Where we’re at: I’m recapping my travels in 2019, including this retreat research trip to Lebanon in September. There are more details about our upcoming 2020 retreats at the end of this post.
I realize for some this is a difficult time to read about travel. However, my blog audience has spoken and they have overwhelmingly requested a break from COV-tent (content about, well, you know…), and a place where they can mentally escape right now. So, I will continue to post from my past travels to inspire those who wish to daydream about the day it is safe to travel again. Wishing all of you love and peace in this time of reflection.
The Middle East has captured my imagination and my attention for quite some time now. So last summer, when my new friend Jess issued me a casual invitation to visit her in Beirut in the fall over drinks at TravelCon, I mentally hit “book” on a flight immediately. I was already heading back to Egypt to run my next Wander Women Retreats, making it the perfect time to explore a new destination of my own, as well.
I knew little about Lebanon, other than Beirut’s badass reputation for being a seaside city with incredible food, nightlife, and overall vibes. Luckily, Jess is an admirable ambassador to her adopted home, and I as soon as I sent her my flight itinerary, she crafted an unforgettable trip.
Jess and her boyfriend Malte live in a beautiful apartment in the heart of Beirut. Lebanon is smaller than the state of Connecticut, making Beirut a popular base for day trips around the country, and we planned to do exactly that.
Being two globetrotters, Jess and I landed at Beirut Rafic Hariri International within an hour of each other, me from Los Angeles, Jess from Cairo, and had planned to head straight to her place and rest up for the next day’s adventures. Except, change of plan: I landed in Lebanon after the most painful, miserable flight of my life, and we went directly to the ER instead, where I was diagnosed with severe tonsillitis. Womp womp.
So we spent a little more time than planned in Jess’s apartment — which, lucky for me, felt luxuriously exotic, too.
Finally, one afternoon, after more than twenty-four hours without a meal and with antibiotics flowing into my system, my mind won the battle with my body and we decided to venture out for a walk — if a slightly feverish one, for me.
Jess told me to let her know when the exhaustion outweighed the benefit of fresh air and moving feet, and until then she’d guide me on a slow stroll through her favorite city.
Maybe it was the good drugs, maybe its was the elation of slowly emerging from the fog of an all-consuming illness, but Beirut felt like the kind of city with whom I’d soon have a love story.
While my senses were engaged from the moment we stepped out the front door, it was the fashionable area of Mar Mikhael that really captured my imagination. Thought-provoking architecture, painfully trendy bars, well-curated galleries, colorful restaurants and cafes, and modern co-working spaces crowded the narrow streets, each one more intriguing than the last.
A few of my favorites from our walk were Home Sweet Home, a cafe and home goods store, Enab, where we stopped for as much of a nibble as my throat could accommodate, Plan Bey, a hip artisan boutique and publishing house where we window-shopped, and Tawlet, a social enterprise restaurant, women’s collective and cooking school where we made plans to return hungry.
And while I wasn’t even slightly in the drinking mood — it had broken my heart to give up our wine tour of Beqaa Valley — I mentally bookmarked both Fabrk and Electric Bing Sutt for future alcohol-based adventures, based on their exteriors alone.
For me, Beirut exceeded its own reputation for cool. That said, I feel like I got just the teeniest taste and can’t wait to go back. From museums to yoga studios to historic walking tours, my wish list for my next trip is already a mile long.
One of Beirut’s most iconic sights is the Raouche Rocks, or Pidgeon Rocks, which I felt was a box I had to tick before the end of my trip. You only need to join the locals in walking along the city’s wide corniche to enjoy them, however, we were craving somewhere we could sit down and sip on something while we watching the sunset.
We wandered into Petit Café, which is adorable and perfectly situated, but beware, if you aren’t also recovering from tonsillitis on your trip, that they serve only non-alcoholic beverages, and are eye-openingly overpriced. To our surprise, considering Beirut’s penchant for nightlife, we didn’t find a single spot for a cocktail along the waterfront — instead, you’ll have to make do with hookah and tea.
On my list for my next trip? Finding whatever boat tour we spied these brave souls taking from a distance. It reminded me a boat tour I took years before in Paracas, Peru — and I longed to be on the water.
Far more iconic than Rouche Rocks or any particular sight in all of Lebanon is a legacy that has spread across the world — Lebanese cuisine. Over the course of history, many civilizations have gathered in Lebanon, creating a Middle Eastern melting pot with endless cherished recipes and culinary traditions.
While arriving with a condition that made eating painful was not ideal for experiencing this to the fullest, Jess made sure that the limited number of meals I did manage were beyond memorable, from saj, a Lebanese flatbread rollup grabbed from Jess’s favorite hole-in-the-wall to manousheh, crafted into the breakfast pizza of my dreams at the bougie Lebanese Bakery in Ashrafieh (which also has an outpost in London, for all my Brits in the house.)
For my final days in the country, I had recovered enough that we were able to take a few day trips outside the city, which I’ll recount in an upcoming post. (Spoiler alert: they were so good.)
As much as I loved exploring the more remote reaches of Lebanon — and wow, did I ever — I also came to adore our nightly return to the city known as The Paris of the Middle East.
Jess did an amazing job of showing me the city’s many multi-faceted neighborhoods. One evening, we ventured into Badaro, the business hub of Beirut, popular at night with yuppies craving a cocktail before heading home from work.
After a people-watching filled dinner at the bar at Community, we finally toasted to my trip with a drink at the ultra-charming Kissproof, where we told the bartender a few preferences and he whipped us up something special.
The next, we headed to Hamra, a busy commercial district in Beirut. While I found it less endearing on the whole than other neighborhoods we’d been to for wandering through, I loved our final destinations.
First, Mezyan, which was hidden down a maze of alleyways I would never have found were it not for my own personal tour guide — and gosh would that have been a shame! It was one of my favorite meals of the trip.
After, we went for cocktails at Ales & Tales, a cocktail bar that would make mixologists in any major world city melt.
Our final night in Beirut, we were joined by our fellow travel industry powerhouse Oneika and her lovely husband Rob, who just so happened to be overlapping with my trip on their own jaunt through Lebanon and Cyprus. We decided to toast to such a fantastic coincidence at Liza, the darling of Beirut’s high-end dining scene.
Sprawled across the second floor of a former palace, each individual dining room at Liza has a flair all its own. As usual, we mostly let Jess call the shots on the menu of contemporary twists on traditional meze dishes, and we were not disappointed.
It would have been the perfect note to end a whirlwind trip to Lebanon on.
But, we still had a whole day before my red eye!
Pop quiz: did you know Lebanon could get down? One of the things that had always attracted me to Beirut was its reputation for incredible nightlife and epic summer day clubs. It’s pretty unique to hear things like that about a city in the Middle East, at least today. (I mean, Rock The Casbah leads me to believe Tehran was a seriously good time, once upon a time.)
A big part of my excitement over visiting Jess was having an insider to experience that with.
While many of the hottest seasonal day clubs are actually outside the city, there’s an urban version that’s right downtown: Madame Bleu. This super sleek spot hosts a must-see summer long pool party with the waves of the Mediterranean lapping in the background, and I couldn’t leave without experiencing it.
The Lebanese clearly know how to live the good life, which prompted me to ask Jess, what happens in the winter when these spots are closed? The party moves to the ski slopes, she replied. I guess now that I’m back in my boots I’ll have to come back and experience that for myself, too.
Between the free-flowing cocktails and the heaving crowds of young revelers, including a visible LGBTQ contingent pointing to Lebanon’s more relaxed social norms, it was hard not to reflect on how limited many people’s view of the diverse and sprawling Arab world is.
How many know that it includes this?
Not enough. Lebanon has it all: the heart, the soul, the vibe, the landscapes, the food, the party and the people. It it was at this very swim up bar that Jess and I started sketching out the itinerary for the Wander Women: Lebanon that we’d go on to pour our own hearts and souls into and that we hoped will show what a magical destination this truly is.
I truly did just about zero research before my arrival in Lebanon and was blown away by my wanderings with Jess, the perfect host. Whether it takes place as planned or fate has a future date in mind for us, I can’t wait to be back in this enchanting city and country with Jess… and a bunch of you!
Beirut, I adore you. Be back soon.
Love the idea of traveling to Lebanon? If all goes according to plan, we will be returning to Beirut and beyond in August 2021 for Wander Women Lebanon: A Yoga + Adventure Retreat.