Listen, before you let your family and friends dissuade you from travelling to the beautiful but slightly schizophrenic city that is Beirut, Lebanon, let us first give you a complete idea of what you’d be missing out on.
The tragic and tumultuous image is out there, yes, but it is something Lebanon struggles to rid itself of. We at 2famous have tried our best to normalize the otherwise stigmatized image that the Western media has fed us over the past decades.When we first came here Beirut was listed as the No.1 travel destination by both New York Times and Lonely Planet. Now, three years later, with war in Syria a never ending “Spring” on every front and the occasional bomb, Beirut is not really the hottest destination for tourists anymore. That’s why the Lebanese government even launched a campaign “50 Days of Discounts on Airlines and Hotels” in an attempt to boost the wounded tourism sector.
So even if you’ve let people who’ve never even heard of the place cast doubt in your eyes, just know that Lebanon is still fucking awesome. And when you do decide to ignore the travel warnings and come to this magical country, you won’t be sorry, and you don’t have to worry: we’ve got your backs covered!
Here is an up to date 2famous.TV backpackers guide to Lebanon:
OK, let’s take it from the beginning and assume that you arrive at the airport. (If you arrived any other way you are way too hardcore to need a guide.)
No, you don’t need a visa (in most cases). They will give you a one month stamp at arrival that will actually let you stay for two months (minus one day)! If you go to General Security before your time has expired, you can get an additional month for free. If you decide to be a tad naughty and overstay for six months, the price will be 50.000 L.L. at GS to get an exit visa stamp. And if you’re here for a full year, it’ll be 200.000 L.L. After that you’ll be fucked! Don’t even try to push it!
However, you need to know an address of where you’re going to stay. Just find an address from Lonely Planet or write “Talal Hotel, Ave Charles Helou, Beirut”. Without this little piece of insignificant information they won’t let you in.
As you leave the airport there will be a whole bunch of taxis trying to offer you a ride to Downtown for $40-50, which is obviously hideous! Don’t pay more than $10-20!
If you are on a budget, you can go upstairs to the Departures section and fetch a minibus which is actually a dilapidated van. Just ask the driver if he is going to Downtown. This will cost you about a dollar, and will take you to… well… Downtown! This is not really where you want to stay, but it serves as a good starting point for your hotel hunt.
Couchsurfing is usually a good way of getting to know people, but don’t expect to find a place to sleep. Because, even if Lebanon is a relatively liberal country, at least in some parts, the financial situation makes it normal for people to live with their parents until they get married.
As a backpacker you’ll probably be paying $10 a night at a hostel, but there are some serious luxury hotels if you’d like to splurge on accommodation. Look it up on the Internet. There are plenty to choose from!If you came here on a single ticket you might as well be looking for an apartment to rent, as most people who come here without an exit plan never really leave. This is the evolution you will go through. This can be a bit tricky but social media has stepped up to the challenge. Check out the Facebook page Apartments in Beirut (for Renters and Rentees) as people update all day every day and everyone needs or is giving accommodation! What you could also do is to find yourself a nice ‘hood where you want to live, and go from corner shop to corner shop asking your way around. But be patient! It can take some foreigners up to a month to find a place!
If you are looking for a room you can expect to pay a minimum of $400 a month, and if you’re looking at a two bedroom apartment you’ll probably never find anything under $800.
And even if Beirut is packed with uninhabited apartments, squatting is not really recommended, which kind of doesn’t make any sense for a country that houses about half a million Syrian and Palestinian refugees.
After you have settled in a hotel you might as well learn how to move around in Beirut. The local way of doing this is using the so called “service” system, which is basically a shared taxi with fixed prices (2.000 L.L). No need to haggle! Look out for old beaten up Mercedeses with red license plates and say “Service!” loud and clear, followed by the destination you’re heading for. If the driver makes a strange kissing sound while nodding his head you’re out of luck. If he stops and says “Yalla!” or “Tl3aa!”, he will take you to a place with a name similar to what you tried to pronounce. Check out this photo story we did about the Lebanese “service” shared taxis.
A classic Beirut cab scenario
(A little note here: If you are heading for Mar Mikhael, one of the booming nightlife spots in Beirut, it might be useful to know that there are two Mar Mikhael’s – one of the Christian side, and one in the southern suburbs. If you come from the Muslim side, you might want to add a “Naher” after saying “Mar Mikhael”, so that you don’t end up in Hezbollah-land at four in the morning. Not that it’s dangerous. It’s just very annoying).
You can also rent bikes from Beirut by Bike, which is totally awesome. But be careful! The traffic is mad, and people like to drive when they are drunk!
The NeighborhoodsAfter you’ve figured out how to get around this city you are ready to start neighborhood-hopping. There are many nice looking ‘hoods with a charismatic feel to them, and if you hurry up you can get to see some of the beautiful oriental houses that once made this city so famous before they’re all taken down by Saudi property development companies.
Get lost in the maze of Burj Hammoud, the Armenian neighborhood, or walk from Hamra (Muslim West Beirut) to the buzzing markets of Sabra (Palestinian refugee camp). Also check out Dahiye, a Shia-Muslim ‘hood that was all over the news in 2006 when the Israelis bombed the shit out of it. However, you need to be a bit careful with your camera! If you want to take pictures in Dahiye you need permission in advance, so there’s no point in even bringing your camera there. In the Palestinian camps you’ll have to ask permission before taking a picture. The rest of Beirut is pretty easy going when it comes to this.
FoodAll this traveling and haggling should work up your appetite. Good thing that Lebanon is super famous for their cuisine! I seriously don’t think any Lebanese have ever starved to death. There is food everywhere, and people are more than willing to share. The Lebanese start their days with a manouche, a local “pizza” with toppings like spicy meat, cheese or zaatar. If you are in one of the Palestinian camps they make the best falafel of all time, and there are many good sandwich places spread out over this city. In Achrafiye you can get some pretty awesome spicy fish sandwiches, and don’t miss out on the sujuk or basterma in Burj Hammoud!
As you’re walking down Gemayzeh this man will yell “WELCOME” in your face.
All over Ashrafiye and Hamra you’ll find good quality mid-range restaurants, but if you’re in for a traditional mezze meal at a decent restaurant you can try Em Nazih – the tourists favorite. It has a chill atmosphere as it’s located at the ground floors of one of the most popular hostels in this city, and on the rooftop there is a nice bar where you can have a drink at night. (All the other rooftop bars in Beirut are for rich people, and for people that like to pretend that they are rich.)
The best meals are often served by someone’s grandmother in small local places disguised as cantinas with plastic chairs, and are nearly impossible to describe to newbies. Just walk around and find your own favorite! However, if you’d like to have a proper fish meal, you’d be better off trying your luck in some of the smaller coastal cities(but we’ll give you a full description of those in your guide outside of Beirut).
This is one of Beirut’s big selling points for tourism as it’s the party capital of the Arab world. It’s changing fast with new places popping up here and there. The spots that were super popular when your dentist visited Beirut are probably totally lame today.
However, there are plenty of places where you can shoot down Doudou Shots and Almaza’s and wonder if this really is the same Middle East you grew up watching on your TV-screen. In general you can divide Beirut’s nightlife into four neighborhoods:
Monot: Used to be the one and only IT of nightlife in this city, but that’s a while ago. There are still plenty of bars in Monot Street, but the karaoke places seem to be what keeps this ‘hood’s nightlife running.
Gemmayze: This is still one of the main bar streets and is hard to miss when you’re in Lebanon. This used to be one of the coziest ‘hoods in Beirut, but have seen massive changes over the past decade or so. However, it’s the place in Lebanon with the highest bar density by far, where you can get drunk at any night of the week.
Mar Mikhael: The new hipster town! If you came to this ‘hood last year you would not recognize it now! Since then bar after bar has popped up, and the nightlife is booming. After the smoking ban law was enforced earlier this year, people tend to go out on the streets to socialize, bringing the party to the sidewalks of Mar Mikhael. High concentration of hippies and Western journalists writing home about rumors from the neighboring countries.
Hamra: Still makes an important part of Beirut’s nightlife scene. It’s different from the other ‘hoods not only because it’s Muslim, but it’s actually a proper district – not just a street, like the bar “districts” on the Christian side. The street life in Hamra is a good mix of locals, Arab tourists, and Western foreigners alike, with a wide range of hotels and bars. Expansion on the bar scene has been monolithic with almost every street crowded on the weekends. The fact that the American University of Beirut is just down the street also affects the nightlife, and the students fill the cafés during the day, and the bars at night.
After hours: One thing you should know is that it’s hard to find a place with a proper dance floor! In Gemmayze you can go to Yunkunkun, and in Mar Mikhael you can check out the calendar for example and see whats up at EM Chill – where we once had a party that we don’t remember anything from.
One of those nights that you remember everything you captured on tape, and nothing else.
However, when summer comes the Lebanese don’t stop partying, and there will be tons of Beach Parties, Mountain Parties, House Parties, Pool Parties, River Parties, Minimal Parties, Punk Rock Beer Pong Parties, Electro-pop Parties, Polka Parties, Rave Parties and whatever that’s trending that year. These parties are often organized by groups of people like the Beirut Grove Collective and the PC Parties.
Rumor has it that there are two new spots in town called “Uberhaus” and “The Warehouse” – but we’re just waiting for invitations to confirm this to our readers… (VIP tickets with unlimited access to the bar is most welcome).
If you want to crazy it up a tad and go all bananas at night, proper Beirut style, but yet in a way that almost no Lebanese do, you can hit up at Jazeera. African and Asian women get in for free. Dudes have to pay 20 bucks. The atmosphere is magic under the green laser beams, and there is no way you won’t dance to the reggaeton and African beats, no matter how unrhythmical your Scandinavian genes have made you. This is where we go to party up with our African and Palestinian friends. You can find this club on the highway towards Jounieh in Zalka.
Don’t miss out on…
Check out the sunset at the very famous corniche in West Beirut. Have a coffee from one of the most famous coffee dudes in the Middle East, Abu Ali, as you let your eyes gaze over the Mediterranean while wondering if this could possibly be the same sea you have been looking at from Spain and Greece. The corniche is also a great spot for people watching, as it’s the favorite place for the Beiruties to walk, exercise and show off, and canoodle.
We’re looking for the most famous person on the Corniche.
At the southern end of the Corniche you’ll run into massive rocks sticking out of the sea — the ones that pop up on every postcard, it’s called Pigeon Rocks. Great spot to cuddle up with someone, and watch cliff divers showing off. Further south there is a sandy beach called Raouche. This beach can sometimes be a bit dirty, but we’ve all swam there and it just depends on the current.
There are plenty of beach clubs along this little strip of paved seaside where you can swim in a pool and drink cold beers while looking at some of the local beauties looking at other local beauties. (Maids go for free, but are not allowed in the water for some reason…)
A great Sunday hangover activity in Beirut is to go to the horse races at the Hippodrome. Find some old looking dudes that know what they are doing and try to squeeze them for information. Afterwards, when you lose, they are going to say “I told you so” anyways. The crowd is 100% old gambling men so when a 2famous female spent the day there, it didn’t feel so comfortable as everyone was staring at her.
If you, against all odds, do win some money, it’s always fun to go and spend it at Souq al-Ahad, the Sunday market. The location, partly under a highway, is arguably not the best, but the bargains to be made are absolutely amazing! They’ve even got live eagles on sale!
Even if Lebanon is a country smack dab in the middle of the Arab world where Arabic is the main language, you will find that most Beirutis have mastered both English and French just as well, if not better, than Arabic! The aristocratic Christian elite take great pride in being “French educated” and speak Arabic and English with a distinct French accent.
Arabic-wise, Lebanese is very close to Syrian and quite different from “Modern Standard Arabic”. This means that if you came here well prepared with an Arabic language diploma on your CV you still have work to do to make yourself understood without everyone laughing at your first.
DrugsIf you come from Amsterdam, or California or something, and are depending on your medical marijuana to survive, you might choose another travel destination. Yes, Lebanon is famous for producing some of the top quality hashish in the world, but the laws here are pretty tight, like elsewhere in the Middle East. And even if they have exported as much as 100.000 tons of Red Leb at it’s peak, a quarter of a gram in your pocket will send you to a dark dungeon guarded by angry men. And the cops do search random people on the streets every once in a while.
Most other drugs are imported into this country from Brazil or Europe through the asshole of some shifty dudes, and are in general of worse quality and higher prices than what you’re used to.
Our advice would be to stick to the Lebanese beer (Almaza, Lebanese Brew and 961), or sip on the excellent wine produced by one of the 30 wine producers in this country!
(Check out our story from when we went to have a word with the hashish farmers in Lebanon.)
The Lebanese Lira (L.L) is fixed to the American Dollar. $1 is 1.500 L.L. and both currencies are in wide circulation on equal level. You can pay with dollars and get your change in L.L., or the other way around.
Lebanon is not super cheap in general, but you can make your way around on a budget pretty easily. Here are some standard prices on some of the things that you might be spending on:
Lebanese bread: 1.250, Soda: 750, Small beer from shop: 1.500, Large beer from shop: 2.000, Beer at bar: 5.000 to 8.000, Water: 500, Cigarettes: 2 – 3.000, Shared taxi: 2.000, Bus ride: 1 – 2.000, Sandwiches: ca. 5.000, Manouche: 1.250 – 3.000, Vegetables: cheap.
The last and final point might be the reason for your hesitance to travel in the first place. Lebanese politics is tricky, utterly complicated, and it seems like the more time you spend in Lebanon, the less you
want to will understand of the local politics. With 19 religious fractions and fifteen years of civil war in recent memory it seems to be impossible to agree on national interests, making Lebanon a tribal patchwork that mirrors many of the regional conflicts. As they say: If you figure out Lebanon, you’ve figured out the whole Middle East.
Many of the travel mags and books tell you not to discuss politics or religion when you’re staying in Beirut. We’ve never experienced any problems with this, and our advice is simply to stay updated with what’s going on, for your safety and for good conversation. Read the daily news so you know where things are tense and so you can rub elbows with the rest of the journalists and westerners who consider themselves experts.
And you will soon realize that while newbies are freaking the fuck out over some rocket exchange between Lebanon and the Enemy in the south, the Lebanese seems to take it easy. Not that the situation is not serious for some. Sporadic roadblocks, protests, or kidnappings does happen, but if you listen to the locals and keep an eye on the news, you’ll be able to maneuver yourself away from the temporarily dangerous areas.
And because Beirut’s neighborhoods are divided between sects and religions you pretty much know in advance where you’re going to be safe, and where you might be in danger.
So, the rule of thumb is: If a Lebanese person says “Danger!”, well, then you might as well come up with a plan B – but it’s not very likely to happen, even if you’re only a couple of blocks away from where the shit really goes down.
NB: The different ‘hoods are decorated with pictures of their heroes, so it’s easy to get an idea of where they stand politically. But it’s important to know that this is not what puts you in danger. It’s when you end up the crossfire between two rivaling ‘hoods that you need to get the fuck out. The shot above is from Tripoli.
For those of you who have a few extra days of vacay, go explore the rest of Lebanon or refer to our upcoming post The Backpackers Guide to Lebanon. While waiting you can check out Walk of Causes, the documentary series where we walked across Lebanon.