Roman, Byzantine, and Arab periods. It’s a great feeling to see the unique king sarcophagus brought from Baalbek and Byblos.
You won’t regret anything you eat in Beirut, and I learn that on the first day. I am already in love with the world-renowned trademark delicacies of Lebanon such as fattoush and tabbouleh salads, and olive oil side dishes like hummus, muhammara, and baba ganoush. To relieve the day’s fatigue, I sit at Mezyan Restaurant on Al Hamra Street. Beirut has a sophisticated kebab scene, but the kibbeh and falafel is out of this world.
On my second day, I head outside the city. Only 20 kilometers from Beirut, Jeita Grotto caves are one of the world’s most important wonders of nature. Rivaling Universal Studios, the two-story cave has been made to look more mysterious with impressive lighting. The cave if full of several stalactite formations including the 27-feet stalactite recorded as the world's longest. After touring the lower floor with a boat, I start wandering around the second floor. I feel like I am watching a fantasy movie as I look at formations that resemble giant mushrooms and ginger roots.
The Harissa Hill near the caves has a great location with a panoramic view of Beirut. As I climb the hill with a cable car, Beirut transforms into a tiny globe of blue and green. The giant Virgin Mary statue atop gazes at the city, spreading her arms as if to embrace the entire country. It is known as the statue of the Virgin Mary with the most distinctive facial features.
Next is the ancient city of Byblos. There’s a small fishing port in the region which used to be the center of sea trade, and a nearby castle dating back to the time of the Crusaders. Byblos was the first place that used a legible alphabet. The journey from the alphabet to the book is told at the exhibition inside the castle. The market is the perfect place for both souvenirs and special requests such as cedar oil or fragrance.
Cities are like people: you get attached to them over time and it’s hard to leave them behind. I go on one last walk in Zaitunay Bay hidden under the palm trees from the esplanade to the Pigeon Rocks to bid Beirut farewell. My first visit was an introduction, and I plan to visit again for a cordial conversation.