If you’re expecting to haggle for a bargain in Beirut’s souks, think again.
“Beirut is the only city in the Middle East that doesn’t have a souk,” says tour guide Ronnie Chatah from BeBeirut. “In its place we built a shopping mall with a Ferrari dealership and valet parking.”
While there are certainly plenty of big labels on show, Beirut has a thriving art and design scene that values individuality and craftsmanship.
Note: The U.S. government currently advises against travel to Lebanon. Check your own government travel advisories before traveling to high-risk areas.
Coffee in copper
Beiruti’s love their coffee and there are plenty of cool cafes serving skinny soya lattes.
But the traditional caffeine kick comes from strong Turkish espresso brewed in a pot with a handle called an “ibrik.”
Orient 499 (opposite the bullet-scarred old Holiday Inn, an unwelcome reminder of the 15-year civil war that raged from 1975) has dainty, locally made copper ibriks so you can savor the flavor of Beirut back home.
The current trend among Beirut’s young designers is to mix classic Middle Eastern design with contemporary styling and modern functionality.
The result is hip homeware that won’t look out of place in your own digs.
We love Nada Debs’ Perspex coasters, which feature Arabesque geometric patterns in bold colors and artist Sandra Kheir Sahyoun’s metal magazine rack with Arabic calligraphy.
Kaftans and abaya
Beirut’s mixed Muslim and Christian population means you’re just as likely to see women wearing skinny jeans as you are head scarves.
It’s still a great place to pick up traditional Middle Eastern garb like kaftans and robe-like abayas.
Artisanat Mabrouk, a not-for-profit initiative of St. Vincent de Paul that employs around 150 women who specialize in needlework, is renowned for its hand-embroidered linen and silk kaftans.
While you’re unlikely to hear the sound of rolling dice above the cacophony of car horns, backgammon remains popular in Beirut’s traditional cafes.
You can pick up your own polished, walnut wood board inlaid with mother of pearl from family-run Magasin D’Orient Absi Fres.
For exotic hand-woven rugs without the hard sell, a good spot is Oumnia in the trendy arts quarter of Saifi Village, just off Martyrs’ Square.
Designer Nivine Mohamed Maktabi’s latest collection features Arabic calligraphy in bright, modern colors.
“It’s like you’re filling your home with stories – each piece has a story or meaning behind it,” she says.
Tea for 10
It won’t fit neatly into your suitcase, but a brass samovar is worth the effort of shipping it back home.
Traditionally used in the Middle East to heat water, often for tea, a samovar makes for a striking centerpiece, and beats a boring old kettle any day.
Founded more than 30 years ago and now run by designer Nadia Ayoubi El Khoury, Artisans du Liban et d’Orient has a great selection.
For innovative, one-off pieces from up-and-coming Lebanese designers, the funky Starch emporium is the place to go.
Starch mentors up to six newcomers every year, including Benin-born Malaika Najem, who studied contemporary jewelry design in Florence before returning to her Lebanese roots.
Vintage lovers should visit Nada Le Cavelier for her exquisite earrings, brooches and necklaces made from late-eighteenth-century Italian micro-mosaics set in 18-carat gold.
If silver is more your style, there’s Magasin D’Orient Absi Fres for well-priced items made by artisans in Rashaya.
Locals young and old love to spend balmy evenings smoking flavored tobacco through a nargileh (water pipe) in one of the city’s many outdoor terraces.
The ornately decorated colored glass pipes make great mementoes, even if you don’t plan on using them.
Luxury leather goods
The leather may be Italian, but locally designed and handcrafted leather goods are worth splashing out on.
Bradléy boutique in historical Byblos, 35 kilometers north of Beirut, has gorgeous handbags, iPad sleeves, travel wallets and business card holders (from $15-450). It’s worth the trek for the cufflinks made from old Lebanese stamps ($85).
Closer to town, Johnny Farah has classic yet cool bags, satchels, wallets, belts and shoes.
Editor’s note: This article was previously published in 2012. It was reformatted, updated and republished in 2017.