Beirut, the capital of Lebanon, was not on my extended travel wish list. In fact, beyond news reports of conflict and terrorism and an appreciation for Lebanese cuisine, the country wasn’t really on my radar at all. But my sister moved there last fall to work as a humanitarian aid worker and raved about the natural beauty, warm locals, and incomparable food. She’d sent intriguing photos: skiing fresh powder with the deep blue sea in the background, eating vegan flatbread pizza on an organic farm in the Chouf mountains. You can snowboard and surf in the same day, she promised. I had to visit.
But, compounding my lack of awareness, the U.S. Department of State had put up a roadblock in the form of a Lebanon travel warning. And yet, it has warnings out for Mexico, Colombia, the Philippines, Turkey, Israel… the list goes on. I’ve been to Mexico three times this year. Why should Lebanon be any different? Furthermore, my sister said she was conscious of where was safe to venture and where was not. Attacks such as the one in November 2015 have specifically targeted Shiites in the Beirut suburbs, not tourist areas in the city. I admit that knowledge made me feel safer.
Earlier this year, I booked my ticket to the Paris of the Middle East—flying on Air France for half the cost of a round-trip ticket to the actual City of Light—and it was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. I discovered a world more hospitable and beautiful than I could have imagined, and I feel more people should visit Lebanon, even if only to see firsthand what life is like there. Here are 6 reasons to visit Beirut in spite of the travel warning.
1. The country is religiously and culturally diverse and extremely welcoming
Cliché it may be, but Lebanon really is a religious melting pot. The country is roughly half Muslim, half Christian, with a significant minority of Druze and a handful of other religious denominations. The Muslims are pretty evenly split between Shia and Sunni, and the Christians include Maronite, Greek Orthodox, and Protestant. In Beirut I heard Arabic, French, and English spoken. The people I met were cultured and welcoming, and the prolific use of habibi—an Arabic term of endearment meaning “my dear”—reminded me of the way Southerners throw around “honey” or “sweetie,” and made me feel immediately at home.
2. Lebanese food is unbelievably good and goes far beyond hummus
Family-style meals are the Lebanese way. We enjoyed an Armenian feast at Mayrig restaurant in Beirut that included vospi salad (lentils with molasses), a cheesy sou boreg pastry, spinach dumplings called spanakhov mante, tangy za’atar, and glasses of cloudy arak. At La Petite Maison’s bright new location, also in the capital, we first dug into juicy tomatoes, lemons, and olive oil before sharing burrata, baked sea bream, gnocchi, and roast baby chicken. The culinary highlight of the trip was a giant traditional Lebanese lunch at Nicolas Audi à la Maison d’Ixsir, a winery in the Batroun Mountains. In addition to endless wine, we enjoyed huge plates of hummus, couscous, a particularly fresh and delicious fattoush, olives, and other salads, plus various meat kebabs, rolled cheese pastries, and insane desserts—including a rose macaron cake and a kind of cotton candy dish called Santa’s Beard.
3. Yes, you really can snowboard and surf on the same day
My sister hadn’t lied! While we didn’t do both these things back to back, we easily could have. Instead, we spent a lazy day on the cerulean coast of Byblos at Eddé Sands beach club. Byblos is one of the world’s oldest continuously inhabited cities, and besides the gorgeous beach, it’s home to ancient souks, wafting incense, Roman columns, and a 12th-century castle built by the Crusaders. On a different day, we checked out the mountainous ski resort town of Faraya—a one-hour drive from Beirut—where the powdery snow was perfect for riding. And if it weren’t for a bit of rain, we would have hiked through the trees of Al Shouf Cedar Nature Reserve and explored the Jeita Grotto, a limestone cave system nine kilometers long and full of stalactites and stalagmites.
4. The nightlife is legendary for a reason
In the ’60s, Beirut was famous as a playground for the global jet set. Some things in the city have changed, but not its spirited reputation. In summer, Beirut’s legendary nightlife centers around rooftop lounges like Skybar. Crowds sing Arabic standards and American oldies (think Caprice) late into the night, often until the sun rises behind the mountains and reflects onto the sea. Another time, we prepped for the evening by spending a lazy afternoon at Le Gray’s sidewalk café with a bottle of dry rosé, just as we would in Paris. We then sipped champagne at Black, a sexy new downtown bar, before dancing into the early hours at the epic bomb shelter–esque club B-018, with its retractable roof. If you are looking for something a bit less slick, Gemmayzeh neighborhood is where you’ll find dive bars filled with plenty of Brooklyn-style facial hair and plaid.
5. Everything is just so classy
One step inside Le Gray Hotel, a boutique property centrally located in Martyrs’ Square, and I was enchanted. In-room check-in, a gorgeous rooftop, and stunning design details like a white, laser-cut floral wall and ornate, lattice-like wooden ceilings instantly set a blissful tone. Other hotels (including minimalist, crystal-dotted O Monot) and restaurants were also beautifully decorated and luxurious on an unexpected level. In addition, Beirut has more than its fair share of tempting boutiques, from international fashion designers—including homegrown couturier Elie Saab—to locals such as Nada Debs, who makes exquisite mother of pearl–inlaid objets d’art and sells them from her shop in the artistic Saifi Village district. Kaftans and local decorative pieces kept me mesmerized for an hour at Orient 499, and I couldn’t leave without a fringed bucket bag from Sarah’s Bag, a native brand of purses intricately hand-beaded by female prisoners.
6. Lebanon has a long and yet tangible history
I got my first Lebanese history lesson while eating breakfast on the Le Gray rooftop in Martyrs’ Square. From that sixth-floor perch I could see not only the Mediterranean and the snow-capped mountains but also palm trees and the rugged, exposed ruins of three empires: Ottoman, Roman, and Phoenician. These sites make up part of the Heritage Trail and the in-progress Garden of Forgiveness. I could also see the stunning Mohammad Al-Amin Mosque (colloquially known as the Blue Mosque) and the adjacent Saint George Greek Orthodox cathedral. Beirut has wonderful museums, too, but history in the city is also out in the open, so real you can breathe it and touch it. Lebanon brings to life lessons that fall flat in a school textbook.