5 things I'd do differently next time I'm in Beirut
One of the first things that strike you when you step off the plane and out of the airport in Beirut is the number of armed UN soldiers stationed outside of it. Then, as your senses begin to acclimatise, you notice the yelling. The roaring of taxi drivers to each other, to others, with a constant tussle for passengers and their right to whatever they happen to be doing. It's chaos, within a system. It's chaos that is a way of life.
We couldn't get a cab with a fair price without haggling. It's a rite of passage, almost a greeting. If you get into a cab without haggling, you earn no respect from the driver. But these weaving, cursing taxi drivers are friendly beneath their rough worn exteriors. In one cab we got in to, the driver stopped randomly and suddenly, wound down his windows and barked an order to a roadside vendor. He didn't seem to speak English, or perhaps just didn't speak to us. In seconds, money exchanged hands and a plastic bag was stuffed into the seat next to him. Next thing we knew, he reached back to us with the bag outstretched. He offered us some fresh, juicy, strange looking wrinkled...grapes, I think. I'd never seen this before.
Beirut is the old and the new, side by side. A modern looking American University of Beirut, a stretch of cafés, restaurants and Starbucks by the sea. Ruins that haven't seem much love stand baking in the sun, and men fish antiques from the sea. If you drive far enough within the city, and it doesn't take very long, you come across the bullet-ridden buildings left torn and forlorn in the middle of streets. Beirut has two faces, one always weary and yelling, one always kind and smiling.
Visiting Beirut for the first time for 4 days so many years ago has only increased my fascination with this place that truth be told, I was a little scared of. Coming from a city that's known to be one of the safest in the world, I'm not used to this roughness. I'm not used to seeing bullet holes in buildings. I'm not used to gruff taxi drivers who don't speak English who offer me fruits while the paranoid side of me wondered if it was safe to eat. Imagine that! I've taken many things for granted when I travel. I would definitely go back to Beirut and here's 5 things I would do differently next time.
1. Get to know the people
I find myself embarrassed to think back and remember how on edge I was. People were so friendly but I didn't strike up more than the cursory conversations. Most older folk didn't always speak English, but young people were always eager to chat or have their photos taken. Even if the world wasn't in its right mind that was no excuse to not open up more to people. The Lebanese culture is exciting, spirited, and there's so much to discover in it.
2. Explore Lebanon beyond Beirut
We took 2 day trips within our short stay and saw Sidon as well as the incredible Baalbek ruins. It's almost impossible to really enjoy these ruins while you're there because they're so fragmented. When I saw them for the first time I was in awe but couldn't fully appreciate them until I read up about its history and the legacy of Heliopolis. Lebanon has so much more to offer in its surroundings; there's the Jeita grotto I have yet to see, the Holy Valley, the Ksara Caves, the cable car ride in Jounieh, Byblos city.....so many places!
3. Explore Lebanese cuisine
I love falafels and baba ghanouj. I know, how common. And since this was THE place for both I ate a lot of these 2 things over and over again. We had shish taouk, shawarma, we loved a bit of meat and potato mezze and nargileh at Al Falamanki, a fabulous spot for people watching open 24hours a day. I can't say I left Lebanon understanding more of Lebanese cuisine except that I ate really good falafels. So that's on this list in a bucket-list way.
Beirut is charming and pretty in an unexpected way. It isn't aesthetically pleasing, it's not made perfect. It's rough around the edges and has a lot of stories and that's what makes it wonderful. On my first trip I didn't research so much about Lebanon. We read up and did the Beirut old city walk, and although guides share plenty, there's a lot more to know which goes a long way in helping you appreciate this city when you're in it.
5. Stay longer
We did Beirut for 4 days and then hopped over to Istanbul (also my first time) as part of a longer trip planned around a sporting event. My next trip would definitely be a longer one to explore more, to capture more sights, sounds and foods of the city. I'd definitely do more walking tours of the city as well.
Have you been to Beirut recently? Share with me what you did and what you loved about it!