Beirut is a woman, petite but not especially pretty. The average Beiruti will happily take time describing her features and highlights: he’ll tell you how she was destroyed and then rebuilt half a dozen times, how her cooking is second to none and how, if you visit the iconic Pigeon’s Rock (grasping your coffee) in the very early hours of the morning, the sea melts into the city’s night sky as the scattered fishing boats begin to light their oil lamps.
But ask any of the thousands of international expats that have made Beirut their home why they decided to stay, and they’ll give the same answer. They all know they’re in love with the place, they just aren’t quite sure why.
Beirut is certainly a well-dressed lady. She’s also steeped in culture: there are more sights, galleries and ruins here than you can shake a camera at, and she is equally at home in three languages – Arabic, French and English. She is always making music, drinking cocktails and dancing on the tables; she’s wild and entertaining, and as attached to her nightlife as she is to her churches and mosques. But that isn’t why you fall for her. You love her because she’s a living contradiction. She’s rude, cheap, ugly – but for every person that’ll threaten you for glancing at them, Beirut has 10 that will open their homes to a complete stranger. For every pricey steak, you’ll find a bargain meal fit for a king. For every destroyed building, you’ll find a 2,000-year-old Roman bath or Byzantine church. For every beggar, you’ll meet two Versace-clad elitists.
The city is anarchy, with as many independent governments as it has residents. She shuns mere maps and street names, preferring you to get lost in her alleys. Need to find that obscure little art gallery? Take a left at the butcher’s, then make a sharp right at the store with the old couple sat out front.
Beirut will take you out and show you a good time, and treat you like a celebrity. She will stay with you all night and then leave you early in the morning, tired, bruised and all alone – but still eager for more. And the more that she torments you, the more you’ll love her for it.
Qatar Airways flies daily to Beirut from QR1,700 (including tax)
Where to stay
Plaza Hotel (+961 1 755 777; www.plazahotellebanon.com)
Where is it?
Western Lebanon, on a peninsula jutting out into the Mediterranean.
Mediterranean, with hot summers.
Arab, with American and European minorities.
Don’t miss Al Omari Mosque, AUB Museum, the Corniche, Pigeon’s Rock, Roman Baths and St George’s Cathedral.
Try Ghalayineh snacks, the shoe-shiners on Hamra Street or poster salesmen in Downtown Beirut.
Where’s the buzz?
Gemmayzeh Street, Monot Street, Hamra Street, Downtown Beirut.
Earliest evidence of civilisation
The city was first mentioned in letters dating to the 15th century BC, from the ancient Egyptian site of Tell el Amarna.
Under French mandate
Consequences of internal conflict
About 360,000 people (14 per cent of the population) had at least one member of their family killed, wounded or kidnapped during the Lebanese civil war, which took place from 1975 to 1990.
Length of Israel’s military offensive in 2006
34 days, during which 1,000 Lebanese were killed.
Because of the lack of education during the civil war, 20 per cent of Beirut’s population aged over 20 are illiterate.
Try mezze, houmous, kebab, baklava and fattoush (a salad mixed with pieces of toasted bread).
Number of Man’oushes (bread with thyme) consumed every year
Approximately 55 million.
Financial services, agriculture, tourism, food processing, jewellery, textiles, mineral and chemical products.
Best way to spend a Sunday
At the races: Beirut’s race track runs pure Arabian horses and is one of the few places in the Middle East to offer legal betting.
Arts & culture
Food & drink
Quality of life