Lebanon was another country that was only regarded as a maybe for our current (didn’t quite make it to) Cairo to (almost) Istanbul trip. Sans visa we had hoped to introduce ourselves to Syria from Jordan and be granted entry on the spot but didn’t think we would get away with it twice if we tried to re-renter the country from Lebanon.
By the time we got to Syria revolution was in the air and I was turned away at the border. From Jordan Syria awkwardly sat slap bang in the way of our route home to Turkey so we instead flew in and out of Lebanon.
Beirut, Beirut. That name rings a bell but I can’t quite place it?
Synonymous with kidnappings, civil war and suicide bombings, Beirut was a long time favourite of the TV news as a complex multi sided civil war flowed in and around the city. Despite this Beirut has a seduction that few other Middle Eastern cities can match and among the visitors that found themselves staying longer than expected are Terry Waite, Brian Keenan and John McCarthy.
And you went there?
Things have changed a great deal since the civil war ended in 1990. Though by no means politically stable, the city fathers seem determined to regain its brief status as Paris of the East, lost when the snipers took over. Though there are still reminders of Lebanon’s political fragility, most notably the towering and war marked Intercontinental Hotel, the images we took away from Beirut are of the numerous cranes being used to build a new generation of high rise hotels, of designer stores, dunkin donuts and cheese cake.
So it is safe then?
You might get run over by a car. (I thought the desire to regain their Paris of the East tag might explain why the Lebanese drive as bad as Parisians but an interesting comment left over at Ottsworld provides a more logical reason why vehicles are handled so appallingly in Beirut. During the war years drivers had far less concern for the rules of the road than they did for getting to the shops and back as quickly as possible without getting shot).
So, no ‘I went to Beirut and all I got was this Hezbollah T-shirt’ then?
Actually, yes, I did get a Hezbollah t-shirt. It was available in yellow and yellow only.
How much does it cost to visit Beirut?
Our one month visa was provided free at the airport but, as usual, received the first test of our budget traveller credentials as soon as we left the terminal: airport taxi drivers. By chasing the most obnoxious driver down the road with the intent of inflicting moderate violence we got the prices down to more sensible levels and revealed the existence of a previously denied bus network.
Though no buses go to or from the airport they do stop at a nearby roundabout, a ten or so minute walk away. Tourist Information may be able to point you in the right direction.
Bus to near the airport – LL1000
Bus to Tripoli – LL2000
Finding somewhere to sleep at night will be the biggest challenge to budget conscious travellers visiting Beirut. We were fortunate our stay was provided courtesy of the excellently located Regis Hotel where a double room is US$50 per night. Solo travellers would do well to stay in a dorm at the well run and friendly Talal’s New Hotel, where a dorm bed costs US$17.
Food and Drink
Beirut is blessed with good food from its own world renowned Lebanese cuisine to the wider range of international food options than can be found in the rest of the Middle East. Wine drinkers will also be happy to find some more than capable local vintages at good prices.
Beer – LL5000-6000
Bottle of inexpensive but decent wine from supermarket – LL9000+
Very good wine from supermarket – LL13000+
Coffee – LL2000-4000
Falafel sandwich – LL2000
Restaurant meal – LL14000+
Street food – LL2000+
Cheese cake – LL3000
Water (1.5ltr) – LL500 in supermarket or LL1000 in small store
A few dollars will get visitors into most attractions that require a fee. We spent most of our time engaging in the free pursuits of people watching, strolling up and down the Corniche, pretending we were students at the American University and playing with the traffic.
* I knew Syria would object to any evidence of a visit to Israel but didn’t realise Lebanon would too. Not surprising really, I guess.
* Keep up to date with the news before visiting Lebanon. Though we didn’t feel remotely unsafe during our visit, Lebanon is still a politically unstable country in a volatile region. Currently, the situation in neighbouring Syria threatens the peace there.
* We don’t usually book accommodation in advance but recommend doing so when visiting Beirut as budget options are limited.
* It was a bit too cold in March for us to attempt doing so but in the summer sleeping on the roof may be a way to save some accommodation pounds.
* Forget the dreaming spires of Oxford, the American University of Beirut is where I’d want to study if I had my time again. Initially the 28 hectares of buildings and parkland were just in the way of a trip to the shops from the Corniche but it didn’t take long to realise this was a great spot to eat lunch and drink coffee. For the most part no one seemed to object to the couple of advancing years with an obsessive fondness for cheesecake loitering around the grounds, using the picnic tables and talking to the cats
* Running parallel to the AUB is the aptly named Rue Bliss. Head there for cheap eats, street coffee and cheese cake. Elsewhere, Rue Gourand, in Gemmayzeh, has the highest concentration of restaurants including the excellent Le Chef where meals can be got for under LL10000 and a bottle of wine won’t bust the budget. The hand scrawled menu is in French but the head waiter will translate in between greeting newcomers with a languid ‘welcome, welcome, welcome to Lebanon’.
The exchange rate was around $1 to LL1500 (£1 = LL2500) during our visit in March 2011