Why Beirut, Lebanon, Is Well Worth a Visit

Looking out at the water in the small beachside city of Tyre

Looking out at the water in the small beachside city of Tyre

When you’re visiting somewhere new, there is often an underlying tension and anxiety inside of you that doesn’t resolve itself until you actually get there and experience the place firsthand. That’s what happened to me when I visited Africa. I was initially tense and nervous because of the stories I had heard from friends, articles I had read online, and coverage in the media. But, as it turned out, Africa was a life-enriching experience. I realized the underlying fear everyone feels when traveling somewhere new would always be there, and it was actually important to face that angst head on and go explore despite these feelings.

Now it was time to turn my attention to the next destination I was feeling uneasy about: the Middle East.

I chose Lebanon as my destination and can honestly say I was blown away by everything the country and culture had to offer. If you love delicious food, warm and welcoming people, and an exciting nightlife full of substance and soul, then you’ll want to head to its capital, Beirut.

Despite the travel warnings at the top of some websites I visited, I knew from experience that they were more form than substance, more imaginary than real, and more media hype than real life. Sure, I won’t deny there are dangerous places to visit in the Middle East, but Lebanon is not one of them. And everyone there will go out of his or her way to show you the wholesomeness of Lebanese culture.

Since Lebanon is a very small country, I went south for a day trip to Tyre, a small beachside city whose calm and warm Mediterranean waters beckon you to go in for a swim. After floating around and enjoying the sunny weather, there are several beach bars ready to serve you a local favorite: fried baby sardines.

Fried baby sardines, a local favorite, served at a beach bar in Tyre

I must admit that at first glance, my eyebrows rose a bit. It looked like a plate of French fries, except the fries were baby fish. I decided they might actually be a healthier alternative to fries since they are full of other proteins and fats that you just can’t get from a potato.

Healthy—that’s what I kept telling myself as I took my first bite. One bite was all it took. I was hooked. I squeezed some lemon over the plate and ate every last little baby fish.

The live music scene is really where it’s at in Beirut. There’s a place called Music Hall, where bands come on every hour (starting at 10 or 11 p.m.) and play three to four songs. In between each act they play music, which allows people to mingle before the next live act causes the whole arena to erupt in dancing and celebration.

The energy and atmosphere of Music Hall evolves throughout the night. The first acts are typically slower, calmer, and more relaxing. But with each successive act, the energy rises, the tempo increases, and the people get livelier and livelier. It’s an amazing example of crowd control. The best part of Music Hall is that at the very core it highlights traditional Lebanese music, something everyone in the audience appreciates.

I also toured the mountains of Beirut. Yes, Beirut has mountains. And yes, they even have plenty of snow in the winter. Skiing in the Middle East was not something I could imagine, which is why someone had to tell me three times that it snows in Lebanon for me to believe them. While in the mountains, I got to listen to a local musician who is both an innovator and an inspiration. His name is Tarik Anis Shehayeb, and he’s a Flamenco-Arabic guitarist in Beirut. Check out a quick clip of his skills:

Tarik is an inspiration not only for his musical genius but also because he has persevered through life’s many challenges. He was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and lost use of his left hand—not a good thing if you’re a guitarist. He rehabbed and worked his way back to health and has been invited to do a TED Talk on his experience and life at the university in Lebanon.

Beirut also offers plenty of historical sites to visit. There are ruins from different time periods everywhere you go, and most of the time they’re free for you to visit. Beirut really is the total package. The real travel warning for this city should be that you would have too much to experience while you’re there.

While in Beirut, I stayed at Le Vendome, a boutique hotel on the coast. Le Vendome has been an intimate home away from home for celebrities, dignitaries, and royalty from all around the world. I walked into a lobby and was greeted by kind faces, warm smiles, and wholesome greetings. I had a feeling this was going to be a very memorable experience.

Enjoying the view from my room at Le Vendome

I was right. I knew the place would be nice, but I was so blown away. I shook my head and laughed out loud when I walked into my room. Every detail was perfect. The bed was beyond comfortable and big. The artwork was beautiful. The bathroom was pristine and spacious (the shower even fit my 198 cm / 6’5’’ frame). It was time to do some work, and I wasn’t going to complain about the view I had while sitting with my laptop on the bed. Right outside was a full 180-degree view of the Mediterranean Sea. The balcony also provided a perfect view of the sunset.

Sunset from the guest room balcony at Le Vendome

And when it was time to sleep, Le Vendome let me know I was their welcomed guest in a very unique way: a pillowcase with my initials sewn into it. This was definitely the first time I’ve seen this; my first thought was to calculate how many possible combinations of letters there are and wonder how many of each combination the hotel would have at any given moment. Yup, I’m a nerd.

A pillow with my initials stitched onto it on the bed at Le Vendome

After you’ve enjoyed the sunset, head to the top floor of Le Vendome and dine at Sydney’s Club Bar and Restaurant. I’m a bit of a burger-obsessed traveler, so when I looked at the menu and saw a gold medal and award winning burger written inside, it was a sure sign that I was going to try it. This one had wagyu beef, sautéed pineapple, kimchi, caramelized onions, and cheddar cheese. It was the perfect contrast of sweet and spicy.

An award winning burger served at Sydney’s Club Bar and Restaurant

Aside from the burger, I tasted many dishes on the menu, and while all of them were delicious, two stood out in particular. The tuna tacos were perfect—there’s no other way to describe them. I ordered a second round for dessert. Why not?

Ahi tuna tacos served at Sydney’s Club Bar and Restaurant

The other standout dish, stuffed calamari, was one I had never seen on a menu before and wanted to try. Pieces of calamari were stuffed with deliciously seasoned pork sausage. It’s a very rich dish (something I personally enjoy) so if that’s not your thing, go for the tacos. But if you happen to like rich foods, this will blow your mind.

Stuffed calamari served at Sydney’s Club Bar and Restaurant

If classic architecture and delicious food are the heart of Le Vendome, then the hotel staff is certainly the blood that creates the heartbeat and pulse of the pristine property. The reason for this is because of the sincerity of the people who work there. It’s generally quite easy to pick up on insincere acts of generosity and help, but it’s also easy to pick up on the opposite as well. The energy is so positive and the smiles so authentic, that you have no choice but to be positively impacted by each interaction with hotel staff.

A staff member at Le Vendome

For wellness-minded travelers, Le Vendome guests also have complimentary access to the neighboring hotel property, Phoenicia, where you can chill out and enjoy delicious Japanese food poolside.

The pool at Phoenicia

Sushi served poolside at Phoenicia

You might have trouble leaving the pool area, but remember this is all about pampering yourself, so head over to SPA Phoenicia and get a deep-tissue massage from one of the highly qualified therapists.

Entry doors to SPA Phoenicia

One thing is for sure: When your stay at Le Vendome is over, you will leave feeling fulfilled in every way. I highly recommended that anyone coming to Beirut will take some time to decompress and recharge.