24 hours in: Beirut

A clash of cultures, tastes and ideologies, Beirut is a beautiful city full of secrets and hidden wonders. Angela Solomon of jaleesa.co tells us what to look for in the 'Paris of the East'.
Published —
06.04.18
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I was in Syria when the war began, and in Lebanon when the refugees started to arrive. As a diplomat, it was a privilege to be part of the world’s biggest refugee response. When my time at the UK Embassy in Beirut ended, I wanted to do something more direct, outside of government and NGO sectors, to help people affected by the crisis.

So, with two wonderful, brave co-founders, I set up Jaleesa, a social enterprise that connects families with trained, trusted child care on demand. Our mission is to build a business with a social impact that scales with our success. Jaleesa currently operates in Beirut and the surrounding area, and our user base is growing by the day. For every dollar we’ve earned through child care, we’ve reinvested 28 cents into underprivileged Lebanese communities, where we help women work.

 

BEIRUT

Beirut, capital of Lebanon, is a place of taste. Great food, diverse architecture, beautiful people, and the centuries-old coexistence of Muslims, Christians and Druze.

But Beirut also teeters on a political fault-line: too often, regional power struggles have played out on its streets. Tradition vs modernity, religion vs religion, East vs West.

Spend a weekend here and you’ll live the drama of the culture clash, endlessly rehearsed in the daily chorus of honking traffic, electricity cuts, constant haggle, and renegotiation. French architecture next to Istanbul-style mosques, next to Roman ruins… It makes for an addictive energy. And if that’s all too much, head outside the city to experience Lebanon’s Mediterranean climate and coastline, dramatic mountains rising from the sea, and striking ruins of civilisations past.

Beware: Beirut is a great seductress. You might find yourself unable to say goodbye.

 

DAYTIME

My dad’s Lebanese so sometimes I say I moved ‘back’ to Beirut in 2011 – though I never visited Lebanon as a child. If, like me, you arrive expecting the Beirut of 1980s TV, Ronnie Chatah’s Walking Tour will set you straight.

Sporting Club Beach and Long Beach are great for people watching. These ‘beaches’ are concrete suntraps jutting into an oily patch of the Med. May not sound like much, but they have their charms: waves crashing just below (or sometimes on) your sunbed, huge swimming pools, and great views of the airport flight path. Refresh with a ‘Mexican’ beer (Lebanese beer in a salted-rim glass with lemon juice), and a shish tawouk (chicken) sandwich. Note the warning of my Beiruti friend: “Never order a chicken sandwich without the garlic. I’d sooner have it without the chicken.”

 

SHOPPING

You can find gorgeous ethical souvenirs in Beirut: L’Artisan du Liban protects and sells traditional crafts. The Green Glass Recycling Initiative produces chic glass gifts. Zawal showcases traditional soap, fabric, and pottery makers, and Plan Bey shows the many faces of Beirut through visual artists, including photo-panoramas of Beirut and iconic prints of city landmarks. Aaliya’s Literary Bar and Bookshop has great local and regional literature.

 

EATING

My fiancé lives in London so our time together in Beirut is always precious. We celebrate (or commiserate) the last night of every visit with a trip to Onno (Badaro). We love sitting at the bar, with a bottle of Domaine des Tourelles white (Viognier, Chardonnay and Muscat), gorging on Armenian itch salad, lentil kibbeh, and cheesy suborek. Rumour has it an Edinburgh branch is coming soon.

Makan, in a quiet side street among the nightlife of Mar Mikhael, hosts changing global menus and guest chefs. There’s a wide local wine list, and the 1940s building and gardens are exquisite. (Full disclosure: I co-founded Makan and its sister restaurant, Motto.)

NIGHT-TIME

In a new city, part of a diplomat’s job is to say yes to every invitation. I applied this literally and spent three years combining a hectic day job with Beirut’s fantastic nightlife. I loved Grand Factory, Music Hall, or any night by Beirut Groove Collective. Now I confess I prefer food and wine at Bread Republic’s The Wine Bar or Cantina Sociale. I also have happy (often blurry) memories of cocktails and whispered secrets at Anise. Don’t leave without trying the Old Fashioned.

 

KIDS

Children are welcome everywhere. Passers-by, grannies and waiting staff will spontaneously indulge in peek-a-boo, and mutter mantras to ward off the evil eye. Take the kids north to Batroun for beaches (and relatively clean sea water), or south to Maison de la Foret for activities in the pine forest. And of course, if you fancy a night off, meet trained, trusted child-carers at Jaleesa.

 

Find out more about the work of Angela and Jaleesa here.