Last December, I went back to Beirut for the holiday season and had the chance to walk around the streets of the capital with the talented architect and product designer Miziana Boustany. Upon my request, she took me on an alternative tour of the well-known neighbourhoods of Gemazye and Mar Mikhael, pointing out the hidden architectural wonders of our city.
We parked the car in a hidden spot to avoid paying the exorbitant parking fees (yes those exist in Beirut), and wondered down towards Gemmazye to grab our morning Manoucheh. In the late 2000s and until 2013-4, Gemmazye was the hang out spot of Beirut with restaurants, bars and clubs keeping the street alive until the early hours of the day. For good reasons, its residents complained of noise levels, which slowly led to the demise of the streets nightlife. What now remains are the nice restaurants, quiet bars, and concept stores or art galleries.
During the day, a stroll around the neighbourhood will reveal varying architectural designs, all reminiscing of its history: situated just below Sursock street, Gemayze previously housed the staff that worked there.
Every morning, they would make their way up to the palaces and grand villas of Sursock using the many stairs, which for some have been decorated by local artists, and for others, left in their natural state.
For this, I also strongly advise wondering into the little side streets or up the colourful stairs to discover all the little gems that Beirut hides so well. If you have time, go up to visit the Sursock Museum. In terms of shops, Plan BEY, a Lebanese publishing house that sells artwork as well as books, stands out.
A few other art galleries are also worth the visit, as well as Sarah’s Bag, off the main street. In terms of food, for anyone keen to try Lebanese homemade dish, stop by Le Chef. It looks like a run down, shabby restaurant but its plat du jour are unrivalled in the area and have survived the worse of Beirut’s history.
Urbanista, Sip and Aliyaa’s Books are all places worth visiting if you are in dire need of good wifi, and have time to kill. If you are ready to splash the cash and get acquainted with Beirut’s socialites, head to Myu for a drink in the evening.
We then went down to Pasteur Street, just one street down Gemazye, to visit a few concepts stores and marvel at Beirut’s characteristic buildings. This area has a lot of bars and restaurants and my favourite are definitely the rooftop Coup d’Etat, it’s adjacent Lebanese restaurant Um Nazih, Mayrig, an upmarket Armenian restaurant, and Gathering, à garden bar that comprises three different restaurants.
Having left Beirut à while ago and ultimately – as you can tell by the rest of this blog – lacking the foodie touch, my choices of bars and restaurants can sometimes be outdated – so do venture out to try the many many new places that sprout every few months in Beirut. I can think of Kharouf, a fast good restaurant that serves roasted lamb or Maryool a new Lebanese restaurant.
We then made our way to Mar Mikhael, just a neighbourhood down. This area is definitely the Shoreditch of Beirut. There are plenty of bars, restaurants, hipster coffee shops and alternative stores where expats, trendy Lebanese and cyclists meet.
The main street has many, many hangout spots to keep you busy for a day – think of Eenab for good Lebanese food, Bohemian for a drink or two, Osteria for good partying cheese and wine (yes only the Lebanese can combine red wine with intense partying) and Zawya for upcycled Lebanese designer products.
For a more authentic feel of exactly how hipster the area has become, definitely explore the side streets at stop by Kalei, the new Lebanese it coffee place – it even has a bike rack and a rooftop!
Riwaq Beirut is also a must do, especially if you are a keen bookie. Their basement is full of wonderful old books waiting to be picked up.
For anyone keen for a more complete tour of Beirut, I would suggest starting at raoucheh to see the impressive pigeon rock formation out in the sea, and then strolling down the corniche east.
Once you reach the end of the pavement, carry on for a few hundred of meters – not without stopping at an impressive, and old souvenir shop – and you will reach a pavement once more – close to the St George Hotel, a vestige of Beirut past, and Zeituna bay, a Dubai feel marina. When you can, head up to the Down Town Beirut, before making your way to the start of Gemayze.
For a rough idea of our walk, I’ve recorded it on Strava.
Otherwise, both Gemmayze and Mar Mikhael have helpful Zawarib maps which indicate a lot of the restaurants and bars.