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Weekending: Beirut


One of the best things about life as an expat in Turkey is easy access to Europe, the Middle East, and Asia, with many previously far-flung destinations only a few hours' flight away. I might not plan a week-long vacation in, say, Kosovo, but if I can be there for Friday happy hour and home Monday morning, why not? My main criteria for choosing weekend trips are easy access, no advance visa required, and access to sights and culture I won't find in Istanbul. Other than that, I pore over the Turkish Airlines timetable like a Stieg Larsson novel, choose a destination, and start planning.

The place: Beirut, Lebanon

All the travel mags have recently hyped Beirut as the "Paris of the Middle East," a title the city has long boasted but only recently regained after the 2006 bombings. Now it's *the* place for nightlife in the Middle East, a hot bed of new construction with luxury hotels opening like the Four Seasons and Le Gray, and a diverse mix of culture (Lebanon has 18 official religions, representing Muslim, Christian, Jewish, and the Islamic Druze sect), where you can often hear church bells and the mosque's call to prayer on the same corner. The downtown district has been beautifully restored, though it lacks a little soul; the Corniche waterfront is pleasant for strolling among Muslim families and locals drinking tea and smoking nargileh pipes; and the university area of Hamra is dotted with cozy pubs and cafes.

Upgrades
  • As the summer gets more oppressively hot in Turkey, I find myself in search of a beach and despite the fact that Istanbul is surrounded by water, options are slim and expensive. Beirut offers many options for refreshment in the form of beach clubs (really a glorified pool complex with restaurants), where you can also take in the daytime social scene with young Lebanese chatting each other up in the pool with a cocktail in one hand and a cigarette in the other (smoking is pretty much the national sport of Lebanon, so be warned). If you're not wearing stilettos and a bejeweled, designer bikini that probably shouldn't come into contact with liquid, you're probably under dressed.
  • The shopping scene downtown has the usual gang of international brands, but nearby Saifi Village has cool boutiques with local, up-and-coming designers. Even more interesting is the Sunday Souq el Ahad flea market, with everything from live chickens to bootleg DVDs to antique clocks, with nary a souvenir or fanny pack in sight. Try saying that about the Grand Bazaar.
  • Expat ease: English is widely spoken and US dollars are used everywhere in addition to Lebanese lira, though getting change in two currencies requires some finely honed math skills. Alcohol is quite readily available and cheaper than in Turkey, with particularly good local wine and laughably cheap duty free prices.
Downgrades
  • With all the hotel openings, the cost of accommodation is pretty steep, with few hotels under $200 in high season and a dearth of good budget options. Looking for a hotel with a pool (a must in summer), I ended up at the Riviera Hotel, where the main draw was the attached beach club and quick walk to Hamra, for $165 a night. Beirut could use a chain like Istanbul's House Hotels, which has converted historic buildings in trendy neighborhoods into chic and cheap accommodation.
  • As sprawling and inconvenient as Istanbul's public transportation is, Beirut is even worse with a confusing and rundown bus system and taxi cabs which have no meters (tricky to agree to a price in advance when you don't speak Arabic or understand what price you should pay). Service taxis are shared cars most locals use to get around, but they are virtually indistinguishable from private taxis and difficult to navigate, as you have to ask where they are going.
  • Beirut has a handful of good museums and good access to day trips, but otherwise your sightseeing can be done in a day or two, which can leave you for more time for people watching at the beach or at a cafe. Contrasted with Istanbul's endless array of palaces, museums, historical sights, and markets, Beirut works best as a stop on a larger trip or as a relaxation and nightlife-centric getaway.
Getting there

Beirut International Airport is served by flights from Europe and the Middle East; budget carriers Air Baltic and Pegasus connect with most of Europe, and bmi flies from 7 cities in the US via London. Most countries get a free 1-month visa on arrival. There's no public transit from the airport; arrange a taxi pickup with your hotel, or try to bargain to around $30 - 40. Along with Syria and a dozen other countries, Lebanon will not allow entry to anyone with an Israeli passport stamp, but you shouldn't have many problems going into Israel with a Lebanese stamp.

Make it a week

Beirut is an exciting, sad, glamorous, and hopeful city, all at the same time and depending on your perspective. It would be worthwhile to extend your trip to explore more of Lebanon or combine with a visit to Syria (also a "go there before it gets discovered" destination but requires you apply for a visa in advance).

Filed under: Asia, Europe, Lebanon, Syria, Turkey, Middle East

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