Photo by Francesco Lastrucci
Photo by Francesco Lastrucci
Local Bethany Kehdy likes to go running at The Corniche in Beirut.
Cookbook author Bethany Kehdy grew up during the Lebanese Civil War, when fighting ravaged parts of Beirut. Now she’s part of the young creative class that’s reimagining the city.
Note: Though COVID-19 has stalled a lot of travel plans, we hope our stories can offer inspiration for your future adventures—and a bit of hope.
I was born in Houston to an American mother from Texas and a Lebanese father, but we moved to Lebanon when I was a baby. I spent all of my formative years there. To escape the turmoil of the civil war (1975 to 1990), my family and I sought refuge in Baskinta, a village northeast of Beirut, at the foot of Mount Sannine, for about five years. To this day, I think people are still healing from wartime.
At 22, I dropped out of the American University of Beirut to figure out what I really wanted to do. I moved to Miami and worked in real estate for a time but only found happiness when I started cooking the Middle Eastern food I was so badly missing—I was doing supper clubs before they ever formally existed. I’d invite friends over and experiment with recipes, some of which were merely rough instructions my aunt dictated to me by phone. Cooking was both a creative outlet and therapy from my job. I would spend Saturdays cooking and freezing meals. Still, a future in food didn’t become a serious consideration until I moved to London in 2008 with my now ex-husband and turned my collection of recipes into a blog.
Food blogs were just emerging, and I came along at the right time, carving out an untapped corner of the web dedicated to Middle Eastern cooking. Shortly after that, I set up Food Blogger Connect, a conference for like-minded food devotees to come together, and I wrote my first book, The Jewelled Kitchen. Taste Lebanon, the culinary tour company I founded in 2009, was the natural next step. It took off quickly, mostly by word of mouth, because my first customers were fellow food bloggers flying in from all over the world to connect. Today, my home base is Lebanon (though London is my second home), and I run three- to four-day treks across the country, including to once “off-limit” destinations like Baalbek and Tripoli, and I do culinary day tours of Beirut with a team of local guides.
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There’s a booming bed-and-breakfast market that’s opened up the country not just to foreign travelers but for locals, too. During the war, no one traveled from east Beirut to west Beirut, let alone across the country. Politically, things are challenging: We have a government now, so we’re no longer in a void. However, the government doesn’t represent the people, so we are working to change that. The recent protests have made headlines, but this revolution has been predominantly peaceful. It says a lot about the Lebanese people and culture.
For travelers coming to Lebanon, you may encounter some road closures, but they’re less now than they were in late 2019. Bring cash with you! The economic crisis that was building up prior to the protests has taken its toll. Inflation has set in, people have lost their jobs, newspapers have gone on strike. But it’s still a beautiful country, full of resilient, hopeful people. And Beirut is a buzzing city that’s constantly evolving.
All of our activists, artists, designers, and entrepreneurs have made it an exciting and creative place. There’s been a real perception shift (that I believe Instagram has helped make possible): For so long we were all trying to leave the country in search of opportunities, but now, the opportunities are here—if we create them. Today, I’m working on opening my own restaurant in the Achrafieh district, an area shaped by its wonderful dining experiences. Other neighborhoods have been working on defining modern, postwar identities for years, like Gemmayze, now with its art galleries and heritage buildings, and Mar Mikhaël, known for its late-night crowds and coffee shops. It’s good to be home.
“An independent publisher of artist books and prints, Plan BEY is also an exhibition space and shop where you can pick up a selection of contemporary cards, posters, books and prints developed with local artists at their workshop.” (Mar Mikhael, Armenia Street, Geara building, plan-bey.com)
“I go running here about three times a week. It’s a wonderful gathering place along the water for people from all walks of life. You’ll see adults and children strolling and relaxing or enjoying a game of cards, without a care in the world. I love observing that love for the simple things in life.”
“If I could afford it, I would buy everything in this shop. It specializes in sustainable homewares and clothing produced by skilled craftspeople from Lebanon and all across the Middle East.” (499, Omar Daouk street, Mina El Hosn, Beirut, Lebanon, orient499.com)
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“Selim’s jewelry is an excellent example of old meeting new. For so long, we had hyper-traditional goods in Beirut, but his designs are fresh and contemporary, all while playing on the colors of the Mediterranean and heritage motifs.” (Ashrafieh, 82 Shehade Street, 2061-3208, selimmouzannar.com)
“Beirut has a lot of coffee shops, but not all of them are meant for lounging. Aaliya’s is one of my favorite spots to sit all day with a coffee, have a meal (the menu changes frequently), and browse the selection of English-language books. It hosts readings and jazz nights and also has a nice happy hour—I usually go for whatever gin cocktail they’re serving—so you can shift smoothly from work to play.” (Gouraud Street, Gemmayze, facebook.com/pg/Aaliyahsbooks)
“This magnificent museum is dedicated to contemporary and modern art with more than 10 exhibitions each year. Architecturally, it’s a stunning show of Venetian and Ottoman heritage: There’s Damascan woodwork and original tiling in some areas of the building. It feels like an ode to the old Lebanon we lost touch with due to the war.” (Greek Orthodox Archbishopric Street, Ashrafieh 2071 5509, sursock.museum)
“The original Beirut souk has been taken over by [modern] shops like Zara and Mango, so for an everyday souk experience, I love to bring my clients to this street in Bourj Hammoud, the old Armenian district on the edge of the city. It’s the best place to stock up on spices such as Aleppo peppers, sour cherries, herbs, every dried fruit and vegetable you can think of, and Armenian specialties.” Marash Street, Bourj Hammoud
“This is upscale Lebanese dining—the apple tabbouleh and roasted lamb are incredible—in a truly magnificent setting. Liza Asseily, who first opened her namesake restaurant in Paris, went big and grand with the Beirut outpost, which occupies part of a 19th-century palace and was designed by Maria Ousseimi.” (Metropolitan Club Doumani Street, Trabaud, Achrafieh, lizabeirut.com)
“A wonderful homegrown coffee roaster and coffee shop. I particularly love their second location, the newest, which occupies a late 19th-century heritage house with a beautiful backyard garden with outdoor seating set up beneath the trees. It’s a perfect spot to kick back and relax.” (Rue Mansour Jurdak, Ras Beirut, kaleicoffee.com)
“Armenian food can be quite heavy, but Seza’s specialties are lighter—the kibbeh, freekeh with lamb, and eech (red bulgur salad) are all delicious—making this my favorite Armenian bistro in Mar Mikhaël. I always go for a table on the covered terrace, done up with string lights. It’s homey!” (Patriarch Arida Street, Mar Mikhaël)
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