BEIRUT (Reuters Life!) - The sparkling Mediterranean beckons as you touch down at Beirut airport. Pulsating lights from nightclubs give the capital a joyous, constant rhythm. Glamorous people drive fancy cars.
That was Lebanon during the free-wheeling 1960s when Marlon Brando and Brigitte Bardot used to stop by at the Saint Georges yacht club.
Lebanon is reliving that glamour in 2010, trying to shed a past marred by civil wars, assassinations and conflict with Israel.
While fears of war with its southern neighbor Israel are always simmering, for now the tiny country is trying to make the most of this window of peace.
Once-warring politicians have put aside their sectarian differences to work together to change the image of Lebanon into one of a country of prosperity and tolerance.
Reuters correspondents with local knowledge help visitors get the most out of a 48-hour visit. Western passport holders can get a visa at the airport, but make sure you don’t have any stamps from Israel, still in a formal state of war with Lebanon.
2 p.m. - Drop your bags and head downtown where the Ottoman-era Grand Serail governmental palace stands regally on a hill top. To get an idea of Lebanon’s diverse religious demographics, stop by the St. George Maronite cathedral right next to the blue-domed Mohammed al-Amin mosque. Explore the parking lot-turned-mausoleum in Martyr’s Square where assassinated former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri is laid to rest. Hariri and 22 others were killed in 2005, sparking four years of political turbulence in Lebanon.
Walk along the boulevards lined with cafes and smoke a narguileh — a flavored waterpipe — as you watch locals and tourists flock to designer stores. If you’re still feeling energetic, head westwards toward the corniche where you’ll see a stark remnant of the 1975-90 civil war, the bombed-out Holiday Inn. Continue on to Hamra and explore its artsy street cafes.
The splendid campus of the American University of Beirut also lies there.
8 p.m. - Lebanese cuisine is one of the country’s main attractions. There are hundreds of restaurants to choose from which serve staples such as tabbouleh, hummus and mixed grills. If you’re feeling adventurous, try kebbe neyye, a type of minced raw meat, or chicken livers with pomegranate molasses. Abdelwahab, Karam and the Armenian Mayyas are among the favorite venues. If you want to experience a different part of Beirut, head to the southern suburbs, a Hezbollah bastion, and try the as-Saha restaurant, themed around an Arab village.
10 p.m. - Trawl through Gemmayze, a street lined with dozens of bars, and the place of choice for weekend drinking. Bar-hopping is an ideal way to experience the most of what Gemmayze has to offer, from bars with a laid-back ambiance to those oozing modernity. The street has bumper-to-bumper traffic on weekend nights when the glitterati arrive in chic sports cars.
Midnight - No trip to Beirut is complete without partying in Music Hall, an old cinema converted into a cabaret-style venue. Local and international artists perform a wide range of music, from folklore to the Beatles to Abba to hard metal to Beyonce’s latest singles. House music plays in between acts and by the end of the night, people are dancing on tables. A nightspot favorite, book a week or two in advance to guarantee a table near the stage.
10 a.m. - Lebanon occupies a mere 4,000 sq miles, making day trips outside the city fairly easy. Head east and stop at Chtoura, a town in the eastern Bekaa valley. Order a manoucheh, a thick, doughy bread, on which cheese or thyme, a staple herb, and sometimes vegetables are spread. Still hungry? Try Knafe, a sweet made of vermicelli hardened by syrup and filled with cheese. While traditionally a dessert in much of the Middle East, Lebanese also have it, wrapped in bread, as breakfast.
Noon - Next stop by the Ksara vineyards, one of the country’s famous local wineries. Ksara boasts a wine of “rare balance of dry fruitiness, of delicacy and coarseness, and of freshness and vigor,” according to its website. Though a small producer, Lebanon traces its wine industry roots back 4,000 years when Phoenicians sold wine around the Mediterranean. Have lunch at the restaurant overlooking the vineyards.
3 p.m. - The Roman ruins of Baalbek include the largest Roman temples of Jupiter and Bacchus dating from the first century B.C. The temple of Jupiter’s six columns stand a breathtaking 23 meters (75 ft) high. The temple of Bacchus is said to be the most beautifully decorated in the Roman world. One of the mysteries surrounding the ruins are the huge foundation stones that support the temple of Jupiter. Archaeologists have put forward many theories as to how the Romans could have moved such massive stones.
There are several guides who will be happy to take you around the spacious courtyard. Once you’ve soaked up the sights, be sure to check out souvenir shops which are heavy on Shi’ite paraphernalia, since Baalbek has a sizeable Hezbollah constituency. If you happen to visit in the summer, make sure to catch one of the shows at Baalbek’s music festival that takes place among the ruins.
8 p.m. - Back in Beirut, head to Barometre in Hamra, a favorite of leftist intellectuals as well as those who love dancing to Arab tunes. Barometre’s mezze, especially its sausage soaked in pomegranate molasses are a staple. Dance till dawn while drinking arak, quintessential aniseed-flavored Lebanese alcoholic drink.
11 a.m. - Peer into the St. Georges Yacht Club where Hollywood stars used to lounge in the 1960s. Across the road you’ll see a statue commemorating the late Hariri as well as a sign pointing to where the suicide bombing happened leaving a huge crater in the ground at the time.
11:30 - Walk upwards toward Casablanca, one of the best restaurants to have brunch in Beirut. The 19th century building allows you to overlook the Mediterranean as you feast on eggs and pancakes, served with seasonal fruits. Their brunch is extremely popular so make sure you book early in the week and ask if you can get a table near the window.
1 p.m. Digest your food by taking a stroll by the corniche until you reach the pigeon rock landmark and have a mint tea at one of the many seaside cafes.
2 p.m. - Head north to Byblos, said to be the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world. The port town has lovely views of the Mediterranean. Have lunch at one of the many seaside restaurants serving the catch of the day. Pepe’s Fishing Club is a traditional favorite where photos of celebrities from Frank Sinatra to Jacques Chirac take pride of place — reminders of Lebanon’s heyday.
Editing by Steve Addison