Author: Nada Serhan
Cover photo: Eternal Sabah Mural by Yazan Halwani on Assaf Building, Hamra Street, Beirut (Photo: Magicman678, CC 3.0,all rights reserved)
Beirut, the capital of Lebanon has always been the cultural hub of the Middle East. Having survived wars and turbulent times (as it struggles with environmental issues at the moment), it somehow reserved its magic ever bewitching all travelers. At first you feel shock at the bustling of the streets, the optional use of traffic light and the loud yet warm and hearty welcomes and conversations people will start with you randomly, you will begin to realize their chattiness is part of their warmth and hospitality and the loudness is a mere reflection of the love and fire they have for life and living. As my friend described it, Beirut is “a beautiful chaos”. This beautiful chaos has so much to offer and to discover the beauty beneath the chaos, you’ll have to dig deeper. Let’s dig through one of its most significant and important neighborhoods, Hamra.
Hamra Street was nicknamed as the Champs-Élysées up until the 1970’s for it was the cultural, educational and fashion center of Beirut, with the most important bookstores, theatres, cafés and bars, and higher end fashion. Nowadays, while the higher end fashion stores have moved to Downtown, everything still remains within this neighborhood including the American University of Beirut established in 1866.
There are a handful of theatres in Hamra and Al Madina Theatre is a cultural staple. It is found on Hamra Street and always has different plays running as well as lectures, conferences and trainings. It is a must stop for theatre lovers, even if you don’t know the Arabic language very well, the selection of performances will surely grab your attention.
Other theatres include Metropolis Art House and Piccadilly Theatre.
Central to publishing houses for all of the Middle East since the 1950sin Beirut, Hamra still boasts several bookshops. Librairie Antoine found on Hamra Street with 3 floors of books in Arabic, French and English (Antoine Library is also found all over Lebanon).
In addition, you will stumble upon tiny second hand bookstores nestled in alleyways or even on certain streets such as Book Bazaar on Jean D’arc Street where you will find old editions of classics like Dante’s Inferno, all of Shakespeare’s plays, Coleridge’s poetry and everything under the sun by Jane Austin for $3 to $5. Some books may go up to $10 and $20. For strictly Arabic books, you can find Bissan Library tucked away in a small street connecting Makdissi Street and Sidani Street.
Catering to tourists and offering international cuisine, Hamra is home to 100s of international restaurants. Yet, going to Lebanon and not trying Lebanese food would be a sin. Going to Hamra and not going to some the best-hidden gems in Hamra would be an even bigger sin.
A café, bar, and book hub, T-Marbouta has become the go to place for artists, intellects, students that go to one of the 3 major universities including AUB in the area). It has a beautiful terrace at the back that makes you forget you’re in a heavily populated and condescended part of Beirut. It has books and a study area on the first floor where you can sit and work and a bar area. As a cultural café, T-Marbouta holds events such as screenings, readings and other artistic and cultural events. This café has been winning the award for best restaurant in Lebanon for 3 consecutive years.
Other restaurants to try are DAR Bistro and Books and Socrate Restaurant, although there are too many to mention.
Hamra is still considered one of the best spots for grabbing a drink and having a good time. On Makdissi Street you’ll find a long stretch of pubs for over 4 blocks. One of its signature café/pub is De Prague which has been there since 2003. De Prague is a spacious café that turns into a pub that also hosts screenings, performances, DJs, and various artists’ works.
On the other end of street, you can choose from Ferdinand known for its signature cocktails, to the laidback and ever so friendly Bricks across of it at the corner. A few pubs past Bricks, tiny pub La Beyrouth makes sure you travel back in time with good classics from Arabic music and Lebanese folklore songs.
Salon Beyrouth is a café and bar that hosts live jazz performances and has a great selection of food and cocktails. The fact they built the café around an old tree and had it blend in with the interior is spectacular.
Hamra truly still holds the magic and beautiful chaos that make sup the fabrics and Beirut. It is one area you wouldn’t want to miss out on!