Unsure about your travel plans and still hesitating about your next destination? Why don’t you consider visiting Lebanon as your next destination? Beirut might be known as the party town of the Middle East. But it doesn’t stop me from coming and exploring this coastal city. Neither should you. It has thriving cultural, arts and intellectual scenes with more than enough stories that we Muslims can learn from. Above all, amidst the threat of war and political unrest, I would say it can offer a glimpse of co-existence among different sects of Christians and Muslims. Wearing scars from the previous wars, Beirut is an interesting city which is not afraid to acknowledge its past and embrace the future.
Lebanon Travel: Embracing the Beautiful Beirut
The First Glimpse
Where to start? When I first got here, I walked around the neighbourhood to get oriented with the city. From my experience, it is better to begin with the obvious by visiting the famous landmarks such as the Martyr Monument in Downtown Beirut and the heart-warming sights of Mohamed Al-Amin Mosque standing across the opposite of Saint George Maronite Cathedral. From there, you can move to the western part of the city which is steeped in modern architecture and watch the European lifestyle unfold before you. Here I am talking about European cafes, high-end stores in Beirut Souq, flower-lined terrace which reminds me of Paris and contemporary art instalments which are great for photo opportunities.
Or, you can find your way towards Ashrafieh. Along the way, you’ll find many interesting sights, museums and yesteryears’ architecture such as Sursock Palace. I even ventured into Gemmayzeh and enjoyed the eclectic atmosphere of art gallery and hipster cafes there. If you ever found yourself here, do me a favour and take servis (if you are tired to walk) to Bourj Hammoud. It is Beirut’s Armenian Quarter, hosting many Armenian refugees after the 1915 genocide. This beautiful neighbourhood is the place where you will savour the ethnic diversity of Beirut while browsing the jewellery stores, spice sellers in Marash Market and artisanal shops.
Finding Solace in Masjids
A mindful traveller will eventually need time to connect with God through daily 5 prayers and to take a breather from the bustle and hustle of the Beirut. Luckily, for every few blocks in Beirut, you are bound to find a masjid. I have learnt the smaller masjids only open during congregational prayer, so it is best as soon as you hear the azan, try to find the nearest masjid and join the prayer. I have met Muslims from all around the world during prayer times and being the only Southeast Asian lady, naturally, people are curious. A couple of basic Arabic will gain you “Allah yahfizk” (May Allah protect you).
Just to manage your expectation, in shopping centres, at least the ones that I had been to, there is no ‘surau’ (small space designated for prayer). Thus, time your visit well.
Paying Homage To The History
Some Lebanese, upon deeper discussions with them, acknowledged that not all things are rosy here. After the war in 2006, the sentiment is still weary towards having more armed conflicts. They are more keen to make a living out of the high cost of living, electricity cut and garbage problem. Alas, the haunting memories of the war are everywhere: Bullet holes on the wall. The ruins of old cinema (which looks like the front of whale, if you ask me). The semi-derelict pre-war buildings. These do add a distinctive character to Beirut and you, as a mindful traveller, should embrace it.
Mat’am & Tha’am (Restaurants & Food)
Halal food is everywhere, but as a precaution please consult the restaurant to confirm the source of their meat. Also, a country as liberal as this, they also sell alcohol in some of the premises. Lebanon is famous for Hummus and Falafel. It is considered as poor men’s food here in Lebanon, but for only 3,000LL, a plate of falafel can satisfy a stomach of a well-to-do traveller! Also, you should try Manakish Za’taar, Shawarma, Kousa Mahshi which are simply, delicious. If you want to try local food with Armenian influence, head to Badguer at Bourj Hammoud. I also recommend El-Soussi Restaurant, which is tucked in a quiet corner of Mar Elias.
But, as they always say, home-cooked food is the best. I can attest to that on several occasions here when my friends bring dishes prepared by their mothers, some local, some originate from Syria, and to be honest, I didn’t hold myself from getting the second!
Raoucheh & Coasting along the Coast
Beirut is a coastal city, and most of its part is located on a 50-100m on a cliff. When the weather is nice, you can enjoy the sights of the Mediterranean Sea, people-watching and the scenic vista of the towering Mount Lebanon and Northern Suburbs. You can start from Pigeon Rock, the natural landmark of the city. Then walk down towards Ras Beirut/Hamra and Al-Manara with the sea on your left. Soon enough you will come upon a nice seawalk promenade with runners, cyclists or families having a leisure time. I had a great time with my local friend strolling and talking about the city. Before you know it, you will pass by a pier full of impressive yachts and reach Downtown Beirut.
Passport & Visa: For Malaysians and other 78 nationalities, visa will be issued on arrival for a less-than-1-month visit, provided that you show proof of return ticket on arrival. For other nationalities, you need to check with the Lebanese Embassy in your country as the requirements might change from time to time.
Cash: USD and Lebanon Pound (LL) are used widely. The exchange rate is pegged at 1 USD = 1,500LL. ATMs are everywhere so if you are short of cash, you can withdraw from one of them.
Cellphone & Internet: Wifi is spotty here, and the chances are, you have to buy something from the restaurant before they allow you to use their wifi. As such, you can buy a pre-paid sim card for 3G/4G data coverage from Alfa or Touch.
Public Transportation: The city buses are actually big van, which stops literally anywhere along their route to pick up or drop off passengers. Their timing is not reliable, but they are the cheapest option to go around the city.
Taxi & Servis: They honk at you every time to see if you want to patron their service. You have to set the price (adamantly) with taxi drivers by mentioning your destination. While servis is set at 2,000LL for a short ride or 4,000LL for a longer ride. In servis, you will share the car with other people.
Traffic: Well, even Lebanese acknowledge and joke about their traffic. It is a wonder how they can manoeuvre, honk, talk and sometimes hold a cigarette while driving. As such, please exercise high caution when crossing the road.
Useful Phrases: In Beirut, most people are bilingual (Arabic and French)!
- Bonjour/Marhaba: Hello
- Merci/Shukran: Thank you
- Eyh: Yes
- La’a: No
- Houn: Here
- A’mal(e) Ma’ruf: Please
- Sahteen: To good health (after finishing a meal)
The warmth of the Lebanese
What can I say? For the country that produces geniuses such as Elie Saab, Fairuz and Khalil Gibran, Lebanon is wonderful. Beirut itself is a beautiful city with friendly locals, who are eager to improve their English. The people are open-minded and curious about you. And they will try to feed you a lot! I would say their warmth can melt the snow and thaw your resistance to try anything new. I only hope for the best for this city that has been a gracious host to me. Certainly, I would encourage you to try venturing past its facade as the “Paris of Middle East” and discover the real Beirut.
This article was written by Wan Nurul Hanani and edited by Erica.
About Hanani: Inspired by her parents who wrestled their way out of a very rural area to obtain national scholarships and to have a high-flying career, Hanani believes that everything is possible once you set your mind into it. She has embarked on solo travels and treks to Peru, Iran, New Zealand, Turkey, Morocco and other countries since 2009. Her love of mountains has taken her to the likes of Mount Yong Belar, Mount Semeru to Annapurna Base Camp on which she proudly donned the traditional baju kurung or kebaya