Beirut offers a mezze of cultural attractions

Lebanon currently sees no more than a trickle of western tourists, others discouraged by political turbulence. The UK Foreign Commonwealth Office labels the no-go zones – and these I avoided. Sadly the list includes some of Lebanon’s premier sites and notably the colossal and remarkably preserved Roman temples of Baalbek.

But the areas I did see were completely relaxed and unthreatening, with an apparent easy ethnic mix. In rebuilt Downtown Beirut you could be in any smart European capital – albeit with some restored Ottoman-era facades. There are glossy shops, sophisticated restaurants and stylishly-dressed Lebanese living life to the full. Go at sunset to the achingly cool rooftop Iris Bar, overlooking the Med, to witness the hedonistic lifestyle enjoyed by the youth of Beirut.

Unmissable landmarks in Beirut

Muhammad Al-Amine Mosque

Al Amine Mosque (or Hariri Mosque), Beirut (c) Susie Boulton

Beirut my sightseeing starts at the Muhammad Al-Amine Mosque, a city landmark with its dazzling blue dome and lofty minarets. Although I’m covered from head to toe I’m told to don a huge black-hooded cloak – a stark contrast to the scantily-clad Lebanese ladies shopping in the designer boutiques a stone’s throw away.

Sursock Museum

I head to Christian East Beirut to see the Sursock Museum in the affluent quarter of Achrafieh. This elegant Italian/Lebanese 1912 mansion reopened in 2015 after a major overhaul and is now a cutting edge 21st-century cultural institution, devoted to modern and contemporary art.

National Museum

Directly to the south, and right on the former ‘Green Line’ separating East and West Beirut, is the National Museum, home to a superb archaeological collection, much of it heroically saved by staff from destruction during the civil war.

Special places along the coast

Lebanon is such a tiny nation you can base yourself in Beirut, and make excursions to other attractions. Jeita Grotto, 18km northeast of Beirut, is a colossal cavern of stalactities and stalagmites which would thrill even the most jaded speleologist. On the coast at Jounieh the Téléférique (cable car), dubbed the Terrorifique, climbs steeply up to the heights of Harissa. Here a striking white statue of the Virgin of Lebanon commands spectacular coastal views.

The ancient site of Byblos

Byblos Centre (c) Susie Boulton

But the real highlight along the coast is the ancient site of Byblos, a picturesque fishing port, occupied by the Phoenicians and said to be the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world. I climb to the top of the Crusader Castle and explore the ruins of ramparts, temples and a Roman theatre, set amid wild flowers above the sea.

Qadisha Valley

From Byblos I head inland through the scenic Qadisha Valley to the peaceful mountain town of Ehden, where Lebanese come in summer to escape the heat and in winter to ski on the Cedars Mountains’ slopes. I stay at the swish new Mist Hotel, above the town and built into the rocks.

Pool at Mist Hotel, Ehden (c) Susie Boulton

Soaking up the mountain scenery, in absolute tranquillity, and exploring Ehden’s beautiful nature reserve, it’s impossible to believe that this picturesque resort was the scene of a massacre, with around 40 deaths, between rival Christian factions during the civil war.

A stroll along the Corniche

My final day in Lebanon ends with a stroll along Beirut’s seafront Corniche, where locals come to jog, bike, socialize and see the sunset. Following the coastline the Bay Rock Café makes the perfect spot for a cocktail or nargileh as the sun sinks behind the iconic 60-metre high Pigeon Rocks, standing offshore like sentinels.

Pigeon Rocks (c) Susie Boulton

Heading back to my base I pass the lavish 5-star Phoenicia Hotel, a haunt of celebrities in the 1960s. Behind it rises the bullet-ridden Holiday Inn, built in 1974, just one year before it became embroiled in the ‘Battle of the Hotels’. Overlooking the city the disfigured facade stands as a monument to the city’s war-torn past. But there are plans to renovate or rebuild, perhaps into another glittering development, following Lebanon’s journey from Armageddon to Armani.

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