In a perfect storm of accidental and half-planned events, Beirut has become my home, and its chaotic charm and intimate friendliness has welcomed me as no other city before. Lebanon is roughly half the size of New Hampshire, and, compared to many of the world’s capital cities, Beirut is tiny—creating a community that can sometimes feel roughly the size of an American college campus.
When I have the time to wander about, I often end up turning corners into neighborhoods where tetas—grandmothers—can be observed through the ground-floor windows of centuries-old buildings, busy cooking up a storm for Sunday family lunches. The sounds of families fussing over the stove is embedded in the city’s soundscape. Sharing food is an essential part of Lebanese life, and family style is the only way to eat: stinginess and small portions are ibe—shameful. While the small country’s diaspora population is impressive—more than 10 million worldwide—you’ll no doubt hear countless times that no Lebanese dish made elsewhere compares to the food here.
Start your morning in east Beirut’s Gemmayze. This mixed residential and commercial neighborhood was the center of the city’s nightlife scene until a few years back when shifting trends moved things elsewhere. Though it’s now a bit quieter at night, Gemmayze remains important in the city’s culinary and art scene. Artistic graffiti decorate the walls adjacent to buildings dating back to the Ottoman age.
Begin your day with a full traditional Lebanese breakfast at Em Nazih on lower Gemmayze’s Pasteur Street. The casual spot is a social hub, with delicious food at wallet-friendly prices. Connected to a hostel and an Arabic language school, Em Nazih is frequented by foreigners, but it’s not a tourist trap. It’s also where locals smoke nargileh (hookah pipes) as the voice of Lebanon’s beloved singer Fairuz rings out overhead. For breakfast, try one of the many man’oushe options.
A 15-minute walk south, a portion of the Beirut Souk blossoms into a farmer’s market—Souk al-Tayeb—on Saturday mornings. But this is not your guidebook Middle Eastern souk; this shopping center was renovated during the city’s reconstruction after its 15-year civil war. What was before an impressive traditional Lebanese market is now an open-air luxury mall. To get to the farmer’s market, walk westwards, passing the enormous Mohammad Al-Amine Mosque—also built during the reconstruction period. When prayers are not in session, you can tour the space. Walking into the heart of downtown Beirut, the streets are lined with high-end brands and designers. You’ll find Souk al-Tayeb if you enter through the Jewelry Souk. Literally translating to “bazaar of the delicious,” this souk has various stands with locally grown produce and homemade treats, such as honey from Lebanon’s coastal Chouf region or the season’s sweetest ashta fruit. Make sure to arrive early: people start packing up by noon.
No trip to Beirut is complete without a walk along the corniche, the city’s famed seaside promenade. Continue southwestwards until you’re facing the sea. Given the capital’s lack of public spaces due to corruption and lack of urban planning, the boardwalk along the Mediterranean is a central spot for the city’s runners, dog walkers, and those taking in the view. Take a stroll and indulge in some people watching. Along the coast, fisherman and swimmers are found jumping into the waters almost year-round, soaking up nearly 365 days of sun.
Before walking past the American University of Beirut on your east, walk inland towards Hamra, the main district in the west side of Beirut. Unlike the east side, Hamra has a stronger city-feel, with wider sidewalks for pedestrians and larger commercial chains. While walking through the district, make sure to take advantage of its pastry shops.
Heading south on the AIfred Nobel side street, look for Amal Bohsali—a Beiruti must-see, dating back to 1878. From 9-12 a.m., the small bakery sells knafeh. While each country in the region makes this dessert differently, Amal Bohsali has it all. The heavy cheese dish soaked in syrup is usually consumed for breakfast. If you miss that window, the rest of the menu does not disappoint. Sfouf, baklava, and maamoul are made daily to appease your sweet tooth.
Heading back east, wander a few streets south of Hamra, along Spears. You’ll pass Sanayeh garden, yet another rare public space. It’s small, but the green escape is a breath of fresh air in the city’s crippling congestion. At the end of Spears, grab a shawarma from Barbar—perhaps one of the best places for this beloved shaved-meat sandwich.
From here, take your time wandering back into East Beirut through the Monot and Furn al-Hayek neighborhoods. These upper-class residential neighborhoods hold Ottoman-age vestiges, both decaying and restored. The lack of constant traffic makes exploring significantly more enjoyable. Be sure to pass by Hana Mitri’s ice-cream shop on the edge of Furn al-Hayek and Mar Mitr. Mitri took over this shop from his father, who opened it in 1949. The secret recipe has stood the test of time, changing little in 70 years. His shop is tiny, inside a building that looks like it’s on its last legs. Almost nothing has changed since 1949, but Mitri continues to serve lines of customers stretching around the block. (The rose flavor is superb, but the croquant is a true Mitri classic. Caramel croquant biscuits, aka biscotti, are prepared in-house, then mixed into his milk ice cream.)
By now, you’ve probably worn yourself out navigating one of the least pedestrian-friendly cities, but if you still have it in you, take a service to Bourj Hammoud. This outskirt of Beirut is a diverse mix of commercial and artisanal shops. Fleeing genocide in what is now Turkey, the majority of Armenian refugees in Lebanon chose to settle here, making Bourj Hammoud “little Armenia.” Almost an entirely different city, the hustle and bustle and mix of languages is not to be missed. Check out Cafe Garo, a hole-in-the-wall spice shop supplying some of Beirut’s high-end restaurants. A must-try is their cherry jam, to be served alongside meat.
Of course, the best way to really experience Lebanon’s gastronomy and culture is with locals. Again and again you’ll hear that “nothing compares to teta’s cooking.” The country is friendly and open, it won’t take long to make a friend. Snag an invite to a Sunday family lunch where third and fourth helpings are accompanied by an endless stream of arak. Sahtein!