In Transit: Rafik Hariri International Airport
Beirut’s Rafik Hariri International Airport is, like the city itself, writ larger in imagination than in reality. The pot-bellied security officers giggling with each other on cigarette breaks, the dour customs officials wielding rubber stamps like weapons, the Beiruti cultural resistance to queueing: all can strike the tourist passing through as delightfully quaint or soul-destroying. The 24-gate airport and the city alike are characterful places that reflect, and amplify, the mood of the traveler passing through it.
For the storms it has weathered, Beirut’s airport looks pretty good. Constructed in the Jetsons-esque futuristic style ubiquitous in airports the world over, Beirut’s primary transit hub was inaugurated in 1954 to service the Gulf oil sheikhs and Hollywood starlets for whom Beirut had become a chic destination.
During Lebanon’s 15-year civil war, from 1975-1990, the airport became a pirate’s cove for hijackers of various pedigrees. Tales of inept hijackers, recounted by the journalist Robert Fisk in his war reportage tome Pity the Nation, inspire grim chuckles. My favorite is of the old Lebanese man who hijacked a flight from Cyprus, wielding a Pepsi bottle filled with gasoline. He demanded the pilot fly to Beirut (the flight’s intended destination), then asked to meet with militia leaders upon landing. Eventually it became clear that the Pepsi bottle was filled with his own urine; airport officials eventually released him to toddle home across the runways.
Rebuilt at the end of the civil war, the airport was again assaulted by Israeli bombs during the July War of 2006. It’s the blasts from these mortars that you can still detect on the runways, despite having been filled in with cement.
Today, airport traffic is up; 7 percent more passengers passed through during the first half of 2017 than they did during the same period in 2016. Security can seem lax—a 12 year-old boy managed to slip past security and into business class on a flight to Turkey last year—but incidents involving violence are mercifully extremely rare.
The runways are situated so that almost all flights approaching the airport swoop past Beirut’s Corniche and famous Pigeon Rocks. Nab a window seat on the left-hand side for a perfect aerial vantage point of Beirut; if you’re coming in on a summer weekend night, the beachfront clubs with their strobing lights are particularly enchanting.
Eating and drinking
If you’re flying economy, your dining options at Rafik Hariri are extremely limited. Put plainly, there’s no reason to dine at the airport unless you don’t have another choice; airplane food is in many cases preferable to the options here.
That being said, if you fancy a cocktail after clearing customs, ride the escalator upstairs to enjoy the retro pleasure of a martini overlooking the tarmac (20,000 LL or $14). Order mediocre, overpriced sushi at the same bar if you must.
Cafematik (the restaurant once you pass through the final security check) offers palatable coffee, pastries, and sandwiches, albeit at eye-wateringly expensive prices: a latte is 10,000 LL, or $7; a small water is 4,000 LL, or $2.66. Two hard boiled eggs at 3,000 LL ($2) is as close to a deal as you can get here.
The airport offers your typical makeup, perfume, liquor, and chocolate selections. For treats with more local flavor, prepare a custom selection of Lebanese nuts from the Castania shop, or baklava at the Douaihy counter, wrapped neatly for travel.
However, I’d bypass all of these and head for the Goodies supermarket, where you can get seasonal Lebanese produce so fresh you can almost taste the dew still on it. The frozen section is a treasure trove, featuring kibbeh (meat and bulgur wheat dumplings), cheese rolls, and, most incredibly, 12-packs of frozen songbirds prepped for the deep fryer.
Across the concourse, the wine store is worth a visit for monthly deals on an excellent selection of Lebanese, Syrian, and European wines.
On the plane into Beirut, a flight attendant will pass out landing cards (ask for one if they don’t offer). If your flight lands at a popular time, the line at the border may take 30-45 minutes. When you get to the officer’s booth, you’ll be asked an unpredictable number of questions about your purpose for visiting, address and phone number in Lebanon, who you’re visiting, etc. Smile, keep things vague and simple, and do not admit having visited Palestine or Israel. Beware: if you’re a woman the border guard may offer to give you a tour of Beirut.
To get cash, stop by an ATM after border control or once you’ve made it to the arrivals hall. Lebanese lira and U.S. dollars are both accepted throughout the country, but try and get small bills if possible.
Need a SIM card? Turn right after entering the arrivals hall and walk down to the phone shop at the end. The friendly, polyglot staff will sort you out with what you need, and even give you a hotspot to order an Uber if you ask nicely.
Leaving Beirut? If you’re not checking a bag and aren’t a nervous flyer, you can arrive an hour ahead of your flight and still have time to scroll Instagram at the gate (wifi is free for an hour). If you want to hang out at the airport, allow two or three hours. There are no electronic check-in facilities; to get your boarding pass, look for a screen at the entrance to find your counter. An arrow next to your flight will indicate which security line to get in (left or right).
Transit to the airport from central Beirut can take between 15 and 90 minutes, depending on the time of day. Peak rush hour in Beirut is the same as most other cities: 7 to 10 a.m. and 3 to 7 p.m. The drive into Beirut from the airport is interesting in itself, going from one of the city’s most downtrodden neighborhoods (the airport is adjacent to the Palestinian refugee community Burj el Barajneh) to its ritziest.
On arrival, arrange for an Uber (around $15, including a $6.50 airport surcharge) by connecting to the wifi after you’ve collected your luggage in baggage claim. If you don’t manage it (the connection can be spotty), take a metered cab at arrivals, but be prepared for sticker shock: the fee from the airport is around $40. The shameless and thrifty won’t mind asking someone for a hotspot; this may be your first experience of Lebanon’s amazing hospitality.
On your way out of Lebanon, Uber is the most efficient way to get back to Rafik Hariri. A basic car costs around $8. Any private taxi company will take you to the airport for around $10, or hail a red-plated car off the street and negotiate hard.