Beirut – the party capital of the Arab world

The thought of New Years Eve in Doha wasn’t very exciting with a handful of Western hotels, who are allowed to serve alcohol, providing the majority of night life. We wanted to take advantage of the festive season and celebrate the New Year somewhere where it isn’t just another day off, but where streets were full and people celebrating.

We went to an area we had previously walked though and had dinner, endless clubs and bars lined the streets. We started approaching clubs we liked but all responded with “do you have a reservation”. After half a dozen attempts we started to wander, what country do you need to prebook to have a drink? Apparently, in Beirut it was common to book dinner at a bar to minimise the time spent wondering around and waiting in lines. After trying some more bars we found Copper which offered us $120 for dinner and open bar, we took it.

With a party pack provided of poppers, mask and novelty hats we wished the New Year in. The night was fun with plenty of food and alcohol, and even some Arabic pop music mixed in.

Beirut Copper New Years Eve
Beirut Copper New Years Eve

The Temples of Baalbek

On our third day we decided to drive from Hamra, Beirut east to visit the Baalbek Temples. Having visited Jordan in July we weren’t expecting anything too dissimilar (to quote my father ‘Once you’ve seen one Roman ruin – you’ve seen them all!’), but we were pleasantly surprised.  Baalbek was very picturesque and the mild, cooler weather sure made it far more enjoyable than the sweltering Jerash.  The drive there was also incredible, passing through the snow capped Lebanon Mountains.


On our way to Baalbek, which is in the Bekaa Valley, we stopped at a quaint town called Zahle.  Located across a scenic valley and mountain side it reminded me of Europe.  Having not had any breakfast we decided to stop for lunch at the Monte Alberto Hotel, located on the edge of a mountain.  Our table had lovely views of the town. We opted for Lebanese mezze which consisted of shanklish, baba ganoush, fattoush and kibbeh.  I also sampled the local aniseed beverage, Arak, which was very strong, fragrant and a bit like Sambuca.

Monte Alberto Restaurant ZahleMonte Alberto Restaurant ZahleMonte Alberto Restaurant overlooking Zahle

As we approached Baalbek we noted the yellow and green Hezbollah flags lining the streets.  The Baalbek temple was easily spotted from the main road.  Five massive Roman pillars dominated our view.  Upon entering the ruins, we were approached by a guide and accepted his offer to show us around for $20USD.

He told us stories of how the Phoenicians first came to the area in ancient times, then the Romans, then the Arabs, then the Christians – and how basically each layer represents each empire.   I enjoyed his descriptions of Bacchus the Roman emperor who was ‘born from a grapevine’ as the stone carvings depicted (his temple was built for decadence and debauchery – wine and women was what he was famous for).

We stayed till sunset, enjoying the pleasures of taking photos with no one around but us.

Ruins of Round Temple and Temple of VenusPropylaea entrance to Hexagonal ForecourtHexagonal Forecourt with horse stables
Roman inscriptionsGreat Court with ruins of Basilica and High Altar of Burnt SacrificeGriffon and Pegasus
Swastika meanderLion headwater spoutRoman columns and entablature
Snake Goddess AngitiaRemains of Temple of JupiterSonya and Travis inside Temple of Bacchus
Temple of Bacchus facing EastDetails inside Temple of BacchusGreat Court with ruins of Basilica and Altar
Sonya and the Great CourtGreat Court exedraSonya and Travis Great Court
Sonya and Travis Great Court exedraSilhouette of Temple of JupiterRemaining columns of Temple of Jupiter
Sonya with the columns of Temple of JupiterTemple of BacchusLion headwater spout


Byblos and Tripoli, Lebanon

With only three full days in Lebanon, we decided to break it up into Beirut, North Lebanon and East Lebanon.



Heading toward Tripoli in the north is the city Byblos. Byblos contains a vast array of ancient ruins from the civilisations that previously inhabited it. One thing about Lebanon is that the ruins are everywhere, and as we drove into Byblos is was impossible not to miss the Crusader Castle in the background of all the modern buildings.

Towards the Castle is an old souk containing stalls selling all kinds of Arabic trinkets. The Crusader Castle offered amazing views of the archaeological site and the Byblos city. Whilst the archaeological site contained many theatres and temples, it was difficult to appreciate them looking at weathered rocks.
From the site we walked through the Old Town and towards the Old Port stopped at Church of St John the Baptist.

Entrance to the SouqColourful windmillsArabic trinkets sold at the Souq
Travis reading the Lonely PlanetSteps to the Crusader CastleSonya at the entrance to the Crusader Castle
Overview of the archaeological siteTravis looking at skyline of ByblosSkyline of Byblos
View of a Mosque from the Crusader CastleOld PortChurch of St John the Baptist



Tripoli was a quick stop, we wandered the markets and a Lebanese man even showed us how he made soap, which Tripoli is quite famous for. After picking up some sweets, we headed back to the car to find my first wheel clamp. Now, I was in a foreign country, nobody spoke English, the accompanying note was in Arabic, I thought we were done. After about 5 minutes of cursing a young Arabic man tried to offer his help, and though he was speaking in Arabic we worked out we should go in the direction he was pointing. Fortunately, the guy placing the wheel locks was only on a scooter and we managed to track him down further along the road, and 5000 Lira (yes $3.30) later we were back on our way.

When we hire a car I never like to travel back along the same route came, so travelling back to Beirut we decided to go through the mountains. Towards the mountains were scattered towns in the valleys and even snow on the mountain tips.

Mansouri Great MosqueEntrance to the marketsProduce for sale
Great Mosque doorZeitounEhdan mountains


Walking Beirut

Having heard that Beirut was the destination of choice for many Middle Easterners, we were curious to explore this part of the ME over the festive season.

The flight from Doha was about two and a half to three hours. We flew Qatar Airways but as I was asleep for most of the trip was unable to enjoy ‘the world’s first five star airlines’. By the time we landed at Beirut airport it was 3am. After dropping our car rental representative at his home (it’s a long story), we headed towards the Hamra area to our hotel.

We were low on fuel, the streets were empty except for armed guards and the occasional tank sprinkled on each street corner. Needless to say we were both a little nervous at first, not really knowing what to expect.  Eventually, we found the hotel and managed to get a few hours rest before waking up to a sunny Winters day.

It was decided that the first day would be spent exploring Beirut city.  We had arranged for a tour in the afternoon so had a few hours in the morning to spare.  First stop was the ATM to withdraw some Lebanese Pounds (or Lira as it is commonly known).  I laughed as I saw Travis enter 300,000.00 into the withdrawal box – 1USD is equivalent to 1500LP (pegged currency to the USD).

Next was a stroll along Rue Bliss which runs along the campus of the American University of Beirut.  We stopped for a lamb shwarma and coffee at a popular student cafe, which we enjoyed on the grounds of the scenic University.

On our way to the Corniche (Arabic for riverside road) to view Pigeon Rocks (natural rock formations on the edge of the Mediterranean sea) it was hard not to notice the beautiful architecture of the flats along the way with their French, Turkish and Lebanese influences. Oriental rugs were strewn across balconies.  Christmas trees and decorations were also plentiful, as Lebanon’s population is about fifty percent Christian.

There were also worn down buildings, grey and dreary that looked like they had not been cared for or even occupied since the civil war started in 1975.

Pigeon Rocks was, scenic, but we opted to give the boat ride around the rock formations a miss, despite being asked by about five different boat vendors.

American University of Beirut College HallAmerican University of Beirut ExitBuilding on Bliss Street
Old Rafic El-Hariri Stadium home of Nejmeh Sporting ClubNejmeh Sporting ClubPelé mural on the site of Rafic El-Hariri Stadium
Side of Pigeons Rock in RaouchéLebanese FlagPigeons Rock in Raouché
Pigeons Rock in RaouchéBuilding on General De GaulleRamlet Al Bayda beach
Lebanese security pillarOld building Sakiet El Janzeir StreetAnti Israel graffiti


By this time we had spent close to four hours wandering the streets of Ras Beirut.  The afternoon ahead was a walking tour of Beirut (‘Walk Beirut’) which was another five hours of walking!

We headed back to the hotel for a short rest before meeting with our tour guide and group outside a giant Banyan tree at the American University of Beirut.

Travis found the tour online via Lonely Planet and we could see from the turnout that it was extremely popular.  There were about 50 other people hoping to also ‘Walk Beirut‘, Brits, French, Americans – accents from everywhere, all huddled around the tree. The tour commenced in Hamra and included key sites across West Beirut, Downtown Beirut and East Beirut.  It was definitely the most fascinating tour I’ve ever been on as it was designed to show travellers parts of the city one wouldn’t necessary notice or find in a travel guide.

Highlights included:

  • Visiting the infamous Holiday Inn. Built in the early 70’s it was (and still is) the biggest building in the city – but now it stands an empty building shell with a bullet ridden exterior.  Just looking at it gave me goosebumps..
  • Walking along outside the half refurbished synagogue in the deserted Jewish precinct and learning about Liza, the thought-to-be ‘last’ Jewish lady in Beirut.
  • Learning about the stories of the peoples revolts at Martyr’s Square.

Ronnie from WalkBeirut starting the tour in the financial districtFirst Armenian Evangelical ChurchBuilding sharing French, Turkish and Lebanese influenced architecture
Building sharing French, Turkish and Lebanese influenced architectureInfamous war damaged Holiday InnRoman Bath ruins
Roman Bath ruinsHistorical Downtown Nejmeh SquareSt Georges Cathedral Nejmeh Square
Clock Tower Nejmeh SquareSamir Kassir statueMohammad Al-Amin Mosque
Mohammad Al-Amin MosqueMohammad Al-Amin MosquePainted wall in East Beirut


Ronnie, the tour guide, was a wonderful storyteller – both interesting and insightful with an incredibly deep understanding of the historical and political context of the city. The team also did a great job of getting a group of 50 people to cross the busy streets of Beirut without any issues.

After the tour, Travis and I headed to the Gemmayze district – apparently one of the upcoming, trendy areas of East Beirut. We went to a cosy Italian restaurant where were shared an antipasto platter and mozzarella, salami and basil pizza.  As we left the restaurant we noticed heaps of young Beirutis along the street, dressed to the nines – ready to party the Wednesday night away.

On the way back to Hamra we stopped by the new Beirut souks – basically an outdoor shopping mall with familiar brands.  By the time we reached Hamra and our hotel, it was close to midnight and we were both exhausted.

Walk Beirut Map
Details of the Winter 2010 – 2011 Walk Beirut,

  1. Hamra
  2. Banque du Liban
  3. Trad Hospital
  4. Kantari Traditional Quarter
  5. Holiday Inn
  6. Trade Tower
  7. Wadi Abu Jmeel
  8. Magen Avraham Synagogue
  9. Roman Baths
  10. Grand Serail
  11. Place de L’Etoile
  12. Saint Georges Cathedral
  13. Grand Omari Mosque
  14. Samir Kassir Garden
  15. Martyr’s Square
  16. Hariri Memorial
  17. Al Amin Mosque
  18. The Dome/Egg
  19. Bachoura & Khandaq al Ghamiq
  20. Monot