Beirut is a city of contrasts, where mosques stand cheek to jowl with churches; modern towers crowd French colonial buildings; and bikinis and burqas are equally acceptable fashion statements. Visitors shouldn’t miss the architecture, shops, and restaurants of downtown, which was fully renovated after Lebanon’s Civil War in 1990, and the National Museum is a highlight for lovers of ancient history.
But the most fascinating parts of Beirut are its neighborhoods: the bustling bars and student life of Hamra, the Frenchified Achrafieh, Mar Mikhael with its design shops and hip restaurants, and the Armenian enclave of Bourj Hammoud. The city’s mix of East and West, old and new, is almost as intoxicating as its legendary nightlife. And as the capital of a postage-stamp country that boasts four of the world’s oldest continuously inhabited cities (Beirut, Byblos, Sidon, and Tyre) and five World Heritage Sites, Beirut is the perfect home base for country-wide explorations. Here are our recommendations for where to stay.
Best Budget Option
Beirut is a city of glamour, so the cheapest rooms are limited to noisy hostels. For anything above backpacker, look to the myriad hotels of the lively Hamra neighborhood, many of which offer frequent discounts. Conveniently located about 20 minutes by foot from the seafront Corniche boardwalk and downtown Beirut, Hamra is surrounded by universities, and hums with shops, restaurants, and bars. We suggest WH Hotel, which has sleek, well-equipped rooms and free WiFi. Instead of adding $10 to your rate for breakfast, head out to Hamra’s bustling streets for a fresh-baked man’oushe (soft bread with cheese, tomato, or savory zaatar topping) or a warm croissant. Double rooms are from $70.
Best Mid-Range Option
Part of a network of refined bed and breakfasts in Lebanon, Dar Al Achrafieh is located in Achrafieh, Beirut’s poshest neighborhood, just a few minutes’ walk from the sights of downtown and the bars and restaurants of Gemmayze. Host Jamil offers two bedrooms in his 1929 family home. The decor -- Oriental carpets, Art Deco furniture, sparkling chandeliers, and hand-painted ceilings -- offers visitors a rare glimpse behind Beirut’s closed doors and into its storied past. Although homey, all the modern amenities -- private bathroom, air conditioning, and free WiFi -- are included, along with a traditional Lebanese breakfast of locally sourced ingredients (expect Arabic bread, thick yogurt, olives, fresh tomatoes, and crisp cucumbers). Singles are from $95, doubles $120.
While there are several fine five-star hotels in town, none carries the legendary appeal of the Phoenicia. Designed by the noted American architect Edward Durell Stone, the hotel was inaugurated in 1961. Dorothy Dandridge sang at its grand opening, while jet-setters and celebrities (including Brigitte Bardot and Omar Sharif) lounged poolside. When Lebanon descended into civil war in 1975, the Phoenicia found itself at the epicenter of the notorious Battle of the Hotels and closed its doors for a quarter of a century.
Like a phoenix, the Phoenicia was reborn from the ashes of the civil war, reopening in the year 2000. It has been renovated twice since then, most recently in 2011. The Phoenicia once again hosts celebrities, diplomats, and business travelers, and is now also popular for weddings, conferences, and gala dinners. It boasts an impressive art collection of sculptures, paintings, and photography from Lebanese and international artists, several restaurants (the Friday night seafood buffet at its Mosaic restaurant is worth the splurge), a spa, and of course, that glamorous pool. The glitzy marina and restaurants of Zaitunay Bay are right across the street, and the more proletarian Corniche just a few minutes’ walk away. Rates range from $250 to $450 for a double but can vary considerably depending on day of the week and the season.