Mark Caswell finds everything from souks to sky bars in Lebanon’s reconstructed downtown district
Following the end of the Lebanese Civil War in 1990, which devastated Beirut’s downtown district, a private-public partnership was formed under the banner of Solidere (solidere.com) to rebuild the capital. The project has not been without controversy, with the company expropriating many of the damaged buildings from the original landowners, and the assassination in 2005 of Solidere’s founder and largest single shareholder, former prime minister Rafik Hariri. But 20 years on, it is gradually transforming the face of the former Paris of the Middle East.
One of Solidere’s flagship projects, the Beirut Souks, opened last year on the site of the former medieval markets at the north end of downtown. Covering more than 100,000 sqm of retail space and 60,000 sqm of pedestrian and landscaped areas, it’s a modern take on the concept, with cafés, luxury boutiques and high-street brands. If you’d like to do your tour on two wheels, there’s a bicycle hire stand outside the northern entrance, costing from L£5,000 (£2) per hour.
Place de L’Etoile
Loosely inspired by Paris’s Place Charles de Gaulle, Beirut’s main square and the streets leading off it have been given a major facelift, including the central tower with its Rolex clockface. Critics say the immaculate reconstruction lacks soul, but it’s a pleasant area to wander through, with dozens of cafés lining the pedestrianised streets. The square is flanked to the west by the Parliament building and to the east by a Greek Orthodox church and Catholic cathedral, behind which a large public space, the Garden of Forgiveness, is being landscaped.
A silver lining of the reconstruction was the opportunity to excavate several important archaeological sites, including the well-preserved Roman baths behind Bank Street, west of Place de L’Etoile. The ruins have undergone thorough cleaning and new walkways mean the baths can be viewed from above from all sides.
While you’re in this area, take a peek at Le Grand Serail, the headquarters of the prime minister. With all the security surrounding the building it’s difficult to get close, but even through the barbed wire fencing you can see the striking mid-19th century Ottoman architecture.
Mohammad Al-Amin Mosque
The most impressive of several mosques downtown, this modern building pays more than a passing nod to the larger Blue Mosque in Istanbul. Located at the south-west corner of Martyrs’ Square, the mosque is the resting place of Rafik Hariri. Muslims make up about 60 per cent of the Lebanese population, with Christians accounting for 40 per cent, and the latter are represented next door by St George’s Cathedral, a Maronite church dating back to the Crusades.
A residential district in the south-east corner of downtown, Saifi Village has become a popular area for galleries, jewellers, antique dealers and independent craft shops. The architecture is a mixture of new-builds and restored Parisian-style flats, and during the day it’s eerily quiet in contrast to the bustle of the surrounding streets. Saifi Village is on the edge of Beirut’s lively Achrafieh district – if you’re looking for a night on the tiles then head south along Rue Monot, where you’ll find scores of clubs and late-night eateries frequented by well-groomed locals.
On March 14, 2005, one million people descended on Martyrs’ Square as part of a chain of events now known as the Cedar Revolution. The protest took place after the assassination of Hariri, an act blamed by most on Syria’s presence in Lebanon, and just over a month later Syria withdrew its troops after nearly 30 years. In the centre of the square, a monument remembers Lebanese nationalists hanged during the First World War, while to the north is a Phoenician archaeological site.
Bar Three Sixty
Located on the rooftop of the recently opened Le Gray hotel in the north-west of Martyrs’ Square, Bar Three Sixty is housed in a circular atrium with floor-to-ceiling windows providing panoramic views. The uber-cool venue attracts well-heeled locals and foreigners, with plush chairs, colour-lit glass tables, and live music from a blue-lacquered grand piano. Ask for a seat facing out on to the Al-Amin Mosque, which is stunning when illuminated at night. Open 8pm-3am, reservations advised.
WHERE TO STAY
- Le Gray The fourth property in the Campbell Gray Hotels collection features 500 works of art, 87 bedrooms, a rooftop pool and two restaurants. Visit campbellgrayhotels.com
- Four Seasons Built on reclaimed land just north of downtown, the 230-room property offers stunning views of the city, marina and corniche, particularly from the rooftop pool and bar. Visit fourseasons.com
- Ramada Downtown A new-build four-star located downtown with 99 rooms and suites, most with balconies. Visit ramada.com
- Intercontinental Phoenicia One of the city’s most iconic hotels, built in 1961, it is located on the corner of the corniche, in walking distance of downtown. Visit ichotelsgroup.com
LOT flies three times weekly from London to Beirut via Warsaw. Visit lot.com