Cairo to Beirut: The Paris of the Middle East on a Budget
‘Pearl of the Levant’, or ‘Paris of the Middle East’, call it what you will; a trip to Lebanon is an ideal getaway for those of us who’ve ever bemoaned Cairo’s pollution, conservative dress code or lack of greenery. Despite seeming a million miles away in these respects, a direct flight takes under an hour each way, and due to the time difference, no time is wasted travelling. Egyptair does regular two-way flights, for around 2000LE.
Because of the views from the plane, book a seat on the left side while heading there, and on the right coming back, day or night – you’ll thank us.
Touching down in Beirut after life in Cairo can be a bit of a shock to your bank balance, not to mention the bafflement that newcomers experience upon finding a mix of Lebanese Lira and US dollars in their change, due to the country’s dual currency. However, monetary matters shouldn’t get in the way of having a great time in Lebanon’s capital and as long as you’re armed with a few handy tips, there’s no excuse for not having fun, even on a budget.
As of 2010, choosing where to stay in Beirut became a lot easier for travellers on a budget, as family-run hostel Saifi Urban Gardens opened for business in Gemmayzeh. Since then, it’s become a legendary name for visitors to the city, who are welcomed into this trendy hostel which features all amenities, including a café, bar, and even Arabic lessons if you need it. A night’s stay in a dorm room costs 125LE and includes Wi-Fi and breakfast. Talal Hotel is another option nearby, and is about the same cost. Many of Hamra’s low-cost hotels match their prices with their quality, although the Mayflower is a nice stay for 500LE a night.
Beirut is a considerably small city; its main areas can be walked from one to the other in about 40 minutes, so getting about is a synch compared to larger cities like Cairo. Nevertheless, it still has its own ways of becoming chaotic.
Taxis are available, though fares are usually negotiated. This can become a bit pricey and for something cheaper, you can grab a ‘servicé’ for 9LE. These cabs also pick up other customers, however, and more often than not, you’ll get a flick of the head or a sharp click of the tongue – which is their way of saying, ‘no’; don’t be surprised to spend half-an-hour trawling the streets for a willing servicé.
Beirut also has a reliable bus service with standard routes, which are clearly numbered and cost 4.5LE a ride. When we say bus, we mean microbus/minivan, and that’s as good as it gets.
The most effective way to see the city and get to know its fascinating history has to be by taking a tour with Walk Beirut (139LE), which offers a far better deal than an afternoon in the confines of the Beirut museum. On the route, you will surely be wowed by the city’s architecture, history and religion; our veteran Lebanese guide also filled us in on up to the minute political situations using a mixture of statistics and anecdotes.
The mosques and churches in particular should not to be overlooked, as they provide a beautiful insight into the city’s past. As in Cairo, art galleries and film screenings are a thrifty way to fill the days. Deprived of a ‘Beirut 360’, we instead resorted to Time Out Beirut for the latest events and reviews.
Don’t waste time scouring Beirut for an old style souk because apparently they built a mall over it, which is called The Souk. This area, as well as the streets leading off Place d’etoile, make up downtown – the latter was rebuilt to high spec after the war, and even features a Rolex clock tower.
Over recent years, the east side of Beirut has gained a name for itself as the party district, and sure enough Gemmayzeh’s pretty streets can be found swarmed with beautiful people each evening, as everyone totters into the selection of hip bars for a couple of Lebanon’s local brew, Almaza, which is the cheapest drink you’ll find in this area at 25LE. However, for something more akin to Cairo’s downtown, you would need to go to Hamra.
Hamra is a busy area with a lot going on; there are lots of cheap(ish) food and drink places to try there, but its best venues wouldn’t be found on the main street, so be sure to go exploring – hint: alleyways. Beach parties are also a quintessential feature of Beirut’s nightlife, although you’ll be looking at over 200LE for entry on the weekends.
Cairo does a stellar job of representing authentic Lebanese food, and to go one step further to try the real thing in its motherland will cost you. Apart from Hamra in the centre, you may want to look to the outer districts to find something a little easier on the wallet. For example, Dowra, one of the Armenian quarters, does a great falafel for not much money. Don’t overlook the street sellers’ manouche either, which is a sure way to fill a hungry stomach for only 4.50LE.
Beirut’s coastline really is a must-see; a walk along the Corniche is imperative – beware of joggers – and at the end of it, you’ll come across Beirut’s iconic Pigeon Rocks. While it’s fun to take a boat ride through the geological wonder, there’s only one company who offers it, so be prepared to haggle.
For several reasons we wouldn’t recommend Beirut’s public or private beaches. Instead, take a half hour bus journey up the coast to Byblos. Besides being a cute town to wander around and eat in, it’s also got the right beach factors: they’re gorgeous and they’re free.
So in the end, even with the glitz and the glamour, Beirut still holds a veritable feast of authentic and affordable treats. Various familiarities help one to immediately immerse themselves in the city, but digging beyond the surface uncovers treasures that will please even the fussiest of travellers.