Travel

The Tiny Country Americans Overlook for Food & Nightlife on the Mediterranean

While you spent your childhood summers at sleepaway camp, I went to Lebanon. I suppose two decades of once-a-year grandma smooches and cousin catch-ups made me feel like I couldn’t explore the country outside of a family context; those of you who have a similar “homeland” situation can probably attest to the feeling.

But during my last visit, on an exceptionally balmy February day, I was the one in the driver’s seat of my uncle’s ‘96 Camaro, one of his several faded hot rods that hibernate in the driveway, blanketed by dried pine needles and the occasional stray cat. It was time for the torch -- stick shift, rather -- to be passed on so I could finally experience something that all Lebanese love to brag about doing: a morning on the ski slopes with an afternoon dip in the Mediterranean. After shredding near-perfect snowpack at the Mzaar ski resort, just two hours from Beirut, I would cruise the mountain roads back down to the coast for a beer and beach situation in 80-degree sunshine, a hot toddy by the chalet fireplace. Because when you’re in Lebanon, you can do it all.

A remarkable hospitality exists here that stems from an earnest desire to get to know you, especially if you’re American.

I challenge you to find a better slice of land in the Middle East. One with a coastline like the Côte d’Azur, Swiss-style ski resorts, and relics from history’s greatest civilizations scattered around and within the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world. It doesn’t even have a desert.

Yes, war in neighboring Syria is raging 70 miles away, but the Lebanese have done a solid job protecting against spillover. Because once you experience your own vicious civil war like they have, you’ll do anything for lasting peace, however fragile the goal may seem. Americans are even feeling good about Lebanon’s recent years of sustained stability, with visitors surging to new levels in 2017, all to uncover the diverse culture, incredible food, and natural wonders of a nation smaller than Connecticut. Take it from someone born in Connecticut -- Lebanon’s a hell of a lot better choice for your next big trip.

Lebanon is unique because Lebanese identity is unique

This is a country of extremes existing in harmony, and that, bizarrely enough, is what allows its extremely rich culture to flourish. Mountains rising from the Mediterranean, ancient temples at the foundation of glimmering skyscrapers, the synchronous sounds of church bells and Muslim prayer calls. Even the late, great Anthony Bourdain declared it “a place of such unbelievable possibilities” -- and that’s what makes it a rewarding destination for the discerning traveler.

Many Lebanese actually deny being Arab, insisting instead that they descend from the Phoenicians (ancient seafarers and inventors of the alphabet), and that sets them apart. Lebanon’s national identity is strong and comprised of 18 recognized religious sects, making it the most religiously diverse society in the Middle East. And since everyone has their own story, they’ll want to hear yours, too. A remarkable hospitality exists here that stems from an earnest desire to get to know you, especially if you’re American.

Our political policies chafe with certain pockets of the Lebanese population (you’ll want to avoid south Beirut and other Hezbollah strongholds for this reason) but overall, it’s a safe place for Americans to visit. Maybe just don’t come with stars and stripes tattooed on your forehead.

A Beirut vacation will be addictively frenetic and impressively cosmopolitan

The notion that, for many Americans, Beirut is still synonymous with conflict is frustrating. And we’re seeing it perpetuated by misrepresentation in the media all the time (like with this year’s controversial Jon Hamm flick, Beirut). The truth is that the metropolis has phoenixed into something spectacular, though remnants of its past are preserved as a reminder. While the Lebanese Civil War razed “the Paris of the Middle East,” Beirut’s nickname through the ’60s and early ’70s, the city has reclaimed its title as the Arab world’s bastion of liberalism and a jetsetters’ destination.

Expect to hear Arabic, French, and English around you, often in the same sentence.

The past three decades have seen a complete restoration of Beirut’s dense downtown core, and glitzy new seaside developments like Zaitunay Bay and Waterfront City that channel Miami’s recent condo boom. The older, more charming neighborhoods like expat enclave Mar Mikhael and leafy Badaro have a southern European air, walkable with boutiques and sidewalk cafes, and architecture that blends French colonial with Arabesque flair. To some, Beirut’s frenetic buzz is overwhelming, maybe too chaotic. To others, it’s the epitome of living in the moment.

Expect to hear Arabic, French, and English around you, often in the same sentence -- many Lebanese are trilingual, making communication a non-issue most of the time. The Lebanese Pound is the official currency, though the US Dollar and Euro are widely accepted around town. Airbnbs are plentiful and affordable, and so is Uber, letting you independently dig into the city’s energy without negotiating with taxis. Doesn’t sound so foreign, does it?

You probably already love Lebanese food, even if you call it something else

The Lebanese diaspora has more of us scattered across the world than are left in the homeland (14 million vs. 6 million), and we’ve shared the glories of our cuisine along the way, from your basic hummus to tacos al pastor (yep, your Mexican favorite is actually shawarma in a taco). It only makes sense that Beirut is a culinary wonderland, and the cradle of the foods you considered ambiguously “Middle Eastern.”

Obviously you should seek hummus wherever you go, but also be sure to sample similar dips made from ingredients like eggplant, beans, and nuts. Falafel fanboys: once you try a century-old recipe of these veggie fritters in Lebanon, you’ll never go back to the dry crusty balls you endure back home. There are many other classic dishes you’ll fall back in love with, like shawarma, a pita sandwich filled with glistening meat roasted on a revolving spit. For breakfast, order manousheh, a thin-crust “pizza” smeared with za’atar, a tangy thyme and sesame paste. These traditional foods are budget-friendly, but you can certainly ball out at fine dining restaurants -- Mexican, sushi, American comfort food, it’s all here.

The drinking and partying scene in Beruit is world-class

Lebanon’s not officially an Islamic country (there are a 18 recognized religious sects), so alcohol is legal, widely available, and seductively easy to abuse. I must call out that our ancient winegrowing culture now produces among the world’s best rosé, but nightlife is the real focus here, and that has been declared as the best in the world. On any given night, you can take your pick between a dive bar, jazz lounge, or chic rooftop, a megaclub by the sea or underground in a former bomb bunker. There’s even a emerging (albeit quite discreet) LGBTQ scene, something that’s nonexistent in the rest of the Arab world.

In the high-end bars, expect patrons to dress the fuck up: full face of makeup, miniskirts, heels for the ladies; button-downs and trousers for the guys. But the trend is going towards giving less of a shit, so jeans and sneakers will likely suffice -- just make it look cool. In any case, there’s no such thing as an early night; the sunrise nudges you to stumble back to your bed. 

The history, arts, and culture in Beirut are wild

You’re in one of the oldest cities on the planet, so reserve at least one full day to learn its history. Start off at the Beirut National Museum, a stunning Egyptian Revival building that houses artifacts spanning from prehistory to the Arab conquest. Beirut’s had a huge facelift since the Civil War, but you’ll still find scattered around town remains from this dark time. Beit Beirut’s bullet-pitted façade is a reminder of what life was like along the Green Line, the deadly demarcation zone between East and West Beirut. A former snipers' den, it’s now "memory museum.”

Then there’s the opulent Sursock Museum, a former dignitary's palace in the ritzy Sursock district, which was recently restored to serve as Beirut’s leading art museum. The city’s art scene is booming; with institutions like the stellar Beirut Art Center, and galleries like Sfeir-Semler and Marfa', you’ll find a growing showcase of local artists.

Less culturally oriented, but just as damn cool is the Mim Museum, where you can get up close to one of the world’s largest private collections of precious gemstones, minerals, and prehistoric fossils.

The day trips out of Beirut are what make a true Lebanon vacation

Beirut is addictive, but pry yourself away from the noise and debauchery to see the treasures outside the capital. Day trips are the smart thing to do, using centrally located Beirut as your base to explore the cedar forests and seaside towns, all under two hours away by car.

Trust when I say driving in Beirut is a death sport, with three-lane highways often stuffing five cars across, so hire a local driver who understands the traffic. You could look in any direction, and there’s something worth making a day trip out of. For those along the coast, a taxi or Uber can take you there relatively inexpensively. For longer ones, it’s around $100 to have a driver and car for the day. Byblos is the most popular excursion, about an hour drive north of the city, for its imposing Crusader Citadel, traditional souks, and Greek-island vibes. Beach clubs line the coast up to Byblos, like Pierre and Friends for low-key beach bumming or Orchid for the luxe-seekers.

Head inland from the Mediterranean, and you’ve got the mountains. Some are covered with cedar forests that pre-date biblical times, offering spectacular nature hikes among the country’s prized cultural symbol. In the winter months, the snow bunnies and Beiruti party crowd move up to ski resort areas like Mzaar and Laqlouq to create their own winter wonderland. East of the mountains in the agricultural Bekaa Valley, is the massive Baalbek Temple complex, one of the best-preserved Roman Ruins in the world that you can climb all over. Towards the Israeli border in the south is the city of Tyre, which is an up-and-coming destination with lesser-known, but equally impressive ruins, boutique hotels, and a pastel-colored old town.

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Paul Jebara (@pawljebara) is a travel writer, content specialist, and polyglot based in New York City. As a third-culture kid, he was primed early on for covering travel, having lived in four countries before turning 20. Paul earned a Bachelor of Commerce from McGill University in Montréal, then fled the cold to Sydney to ignite his initial career as an event producer. He followed gluten-free breadcrumbs back to the East Coast for roles in advertising, tech, and most recently brand marketing at Condé Nast. One day he’ll host his own travel show, but in the interim can be found avoiding the shade to keep his August tan going year-round.