City Guide

Four Hours in Beirut 2009

25 Aug 2009 by Tom Otley

The Lebanese capital is bursting with new developments, museums and cosmopolitan cuisine, finds Tom Otley

1. French quarter

For first-time visitors, the renovated French quarter around Place d’Etoile is the place to head. With pavement cafés and no cars, it’s home to plenty of newly polished ruins dating back thousands of years, including the Roman market area of Cardo Maximus, sandwiched between the new shops and bars, and the Maronite Cathedral of St George. In truth, the best restaurants and bars are in the Gemmayzeh district (see stop five), but for a morning coffee and a chance to acclimatise, it’s a good spot to stop and get your bearings. Just south of here towards Martyrs’ Square, with its impressive Peace Garden, is where you’ll find the newly opened Le Gray hotel, from Gordon Campbell Gray, of London’s One Aldwych.

2. City centre

After the 1975-1990 Civil War, Beirut began reconstruction. The worst damage was along the Green Line of demarcation, which separated the Muslims in the west from the Christian Lebanese forces in the east. When the war ended, a private company, Solidere, was established to oversee the regeneration, with the then prime minister of Lebanon, billionaire businessman Rafik al-Hariri, as its head.

Walking towards the seafront, you’ll notice the architecture becomes more modern. Buildings stretch down to the waterfront, with more reclaimed land still awaiting development. It is here you will find many financial institutions, as well as the new Four Seasons hotel (fourseasons.com), which is scheduled to open in December with the highest sky bar in Beirut.

3. Robert Mouawad Private Museum

The museum was originally built as an Arab palace in 1911, by Henri Pharaon. The interiors are magnificent, as is the collection of clocks, porcelain, icons, watches, books and jewellery installed by its current owner, Robert Mouawad. Once you’ve absorbed the interior of the palace, with its intricate woodwork, take a look at the antique diamond necklace worn by Queen Elizabeth II at her wedding in 1947. Army Road, Zokak el Blat; tel +961 198 0970; rmpm.info

4. National Museum

Open since the 1940s, the museum has been through some troubled times, as it was located right on the demarcation line during the war. Now fully reopened, it has a priceless collection reflecting the succession of civilisations that have made the area their home. One of the earliest artefacts is the most beautiful, a simple pebble with human features incised on to its surface, dating from 9,000-4,000BC. There are also several sarcophagi, including that of King Ahiram from Byblos, as well as coins and jewellery from the 11th and 12th centuries. Entry is L£5,000 (£2). Closed Mondays. Ras El Nabaa, South Ashrafieh; beirutnationalmuseum.com

5. Mayrig restaurant

Lebanese food is justifiably famous, but Beirut is also a great place to try other cuisines. Mayrig, in the Gemmayzeh district, opened in 2003 with an interior intended to echo an Armenian house, without lapsing into theme territory. While the menu is authentically Armenian, it is adapted to modern tastes. This isn’t the place to pop into for a quick snack, and when I visited the tasting menu included smoked beef canapés topped with quail eggs, and grilled kebab with wild sour cherries. There’s real knowledge and enthusiasm behind the food, and the restaurant also serves as something of a crash course in the history of Armenia – its tablemats, for example, feature paintings by famous Armenian artists. I was told there are plans to open Mayrig restaurants in Jeddah and Abu Dhabi – fingers crossed. 282 Rue Pasteur, Gemmayzeh; tel +961 157 2121; mayrigbeirut.com

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