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Panoramic Views > Beirut

Lonely Planet's Top 10 cities 2009 - Beirut by Amelia Thomas

Beirut, Lebanon

Population 1.2 million - Languages Arabic, French, English - Unit of currency Lebanese Lira (LL), Prices often in US Dollars (US$) - Cost index Strong black coffee from an itinerant coffee-wagon LL 1000 (US$0.70), five-star hotel suite US$1800, dorm bed near the bus station US$6, shared service-taxi ride to and from any point in town LL 1500 (US$1), glass of local Arak LL 2000 (US$1.30), bottle of champagne at crystal nightclub US$3000.

A Maronite Christian Parade in a Beirut Suburb adds a
dash of colour to the city's war-weary concrete expanses

City on the Brink

Beirut always on the verge of something happening - covert political assassinations, airborne invasions by foreign powers, the opening night of the hippest new beach bar in the Middle East - and any or all of them might happen in 2009. Despite the uncertainly in the air and armed troops on the streets, the city clings tenaciously to its sybaritic appeal, with super cool clubs attracting top name European DJs, swanky restaurants churning out delectable fusion sushi, cool underground jazz joints, tip-top designers-clothes shopping, and even a friendly, familiar Starbucks or two, for that priceless "Starbucks Beirut" souvenir coffee mug.

Old Timers

Despite its weakness for all that's new and swanky, Beirut's not entirely about the hottest, priciest and glitziest. Squeezed in between century-old coffee shops, where ancient patrons, enveloped in clouds of nargileh smokes, serenely clack backgammon counters, the weathered remains of the Roman Cardo Maximus, the Ottoman-era Grand Serail, the 19th-century Jewish cemetery and 12th-century Al-Omari Mosque offer visual and cultural respite amid a mess of modern city construction.

Defining Experience

Sip a perfect martini in a swanky, silicone-heavy beach club watching weathered pole-fishermen battling the waves on the Corniche rocks, then stroll past bomb-craters and city-centre Hezbollah encampments to munch on a divine eggs Benedict brunch with the artsy crowd in Beirut's funky Gemmayzeh district.

Festivals and Events

- Twice this year, in either May or November, hunt for hidden treasure at the Souk el-Bargout, a week-long city-wide flea market during which everyone hauls the junk they bought at the last one back out onto Beirut's streets for you purchasing delight.

- In October the Beirut International Film Festival showcases the pick of the crop of new films from across the region.

- Docudays, held just before Christmas, is a world-class documentary film festival, attracting flocks of International filmmakers and pensive, bearded locals.

- Pound Beirut's streets with the dedicated and professional at the Beirut Marathon in October - or opt for the 10km fun-run with other, saner, individuals.

Life-Changing Experiences

- Touring a city-limits Palestinian refugee camp with a local Palestinian guide.

- Exploring the cavernous Jeita Grotto, just north of the city, one of the most impressive subterranean displays of stalagmites on the planet.

- Taking up the quintessential Lebanese challenge of swimming in the Med in the morning, then hitting the slopes of the Faraya Mzaar ski resort, above Beirut, in the afternoon.

Hot Topic

Through politics is never far from people's minds in volatile Beirut, the current talk of the concrete-laden town is green, green, and green. As the city and its shoreline succumb to air pollution and waste mismanagement, manifold groups are springing up to protect Lebanon's fragile environment and promote eco-everything, from hiking the Lebanon Mountain Trail, to defending the capital's stray cats and dogs, to taking to Beirut's streets - albeit precariously - on two person - powered wheels instead of four Hummer-sized ones.

Most Bizarre Sight

Though many might claim they've already stayed at the world's worst Holiday Inn, this Beirut landmark beats them all. Built towering and earthquake-proof in the heady 1970s, it was the talk of the town for just a few weeks before the civil war turned it into a prime sniper post. The hotel still dominates the Beirut skyline, complete with gaping mortar holes, fluttering shreds of bedroom curtains, and resident flocks of pigeons.

Classic Restaurant Experience

After splurging on fine dining, the best place to come down is Le Chef, a 'blue collar' institution since the 1950s. Hefty plates of good old-fashioned Arabic food are brought to your Formica table by loquacious waiters, and don't miss the moolookhiye if it's on the day's specials: a gloopy, soupy mix of mallow leaves, lamb, rice and chicken - believed to a powerful aphrodisiac.

Sleep with a Local

Swap your pastel-shaded hotel room for the spare bedroom of a born-and-bred Beiruti, to experience legendary Lebanese hospitality. B&B specialists L'Hote Libanais ( arranges home-comfort lodgings in the city, the best way to dive beneath Beirut's sometimes glistening, sometimes murky surface.

Capital Beirut Population 4 million Area 10.400 sq Km Official Language Arabic

A tiny country with a big history and even bigger problems, Lebanonís shaky security situation will govern whether or not visitors continue to trickle back in 2009. Though most of its infrastructure has been repaired since the 2006 summer Hezbollah-Israeli war, occasional bomb blasts aimed largely at anti-Syrian politicians and occasional bomb blasts aimed largely at anti-Syrian politicians and occasionally at UN interim forces, continue to cause physical and political damage. Nevertheless, Lebanon remains an extremely welcoming country to visit, with incredible archaeological remains, a wild Beirut nightlife and stunning mountain hiking amongst its charms. Sure, check the news before you go, but don't be deterred from seeing its sights while you can do so minus the crowds.



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