I’ve always heard that Beirut was once considered “the Paris of the Middle East.” The amazing city by the sea with a French colonial past was known for its East-West blend of culture, and stood at the forefront of fashion, intellectualism and art in the Middle East.
My mother used to stop in Beirut for a few days on her way to Nigeria from Pakistan in the late 1960s and early 1970s when her father was working in Kano. She said that she especially loved flying through Beirut as the city had an extraordinary vibe at the time. She would eagerly watch the fashionistas dressed in their ultra-chic attire, walking along the trendy seaside promenade, or drinking coffee at Parisian-style cafés. My grandmother, who accompanied my mother on some of these trips, always said that Lebanon had some of the most beautiful and stylish women she’d ever seen in her life.
However, the city has unfortunately had its fair share of troubles, especially as a result of Lebanon’s 15-year civil war from 1975 until 1990. Many parts of the city were affected by the violence and destruction. But today, Beirut has rebuilt itself and is once again attracting tourists.
When my husband and I were given the opportunity to visit Beirut for a weekend wedding, we knew that we could not pass it up. We were unsure whether we would ever make plans to go again, so this was a great excuse to explore Lebanon’s capital and most talked-about city — even for only two days.
After a 2.5-hour flight on a Thursday night from Dammam on Middle Eastern Airlines, we landed in Beirut and headed straight to one of the city’s most glamorous hotels, the Phoenicia Intercontinental. The luxury 5-star hotel by the ocean has a wonderful old-world charm to it, heightened by a grand stairway leading up to the lobby. Actually, it all felt a little like an old Hollywood movie.
The best decision we made for the two-day trip was to hire a driver to take us around the city. It was the first time that we had done absolutely no research for a trip. We had no idea what to expect, and had assumed that we’d enjoy the city, the wedding, admire the pretty people, and come home. Frankly, I was clearly very naïve and pretty ignorant to think that nothing more would come from this trip.
After breakfast, we met the driver and drove around Beirut’s trendy downtown areas and then along the Corniche to see the city’s famous Pigeon Rocks, two massive natural rock formations on the shoreline. I was pleasantly surprised and a little relieved to see that such a beautiful bit of nature had been spared from the destruction that had once ravaged the city.
We gave our driver our time limit, and then embarrassingly asked him to show us anything that he thought we should see in Beirut. Luckily, he was not offended by our lack of planning, and promptly took us to a roadside coffee van – local makeshift cafés – for the most delectable Lebanese coffee before whisking us away to some of the most amazing historic sites in the city.
We stopped first at an old Roman bridge on the Beirut River, and then drove up to the base of a large hill. Our driver let us out and told us to walk up to the top. Confused, we followed his directions, and at the top were then asked to buy a ticket for a “tour” of the Jeita Grotto. We had no idea what that meant, and were then forced to store and lock up our cameras and phones in a dank and muggy hallway with lockers. After walking through that hallway, however, we were then led into a gorgeous cave with the most magnificent formations I have ever encountered in my life.
I still remember turning and looking at my husband in sheer disbelief. We followed a walkway through the caves, and were astounded by the enormous size and endless maze of crystallized formations that covered the ceilings and floors. After walking by stalactites (often cone-shaped formations that hang from the ceiling of caves), multiple small semi-circular ponds, and streams of water flowing into larger pools, we walked farther into the cave and looked down into the abyss of what looked like a bottomless ravine. When we were finished exploring the upper galleries of the Jeita Grotto, we went to the lower galleries, which you can only explore on boats since the lower caves are mostly filled with water. The experience was incredibly magical and totally surreal! I would go back to Lebanon to experience it all over again if I could.
Our driver then took us up to Harissa, the top of a mountain, to visit the Lady of Lebanon and to enjoy the views of Beirut and the Mediterranean Sea. By the time we were done sightseeing, we had to head back to the hotel for the real reason we were in Beirut — the wedding!
Our flight was Saturday evening, so we quickly finished breakfast, and met our driver for our last set of adventures outside the city limits. This time he took us to Byblos, a UNESCO World Heritage site about 40 kilometers from the city. Today, the medieval town is mostly in ruins, but is still a magnificent sight to see. Its grand and majestic structures, while hard to imagine, were clearly of great value as Byblos is known to have been occupied by multiple residents since Neolithic times. After walking through the ancient remnants of the one of the oldest Phoenician cities, we stopped by the old souk in the area and then were off to the airport.
We probably could have seen so much more if we had just had a few more days, but I was very proud of how much we had accomplished in such little time. Of course, we enjoyed every minute of an epic Lebanese wedding! Beirut far exceeded my expectations, and left me amazed at it being far more than I had imagined. I definitely think a visit to beautiful Beirut is worth the time and energy.