Beirut: The Beauty of Modern Lebanon
Despite what we see on the news every day, there are many parts of the Middle East that aren't embroiled in one armed conflict or another. These areas include lovely countries like Jordan and Lebanon, which receive millions of tourists every year, even from the US and Europe. Beirut, the capital of Lebanon, is highly recommended for a first-time visitor to the Middle East. Here's what you need to know about coming to this magnificent city.
The official language is Standard Arabic (which is slightly different from the Lebanese dialect), but English and French are also very common among the local population. Knowing a little French will go a long way to helping you get by then simply relying on the kindness of English-speaking strangers.
In the heart of downtown Beirut is the Place de l'Etoile, a beautiful public square adjacent to a Greek Orthodox cathedral. You can also take in the 1,300 artifacts housed at the National Museum of Beirut.
You'll find plenty of fun things to do, including betting on the Sunday horse races at the Beirut Hippodrome, visiting any one of the beaches and spas, or visiting Pigeon Rocks in the Rawcheh district. You also won't want to miss the International Film Festival in October or the International Jazz Festival in July.
Traditional Lebanese cuisine is a mix of Arab and Mediterranean style, with its own type of pizza (called mankoushe) and bagels (ka'ek). There are also plenty of locally roasted nuts to try. The city is also cosmopolitan enough to feature several places that serve international cuisine, as well as all the major fast food franchises.
The Lebanese are very active in the evening, hence there's so many clubs, bars, and fine restaurants in every district of Beirut. Two of the most lively districts are Ashrafieh and Hamra. Despite being a big city, the nightlife in Beirut usually doesn't get started until after midnight. And despite the large Muslim population, locally brewed beer and other forms of alcohol widely available.
Taxi service is the most common way to get around Beirut, easy to spot with their yellow signs and red license plates. Because most cabs lack a fixed meter, it's recommended that you ask what the fare is before you get in. The fare is usually charged by destination and not by the distance traveled. Traffic is also a major issue in Beirut, so avoid renting a car unless you wish to go somewhere outside the city. If you're prone to walking, it's best to do so in a more defined district like Downtown.
Since 2009, Lebanon has been receiving a large influx of tourists and has usually been free of the turmoil that plagues its neighbors Syria and Israel. However, the recent civil war in Syria has spilled across the Lebanese border in quite a few skirmishes. Before making your trip, it's best to check with your government's most recent travel advisories.