All those about to embark on, or just returning from one of our Syria tours will find themselves in Lebanon’s high-octane capital, Beirut. Beirut is a vibrant, fascinating and hopeful city that wears its troubles on its sleeves. Oft-maligned in the west as a dangerous, corrupt metropolis, there is a lot more to Beirut than Hezbollah and explosions — although these are also important parts of its nuanced history.
As one of the largest and most prominent capitals in the Middle East, there is plenty to do in Beirut — far more than will fill a 24-hour stopover. Although a lot has changed in the city since the country was plunged into major economic crisis in 2019, there are still many wonderful sites and attractions to suit almost every taste.
We will outline some solid building blocks for how to spend 24 hours in Beirut.
Beirut at a glance
Beirut is festooned with electrical wires, humming with car horns and carpeted with uneven pavement. However, it’s easy to spot examples of the city’s illustrious past. The riches and culture which earned it the moniker Paris of the Middle East are close beneath the surface of the city’s rugged exterior. Think wide, tree-lined boulevards, French architecture and waterfront cafes, as well as an earnestly fashion-conscious population, and you’re halfway there. Now imagine that the cars, once expensive, have not been serviced in several years. Entire rows of independent fashion stores lie closed in the centre of the city. Men of working age sit on street corners, drinking tea and putting the world to rights from morning until night.
Welcome to Beirut.
The complexity of Beirut’s image is belied by the abject friendliness of its people. Beirutis are cool, cosmopolitan and know how to have a good time, in spite of the monumental economic failures in the country. People here have to work very hard for what they have, and many have dropped several rungs of the socio-economic ladder in just the past couple of years. Memories of the blast which killed 218 people, injured 7,000 more and obliterated large swathes of the city are still fresh, and frustration about the political system is on everybody’s lips.
Travellers to Beirut are welcomed heartily. Pop into a store for a fridge magnet and you’re likely to leave with the owner’s WhatsApp contact. Head for a sundowner in one of the many incredible bars and you might find yourself an hour later at a party with a Lebanese journalist, an American attaché, a Syrian doctor and several students from Southern Africa. Despite its sad and complicated history, Beirut is a fun city that will live long in the memory — regardless of how late your night is.
Beirut is fairly spread out, and you will find that you will need to have your wits about you to traverse the city. Those with mobility issues should be aware that the pavements can be cramped and uneven in some parts of the city. Blackouts are common (Feb 2023) and can last anything from a few minutes to several hours. This impacts streetlights as well as WiFi service.
Perhaps more importantly, the city runs on two, or even three currencies: the official rate, which will make everything, seem inordinately expensive, the constantly fluctuating black market rate which is what you will be almost everywhere (around 38,000 Lira to a EUR in September 2022, 64,000 to USD in Feb 2023) and USD, which is typically accepted in taxis to and from the airport, as well as hotels.
Taxis are abundant (by proxy of the fact that many, many people took up the profession due to losing their jobs in the economic crisis) and apps such as Uber work — but be warned, WiFi is not always easy to come by.
The instability of the currency means that when you order an Uber or other car share, your driver may well ask you to pay a different price. The prices in the apps do not keep up with the fluctuations in the exchange rate, which means drivers are forced to negotiate once they have accepted the ride. You can say no, however, usually the price they are asking for is fair and the difference marginal when translated to USD — although it is vital you have an understanding of the black market rate to make a good call on this. Metered taxis are rare. If you’re leaving a restaurant or bar, you can ask the staff to call a trusted cab provider for you.
Driving is a popular option, as renting a car allows you to visit some of the nearby attractions (see: What to do). However, traffic jams in Beirut are no joke, particularly between the hours of 17:00 — 19:00, especially along the main highway from Beirut out to Jounieh.
Walking is not ideal for those with heavy baggage, mobility issues, or an aversion to traffic and chaos. But, it is a great way to get to know the city. It’s possible to walk from western Hamra (where the meeting point for the tour) to eastern Gemmayzeh (a kind of Beiruti ‘Soho’) in less than an hour, and along this walk you will encounter many of the city’s main sites. Just be aware that there are few official crossings and military checkpoints everywhere in the centre of the city by the Muslim quarter. While the soldiers are relatively friendly and forgiving of foreigners, it can be a bit intimidating to get lost at night when the lights are off.
Buses are the main form of public transport in Beirut. They come in the form of public and privately owned, the former of which runs on official routes and the latter on both official and additional routes, usually without any numbers or ways of knowing where it is going. For this, you will need to ask the driver, and you may find they only speak Arabic or perhaps a bit of French.
Unfortunately, there are no official bus lines printed or online, however, edarabia.com have a grassroots version from 2023.
What to eat
Shawarma pretty much anywhere.
We searched and asked around, but the truth is, there is no such thing as the best shawarma in Beirut. There are spectacular shawarmas to be found all over the city, and, as beauty is in the eye of the beholder, we will leave it up to you to decide your favourite.
For the uninitiated, shawarma is a stack of meat (chicken or veal, typically), piled high on a vertical spit, and rotated over a grill. This gets the outside nice and charred and juicy. The dish commonly referred to as shawarma is a wrap made with fresh flatbread, the meat filling, a tangy, creamy garlic sauce called toum, sour pickles and salad vegetables. Those about to embark on tours to Syria should get well acquainted with the Beiruti version before trying the Syrian equivalent!
Late-night snack at Barbar
Popping up in guides from all over the world for an assortment of dishes, Barbar is more than just a 24-hour bistro. Here you can grab an assortment of sandwiches, hot dishes and any number of classics in a bustling, unpretentious diner, right around the corner from the Caramel Boutique hotel in central Hamra district, the meeting and dropping-off point for our tours to Syria. Everything is freshly cooked and delicious, and takeaway is also available.
Everything you order comes with an assortment of fresh vegetables and pickles and, sometimes confusingly, a portion of Russian salad. Portions are enormous, particularly for the plated meal options.
Daily special at Le Chef
Le Chef is an iconic eatery located on the famous Gouraud in Gemmayze district that has attracted several famous patrons since its opening in 1967. Beloved by locals and visitors alike, Le Chef has served home-style Lebanese classics to the likes of Anthony Bourdain, and and Russel Crowe famously donated 5,000 USD to the restaurant after the devastating port explosion threw into question its future.
“After the explosion, we had the glass of the windows, the fridges, the air conditioning and toilets all damaged. It was like a bomb,” says frontman Charbel Bassil. Today, the restaurant is thankfully up and running once more, with Mr. Bassil still merrily greeting customers and expertly taking orders. The service is immaculate, decor unpretentious, menu imaginative and vibe perfectly convivial. Opening hours are, however, somewhat discretionary.
What to do
There are several sets of roman ruins around Beirut, the most impressive being those located in the centre of the city next to two other tourist hotspots, St Georges Maronite Cathedral and the Mohammad Al-Amin Mosque. Located under street level, the ruins are protected by barriers and crop up quite unexpectedly if you’re simply traversing the city.
If you’re really into your history, Baalbeck is a Lebanese city of about 80,000 inhabitants located just 70 kilometres east of Beirut and easily accessible by day tour. The UNESCO World Heritage site is famous for its ancient temple complex.
Sunday only – Filippino market in Hamra
It’s likely that your tour to Syria with Rocky Road Travel will bring you back around the weekend – in which case, stick around and poke your head into the Sunday Filippino market in Hamra just outside of St. Francis church. Delightfully at odds with its surroundings, follow the Filipinos streaming into the square from early morning and feel as though you were transported to Southeast Asia.
Expect jewellery, clothing and homeware stands, homemade pickles and ingredients, blaring Filipino love songs and, of course, an entire banquet of dishes prepared by the women running the stalls. The prices are cheap and the unlimited soda is an extra treat on a sweltering Beirut day.
Go bar-hopping along Gouraud
Particularly recommended after the long walk from Hamra to Gemmayeze, beautiful and iconic Gouraud street is lined with hip, independent bars, cafes and eateries and brimming with fun people, local and visiting.
For a cheap, cold beer and a spot of people-watching during the day, or a full-on international party at night, head to “not a pub, not a club” Plub bar. Or, for a cheap cocktail, a cosy reading spot and occasional live music, head further down to Aaliyas Books.
There are hundreds of bars to choose from – these ones have simply been tried and tested – just be aware that bars along Gourand close quite early due to noise complaints from nearby residents. If you want to keep the party going, Hamra’s university population ensures that the bars keep going until the not-so-wee hours.
Where to stay
Everywhere in Beirut is a taxi away from the airport, and there are several great options for every budget. It’s not a huge city, but tourists who only have a short amount of time should stick to the central neighbourhoods of Hamra, Gemmayeze, Mar Mikhael and, at a push, Downtown.
- AirBnB is a great option for budget accommodation across Beirut
- The Grand Meshmosh is a popular hostel on Gouraud street in Gemmayeze
- Caramel Boutique Hotel is the start and end-point of Rocky Road Travel tours to Syria in central Hamra district
- The Parisian Plaza Hotel overlooks the water in quiet but convenient Ain Al Mraiseh
- Lahoya Suites is a luxury hotel on the seafront west of Hamra
- InterContinental Phoenicia Beirut is an upmarket hotel just off Zaitunay bay in Downtown
So, there you have it. If you’re looking for a reason to spend 24 hours in Beirut, then why not try one of our Syria tours?
Of course, if you would like any more information about how to spend 24 hours in Beirut, or any information about any of our tours, please feel free to get in touch!