Discovering why Lebanon makes for a superb holiday

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  • Lebanon is bordered by Syria and Israel, but is nestled on the glittering Mediterranean coastline
  • Its capital, Beirut, boasts an array of historical sights, trendy cafes, restaurants and bustling nightlife
  • MailOnline reporter Alex Matthews spent five days in the city and stayed in the exclusive Phoenicia Hotel

Alex Matthews For Mailonline

‘Life in Lebanon is like drinking champagne at the top of a volcano… there is chaos all around us but at least we have a good time’.

These were the words of wisdom from my tour guide during a long day of sight-seeing in Beirut and after five hectic but enjoyable days in the city, I had to agree – the Lebanese know how to enjoy themselves.

Bordering Syria and Israel, but nestled on the Mediterranean coast, Lebanon is a hotbed of culture, history and politics and as soon as I saw the twinkling lights of its capital, Beirut, I knew I was in love.

Lebanon's capital Beirut is the perfect place in which to enjoy a city break 

Lebanon's capital Beirut is the perfect place in which to enjoy a city break 

Lebanon’s capital Beirut is the perfect place in which to enjoy a city break 

The ancient city of Byblos (pictured), just along the coast from Beirut, boasts beautiful beaches and a fascinating  history

The ancient city of Byblos (pictured), just along the coast from Beirut, boasts beautiful beaches and a fascinating  history

The ancient city of Byblos (pictured), just along the coast from Beirut, boasts beautiful beaches and a fascinating history

The Phoenicia Hotel is the most exclusive place to stay in Beirut and is an opulent oasis of calm in a frantic, bustling city

The Phoenicia Hotel is the most exclusive place to stay in Beirut and is an opulent oasis of calm in a frantic, bustling city

The Phoenicia Hotel is the most exclusive place to stay in Beirut and is an opulent oasis of calm in a frantic, bustling city

Beirut is a city teeming with culture, from the traditional Lebanese art in the Sursock museum to the vibrant graffiti-covered streets of Hamra (pictured)

Beirut is a city teeming with culture, from the traditional Lebanese art in the Sursock museum to the vibrant graffiti-covered streets of Hamra (pictured)

Beirut is a city teeming with culture, from the traditional Lebanese art in the Sursock museum to the vibrant graffiti-covered streets of Hamra (pictured)

A great way to spend an evening in Beirut is to walk along the Corniche promenade to Raouché where you can sip tea while gazing across the bay at the iconic Pigeon Rocks as the sun goes down

Beirut is dirty, loud and frantic – but its ancient architecture, stylish bars, fantastic food and charming people will leave you head over heels.

I flew into the city with Pegasus Airlines, via Istanbul. At first I was concerned about missing connections or enduring a long, tedious journey, but in fact it was simple, efficient and stress-free.

However, while I was quietly proud of myself for making my flights without getting lost in the terminals of Istanbul airport, just moments after arriving in Lebanon I was to get my first real lesson in Middle Eastern travel.

Lesson Number One – excitedly admitting to a streetwise Beirut cab driver, ‘yes, it is my first time in Lebanon’ will ensure you get taken for a ride in more ways than one.

But any angst caused by my expensive opening foray into Lebanese travel was to evaporate as soon as I laid eyes on my accommodation.

I was lucky enough to be staying at the most exclusive hotel in town, the Phoenicia.

The Phoenicia is the epitome of luxury with an elegant pool area to soak up Lebanon's sunny weather or take a quick dip, before enjoying a cocktail at the hotel's bar

The Phoenicia is the epitome of luxury with an elegant pool area to soak up Lebanon's sunny weather or take a quick dip, before enjoying a cocktail at the hotel's bar

The Phoenicia is the epitome of luxury with an elegant pool area to soak up Lebanon’s sunny weather or take a quick dip, before enjoying a cocktail at the hotel’s bar

The  rooms at the Phoenicia are stylish and comfortable, with many boasting spectacular views of the Mediterrenean coastline

The  rooms at the Phoenicia are stylish and comfortable, with many boasting spectacular views of the Mediterrenean coastline

The rooms at the Phoenicia are stylish and comfortable, with many boasting spectacular views of the Mediterranean coastline

Meals at the Phoenicia are a thoroughly enjoyable affair, with an array of restaurants staffed by expert chefs offering international cuisine and delicious traditional Lebanese food

Meals at the Phoenicia are a thoroughly enjoyable affair, with an array of restaurants staffed by expert chefs offering international cuisine and delicious traditional Lebanese food

Meals at the Phoenicia are a thoroughly enjoyable affair, with an array of restaurants staffed by expert chefs offering international cuisine and delicious traditional Lebanese food

Staff at the Phoenicia pander to the whim of all their guests and by staying at the hotel, reporter Alex Matthews followed in the footsteps of celebrity travellers including popstar Shakira and former Secretary General of the UN, Ban Ki Moon

Staff at the Phoenicia pander to the whim of all their guests and by staying at the hotel, reporter Alex Matthews followed in the footsteps of celebrity travellers including popstar Shakira and former Secretary General of the UN, Ban Ki Moon

Staff at the Phoenicia pander to the whim of all their guests and by staying at the hotel, reporter Alex Matthews followed in the footsteps of celebrity travellers including popstar Shakira and former Secretary General of the UN, Ban Ki Moon

Staying at the Phoenicia is a luxurious experience, where people can enjoy five-star treatment during every second of their visit to the Lebanese capital

Staying at the Phoenicia is a luxurious experience, where people can enjoy five-star treatment during every second of their visit to the Lebanese capital

Staying at the Phoenicia is a luxurious experience, where guests can enjoy five-star treatment during every second of their visit to the Lebanese capital

While narrow streets and ancient architecture offer an insight into Beirut’s past, the yacht-filled marina and stylish sky scrapers of Zaitunay Bay are certainly all about the city’s future

If Beirut is a city dominated by hustle and bustle, then the Phoenicia is an opulent oasis of calm.

By checking-in I joined a list of celebrity guests, including popstar Shakira and former Secretary General of the UN Ban Ki Moon, and during every second of my stay I received nothing but the A-list treatment.

The Phoenicia is a truly spectacular hotel, with modern art draping from the walls, a luxurious spa, an array of restaurants to cater to any palette and staff who happily pander to the every whim of their guests.

The hotel suggested a tour company that set up excursions around Beirut and into the countryside where I could see for myself the true beauty of Lebanon. I jumped at the chance and I urge you to do the same.

I was picked up by minibus and shown around the city by my fantastic tour-guide, Nouchka, along with a group of fellow wide-eyed tourists.

Beirut is packed with stores, from designer labels to high street brands, and the city's handsome Souks offer tourists the opportunity to shop until they drop

Beirut is packed with stores, from designer labels to high street brands, and the city's handsome Souks offer tourists the opportunity to shop until they drop

Beirut is packed with stores, from designer labels to high street brands, and the city’s handsome Souks offer tourists the opportunity to shop until they drop

Perched on a steep mountainside, the enchanting palace of Beiteddine is split across three main courtyards, with an impressive collection of beautiful Byzantine mosaics and luxuriously decorated and domed hammams (bathhouses)

Perched on a steep mountainside, the enchanting palace of Beiteddine is split across three main courtyards, with an impressive collection of beautiful Byzantine mosaics and luxuriously decorated and domed hammams (bathhouses)

Perched on a steep mountainside, the enchanting palace of Beiteddine is split across three main courtyards, with an impressive collection of beautiful Byzantine mosaics and luxuriously decorated and domed hammams (bathhouses)

The palace of Beiteddine is about an hour outside of Beirut and is well worth the trip, with ornate stained glass windows, opulent furnishings and beguiling examples of 19th-century Lebanese architecture

The palace of Beiteddine is about an hour outside of Beirut and is well worth the trip, with ornate stained glass windows, opulent furnishings and beguiling examples of 19th-century Lebanese architecture

The palace of Beiteddine is about an hour outside of Beirut and is well worth the trip, with ornate stained glass windows, opulent furnishings and beguiling examples of 19th-century Lebanese architecture

I gazed at the impressive Mohammad Al-Amin Mosque in Martyr’s Square before visiting the National Museum of Beirut and meandering past the city’s many charming coffee shops and bakeries.

I later ventured into the Chouf Mountains before visiting the impressive Beiteddine Palace.

Shaped by a plethora of rulers and civilisations over its rich history – not to mention quite a few serious earthquakes – Lebanon is a country steeped in heritage, so any chance you get to learn about its history should be grasped with gusto.

Another site worth visiting is the Basilica at Harissa, which is a short drive into the hills.

Its unique architecture makes it a  place of worship like no other and a cable car up and down the hillside offers great views of the city and the surrounding coastline. I went at night, which made Beirut look all the more magical.

Pictured, Mohammad Al-Amin Mosque in Beirut

Pictured, Mohammad Al-Amin Mosque in Beirut

Pictured, the basilica at Harissa

Pictured, the basilica at Harissa

It is hard not to be spellbound by the breathtaking beauty of the Mohammad Al-Amin Mosque (left) in Beirut’s Martyr’s Square and the eye-catching architecture of the basilica (right) nestled in the hills at Harissa

The basilica at Harissa is a place of worship like no other and a cable car up and down the hillside offers great views of the city and the surrounding coastline

The basilica at Harissa is a place of worship like no other and a cable car up and down the hillside offers great views of the city and the surrounding coastline

The basilica at Harissa is a place of worship like no other and a cable car up and down the hillside offers great views of the city and the surrounding coastline

Believed to be the oldest populated city in the world – its earliest settlers landed around 8,000 years ago – visiting Byblos is like stepping onto the set of a Hollywood historical epic

Believed to be the oldest populated city in the world – its earliest settlers landed around 8,000 years ago – visiting Byblos is like stepping onto the set of a Hollywood historical epic

Believed to be the oldest populated city in the world – its earliest settlers landed around 8,000 years ago – visiting Byblos is like stepping onto the set of a historical Hollywood epic

VISITING BEIRUT: FROM CURRENCY TO CABS

Money: The currency in Lebanon is the Lebanese Lira, but US dollars are also accepted pretty much everywhere. Often you will receive Lira back in change when paying with dollars.

Public transport: This basically does not exist in Lebanon. The only way to get around is on foot or by taxi. There are cabs everywhere in Beirut, but there are also plenty of drivers looking to take advantage of wide-eyed western tourists. Speak to your hotel or hostel and they should point you in the direction of a trustworthy agency. But be vigilant and confident and hopefully your journeys will be reasonably inexpensive. Oh and barter for your life!

Safety: Lebanon and Beirut are perfectly safe places to visit and enjoy yourself. The country has experienced its fair share of conflicts, with a civil war ending in 1990 and fighting between Israel and Hezbollah in 2006. But the Lebanese are keen to show tourists that their country has changed and as long as you’re sensible, you should have a fantastic stay. 

Culture: Beirut has a thriving arts scene, from graffiti and street murals in Hamra to the beautiful Sursock Museum in the city centre. There is so much to enjoy and typically the people in Beirut are more than happy to point you in the direction of a gallery, museum or heritage site – so don’t be afraid to ask.

Food: Lebanese food is absolutely delicious. If you get a chance to try some, you should tuck in. Dishes to look out for include kibbeh, fattoush, tabbouleh, and others you’ll recognise – like mixed grills, halloumi, pitta and humus. 

Religion: Lebanon has two dominating religions, Islam and Christianity. But like most modern cities, Beirut is tolerant of those of other faiths. However, acting and dressing appropriately is always good advice when visiting a country in the Middle East. Be respectful and you will be respected. 

However, personally, I felt the historical jewel in Lebanon’s crown was the ancient city of Byblos.

Believed to be the oldest populated city in the world – its earliest settlers landed around 8,000 years ago – visiting Byblos is like stepping onto the set of a Hollywood historical epic.

Strolling along its narrow cobbled streets, visiting its various ruins or popping into Lebanese restaurants for fattoush, kibbeh and chicken kebabs, is a delightful way to spend a day.

Plus, Byblos boasts sensational beaches. In case you feel like soaking up some rays.

Lebanon is a history lover’s dream, but if your idea of a holiday is sun, sea and a dancefloor, well never fear – Beirut has got you covered.

Beirut is all about new beginnings and there is a youthful exuberance to the city that is both captivating and contagious.

So it is no surprise that when it comes to having fun, they know what they’re doing.

Beirut is the perfect place to dance and drink the night away and the uber trendy district of Mar Mikhaël is packed with hipsters and beautiful people looking to have a good time. These painted steps brighten up the Christian Armenian neighbourhood there

Beirut is the perfect place to dance and drink the night away and the uber trendy district of Mar Mikhaël is packed with hipsters and beautiful people looking to have a good time. These painted steps brighten up the Christian Armenian neighbourhood there

Beirut is the perfect place to dance and drink the night away and the uber trendy district of Mar Mikhaël is packed with hipsters and beautiful people looking to have a good time. These painted steps brighten up the Christian Armenian neighbourhood there

Mar Mikhaël is also a great place to stop for a coffee or tuck into a meal with an array of restaurants lining its narrow streets. It's also home to this amazing classical fresco

Mar Mikhaël is also a great place to stop for a coffee or tuck into a meal with an array of restaurants lining its narrow streets. It's also home to this amazing classical fresco

Mar Mikhaël is also a great place to stop for a coffee or tuck into a meal with an array of restaurants lining its narrow streets. It’s also home to this amazing classical fresco

TRAVEL FACTS 

Pegasus Airlines operates double daily flights from London Stansted and London Gatwick to Beirut via Istanbul. 

Return flights start from £199 including taxes and charges. 

Visit www.flypgs.com/en for detailed information and the whole range of affordable travel services from seat selection, online check-in, extra baggage allowance, in-flight meal choices to hotel bookings, car hire and airport transfers.

For more information on the Phoenicia visit www.phoeniciabeirut.com

Whether you want to surround yourself with beautiful people dancing to blaring house music or sip a beer in a cramped bar while listening to The Beatles, there is no need to go to bed early.

I enjoyed visits to the uber trendy neighbourhoods of Mar Mikhaël and Hamra where the hipster-filled drinking holes and art inspired cafes, flanking narrow streets, reminded me of my favourite places to get up to mischief in London.

Basically Beirut has it all, if you want to sit on a beach and sunbathe the hours a way, you can. If you want to dance and drink until you drop, you can.  And if history and the arts is your cup of tea, then there is plenty to enjoy.

So visit, eat, drink, be merry – but watch out for the cab drivers. You won’t regret it, you’ll just wish you had visited sooner.

WHY BEIRUT IS THE WORLD’S ‘BEST KEPT SECRET’ BY THE MAN BEHIND COMPTOIR LIBANAIS

Tony Kitous, founder of Lebanese restaurant Comptoir Libanais, said that Beirut is the world's 'best kept secret'

Tony Kitous, founder of Lebanese restaurant Comptoir Libanais, said that Beirut is the world's 'best kept secret'

Tony Kitous, founder of Lebanese restaurant Comptoir Libanais, said that Beirut is the world’s ‘best kept secret’

Tony Kitous is the man behind Comptoir Libanais, the vibrant Lebanese canteens that are currently popping up all over the country.

So far Tony has 17 branches of his restaurants from Kent and London to Leeds,  and is striving to make Lebanese food the ‘new Italian.’

The passionate restaurateur is Algerian by birth but fell in love with Lebanon many years ago.

He travels to Beirut frequently to visit friends and told MailOnline why he believes the city is the world’s ‘best kept secret’.

Tony said: ‘Beirut is a very creative city, there is something to do for everyone.

‘It is a definitely a city for the young, but it is also a city for everybody. Wherever you go you can find there is a life to it.

‘The Lebanese are very hospitable and they enjoy life like it is their last day. They are not putting their life on hold.’

Tony is keen to dispel any misgivings that tourists might have about visiting Beirut and said that it is a city where anyone can feel at home.

He said: ‘Lebanon is one of the Arabic countries that is very western, but it has not lost its identity. The people are very generous, very hospitable and very proud.

‘I’ve lived in London for the past 28 years and I was born in Algeria but there are only two or three cities than I can say ‘‘I can live there’’ and Beirut is one of them.

‘Whenever I go there, I say “Oh my god. I forgot how good it is”. It’s very relaxed, the weather is amazing and the people are amazing.

‘It’s very unfortunate that it is not a destination that is well known to travel to and when people go there, they say “why is that?”

‘For me it is one of the best kept secrets because people are not going there in their masses. But it’s going to happen.’

 

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